Images and video that emerged in October from a crackdown on protesters being arrested after blocking a proposed oil pipeline in North Dakota resonated deeply for two American Indian Minnesota legislators who said it rekindled painful historical moments.
“The history of these occupations and protests and the violation of treaty rights and not providing tribes meaningful consultation, historically, that is something that tribes deal with on a daily basis,” said state Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis. “This is something that reminds me of Wounded Knee,” referring to the 1890 massacre of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota by the U.S. military, also the site of a clash in 1973.
Allen, an American Indian legislator elected in 2012, recalled her own family history and experiences as she considered the roiling protests staged by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
Members of the tribe have worked for months to block the proposed pipeline they say would run through sacred sites and potentially contaminate their source of drinking water. Demonstrations escalated last week when law enforcement evicted protesters from private property in the path of the pipeline.
“We talk about historical trauma and what that means,” said Allen, who is Lakota, Dakota and Anishinabe. “It’s a hard concept to talk about because it’s often very personal.”
Allen and a group of legislators met recently with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek after learning that deputies were dispatched to North Dakota to assist in the response. Part of the conversation centered on how law enforcement can build trust among members of the American Indian community, said Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park.
Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said it was painful to see the treatment of protesters at the hands of police, calling it troubling. “It’s been hard for me to see these images of people who look like me, who are from our community and see them being hit in the face with rubber bullets, and watching elders being shoved to the ground and pepper sprayed,” Flanagan said.
She said more widespread education is needed to counter misconceptions of American Indians.
“I just feel like sometimes seeing the humanity in Native people is something that folks aren’t very good at for a whole host of reasons, but in many ways it’s because people don’t have relationships with American Indians.”
The lack of exposure, she said, “complicates people’s ideas of who Native people are in the United States. I think it’s impacted how the water protectors are being treated and how the story is being talked about.”
Flanagan and Allen said they expect the Legislature to debate emergency procedures that involve outside requests for law enforcement assistance. “My hope is that there’s some type of conversation we can have at the Legislature about getting really clear on how things went down and how decisions were made to engage with some of the protesters there on the front line,” Flanagan said.