The effort by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is the largest gathering of Indian tribes in decades. As Mark Sundeen so eloquently put it on Outside Online: “Two of our country’s biggest issues, racism and climate change, have collided on a North Dakota reservation.”
It’s also about history. Police attacked Indian water protectors with dogs in early September, on the anniversary of the Whitestone massacre, in which the U.S. Army slaughtered more than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 1863. I was surprised I hadn’t read about the historical event in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which made me wonder how many other massacres Dee Brown had to leave out of that litany of heartbreak and devastation. I couldn’t even find a reference to Whitestone in the comprehensive Time-Life Books series on the Old West.
But the story is far from forgotten. Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who helped found the Sacred Stone Camp on her land to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, gives a heart-wrenching account of the massacre through her great-great-grandmother’s experience.
In 1863, the Army was fighting the Dakota Wars against the Sioux and found 4,000 peaceful Indians, mostly Yanktonais and Hunkpatina, gathered at Whitestone for harvest time and to prepare buffalo meat for the winter. When the soldiers arrived led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, the Indians sent their chiefs to meet with them, including Brave Bull Allard’s great-great-great grandfather, the medicine man Brave Buffalo.
The Indians had never fought with the whites, but the soldiers took the leaders prisoner, and the women reacted as they had been taught to do in the presence of an enemy:
“People were starting to tear down their lodges. People were trying to move in the chaos. So the first thing the women did is they tied the babies to the dogs, they tied the children to the horses, and they shooed the dogs and the horses out of the camp. And then they gathered what they could, and they started running.”
They ran into a ravine, and the Army soldiers shot at the women and children from the ridge. Brave Bull Allards’s great-great-grandmother Grey Hand Woman, who was nine years old, was shot in the leg and spent the night crying for her mother. “Everywhere, she could hear the crying and screams, the songs of people dying,” Brave Bull Allard said. In the morning, soldiers threw her in the back of a buckboard wagon, sparing her life for some unknown reason (they did not spare many, and the survivors were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, which was hardly a gesture of mercy).
“She laid in the buckboard as she watched the soldiers come and start killing the dogs and the babies, killing the horses, killing the wounded. They gathered up all of our property—the tents, the meat, the hides, everything we own. And we had one section of soldiers sitting down there poking holes in the bottom of our pots. And they gathered all that, and they started this great big fire, burning all our food, our homes, everything. They said that there was so much buffalo meat that they burned, that tallow ran down like rivers out into the creeks. And the people ran. For three to four days they ran, as the soldiers continued to chase and kill them.”
More than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were killed in the attack; it was the deadliest conflict in North Dakota. Samuel Brown, an interpreter during the 1863 expedition, wrote:
“I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sully’s Successful Expedition’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all because it was what no decent man would have done. He pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them…and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever. The Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on one side. They even shot their own men.”
The surviving prisoners were released in 1870 and returned to the east side of the Missouri River, then the Army moved them to the west side in 1873. But the Sioux kept starting over, and “my grandma told me that in the 1940s we were self-sufficient. We planted our own gardens. We owned our own cattle. Everybody and every community, we owned our own homes.”
Until 1948 when the Army Corps of Engineers “decided to build a dam above us and build a dam below us. So Oahe Dam is below us, Sakakawea Dam is above us. And they designated us as a reservoir. And so they came, and they moved our people out of their homes. They took our homes.”
The Army Corps of Engineers flooded the forests and gardens and businesses and displaced entire communities, moving them to higher ground with clay-based soil that’s not good for growing trees or food. And they lost their infrastructure.
So when the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted from Bismarck to pass within 500 feet of the reservation on a map that doesn’t even acknowledge that the reservation exists (let that sink in), the Standing Rock Sioux had had enough. A rupture in the pipeline would hit schoolchildren and a major water intake. It threatens the lives and health of the people and the river. After all, the Army Corps rerouted the pipeline because it could contaminate the drinking water in Bismarck, whose population is 92 percent white.
Brave Bull Allard said that every year, “we go four days without drinking water, so that it reminds us how important this water is. And I ask everybody: Do you go four days without water? What happens to your body on that third day? Your body starts shutting down. So, we remind ourselves every day how important [water is]. We say mni wiconi, water of life.”
For more insight, read Paul VanDevelder’s excellent “Reckoning at Standing Rock,” which delves into the history of American Indian sovereignty, all the way back to the Founding Fathers.