The rapid rise and fall of racist symbols

confed1The Southern Poverty Law Center prepared this remarkable diagram, illustrating when Confederate symbols, such as statues, flags, and monuments, were erected in public places– mostly around 1910 and then again in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement.  Their full report is here.  CNN has a summary here.  Point being there were rather sudden and pronounced political and social motivations to put these things up in the first place.  They weren’t just always there from the beginning.  There are lots of parallels when it comes to symbols of control over Native Americans.  Here are three:

  1. manifestdestiny

    This painting from 1872, American Progress, features the woman Columbia leading ‘civilization’ while the ‘savages’ flee. 

    “Columbia” – a name that adorns the nation’s capitol, as well as many other cities and one of the largest rivers in North America (with, historically, the most salmon), is derived from Christopher Columbus, which seems strange since he was Italian, worked for Spain, and never set foot in the US.  The term “Columbia” began to be used in the mid-1700s, when the European population on the Eastern seaboard began to pass the Native population.  Nearly 250 years after Columbus lived, the American colonists were clearly claiming the continent for Europeans.  The name persists nearly everywhere.

  2. Pocahontas7Native mascots for universities and professional sports teams started in 1909 and really took off in the early to mid-1900s, when Natives were largely confined to reservations and no longer posed a military threat. Many Indian mascot names have since been revised.
  3. Pocahontas, who died in 1617, was largely ignored by history for over 200 years. She was resurrected during the Indian Wars of the 1800s as a model “good Indian”.  Her story was revised– she went from being a raped captive to a willing convert and wife.   The recast Pocahontas appeared in children’s stories and a wide variety of product advertisements.  She continues to be appropriated and marketed today.
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Native mascots and logos: A good op-ed from Winters, California

Though the author is not Native, this is really one of the better op-eds I’ve seen on this topic.  Thank you Debra DeAngelo.  It comes from the Davis Enterprise in northern California and is about the Winters High School Warriors logo.

Racism, ignorance fuel resistance to drop Native American chief logo


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Mapping Native America

There are lots of maps of Native America floating around in books and on-line, most suggesting a sea of an indigenous nation-states that was fixed in time until the Europeans arrived. In reality, these “tribes” labeled on maps were most often broadly


As with Europe, any map of North America is merely a snapshot in time.

defined ethnic groups that moved and shifted over the centuries. They had widely varying political structures. Some were loose aggregations of towns and villages, others, like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, were vast empires with a centralized government.  Over time, territories grew or shrank at the expense of others. Any map is a snapshot in time– and many maps seem to draw on different times in history and merge them together.

Regardless, there are now some excellent mapping efforts that seek to identify traditional indigenous lands, however imperfectly. Most recent is, an interactive geographic database created by Victor from the Okanagan region. He describes his interactive map as “a work in progress” and invites public comment and participation.  He states, “I feel that maps are inherently colonial, in that they delegate power according to imposed borders that don’t really exist in many nations throughout history.” Maybe, but often rivers and other geographic features did provide well-defined borders. Landmarks like the Ohio River or the Red Pole (“Baton Rouge”) in Louisiana were honored border checkpoints for centuries.

maps1 provides an interactive and searchable map.

Another recent cartographic effort are the beautiful maps created by Aaron Carapella, who lives in current Cherokee (and former Osage) lands in Oklahoma.  Eschewing borders and their inherent uncertainty, Carapella’s map provides original tribal names, with the anglicized versions underneath  (such as “Dakota” over “Sioux”).  While large printed versions are available for purchase, a full pdf version is available here.  He has expanded his original effort to include maps of Mexico, Canada, Alaska, and South America. His maps have been covered by NPR; also see his Facebook page.


One of Aaron Carapella’s artistic maps.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some confusion on-line. Some maps have made well-intentioned rounds on Facebook and other social media. These are mostly innacurate, merging different periods in history and implying artificially hard boundaries across the continent. Most notable is the “America before colonization” map. Snopes did some investigation of this one. It turns out it’s a hypothetical map prepared for a fiction novel. Snopes concludes, “Rather than showing the state of America prior to European colonization, this image is one author’s idea of what America might look like today if Europeans had never colonized it.”


A fictional map prepared for a novel that has fooled many on Facebook. 






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Standing Rock: Court victory may be short lived

I’ve just finished reading the 91-page ruling from US District Court Judge Boasberg. Touted as a “major victory” for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, there’s still a lot to be worried about as legal proceedings continue.

First, the Tribes only prevailed on three of nine arguments; the other six were rejected. Counting two earlier arguments rejected last year, the Tribes are three for eleven. But it only takes one to stop the pipeline. Yet, the pipeline is not yet stopped. More on that later. First, here’s a summary of the Tribes’ arguments and the judge’s replies:

court rulings infogram

The most disturbing trend in the judge’s logic is his repeated refrain that he will not question the Army Corps’ analysis in the Environmental Assessment (EA), but will instead defer to their expertise and judgement in evaluating an issue. He only requires that they consider an issue and give it a “hard look”.  For example, the EA acknowledges that a spill might impact the Tribes’ drinking water, but the risk of a spill is “low” and the nearest drinking water intake is 26 miles away. For the judge, this is enough. The Corps has considered the issue, used facts, and reached a conclusion. End of story.

Upon reading the entire decision, I get the impression that the Corps can satisfy this judge by simply amending the EA and adding in a few sentences about competing scientific reports (e.g. “Scientific experts disagreed on stuff.”), another sentence on treaty rights to hunting and fishing (e.g. “The risk of impacts to hunting and fishing is low.”), and perhaps a paragraph or two on environmental justice (e.g. “The Tribes’ cultures give special value to the water, but the risk to impacts is low.”). With these boxes checked, it seems this judge would be satisfied.

Another indication of where this is heading is the judge’s “remedy”. Normally, when an EA is found to be insufficient, all permits are revoked, the project is put on hold, and additional environmental review is required. Not so in this case. While the judge acknowledges this is the “standard remedy”, he states he is exercising his “discretion” because of the “serious consequences” to the pipeline. He will rule on this later, after hearing additional arguments from both sides. The judge provides no justification, but presumably he is concerned about the flow of oil and economic impacts of shutting down the pipeline. This is baffling considering the pipeline is scarcely needed under current Bakken output, which is depressed because of the low price of oil, which in turn is primarily driven by the US flooding the world markets (and its own refineries) with too much oil. Indeed, the only serious consequences are to the pocketbooks the Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and their attempt to steal market share from the other pre-existing Bakken pipelines. Meanwhile, the serious risk to the Tribes is ignored, who face catastrophic impacts if there was a significant oil spill (and several have occurred along the Missouri River watershed in the past few years).

The judge’s unwillingness to take a “hard look” himself at the Corps’ analysis and conclusions, as well as his hesitancy to shut down the pipeline or demand an Environment Impact Statement (EIS), reeks of a familiar bias often encountered by tribes in US courts. In the introduction to the ruling, the judge lays out an astounding case against the Corps. An EA must reach one of two conclusions:

  1. Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), in which case the project can move forward; or
  2. Require an EIS, a detailed study of all possible impacts, with expert and public comment.

In this case, when the Corps released the Draft EA in December 2015, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST), Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST), Department of the Interior (DOI), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all commented that a FONSI was unsupported and that an EIS was warranted. It’s unusual for one federal agency to comment on another.

[For a full discussion of EA’s, EIS’s, the process, and links to the actual documents, see this post.]

Nevertheless, the Corps ignored all of this and issued a Final EA and FONSI, largely prepared by ETP, on July 25, 2016. The SRST filed this lawsuit two days later. Meanwhile, ETP was busy building the pipeline at breakneck speed, even though they did not have all the permits in place.  That’s when the water protectors stepped in. It was clear ETP wanted to pressure the various government agencies, and, thinking ahead, this judge, with a fait accompli.  Obama asked them to stop twenty miles from the river in case an alternate route was selected. In the late summer and fall of 2016, ETP ignored this request, knowingly plowed Sioux gravesites, and laid pipe up to the river, with all the attendant military support and use of violence.

The judge’s write-up reveals some interesting history. The local Corps officials were in ETP’s camp all along. When pressured from Obama and officials in Washington to engage the SRST in “additional discussion”, the Corps reluctantly agreed, meanwhile defending their EA/FONSI as “warranted”. On December 3, 2016, the day before the momentous decision to not grant the easement and instead pursue an EIS, the local Corps District Commander still wanted to grant the easement. In their statement on December 4, the Corps still slipped in a comment asserting that, while they would do an EIS, the EA/FONSI was “legal”. Considering the Corps devastated both these Tribes in 1960 with the creation of Lake Oahe, forcing people from their homes and flooding the most fertile parts of the reservations, this treatment is part of a long and sordid history. Yet the judge sees no bias in the Corps’ behavior and EA, and makes no mention of ETP’s pressure tactics and cozy relationship with the Corps.

The judge’s rejections of some of the Tribes’ arguments are frustratingly difficult to comprehend.  First, there was his rejection last fall regarding DAPL impacts to cultural and historic sites, ruling that the Corps and ETP did their due diligence in consulting a national database, even while the SRST told them repeatedly that there were additional historic sites not in the database (which is quite common). In the end, the SRST provided ETP with the lat-longs of the additional sites in the way of the pipeline. ETP responded by leapfrogging ahead of schedule and bulldozing those sites. Furious Sioux were then beaten back with attack dogs.

In the recent ruling, the judge’s analysis of the $10 million liability cap is fraught with bad math and bad logic. When requiring insurance coverage, we generally want the insurance to cover most but not necessarily the most extreme accidents. This requires some knowledge of the distribution of costs. In this case, the only number the judge had was the average cost of an oil spill, which was $2.2 million for the particular database. This may or may not have included a myriad of small leaks (thus bringing down the average) and likely included spills to dry land that never reached water (which are much cheaper to clean up). Even a moderate spill to water, like Lake Oahe, would have a daily burn rate of at least $300,000 in cleanup costs—and this doesn’t even include addressing impacts to third parties (such as the Tribes) and future habitat restoration. It’s not hard to imagine a spill impacting Lake Oahe exceeding $50 million in total costs. The total costs for the 2010 Kalamazoo River pipeline spill exceeded $500 million. With no knowledge of the range of potential costs, or the factors that drive costs (such as impacts to water), the judge reasoned that 10 was higher than 2.2 so it must be sufficient. It’s a bit like saying the average homeowner’s insurance claim is $2,000, so a $10,000 policy must be sufficient, even though your home is worth a whole lot more than that.

With this ruling, the Tribes may have received some small victories, but the pipeline is still running, delivering extra profits to one company, while the Tribes’ homes, livelihoods, and cultural practices remain at risk.  The Tribes may have to hope for a better judge should they appeal a future ruling.


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Photography of Native Americans, past and present


Photograph of Kiowa children, by Horace Poolaw, Oklahoma, 1928.

Teju Cole, a Nigerian living in New York City, is one of my favorite writers and photographers. In his recent column in New York Times Magazine, he compares the portraits by Horace Poolaw, Kiowa, with those by Edward Curtis.  Poolaw’s images show us “life as it was being lived”, while Curtis photos are contrived and “stilted”.


Cole then goes on to give shout-outs to a number of contemporary Native American photographers:  Brian Adams (Inuit), Josué Rivas (Mexica), Camille Seaman (Shinnecock), as well as the work of Daniella Zalcman, a non-Native covering the boarding school experiences of indigenous people in Canada.


One of Josué Rivas’ many iconic photographs from Standing Rock. 

All of this reminds me, a spontaneous crowd-source event has occurred at the Facebook page for Moses on the Mesa, a short film about a German Jewish immigrant living at Acoma Pueblo in the 1800s.  A discussion on the page led followers to begin posting old photographs of Native Americans, especially those not by Edward Curtis.  Click on Timeline Photos.  As I write, it was updated 18 minutes ago and now contains an astounding 6,866 photos, making it probably the largest on-line collection of Native American photographs.


Screenshot from the Moses on the Mesa Facebook page


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Standing Rock: Victory in Court


The judge has essentially overruled Trump and returned us to this moment when an EIS was required. 

A federal judge made a mixed ruling today, though largely in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST), that the permitting process for the Dakota Access Pipeline was flawed.

Earthjustice, whose legal team represented SRST, has issued a press release.

The full 91-page decision by the judge is available online.

The judge will rule next week whether or not the pipeline should be shut down while a proper permitting and review process takes place.

This ruling is in keeping with my analysis of the environmental permitting process. When Trump abandoned the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the old and deeply-flawed Environmental Assessment (EA) became, once again, the permitting document for the pipeline. It concluded with a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), while ignoring important tribal issues. The judge apparently felt the same.

For background on the EIS process, and a summary of the Dakota Access EA and its flaws, see this post.

Further analysis of the judge’s decision will be forthcoming on this blog.


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Standing Rock mercenaries’ secrets revealed


Threatening and violent behavior by ETP mercenaries was commonplace during the pipeline standoff.

In recent weeks, whistleblowers have revealed documents and stories regarding renegade behavior by private security firms hired by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline from protesters.  But the mercenaries went a lot further than that, creating military hype to demonize the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, infiltrating their camps to plant weapons as a pretext for arrest, and deliberately setting the fire on the Backwater Bridge.  Here are the recent news stories:

  1. The Intercept story (with leaked documents) Part 1.
  2. The Intercept story (with leaked documents) Part 2.
  3. High Plains Reader story about Kourtni Dockter, the former security guard who is speaking out about the unethical and illegal activities of the mercenary firms.

This previous blogpost, Red pilgrimage: right-wing counties send their cops to Standing Rock, documents how it was primarily the most conservative counties, both from local rural areas and from conservative suburbs of Chicago and even New Orleans, that sent their officers with surplus US military equipment to Standing Rock. The three progressive counties that sent law enforcement all recalled their officers as the police brutality became evident.


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