Patuxet (Plymouth) 400 years on: Prisoner, slave, guide, ambassador — Meet the real Squanto, Tisquantum

When we last left the Pilgrims and other settlers (see previous blog post), they had arrived at the abandoned village of Patuxet, but stayed huddled onboard the Mayflower, freezing and dying thru the winter. Finally, in March 1621, the weather warmed enough that they moved ashore, cleared the homes and corn fields of the skeletons left behind by a plague a few years earlier, and began to turn the village into Plymouth.

In reality, Tisquantum dressed in English clothes and was very much at home in Plymouth, causing Massasoit and other Natives to wonder where his loyalties lay.

It was in this context that Squanto came to them, speaking perfect London English.

He had grown up in Patuxet. Seven years earlier, in 1614, an English trading vessel (captained by a colleague of John Smith) lured him aboard, along with about two dozen other Patuxet and Nauset. He told them his name was Tisquantum, “Anger of the Gods”; they shortened it to Squanto.

They were taken to Spain to be sold into slavery. In Málaga, Tisquantum was rescued by concerned friars and made his way to London. Five years later, he arranged passage for himself on an English vessel bound for the fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Once there, Tisquantum talked the captain, Thomas Dermer, into heading south to Cape Cod Bay.

Finally, after five years in exile, he was on a vessel bound for his home. When the vessel dropped anchor off Patuxet in June 1619, no one was there to greet them. The alewives were shimmering in the creek mouth and yet no one was there to catch them. No one was standing on the beach, waving, pointing, and calling. No movement was seen among the homes.

Ashore, Tisquantum found corpses and skeletons in many of the homes, even in the abandoned corn fields. Surrounded by only English, he was the last Patuxet.

In the spring of 1621, when the Pilgrims finally left the Mayflower and came ashore, Tisquantum was there to meet them—but not right away. Massasoit, great sachem of the Wampanoag, held all the cards. He used Tisquantum as a translator and an ambassador, but only under close supervision. Eventually, Tisquantum moved into Plymouth, teaching the English how to plant their crops and serving as their only translator for dozens of diplomatic meetings with the Natives.

Massasoit’s oversight of Tisquantum, and diplomatic maneuvers with the Pilgrims, will be covered in a coming blog post.

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Patuxet (Plymouth) 400 years on: “Bones and skulls” — An epidemic made the Pilgrims’ settlement possible

In the late fall of 1620, the 102 men, women, and child passengers aboard for the Mayflower found themselves behind schedule and seriously off course. They were supposed to be in Virginia Colony (the colony that famously kidnapped Pocahontas), which was founded thirteen years earlier. That wasn’t the oldest European settlement on the eastern seaboard—those honors go to St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded – with a thriving slave market – in 1565. Many other short-lived Spanish settlements date back to the early 1500s. In the west, Santa Fe was ten years old.

The indigenous people of New England were already familiar with Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English fishermen who had been fishing the Grand Banks for a hundred years, many of whom had ventured south to what would become Massachusetts. The Europeans knew the coastline was heavily populated; they saw the villages and cornfields in the daytime and lights of fires reflecting on the water at night. Along the shore, there was no suitable village site unoccupied. They didn’t come to settle; just to fish and trade.

But, unbeknownst to the Pilgrims, that changed in 1617. An epidemic wiped out the majority of Natives for two hundred miles along the coast. Many villages were abandoned.

When the Pilgrims arrived on November 21, 1620, they made their initial landing at today’s Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. Delayed by mishaps along the way, they were low on supplies and winter was setting in. To survive, they raided Nauset gravesites where corn had been buried with the departed, and took maize from a village cache while the local residents were away. After several peaceable and one not-so-peaceable interaction with the Nauset, the Pilgrims concluded they needed to find another place to settle.

The new U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing off the coast of New England. They spent a cold winter huddled on the vessel off the village of Patuxet.

On December 16, they arrived at the village of Patuxet. It was abandoned. They renamed it Plymouth. Here’s what they found:

The place where we now live is called Patuxet, and that about four years ago all the inhabitants died of an extraordinary plague, and there is neither man, woman, nor child remaining, as indeed we have found none…  great mortality which fell in all these parts about three years before ye coming of ye English, wherein thousands of them dyed, they not being able to bury one another; their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above ground where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectacle to behold. – Edward Winslow

[They] were sore afflicted with the plague, so that the country was in a manner left void of inhabitants. –Ferdinando Gorges

and the bones and skulls upon several places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into these parts, that, as I traveled in the Forest near the Massachusetts, it seemed to me a new found Golgotha. – Thomas Morton

… the bodies all over were exceeding yellow, describing it by a yellow garment they
showed me, both before they died and afterwards
– Daniel Gookin

The Indians in those parts had newly, even about a year or two before, been visited with such a prodigious pestilence, as carried away not a tenth, but nine parts of ten (yea, ’tis said, nineteen of twenty) among them: so that the woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures, to make room for a better growth. Our first planters found the land almost covered with their unburied carcasses. – Reverend Cotton Mather

The Pilgrims essentially built Plymouth over the footprint of Patuxet and took over their abandoned corn fields. Without this epidemic, it is unlikely the Pilgrims would have been able to settle anywhere in the region. 

Almost four centuries later, scholars still debate the disease which may have emanated from a French fishing vessel that visited Cape Cod. The list of possibilities includes plague, yellow fever, influenza, smallpox, chickenpox, typhus, typhoid fever, trichinosis, cerebrospinal meningitis, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis D, and leptospirosis complicated by Weil syndrome. With a 90-95% mortality rate (based on the Cotton Mather report), it is probably the most severe plague ever reported in the Americas, though its geographic extent was limited to just the coastline. Inland, the Narragansett were largely untouched by the plague.

The Wampanoag, Massachusett, Abeneki, Penobscot, and Nauset were devastated. The indigenous population of New England fell eighty-six percent between 1616 and 1639.

The passengers of the Mayflower suffered as well. Only fifty-three (slightly more than half) survived the first winter, which they spent huddled onboard the Mayflower at anchor near shore.

This set the stage for the arrival of Tisquantum (Squanto) and an alliance between two groups of people struggling to survive: the Wampanoag (under Great Sachem Massasoit) and Plymouth Colony.

These will be covered in coming blog posts (hyperlinks above).

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Intergenerational supremacy: The straight line from pioneers to poor white support for Trump

While I’m tremendously relieved that Biden won the election, I remain terrified. Why did 71 million people vote for Donald Trump in 2020, even more than in 2016?

By now, we all knew that the draft-dodging, pussy-grabbing, bankrupt, tax cheating, misogynist, racist narcissist was an exhausting national nightmare and international embarrassment. His White House was filled with nepotism and corruption on an unprecedented scale, a seamless blending of his personal businesses and official policies. His appointed administration sycophants followed a familiar pattern of flaming out and writing damning kiss-and-tell books afterwards, many of them only to support him again in the recent election.  

I get that wealthy people and business owners vote Republican; they want the tax breaks and de-regulation. And they don’t care about the loss of public services; they can afford private schools and don’t have to worry as much about health insurance. But the question has always been, why do poor people – read poor white people – vote Republican?

Jonathan Metzl, in his book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, provides an answer. Poor whites are willing to forego government services to avoid any redistribution of wealth “to Mexicans and welfare cheats”.

Trump’s replacement for Obamacare never came. His promised investment in roads and other infrastructure never came. But his supporters didn’t care.

In a study comparing the rejection of Obamacare’s Medicare expansion and the loosening of gun laws in certain Republican states, Metzl concludes that poor whites are willing to cut several weeks off their life expectancy to prevent “Mexicans and welfare queens” from receiving benefits. And this was pre-Covid.

With the pandemic, Trump’s followers have practically become a death cult. When news came out that people of color were being more severely impacted by the early outbreak in New York City, Trump switched from emergency responder to a symbol of freedom by not wearing a mask. Many of his supporters rallied to the cause, deliberately going maskless and holding large gatherings. That freedom has come at a high price. People in red states are catching Covid and dying at rates nearly double their blue state counterparts.

Despite personal cost to themselves, poor whites remained devoted to Trump because he kept his promises in one area: white supremacy. He started building his wall, waged a campaign of terror against immigrants of color, and made public racism okay again.

But the question remains, why do poor whites, as Metzl says, “feel a sense of psychological prestige and overlook their own material conditions”? Why do they refuse to ally with poor people of color, with whom they share similar economic struggles? Why is whiteness worth it? Metzl doesn’t answer that.

In much of rural America, Native reservations are politically, blue islands on a red prairie.
With respect to Native Americans, he quickly cancelled Obama’s required environmental permitting process and approved the Dakota Access pipeline (which a judge has ruled illegal). He stripped the Wampanoag of land, removing land from trust for the first time ever. And he stripped all tribes in Oklahoma from sovereignty over environmental issues, seeking to protect the oil industry.

Wedges between poor whites and poor people of color in US history go back to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when Virginia Colony first created laws to privilege one over the other. They were attempting to prevent multi-racial alliances of poor people that threaten the rich and powerful.

They were successful. After that, poor whites helped create more wedges. In addition to widely accepting the enslavements of Blacks around them, they wanted Indian land. If they were destitute in the East, they moved West. They became pioneers.

But the poor white pioneers also had conflicts with “big government” in the East. First it was the British, whose proclamation line in 1763 gave all land west of the Appalachians to Native Americans, forbidding any settlers from acquiring it. The American Revolution removed that prohibition. Pioneers poured down the Ohio River and thru the Cumberland Gap.

Conflicts with Native Americans were inevitable. Usually they began with a small offense, perhaps a Native killing a cow or stealing a horse. The final attack was all-too-often a state militia or pioneer vigilante group massacring Native women and children.

While most of the details on Native ethnic cleansing have been erased from white spaces, locals typically have some knowledge of the history of their own county. In Walla Walla, Washington, you can hardly walk a block downtown without some memorial or tribute to Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, famously killed by local Cayuse in 1847.

Historians, beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, often noted the anti-establishment character of Americans, fighting back against British tyranny from the start. This anti-government ethic, still very much alive today, was especially prominent along the frontier as the federal government sought to control the “Wild West”. Mostly, they were trying to stop white pioneers from slaughtering Native peoples. Most of the massacres resulted in federal investigations from Washington DC. Perpetrators were condemned, though punishment was usually ignored. White pioneers honored the perpetrators; many towns and counties are named after them: Sheridan, Grant, Custer, even Chivington. Today, the leaders of ethnic cleansing remain heroes.

Trump’s greatest support came from the same regions where ethnic cleansing was most dramatic, where Natives were massacred, where Native land was immediately given to white settlers, and, in many instances, where descendants of those white settlers still live on the same parcels to this day.

Kiowa County, Colorado, where the Sand Creek Massacre took place, went 88% for Trump. Much of the massacre site is still in private hands, the rancher unwilling to sell it to the adjacent national monument.

The Washita Massacre site, where Colonel Custer took at Native girl as his concubine, is in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma, 89% for Trump.

Johnson County, Wyoming, where the US military deliberately attacked the village of families of Dull Knife’s camp in sub-zero weather, sending them into a frozen canyon, went 79% for Trump.

Northern and central Idaho, where the families of Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce clan fled, went 80% or more for Trump.

Counties in northern Georgia, where Cherokee farms were doled out to poor whites before the Trail of Tears, went 70 to 84% for Trump.

In more liberal Minnesota, the former Santee Sioux reservation along the Minnesota River, stripped from them in the “exterminate or banish” campaign in Little Crow’s War, went 60 to 70% for Trump.

Even in California, where Trump only managed 33% statewide, the northeastern part of the state, home to state-funded genocides against several tribes, went 57 to 70% for Trump.

On the flip side of intergenerational trauma, there is intergenerational racism. Whites tell intergenerational stories too. These stories are needed to justify colonization, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. In the 1800s the stories were bold. Manifest destiny said it was God’s plan. The myth of the Mound Builders said the land belonged to the whites before the red man arrived.

Confederate flag (with AR-15) and “Don’t Tread on Me” flag just outside the Cheyenne and Arapaho massacre site at Sand Creek, Colorado. The town of Chivington is nearby.

Today the stories have evolved, but are still based on myths, lies, and deception. Here are stories I’ve heard since I was a child. Most Indians died from diseases. It wasn’t genocide because some survived. Blacks need the structure provided by sharecropping. Welfare is a huge government program and people are on it their whole lives. Supply-side economics (i.e. tax cuts for the wealthy) is important because you can’t help the little guy without helping the big guy first. Any government program that helps people (especially people of color) is socialism.

Historically, whites received government handouts through the Homestead Act, Social Security, the GI Bill, and FHA home loans that were denied to people of color. Now the socialism, the affirmative action, stops. They do not want their wealth redistributed to people of color, even if that be thru education, health care, and other government services that benefit everyone. Even as the US tumbles into second world status (or at least being “last among developed countries” in so many indicators of social well-being), the wealthy corporate side of the Republican Party uses this racist wedge to get poor white votes while their own supporters suffer. And we all suffer.

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Columbus’s second voyage was the real killer

September, 1493, barely six months after Columbus returned to Castile (Spain) from his first voyage, the harbor at Cádiz was abuzz with activity. An armada was assembling. Colombo’s second voyage was no reconnaissance expedition, no “exploration”. It was an invasion.

He set out with seventeen ships, over a thousand men (no women), and America’s first horses, pigs, sugarcane, oranges, and lemons. They also packed weapons, armor, and trained dogs of war.

Cutting hands off was a common practice employed by Columbus’ men.

Columbus tried to rendezvous with the thirty-nine men he had left at La Navidad, present-day Haiti, but found the fort abandoned and some of the men dead. He had taken some captives during his first voyage and apparently the locals had risen up after the left.

The second voyage – the invasion – was a total bloodbath in comparison. Within months, the Spaniards documented themselves committing widespread murder, capture, rape (including by Columbus himself), and dismemberment of Native peoples. On Hispaniola (the island that makes up Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the Spaniards imposed the feudal encomienda system, which quickly dissolved into slave plantations where people were bought and sold. Native uprisings occurred regularly. Columbus and his men put down one of them and sent 500 captives, including women and children, back to Spain as slaves; 40% died on the voyage.

In less than ten years, disease and slavers had so decimated the civilization of the Taínos on Hispaniola and the Bahamas that replacements were required. In 1502, the first slaves from Africa – five shiploads – were brought for labor on Caribbean plantations.

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Barr schmoozes the Cherokee: bringing Covid and taking sovereignty?

Attorney General William Barr spent most of Wednesday, September 30, at Cherokee Nation (CN). This was Day 4 after he attended the infamous Amy Coney Barrett reception at the White House, the presumed COVID super-spreader event now known as the #RoseGardenMassacre. There, Barr did not wear a mask and had close conversations with several who later tested positive (see video of Barr at the reception here).

Social media had more than a few jokes about smallpox blankets. This blanket was a gift from CN to Barr.

According to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health contact tracer training, the average incubation period for COVID is five days, but can range from two to fourteen days. People are typically contagious one to two days before they show symptoms. Trump tested positive on day five, though he had fatigue on day four (and attended a fundraiser even knowing that aide Hope Hicks had already tested positive). Barr has not tested positive, yet. It’s possible he doesn’t carry it, or is late in developing it, in which case the Cherokee will have dodged a bullet. Under public pressure, Barr began to quarantine himself on October 4.

When Barr went to CN, neither Trump nor Hicks had tested positive. Presumably due to CN requirements, he wore a mask… most of the time. CN posted several photos of his visit. In one he is the only one pictured not wearing a mask; in three others, his nose is uncovered. Social distancing was violated in most of the photos.

Long before Trump’s positive diagnosis, the reckless and deliberately anti-public health behavior of the Administration was painfully obvious. Any visitor from Trump’s inner circle would be a public health risk. This time, for the Cherokee, a very real risk. Yet, it appeared as if CN officials were unwilling to challenge him when he was maskless or when his nose was uncovered; they welcomed him with open arms.

The purpose of Barr’s visit is related to this uncomfortable dynamic between a tribal nation claiming sovereignty, but being too afraid to assert it. On July 9, the US Supreme Court affirmed the Cherokee Reservation in eastern Oklahoma, giving the Cherokee Nation (CN) limited sovereignty over much of the region, including the ability to regulate the oil industry via environmental requirements. Much of Indian Country wasn’t attuned to this – and it’s not clear how much CN wants to take on this responsibility – but Big Oil and the Republican politicians they employ were all over it.

Republicans and op-eds in Tulsa newspapers called for the abolishment of the reservation. The Governor of Oklahoma invoked an old statute asserting state control over environmental issues on tribal lands. For more of the drama from that week, see this post:  Drama on the Rez: Big Oil, Oklahoma, and Trump put the Five Tribes under pressure.

Since then, the Trump Administration has come courting. On July 23, Melonia Trump announced she would visit, touring CN healthcare facilities. That visit has yet to occur.

Barr with nose uncovered.

Then, last week, Barr arrived. The Barr reception was the typical inter-government lovefest, with prerequisite niceties, compliments, and promises of cooperation (see video here). The main point, in the face if the McGirt decision, was to strengthen coordination for law enforcement, as now many criminal prosecutions will be moved from state to federal and tribal courts. Barr came bearing gifts: $7.6 million “to improve safety, serve victims of crime, support law enforcement and to support youth programs”, as well as “creating a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney program with $2 million over three years to allow the Northern and Eastern District U.S. Attorneys’ offices to each hire additional prosecutors.”

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. put a positive spin on it. “Anytime you can have the attorney general of the United States come to the capital of the Cherokee Nation because he wants to talk about sovereignty, he wants to talk about McGirt, he wants to see the best in law enforcement in the judiciary and in law enforcement, that’s good for all of Indian Country,” Hoskin said. “It’s certainly a good thing for the Cherokee Nation.”

But Barr also made reference to forthcoming legislation. It’s not clear why any legislation is needed at this point, except to strip from CN some of the sovereignty awarded by the McGirt decision. It’s doubtful Trump and Barr want to repeal the Inhofe rider that takes jurisdiction over environmental issues away from tribes and gives it to Oklahoma.

Hoskin again: “There are legislative ideas floating around to disestablish the Five Tribes. If they’re going to disestablish the Five Tribes, I’m going to fight that tooth and nail. We expressed to the attorney general that we want the support of the Department of Justice on that, and in response, he said we are going to be very engaged on that.”

Barr said DOJ will be “very engaged”; on which side?

After the friendly opening statements, the media was dismissed and the discussions continued behind closed doors. We know nothing about what was said, promised, or threatened. Later in the day, Barr met with the tribe’s Marshal Service and toured the CN’s bison herd.

Barr displaying the typical reckless exceptionalism of the Trump Administration.

I had a vision of CN working with the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal governments to forestall the Keystone XL pipeline and implement environmental regulations in a state that has almost none. I was imaging laws like in California, where any release of “deleterious materials” into waters of the state (or Nation) is a crime, where enforcement is robust, where the Nation can make claims for compensatory restoration to make the environment whole. Where industry is held to account.

But if Hoskin and the CN government are unwilling to challenge Washington in the face of a deadly disease, I’m concerned they’d be afraid to take a stand to protect our environment. Will CN demand the repeal of the Inhofe rider, or will they relinquish the ability to create and enforce environmental laws? Will the legacy of Barr’s visit be that he brought Covid and took sovereignty?

UPDATE ON OCT 5: Principle Chief Hoskins has just issued a statement criticizing the US EPA for invoking the Inhofe rule and giving Oklahoma authority over environmental regulations on their reservation. Despite Barr’s visit, Hoskins took a stand to protect Cherokee sovereignty over the environment. The timing of the US EPA’s actions and Hoskins’ statement suggest the topic did come up with Barr, Hoskins refused to yield, so Barr pulled the string. How can the Cherokee fight back? Well, they can withhold casino earnings from Oklahoma for starters. More likely they’ll wait and hope for a Biden Administration to reverse it.

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Stand by, militias have been enforcing white supremacy in the US for centuries

Militias, rag tag groups of armed white men, farmers, and pioneers, often supported by local law enforcement, have a long history of enforcing the idea that the United States is first and foremost for white people (i.e. white supremacy). These militias violently seek to keep “uppity” Native Americans, Blacks, and others in their place.

Right wing social media enjoyed Trump’s shout out to the Proud Boys during the first debate.

All Americans are familiar with the KKK, essentially a vigilante militia enforcing their own rule of law. And many Americans may be familiar with the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, as well as dozens of “race riots” in the early 20th century in which angry whites took to the streets in opposition to Black attempts at integration (e.g. using public swimming pools).

Many may have also heard of foreign militias that played key roles in their own civil wars and genocides, often with the support of their governments. Examples include the Janjaweed of the Darfur region in Sudan and the Interahamwe of the Rwandan genocide.

When it comes to Native Americans, unofficial militias, largely pioneers on the “frontier”, played a significant role in the ethnic cleansing and genocide that is called “manifest destiny”.

A few examples:

  • Conestoga Massacre, 1763. Inflamed by the on-going French-Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Paxton Boys of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, murdered six local Susquehannock and burned their homes, even though the peaceful Natives were widely known and kindly regarded in the community. The militia claimed the Natives had provided support for distant hostiles. Authorities moved the surviving Susquehannock into the local jail for their own protection. Two weeks later, while the local sheriff stood aside, the militia broke into the jail to complete their massacre, tomahawking and scalping women and children, cutting off body parts and shooting their brains out. Benjamin Franklin later described the militia as “white savages”. The local reverend, the “Fighting Parson” John Elder, defended the militia, saying “the men in private life are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful. The time will arrive when each palliating circumstance will be weighed.” He blamed the local government for not doing enough about the Indians in the first place.
  • Sand Creek, 1864. Colonel John Chivington, a Methodist pastor, led a group of Colorado volunteers against the Cheyenne and Arapaho camps of Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Left Hand. Under orders of the US government, those Native bands had just reported to Fort Lyon and set up camp. Chivington found them to be much easier targets than the combatant Natives he was supposed to be looking for. More than killing combatants, Chivington wanted to make a statement for himself, so he attacked the peaceful village. He also wanted to target children because, in his words, “nits make lice.” He and his men killed hundreds of women and children and then paraded their scalps, testicles, vaginas, breasts, and fetuses on the streets of Denver to cheering crowds. One man, Captain Silas Soule, refused to participate. He later gave testimony against Chivington. For that, Soule was gunned down on those same Denver streets.
  • Camp Grant Massacre, 1871. The self-styled Tucson Committee for Public Safety, a local white militia with support from Mexican Americans and a rival tribe, attacked a peaceful band of Pinal and Aravaipa Apache who were living near a US Army fort. One hundred forty-four Apache were killed and mutilated, of which only eight were men. Twenty-nine children were sold into slavery. In response, President Grant condemned the attacks and brought the perpetrators to trial. The jury found them not guilty after nineteen minutes of deliberation.
The Paxton Boy militia had the support of the local reverend.

A couple common threads here: 1) The target was always innocents, not combatants (the definition of terrorism); 2) The militias always had either the tacit or actual support of local officials or law enforcement; 3) With most massacres of Native Americans by pioneer militias, the federal government condemned it, launched an investigation, held hearings, and issued a report—but justice was rare in coming.

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Hysterectomies and forced sterilization, again, Native Americans remember

With forced hysterectomies of immigrant refugees in the news, Native Americans remember. Between 1970 and 1976, as the forced boarding schools were declining, physicians of the Indian Health Service sterilized at least a quarter of Native American women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four, usually without their consent. While white women give birth to an average of just over two children, the average number of children born to a Native American woman dropped from 3.3 to 1.3 during the 1970s. The white doctors especially targeted full blood women. For the Kaw, every full blood woman was sterilized.

Blacks, of course, have similar stories.

The United Nations definition of genocide has five points. This is the fourth, from Article II (d): “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

The stories emanating from ICE detainment camps bring back memories from the 1970s.

In a back room at an Indian Health Service facility in New Mexico, a young woman in the haze of labor signed a consent form which she believed was for painkillers.

Another woman had just had a Caesarean section; she was handed a piece of paper and a pen.

In Oklahoma, a woman signed under threat of having her children removed by protective services.

In Pennsylvania, a woman had her children removed the day before, and was trying to get them back.

In Montana two girls, aged fifteen, went in for appendectomies. All of these women woke up the next day and learned they have been sterilized.

There are many more such stories. The hospital files provided the medical rationale: socio-economic reasons.

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White supremacy and Dungeness crab: The long history of blaming Indians for poor resource management

“The Indians have wiped out Dungeness crab in south Puget Sound.” 

This is a common line among white people in the Pacific Northwest.

The story, besides racist, is factually wrong and biologically impossible. Here’s the real story:

  • The Dungeness crab fishery, like all in Washington, is co-managed by the state and tribes. They’ve been working together for years.
  • Yes, the Dungeness crab fishery collapsed dramatically in 2016 in the South Sound and has been closed since 2018.
  • Prior to that, harvesting by whites and Natives had been roughly equal each year, though slightly higher by whites.
  • The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife categorically says, “Harvest pressure over the past decade is not the primary factor in the decline of Dungeness crab.”  This is because only large male crabs may be taken and the remaining smaller males are more than sufficient to fertilize the females.
  • It takes four years for the larvae to become adults. The larvae are spread by the currents throughout Puget Sound. But the crabs are doing fine the more north you go, despite the fact there is tribal fishing there as well. Whatever happened, it happened to the young crabs, preventing them from becoming adults, and it happened only in the South Sound prior to 2016.
  • Young crabs struggle to survive when water temperatures exceed 64 degrees. Enter “The Blob”, an anomalous warm water event in 2014 and 2015 in the North Pacific associated with globally warming oceans. Toxic algae blooms were widespread along the Pacific Coast. According the NASA researchers, “By the end of 2015, both blob and blooms had shut down much of the Pacific fishing industry and upended the marine food chain.” Water temperatures in the South Sound went as high as 66 for five months in 2015. This is the most likely explanation for the lack of adult Dungeness crabs in the South Sound beginning in 2016 and continuing to this day.

This explanation was widely reported in the media, including the Tacoma News Tribune. Nevertheless, many believe an alternate theory: the Indians wiped them out. They say the same thing about salmon, a species decimated by hydroelectric dams, while the region enjoys cheap electricity. The Grand Coulee Dam alone on the Columbia River is estimated to have wiped out half the salmon in the Lower 48. The continuing decline of salmon has caused the area’s famous orcas to leave Puget Sound, maybe for good.

The Blob of unusually warm water impacted a wide variety of fisheries.

Besides diverting attention away from climate change, the notion that whites manage the land better than Natives is a way to assert white supremacy. It’s saying that, because only white people can behave responsibly, the land should be primarily for them.

It’s the same argument the Puritans used. They saw acres of woodland teeming with wildlife and assumed it was an unmanaged pristine wilderness. They saw the Narragansett move from a summer to a winter camp and the Wampanoag abandon their corn fields every few years and move to another site. They said “the Natives of New England enclose no Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by.” Only their planted fields are legitimately theirs, they said; “the rest of the country lay open to any that could and would improve it.”

The minister John Cotton provided the theological justification for land acquisition: the Natives had not fulfilled the first commandment, to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Therefore, “In a vacant soil, he that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it, his Right it is.”

And then they named the land. The Columbia River is named after Christopher Columbus. Dungeness, first the location and later the crab, was a name bestowed by George Vancouver in 1789. Both the river and the crab are now reeling under human impacts.

Most of the local tribes signed treaties in 1855 (or whites marked an “X” on their behalf), giving away 99% of their lands but keeping hunting and fishing rights at their accustomed places. But even this the tribes had to fight for. In the late 60s and early 70s, Billy Frank Jr. and others fought the “fish wars” against the state and federal governments for the right to fish. In 1974, Judge Boldt issued his famous ruling, granting the tribes 50% of harvestable fish. Now the state, federal, and tribal governments co-manage the fisheries, but that still doesn’t sit well with some whites.

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Drama on the Rez: Big Oil, Oklahoma, and Trump put the Five Tribes under pressure

With the ink barely dry on the Supreme Court ruling that eastern Oklahoma is in fact reservation land of the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, the Five Tribes are under pressure to relinquish some of their new-found sovereignty.

Oklahoma reservation map.jpg

The landmark McGirt v Oklahoma ruling came on July 9, asserting that Congress never dissolved the Creek reservation in Oklahoma (and by extension the other four reservations of the “Five Civilized Tribes”). This put much of eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, in Indian Country.

Immediately lawyers and officials from Oklahoma and the Tribes met to figure it all out. Note they already have many cooperative agreements regarding law enforcement, health care, hunting and fishing, etc.

A week later, on July 16, the Five Tribes announced an Agreement-in-Principle with the Oklahoma Attorney General “to ensure collaboration among Tribal, State, and Federal authorities in the interest of effective law enforcement and administration of justice across Tribal lands.” The purpose is to draft federal legislation together defining oversite of civil and criminal law enforcement. The chief of each of the Five Tribes released a statement affirming their own sovereignty as well as cooperation with the state of Oklahoma.

While many were thinking about jurisdiction over criminals on various parcels within reservation lands, the Washington Post noticed the elephant in the room:  Big Oil. Their headline says it all:  “Now that half of Oklahoma is officially Indian land, oil industry could face new costs and environmental hurdles: The landmark Supreme Court decision give the five tribes a say over oil and gas wells, refineries, and pipelines—including those running to the Cushing hub of the Keystone XL, legal experts say.”  Cushing, the “center of the oil universe” lies just outside the reservation area. At the very least, the oil industry will now need federal as well as state permits for new wells and pipelines.

Oklahoma pipelines

Cushing, Oklahoma, located just west of Tulsa, is one of the largest pipeline hubs in the world.

Oklahoma is one of the most Republican states in the nation, with 65% voting for Trump in 2016 (only West Virginia and Wyoming outdid them). With little environmental regulation, Oklahoma is content to allow oil operations (e.g. fluid injection) that routinely cause earthquakes over 4.0 on the Richter Scale, and as high as 5.8. With little taxation of oil (or anybody else), Oklahoma was forced to cut public schools to four days per week for budgetary reasons, pre-Covid. They repeatedly seek more revenues from tribal casinos to make up their deficits.

In this context, Oklahoma Republican leaders and the oil industry are in panic mode. Dewey Bartlett, a prominent oil executive of Keener Oil & Gas, and a former mayor of Tulsa, said “It’s going to be total chaos.”  The oil industry wants the hands-off status quo to remain. In the words of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, they want “a stable, predictable regulatory and tax environment consistent with their interests.”

The Agreement-in-Principle would shift most civil jurisdiction from the Tribes to the state, thereby freeing the oil industry from any tribal requirements.

The Five Tribes faced immediate internal backlash when they released the Agreement-in-Principle. The next day, July 17, the Creek and Seminole chiefs issued statements backing out of the Agreement, saying that collaboration “does not require congressional legislation.” Three days later, on July 20, the other three tribal governments, faced with protests at their own capitols, issued a statement backing off the Agreement so they can dialogue with “stakeholders” (presumably their constituents).

On July 23, Oklahoma Governor Stitt (R) came back playing hardball, announcing he was invoking the 2005 Inhofe rider to assert state jurisdiction on environmental issues on reservation lands. It remains to be seen if that will hold up in court. Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. called it a “knee-jerk reaction to curtail tribal jurisdiction.”

The pressure does not stop there. Oklahoma legislators, all Republican with deep ties to the oil industry, have already drafted federal legislation to strip the Five Tribes of their sovereignty or reservation altogether. It’s a massive threat that recalls the legacy of the oil-induced Osage murders. On July 23, an op-ed piece by a former legislator and current Tulsa County assessor said the Tribes, if they knew what was good for them, should “actively lobby Congress to disestablish swiftly the reservation status that was just recognized by the Supreme Court.” He cited the “cloud of uncertainty” in the marketplace.

There are carrots as well as sticks. In addition to the full court press by Oklahoma Republicans, Cherokee Nation announced they will host a visit by Melonia Trump “to tour our state-of-the-art Outpatient Health Center and first medical school on tribal land in the nation.” Expect a presidential offer of financial support, strings attached.

It’s easy to come up with snarky historical comments about beads and blankets and bribes to old chiefs. The legacy of Standing Rock also towers over this battle. Time will tell what how the Five Tribes respond.

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How Covid, Obama, and the Standing Rock Sioux shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline

Obama’s Play

On December 4, 2016, during that short window between Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s inauguration, the US Army Corp of Engineers, at the direction of lame duck President Barack Obama, announced that construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would be suspended pending the Corps’ “reconsideration of its statutory obligations”. The water protectors at Standing Rock celebrated with fireworks over the snowy encampment.


December 4, 2016. The judge’s ruling essentially returns us to this night.

The Army Corps’ statement, in and of itself, was not legally binding; it was just a policy announcement. All that changed, however, on January 18, 2017, about 48 hours before Trump took office, when a Notice of Intent to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was published in the Federal Register, opening up a public comment period. An EIS is a full analysis of all potential environmental impacts and ways to reduce those impacts. And this analysis must be done for several options. For DAPL, that would mean looking at alternative routes. (More on the EIS process here.)

standing rock map

The original route (dashed line) took the pipeline too close to Bismarck for their comfort, so the route was secretly changed, without public hearings, to the reservation area.

This was not just a legal trick; it was the right thing. Up until then, the primary permitting document was an Environmental Assessment (EA). An EA is the little brother of an EIS. It’s what you do when a project is unlikely to have any environmental impact. The idea that a 1,172-mile long pipeline crossing four states and several major rivers did not need an EIS was ludicrous.

Less than a week later, now President Trump issued his memorandum, ordering the US Army Corp to approve the pipeline as soon as possible “to the extent permitted by law.”  But Obama had already painted him into a corner by starting the EIS process.

Nevertheless, the Corps obeyed and moved forward. It stopped the EIS process (without justification), granted the pipeline permit, construction was completed, and oil commenced flowing in May 2017.

Standing Rock pressure

But the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, partnering with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, continued to challenge the pipeline in court. Because they had stopped an EIS process that had already started without any new information, leaving a flimsy EA as its primary permitting document, DAPL was legally vulnerable. The tribes, with Earthjustice as their legal team, hired experts to shred the EA as insufficient. They were successful.

US District Court Judge Boasberg has overseen the entire case. The tribes’ scientific experts pointed out so many flaws in the EA that the project met the EIS bar of “highly controversial” (based on the science, not the protesters). Boasberg was especially influenced by the assessment of spill risk, stating, “the impact of a spill has been one of the Court’s central concerns throughout the case…. systems may not be in place to prevent that spill from becoming disastrous…. DAPL’s leak-detection system was incapable of detecting leaks of less than 1% of its flow rate, meaning that 6,000 barrels per day could leak without triggering an alarm.”

After many hearings and various twists and turns, in March 2020, Judge Boasberg found that “Defendant U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it granted an easement to Defendant-Intervenor Dakota Access, LLC to construct and operate a segment of that crude-oil pipeline running beneath the lake.” In short, the Army Corps needed to do an EIS. The judge returned us to the days before Trump’s inauguration.

The role of COVID

An EIS can take one to five years to complete. The question was: should the pipeline be shut down in the meantime?

On July 6, 2020, Judge Boasberg said yes, all oil must be removed from the pipeline within 30 days. (Link  to the judge’s order.)

Note that, since the opening of DAPL three years ago, Bakken oil production increased from about 1,000 Mbbl/day (thousand barrels/day) to 1,500 Mbbl/day. That increase is largely explained by DAPL, which carries 570 Mbbls/day.

DAPL production 2020.jpg

Bakken production today is less than it was when DAPL operation began.

According to Boasberg’s ruling, “Dakota Access’s central and strongest argument is that shutting down the pipeline would cause it, and the industries that rely on it, significant economic harm, including substantial job losses.” This meant that many North Dakota oil producers, with no way to get their oil to market, would have no choice but to ‘shut in’ some of their wells causing a 34.5% decline in North Dakota crude production (back to 1,000 Mbbl/day).

But here’s where the pandemic came in. The COVID-induced decline in demand for oil has caused a decline in production more than what for Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) was predicting, reducing oil production down to pre-DAPL levels. In short, the pipeline serves no purpose now.

Furthermore, the public never depended on DAPL for oil supply; it was all about profits for ETP and Sunoco. This oil was likely exported.

DAPL exports 2020

Since the US began allowing the widespread exportation of crude oil, exports have grown from less than 1,000 Mbbl/day before DAPL to over 3,500 Mbbl/day at the start of 2020. The new production created by DAPL fits easily within this increase, suggesting the new oil moved thru DAPL is essentially exported.

Judge Boasberg pointed out that the Corps estimates the EIS process will take 13 months, during which time the DAPL oil is unlikely to be missed by anyone (except ETP).

Judge Boasberg wrapped up his ruling with these choice quotes:

Without [shutting down the pipeline], the Corps and Dakota Access would have little incentive to finish the EIS in a timely matter. When it comes to NEPA [the environmental law] , it is better to ask for permission than forgiveness: if you can build first and consider environmental consequences later, NEPA’s action-forcing purpose loses its bite.

The Court does not reach its decision with blithe disregard for the lives it will affect. It readily acknowledges that, even with the currently low demand for oil, shutting down the pipeline will cause significant disruption to DAPL, the North Dakota oil industry, and potentially other states. Yet, given the seriousness of the Corps’ NEPA error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates, the Court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease… within 30 days.

What’s next?

The Army Corps and ETP will appeal, possibly to the US Supreme Court.

And an EIS process may start. It will begin with a public comment period on what issues should be addressed (such as environmental justice issues associated with various route options, or whether the pipeline should be used at all). (More on the EIS process here, something I posted back in 2017 when the EIS process started the first time.)






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