The violent confrontations splashed across the media in the last few days recall not just another Avatar-esque confrontation between militarized resource-exploiting corporations and local indigenous inhabitants– and yet another ironic use of an appropriated Native name– but also the sordid 523-year history of the use of dogs by European colonists to attack Native Americans.
First, some background. Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, has recently received permission to build an underground pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois. The goal is to transport Bakken crude oil to a terminal that will connect it with Gulf Coast and East Coast refineries and markets. The pipeline is controversial among white farmers, as eminent domain was used to acquire private farmland for a private oil enterprise. The pipeline is controversial among Native Americans, especially the Dakota and Lakota of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, because the pipeline passes under the Missouri River just a mile upstream of their land. (Note it was a pipeline under the Yellowstone River that ruptured and caused large oil spills in Montana in 2011 and 2015, affecting drinking water.) At the same time, construction of the pipeline disturbs sacred sites and burial grounds. The tribe argues that the required consultation with them was insufficient and has filed for an injunction to stop construction. A ruling is expected on September 9.
In the meantime, construction is sometimes halted, sometimes not, in a sometimes-violent game of cat-and-mouse with protesters. Shots have been fired, construction equipment set on fire, and chiefs have been arrested. Most of the protests have involved nonviolent actions. And then, on September 3, during a holiday weekend just days before a court ruling, there was mace and attack dogs, used by the company while law enforcement watched from a distance. Several nonviolent protesters were bitten, including women.
Natives from tribes across the land have traveled there in solidarity, while others have sent material aid. Over 100 nations have passed resolutions in support of the Standing Rock Sioux in this battle.
Back to the dogs, the most visceral part of the video above. The use of trained attack dogs against Native Americans goes back to the Spanish conquest. It began in 1493, with Columbus’ second expedition, a military style invasion with seventeen vessels. In his famous account of Spanish barbarity and genocide, Devastation of the Indies, Bartolome de las Casas writes:
the Spaniards train their fierce dogs to attack, kill and tear to pieces the Indians. It is doubtful that anyone, whether Christian or not, has ever before heard of such a thing as this. The Spaniards keep alive their dogs’ appetite for human beings in this way. They have Indians brought to them in chains, then unleash the dogs. The Indians come meekly down the roads and are killed. And the Spaniards have butcher shops where the corpses of Indians are hung up, on display, and someone will come in and say, more or less,”Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them.” As if buying a quarter of a hog or other meat.
Other Spaniards go hunting with their dogs in the mornings and when one of them returns at noon and is asked “Did you have good hunting?” he will reply, “Very good! I killed fifteen or twenty rascals and left them with my dogs.”
He relates another story where a Spanish expedition, traveling through Nicaragua, was running low on food for their dogs. They tore a child from his mother’s arms, cut off his arms and legs, and fed him to the dogs.
War dogs were used in Florida in 1528, when the fated Narváez expedition used them to kill a chief’s mother near Tampa Bay. They were a key instrument in De Soto’s deadly foray through the American southeast in the 1540’s, terrifying local chiefs into compliance. An entire book has been written on the subject, Dogs of the Conquest, which describes mastiffs, greyhounds, and wolfhounds that became renown, with names like Becerillo, Leoncillo, Amigo, and Bruto, and who could distinguish natives from Castilians, disemboweling Indians in seconds at the command tómalos, “take them.”
After the dog confrontation on Saturday, the company backed down and left the site. But with a $3.7 billion project on the line, and oil deliveries already contracted to begin before the year is out, the company will certainly return. (However, Enbridge has just backed down from a similar pipeline project running through Ojibwe rice harvesting lakes. It seems that economic factors, like the low price of oil, may have been the deciding factor there.) The Standing Rock Sioux, have established a dedicated protest camp and vow to protect the river. Furthermore, the protest may be becoming a rallying point for larger issues involving climate change, national priorities, and tribal sovereignty. Even with a federal court ruling in a few days, this conflict is likely far from over.