Native lives splatter: Killing Indians with your car

On September 7, South Dakota Representative Lynne DiSanto, the Republican whip in the state legislature, re-tweeted a meme promoting running down protestors with cars. Mainstream media quickly drew parallels to the murder of a white activist in Charlottesville by the same means. Liberals demanded an apology. Her job fired her (she sold real estate in the Black Hills!). And fellow Republicans minimized it. Let me maximize it by providing a little context.


When Rep. Lynne DiSanto is not working as a Republican legislator in South Dakota, she sells real estate in the Black Hills, which were stolen from the Sioux and remain hotly contested.

Running down Native Americans with cars is a thing. Here’s a summary from just the last year:

In Thunder Bay, Canada, a 34-year-old mother recently died after being struck by a trailer hitch thrown at her from a passing car. First Nations people in the area report that beer bottles and other objects are commonly thrown at them from vehicles, usually accompanied by racial slurs.

Living in South Dakota, DiSanto would have been familiar with some of these incidences. This region is sometimes called the “Deep North”, a parallel to the Deep South, but with its racial animosity targeting Natives. As a legislator, she no doubt followed the North Dakota proposal that would provide legal cover for drivers. Taken together, her meme was nothing more than a call to race-based murder. It represents an alarming contribution, by an elected official, to the increase in the use of violence, both by masked white supremacists and official red state authorities, to put down Natives and other people of color who raise their voices. She will face no charges for inciting violence.

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The basics of sea level rise

sealevel-summerI was lucky to be out of town for a week during “the greatest statewide heat wave ever recorded in California.” When I arrived in Seattle, I was quickly informed that they had just set a record of 55 consecutive days without rain—and that the record would still be increasing had it not been for 0.02 inches late one night a few weeks earlier. Seattle has also set a number of heat records the past four summers. The same people that bragged about this “beautiful weather” scoffed that I believed in climate change. They asserted that no sea level rise would occur during our, our children’s, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes because, 1) Puget Sound was not really part of the ocean; and 2) those NOAA flood maps are “bureaucratic bullshit”.  These same people live on the water in homes that are a few feet above current maximum high tides. Days later we all swept ashes off decks while marveling at the sun, which was reduced to a rosy red disc by smoke from a record 68 large uncontained fires burning across the West.

Astounded by the number of homes, roads, and railroad tracks located just toe-dipping distance above Puget Sound, I set out to learn about sea level rise, talking to experts and reading published studies and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) .  Here’s what I found out.

  • sealevel-temp

    Climate change via rising temperatures is abundantly clear, dramatically so in recent years.

    Increases in sea level lag quite a bit behind climate change. We set the record for the warmest year on earth in 2016, breaking the record from 2015, which broke the record from 2014. For something as variable as weather, which has all kinds of ups and downs, this kind of consecutive record-breaking suggests runaway global warming. It is dramatic. But not so with sea levels.

  • Sea level rise is a function of several different factors:
    1. Thermal expansion: This happens because, like air or most anything else, water expands when it is warmer, taking up more space. As ocean temperatures increase, they bulge up a bit, and the sea level rises. This can be quantified with pretty good precision and is already occurring. In fact, this explains nearly all of the sea level rise currently underway.
    2. Antarctic Ice Sheet: While melting ice in the Arctic Ocean affects weather and ocean currents, it doesn’t add to the sea level because the ice was already in the ocean to begin with. An ice cube that melts in a glass of water does not change the water level. But glaciers that are on land, like in Antarctica, will flow into the sea when they melt, thus adding to sea levels. They are like an ice cube perched on the edge of the glass, melting into it.
    3. Greenland Ice Cap: While not as big as the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Cap will melt faster. In fact, it is already becoming the next big contributor to sea level rise.
    4. Other glaciers and other factors: Smaller glaciers from Alaska to New Zealand are melting, and also adding to sea level.
  • Sea level rise is underway, currently at a rate of 3.4 mm/yr (or 13 inches per 100 years). It has already risen 2 ½ inches since the year 2000, and 6 ½ inches since 1900.
  • The rate of sea level rise is increasing as ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other glaciers begin to contribute. The standard practice is to estimate total sea level rise by the year 2100, as compared to 2000. Because the rate is increasing, it will certainly be more than the 13 inches described above, because ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other places is beginning. However, estimating that increase is difficult. The 2013 report from the IPCC estimated total sea level rise by 2100 at 1 foot to 3.2 feet, depending upon assumptions about CO2 levels. Because Greenland and other Arctic glaciers are melting faster than anticipated, the IPCC report has come under criticism from scientists, who have now adjusted their estimates up to 1.7 feet to possibly 6 feet by 2100.

    sea level rise house diagram

    The projected range of sea level rise, depicted in scale over a waterfront home.

  • The rate of sea level rise will continue to increase at an increasing rate for several hundred years. The Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland have a lot of ice, and melting takes time. This melting, which is only just beginning, will increase with time, but may still take hundreds of years to really pick up steam. This appears to be “virtually certain”. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is now considered to be “past the point of no return”, with large scale melting “unstoppable.” Still, the exact timing is unknown. It will begin slowly but then suddenly increase rapidly, possibly during this century. This caveat is included in all predictions. The “conservative” estimate is that ocean levels will rise 3 to 10 feet by the year 2300, depending upon future CO2 levels and temperature increases. At that point, however, it will still be rising at a rate more than double the current rate. It thus appears that a total sea level rise over 10 feet, largely if not entirely due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is inevitable in the long run.
  • In the next few decades, sea level rise will be mostly felt during acute events, such as during high tides or large storms, or a combination of the two. This will, unfortunately, cause my friends in Puget Sound to attribute their flooded living rooms to unusually high tides or large storms, but not to rising sea levels.

To examine flooding in Puget Sound under various levels of sea level rise, you can surf a map and toggle the level of sea level rise at this interactive website.

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Totality Visions

“It’s so beautiful.” My voice was uncontrollably shaking and tears were welling up in my eyes.  Like Jodie Foster at the end of Contact.


I took this photograph about ninety seconds before totality. It’s a 180-degree panorama, looking south, with the east on the left edge and the darkening west on the right.

From atop a sagebrush bluff in eastern Oregon, we felt the day cool and the bright yellow landscape fade into muted tones. Ten minutes before totality, in a half-light like some strange Instagram filter, a Brewer’s Sparrow started singing. Three minutes before, Venus appeared almost directly overhead and the horizon and sky in the west sank into a deep velvety midnight blue, as if blackness was pouring down from the heavens. Distant smoke from a fire on the southern horizon lit up like a sunset. Two minutes to go, with darkness from the west spreading, threatening to envelope us, the crowd began to exclaim, “It’s coming!” and “Oh my God!”  And, then, suddenly, we looked up, and there it was– floating in cool peaceful stillness, a perfect black disc surrounded by a silky silver corona. In its serene beauty, it seemed to be looking at us. Benevolently.  It felt much closer to me than the sun normally feels, perhaps just a few thousand feet up. It was real; everything else was surreal.

example corona2

I elected to avoid fussing with my camera during totality, but I searched the internet for the image that came the closest to what I saw. Nothing comes close to what it’s like in real life, but this one from a different eclipse in Norway came the closest.

Our time in its presence lasted just shy of two minutes and eight seconds, but the memory is seared in my mind. I still cannot explain why it felt so meaningful. It certainly sent a message that the universe was tightly held together, that everything was in order, that at 10:23:37.6 in the morning, on schedule, it came to us. It was beautiful– yes, possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most unique– but it was just physics. Yet it felt so emotionally fulfilling.

Through binoculars we saw little red solar prominences on the perimeter of the black disc, and the little hot dot of Mercury just off to the left. As the corona blinked and turned into a diamond ring, we watched diffuse “shadow bands” dance on a white sheet I had draped over a large sage. The great tranquil eye was turning its gaze eastward. I thought of friends in Carbondale and Charleston and the joy coming their way. Eclipses should be longer. There should be more of them. If I think about this experience on my deathbed, I’ll die with a smile on my face.

Here is a seven-minute video, which captures our view southwest of the valley before us (the town of Unity, Oregon is just left of center), and the audio of our reactions.

Key moments:
2:00 The shadow is coming
2:30 It’s coming
3:20 Totality!
5:40 Sunlight returns; shadow bands are called out

Total eclipses have a long history of inspiring visions that changed the course of human events. In North America, Wovoka’s epiphany from a similar sage-covered hilltop in northern Nevada during the January 1, 1889 eclipse had dramatic ramifications.

From Suggestions for Observing the Total Eclipse of the Sun on January 1, 1889, published by the University of California:

What is first noticed is the change which takes place in the color of the surrounding landscape, which begins to wear a ruddy aspect. This grows more and more pronounced, and gives to the adjacent country that weird effect which lends so much to the impressiveness of a total eclipse. The color changes because the earth’s atmosphere absorbs a larger proportion of the blue rays than of the red…

The color of the light becomes more and more lurid up to the moment when the sun has nearly disappeared. If the spectator is upon the top of a high mountain, he can then begin to see the moon’s shadow rushing towards him at the rate of about a mile in a second. Just as the shadow reaches him there is a sudden increase of darkness; the brighter stars begin to shine in the dark lurid sky, the thin crescent of the sun breaks up into small points or dots of light, which suddenly disappear, and the moon itself, an intensely black ball, appears to hang isolated in the heavens.

 An instant afterward the sun’s corona is seen surrounding the black disc of the moon with a soft effulgence quite different from any other light known to us.

Around 2pm on that day, as the land and sky turned dark, stars appeared, and the corona blinked on like a benevolent eye, Wovoka of the Northern Paiute saw more than all that. For two minutes of totality, he saw a new earth, filled with the resurrection of the dead,


Paiute Ghost Dance, 1890

living in peace as in times of old, in a land teeming with deer and buffalo. His vision spread throughout the West, from reservation to reservation. Tribes sent emissaries. The vision grew. Jesus will return to save his people, the American Indians. (Does He not look like one? Did not the whites kill him the first time he came?) Living in His presence, there will be no hunger, no disease, and no death; no tears, pain, or mourning. The whites will sink into the soil. All will be made new. This will come to pass if the people perform the Ghost Dance.

The US responded to the dancing Natives. In less than two years, to stop the dancing, Sitting Bull was assassinated and hundreds of elders, women, and children were slaughtered at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

For more information about the significance of eclipses to various Native ethnic groups, see this recent collection just compiled by the National Museum of American Indians.

Celestial events put human troubles in perspective. We live in a different time than Wovoka, when the laws of nature exemplified by the eclipse boomerang on us, in the form of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Humans have no power to alter the course of the earth and moon, but, unfortunately, we can screw up the planet’s climate, which follows certain natural rules. As we walked down the bluff after the eclipse, surrounded by former NASA scientists and others intimately familiar with climate change, the rebounding desert temperature was a quick reminder. It is the problem that supersedes all others. Were there visions of peace and resolution to this problem? And will the forces arrayed against this dance succeed?

Coming Total Eclipses

For a list of all future total and annular eclipses, with interactive Google maps and details about totality, see this amazing webpage.

Here is a short summary:

July 2, 2019 – northern Chile and Argentina, with 2 minutes of totality in Chile

December 14, 2020 – southern Chile and Argentina, with 2:10 of totality

April 20, 2023 – Eastern Timor and western Australia, with 1 minute of totality in Australia

April 8, 2024 – Mazatlan to Newfoundland (sometimes described as Texas to New England), with 4 1/2 minutes of totality in Mexico

August 12, 2026 – Iceland to Spain, with 2 minutes of totality

August 2, 2027 – a massive eclipse from Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco across northern Africa and the Middle East, including Mecca, with over 6 minutes of totality near Luxor, Egypt.






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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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