Sabal Trail and Standing Rock: At FIU Panel, Qualms About Past And Future Of Native American Rights

Dec 1, 2016

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have been going on for months at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Geographically, that’s far from Florida.

But conflict over tribal lands and the rights of indigenous Americans -- those are issues embedded in centuries of Florida history.

That's why a Florida International University panel on Wednesday night looked at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest as it relates to the rights of indigenous peoples nationwide and throughout the world.

"This issue with the Dakota pipeline is a moment that has caught our attention publicly," said Dennis Wiedman, panel moderator and director of FIU's Global Indigenous Forum. "What is happening there extends out to the globe. It's an example of struggles that original peoples around the world are having."

Among those struggles: loss of land, segregation, colonization, exploitation of resources. In some cases, genocide.

For the Standing Rock Sioux, it's a question of land rights and environmental protection. If completed, the pipeline will comes within half a mile of the tribe's reservation. Protesters -- who refer to themselves as water protectors -- say the pipeline threatens the tribe’s water supplies and cultural heritage sites. They also question a decision to move the pipeline closer to the reservation -- initially it had been further north, near the majority-white city of Bismarck.

Florida residents have joined the protest. This week, a group of Florida military veterans is traveling to North Dakota to participate in the demonstrations. And other protests are taking place in Florida: "bank walks" to remove money from banks that protesters claim are supporting the pipeline. A solidarity rally scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday in Fort Lauderdale's Stranahan Park.

'If Native Americans’ spiritual rights and human rights cannot be restored as the Creator had given them to us, you’re denying all humans their rights' - Sam Tommie

At Wednesday night's panel, members of some of Florida's tribes expressed solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux.

"If Native Americans’ spiritual rights and human rights cannot be restored as the Creator had given them to us, you’re denying all humans their rights," said Sam Tommie, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Tommie explained how many of his tribe fled into the Everglades during three 19th-century wars with the U.S. government. They lived on the run for months, often hungry and without clothing to protect against harsh swamp conditions. At times along the way, they were forced to make unimaginable choices.

"If a baby was crying, the mother and the family had to take responsibility, take the child to a spot. They had to take a piece of mud and suffocate the child, so the child would pass away," Tommie said.

"This was to save a population that was running from the United States."

Tommie did not address how that trauma influences Seminoles living in Florida today. Instead he focused on a more recent development -- the reservation system. He said the one where he grew up was isolated and impoverished -- a description corroborated by audience member Catherine Ramirez, a Native American historian.

'A reservation is a prison' - Catherine Ramirez

"A reservation is a prison," she said. "It's taking the native people from their lush land and putting them in areas where nothing could grow... It's not something nice for native people."

The forced separation indigenous peoples have endured and still endure has put many tribes and groups worldwide in positions as caretakers of the lands, said Wiedman, the panel moderator.

"They've been forced into remote lands of little initial value to the colonizers, but now we find they are stewards of the most biologically diverse regions of the world."

'When the pipeline comes in and destroys the nature I grew up with, it kills me. It kills my heart'- Bobby C. Billie

Several panelists echoed the idea that indigenous peoples at Standing Rock and elsewhere have become environmental guardians.

Bobby C. Billie, member of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples in central Florida, called for a stand against the Sabal Trail Pipeline, a 515-mile natural gas pipeline that would pass through 12 counties in north-central Florida once complete.

"When the pipeline comes in and destroys the nature I grew up with, it kills me. It kills my heart," Billie said. He and other activists worry construction or leakage from the Sabal Trail Pipeline could pollute water in north Florida, then trickle down through the Everglades into the rest of the state and into the oceans.

"If you care about living in God's world, you need to do something," Billie said.

The Sabal Trail Pipeline passes through parts of Alabama and Georgia, as well as Florida. It's scheduled for completion in June 2017. Anti-Sabal Trail protesters in Florida have set up at least three camps near the construction sites -- similar to those at Standing Rock, but on a smaller scale.

"The people fighting pipelines need your help, because we are fighting for your future generations," Billie said.

A man sits by the Cannon Ball River at the Oceti Sakowin camp where thousands have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline near Cannon Ball, N.D.
Credit Associated Press