Massacring the Environment Dakota Style

Chief Big Foot of the Miniconjou Lakota, illed in the Wounded Knee massacre

Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot, killed at Wounded Knee


With a North Dakota winter and sub zero temperatures bearing down on those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, I see a convergence of images that all show up in Lucille Clifton’s poem “the killing of the trees”: environmental degradation, oppression of Native Americans, and frozen bodies. [Update: Late breaking news has it that President Obama has issued a stay, but that may not hold with the ascendency of Donald Trump, who apparently owns stock in the company building the pipeline.]

To review the situation, the pipeline was originally designed for upriver from Bismarck but, fearing protest from the city’s residents, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to move it close to (and upriver from) Standing Rock Sioux land. In doing so, it followed the long-established pattern of foisting our dirty projects (landfills, toxic waste dumps, fracking sites) upon vulnerable populations.

The Lakota fears of water contamination are well-founded. While oil companies promise that they will build and then maintain safe pipelines, their record shows otherwise. As CityLab website (connected with The Atlantic) reports,

Over the last twenty years, more than 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents have taken place nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The accidents have resulted in 548 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in financial damages. (Not counted in this total are thousands of less “significant” pipeline-related malfunctions.)

Lucille told me that she wrote her poem after watching her neighbor in a Southern Maryland subdivision bulldoze down the trees in his yard. The problem, he told her, was that they shed leaves on his lawn. As Clifton saw the trees goes down, she thought of the famous Wounded Knee photo of Chief Big Foot. “Pahuska” means long hair and is the Lakota name for General Custer:

the killing of the trees

By Lucille Clifton

the third went down
with a sound almost like flaking,
a soft swish as the left leaves
fluttered themselves and died.
three of them, four, then five
stiffening in the snow
as if this hill were Wounded Knee
as if the slim feathered branches
were bonnets of war
as if the pale man seated
high in the bulldozer nest
his blonde mustache ice-matted
was Pahushka come again but stronger now,
his long hair wild and unrelenting.

remember the photograph
the old warrior, his stiffened arm
raised as if in blessing,
his frozen eyes open,
his bark skin brown and not so much
wrinkled as circled with age,
and the snow everywhere still falling,
covering his one good leg.
remember his name was Spotted Tail
or Hump or Red Cloud or Geronimo
or none of these or all of these.
he was a chief. he was a tree
falling the way a chief falls,
straight, eyes open, arms reaching
for his mother ground.

so i have come to live
among the men who kill the trees
a subdivision, new,
in southern Maryland.
I have brought my witness eye with me
and my two wild hands,
the left one sister to the fists
pushing the bulldozer against the old oak,
the angry right, brown and hard and spotted
as bark. we come in peace,
but this morning
ponies circle what is left of life
and whales and continents and children and ozone
and trees huddle in a camp weeping
outside my window and i can see it all
with that one good eye.

Had she been alive to witness this protest, Lucille might have added “water” to her list of things threatened by Custer’s circling ponies. What Trump’s forces will do to the environment is currently giving me nightmares.

Further thought: Not afraid to hold herself accountable, Lucille acknowledges that one of her hands could be driving the bulldozer. After all, trees had to go down to build her own house. Her angry right hand, however, is as “brown and hard and spotted” as a felled tree or a felled warrior while her witness eye sees it all.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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