Charles Trimble: Standing our ground -- Our moral obligation

Charles Trimble. Photo by Native Sun News

Standing our ground – Our moral obligation
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

A recent Indianz.com story entitled “North Dakota tribe puts oil refinery on pause to review plans,” told of the leadership of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation restudying plans for oil refinery in which they have already invested over ten years in the $450 million project.

The tribes are looking to profit mightily from the rapidly-expanding oil extraction from the Bakken formation in the state. This boom is enhanced by the successful use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” which has made the energy deposits recoverable. However, this requires the waste of virtual rivers of water, and the potential pollution of other underground water aquifers.

Commenting on that story, I questioned whether leaders of the tribes involved in the story were undermining Native American moral high ground. I asked:
“Using terminology like "energy independence" and "economic sovereignty," are certain Indian leaders compromising and eroding our Native moral high ground which is built upon and based on our love and protection of Mother Earth and the environment, all the while allowing practices like fracking and wasteful depletion of water -- our most precious natural resource -- by thousands of acre-feet per year?”

Response from other readers was immediate and varied; some in agreement and others questioning the whole idea of a Native moral high ground.

One writer, Mahto Oyuspa asked, "Native moral high ground? You sure you want to stand on that?”

Then he followed up with this: “I have read a lot of what you have written in the past and have enjoyed many of your articles here, and in other media outlets. I haven't always agreed with everything, but agree with much of what you write. But, here on the rez', we have rampant meth abuse, prescription drug abuse, elderly abuse, tribal corruption that threatens what sovereignty we have left, abuse/misuse of Govt. program funds, the age-old problem of alcohol, physical/sexual abuse of Native children, a court system that is out of date, and elected politicians that have long forgotten their role in our society. So, I have cause to question where this ‘Native moral high ground’ actually exists.”

Mahto Oyuspa is right in many ways. When a person stands in the midst of dire poverty and suffering and, worst of all, blatant corruption on the part of trusted leaders, it does seem naïve or high fallutin for a fellow tribesman – especially one who doesn’t see every day those horrors of social pathology – to talk about our responsibility as aboriginal owners of the American continents to preserve Mother Earth and her environment.

But many of our people with deep sincerity do claim for us that responsibility. I am not one to stand on that moral high ground and preach. That is for others who are more worthy, and who accept the honor of upholding that sacred trust. I am a journalist of sorts, a commentator who observes and writes about such things. Even so, I will try to answer the question asked by my friend, Mahto, to wit: Where does this Native moral high ground exist?

I would say first of all that it is not a physical place, but a place in the heart and spirit. It exists among those who hold the Black Hills so sacred that they refuse to accept over a billion dollars to quit-claim their heritage deep in those hills.

It exists among those who fight to prevent development and activities that defile the sacred Bear Butte where generations of our forebears have sought vision and who prayed for the people and the generations to come.

It exists in the hearts and spirits of those who work to secure and preserve the pristine Peh Sla in the Black Hills as a place where our people can go to find serenity and seek their vision. It existed in the camp of those who went out to stop the XL Pipeline from crossing and threatening the lands guaranteed in perpetuity in the sacred treaties.

It exists in the community of descendants of survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre, who oppose any development that would disrespect the spirits of those who died on that sacred ground.

These are things, among many others, that constitute our moral high ground. But Native moral high ground, finally, is the spirit and the spirituality of our people.

There are several things that challenge our moral superiority from within, and these are inherent in the kinds of industry we have found ourselves chained to. These are things that are generally repugnant to people everywhere, such as payday lending at grossly usurious interest rates; playing on the desperation of people or on their ignorance. And there is arrogance of wealth, such as in the practice of buying politicians through massive campaign contributions; the same kind of arrogance that characterizes the Koch brothers and other greedy power mongers.

These are things that not only compromise our moral high ground but endanger our ability to exercise our sovereignty and threaten our sovereign immunity that we rent out to scumbags in the lending industry to enable them to skirt anti-usury laws.

My co-adoptive brother, Sam Deloria, who once wrote to me in exasperation, “When we have given up our position of moral superiority and our "Indian exceptionalism,” we are really no better than anybody else, and will bring a lot down on ourselves with our arrogance.”

It is easy, I suppose, to claim that moral high ground when we are not among those receiving significant wealth from their decisions. Many of them see instant relief from generations of poverty and suffering, and that tends to level the moral high ground if it means having to forego the promise of relief. And their tribal leaders who make the decisions or influence the decisions among their people are duty-sworn to improve the lives of their people. So it is a difficult choice.

Nevertheless, those people in our tribes who take it upon themselves to be guardians of that precious moral perspective should be heeded in their admonishment to respect and protect Mother Earth and her environment; and to respect and protect our sovereignty.

We profess that moral virtue; and we must walk the walk. More importantly, it’s in the interest of our own survival as distinct Native peoples and in the interest of our survival as nations.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble is a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com or charlestrimble.com

Join the Conversation