Why the Standing Rock Sioux Oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline

The pipeline is both an environmental and racial justice issue

Dakota Access Pipeline protesters
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images. Native American protesters of the Kiowa and Pueblo tribes protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in Washington, D.C.

As the Flint, Michigan, water crisis made national headlines in 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux successfully protested to protect their water and land from the Dakota Access Pipeline. After months on end of demonstrating, the "water protectors" rejoiced when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided on Dec. 4, 2016, to prohibit the pipeline from crossing Lake Oahe, effectively bringing the project to a halt.

But the pipeline's future is unclear after Obama leaves office, and the Trump administration enters the White House. Building of the pipeline could very well resume when the new administration takes over. 

If finished, the $3.8 billion project would span 1,200 miles across four states to link the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an Illinois river port. This would allow 470,000 barrels of crude oil daily to be transported along the route. But the Standing Rock wanted construction on the pipeline stopped because they said it could devastate their natural resources.

Initially, the pipeline would have crossed the Missouri River near the state capital, but the route was changed so that it would pass under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, a half-mile upstream from the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline was redirected from Bismarck because of fears that an oil spill would endanger the city’s drinking water.

Moving the pipeline from the state capital to an Indian reservation is environmental racism in a nutshell, as this form of discrimination is characterized by the disproportionate placement of environmental hazards in communities of color. If the pipeline was too risky to be placed near the state capital, why wasn’t it deemed a risk near Standing Rock land?

With this in mind, the tribe’s effort to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline isn’t simply an environmental issue but a protest against racial injustice as well. Clashes between the pipeline’s protesters and its developers have also sparked racial tensions, but the Standing Rock have won support from a broad cross-section of the public, including public figures and celebrities. 

Why the Sioux Are Against the Pipeline

On Sept. 2, 2015, the Sioux drafted a resolution explaining their opposition to the pipeline. It read in part:

“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe relies on the waters of the life-giving Missouri River for our continued existence, and the Dakota Access Pipeline poses a serious risk to Mni Sose and to the very survival of our Tribe; and ...the horizontal direction drilling in the construction of the pipeline would destroy valuable cultural resources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”

The resolution also argued that the Dakota Access Pipeline violates Article 2 of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty which granted the tribe the “undisturbed use and occupation” of its homeland.

The Sioux filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July 2016 to stop construction of the pipeline, which began the following month.

In addition to concerns about the effects a spill would have on the Sioux’s natural resources, the tribe pointed out that the pipeline would course through sacred ground protected by federal law.

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg had a different take. He ruled on Sept. 9, 2016, that the Army Corps had “likely complied” with its duty to consult the Sioux and that the tribe “has not shown it will suffer injury that would be prevented by any injunction the court could issue.” Although the judge denied the tribe’s request for an injunction to stop the pipeline, the departments of the Army, Justice and Interior announced after the ruling that they would suspend building of the pipeline on land of cultural importance to the tribe pending further evaluation. Still, the Standing Rock Sioux said they would appeal the judge’s decision because they believe they were not sufficiently consulted when the pipeline was rerouted.

 

"My nation's history is at risk because the pipeline builders and the Army Corps failed to consult the tribe when planning the pipeline, and routed it through areas of cultural and historical significance, which will be destroyed,” stated Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II in a court filing.

Judge Boasberg’s ruling led the tribe to ask for an emergency injunction to stop building of the pipeline. This led the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to state in a Sept. 16 ruling that it needed more time to consider the tribe's request, which meant that all construction 20 miles in either direction of Lake Oahe had to stop. The federal government had already called for construction along that part of the route to be halted, but Dallas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners didn’t immediately respond to the Obama administration. In September 2016, the company said the pipeline was 60 percent complete and maintained it would not harm the local water supply. But if that were absolutely certain, then why wasn’t the Bismarck location an appropriate site for the pipeline?

As recently as October 2015, a North Dakota oil well blew out and leaked more than 67,000 gallons of crude, putting a tributary of the Missouri River at risk. Even if oil spills are rare and new technology works to prevent them, they cannot be completely ruled out. By rerouting the Dakota Access Pipeline, the federal government appears to have put the Standing Rock Sioux directly in harm’s way in the unlikely event of an oil spill.

Controversy Over Protests

The Dakota Access Pipeline hasn’t attracted media attention simply because of the natural resources at stake but also because of clashes between protesters and the oil company in charge of building it. In Spring 2016, only a small group of demonstrators had set up camp on the reservation to protest the pipeline. But in the summer months, Sacred Stone Camp ballooned to thousands of activists, with some calling it “the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century,” the Associated Press reported.

In early September, tensions heightened as protesters and journalists were arrested, and activists accused the security firm tasked with protecting the pipeline of pepper-spraying them and letting dogs viciously attack them. This called to mind similar images of attacks on civil rights protesters during the 1960s.  

In light of the violent clashes between protesters and security guards, the Standing Rock Sioux were granted a permit to allow the water protectors to legally rally on the federal lands that surround the pipeline. The permit means the tribe is responsible for the cost of any damages, keeping demonstrators safe, liability insurance and more. Despite this shift, clashes between activists and officers continued in November 2016, with police reportedly firing tear gas and water canons at protesters. One activist came dangerously close to losing her arm as a result of an explosion that occurred during the confrontation.

"Protesters say she was injured by a grenade thrown by police, while police say she was hurt by a small propane tank that protesters rigged to explode," according to CBS News.

Prominent Standing Rock Supporters

A number of celebrities have publicly expressed their support for the Standing Rock Sioux’s protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Jane Fonda and Shailene Woodley helped serve Thanksgiving 2016 dinner to the demonstrators. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein visited the site and faced arrest for allegedly spray-painting construction equipment during a protest. A former 2016 presidential candidate also stands in solidarity with the Standing Rock, leading a rally against the pipeline. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said on Twitter, “Stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Respect Native American rights. And let us move forward to transform our energy system.”

Veteran rocker Neil Young even released a new song called “Indian Givers” in honor of the Standing Rock protest. The song’s title is a play on the racial insult. The lyrics state:

There’s a battle raging on the sacred land

Our brothers and sisters have to take a stand

Against us now for what we all been doing

On the sacred land there’s a battle brewing

I wish somebody would share the news

Now it’s been about 500 years

We keep taking what we gave away

Just like what we call Indian givers

It makes you sick and gives you shivers

Young also released a video for the song that features footage of the pipeline protests. The musician has recorded songs about similar environmental controversies, such as his 2014 protest song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Leonardo DiCaprio announced that he shared the Sioux’s concerns as well.

“Standing w/ the Great Sioux Nation to protect their water & lands,” he said on Twitter, linking to a Change.org petition against the pipeline.

“Justice League” actors Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher took to social media to announce their objections to the pipeline. Momoa shared a photo of himself on Instagram with a sign that said, “Oil pipelines are a bad idea,” along with hashtags related to the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

Wrapping Up

While the Dakota Access Pipeline protest has largely been framed as an environmental issue, it is also a racial justice issue. Even the judge who denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s temporary injunction to stop the pipeline, acknowledged that “the United States’ relationship with the Indian tribes has been contentious and tragic.”

Since the Americas were colonized, Native Americans and other marginalized groups have fought for equal access to natural resources. Factory farms, power plants, freeways and other sources of pollution are all too often erected in communities of color. The richer and whiter a community is, the more likely its residents have clean air and water. So, the Standing Rock’s struggle to protect their land and water from the Dakota Access Pipeline is just as much an anti-discrimination issue as it is an environmental one.