At the onset of summer 2016, a group of dedicated, young activists from the Standing Rock Native American Reservation in North Dakota embarked on a harrowing fifteen-hundred mile journey all the way to Washington DC– on foot. Their mission was to deliver a petition with over 140,000 signatures to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, asking them to deny a permit to the Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) which plans on building an oil and natural gas pipeline that cuts underneath their water supply and ancestral lands. The $3.7 billion Bakken Oil Pipeline, better known as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), would stretch over a thousand miles from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to another pipeline in Illinois, which transfers oil to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern United States. The non-profit organization Earthjustice filed suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the end of July, accusing the corps of violating the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 among other laws. The suit claims that
The construction and operation of the pipeline, as authorized by the Corps, threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.
The DAPL, they fear, will leak and contaminate the drinking water of the reservation as well as millions of other Americans by proxy of the Missouri River. For Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice attorney representing the Sioux Tribe, “it’s not a matter of if, but when” this will happen, citing two previous pipeline spills in the region. The first of these spills occurred in 2010, when the Enbridge Energy’s 6B pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, dumping close to 850,000 gallons of toxic crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Despite spending over $2 billion in clean up efforts and state and federal fines, some of the heavy oil sank to the bottom and complicated the process. The other of the two spills happened in 2015 when a breach appeared along the Poplar Pipeline in Montana, spilling over 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the Yellowstone river. This was the second such spill to have occurred in the region within four years.
Despite the opposition by Standing Rock and other organizations, the Corps gave the ETP the green light to start construction on the project. Hundreds of Native Americans from throughout the country set up a camp near the construction zone in what many have called the largest congregation of Native Americans in over a century. They have been joined by Black Lives Matter and environmental activists as well as other non-affiliated people sympathetic to their cause, including Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. This Labor Day weekend, demonstrators clashed with private security officers hired by Dakota Access, the actual company in charge of the pipeline’s construction, at the construction site of the DAPL in Morton County, North Dakota. After protesters broke down a wire fence surrounding the site, the private security officers began using attack dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to disperse them. The protesters stood their ground, however, and managed to get Dakota Access to halt construction on certain parts of the pipeline until at least this Friday September 9, when District Court Judge James Boasberg will decide whether or not to file an injunction to completely halt the construction. Media outlet Democracy Now! covered the confrontation.
As many of our readers probably already know, the United States government has had a nasty habit of uprooting entire Native American communities from their ancestral lands to make room for its European-descended citizens. Tired of Native Americans encroaching on white settler’s lands, the US government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which institutionalized the practice of forcibly removing Native Americans (primarily in the southern states) and placing them in federally allocated land known as reservations. Though these tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole, and Cherokee , were considered sovereign nations and were in fact labelled as the “Five Civilized Tribes” due to their adoption of European practices of Christianity, centralized governments, legal systems, and written constitutions, this made no difference to President Andrew Jackson who called for the forcible removal of Native American tribes in his State of the Union address in 1829. The Indian Removal Act, while theoretically voluntary, led to the mass relocation of ten of thousands of Native Americans on what would later be dubbed the Trail of Tears, where thousands died before reaching their destination as a result of exposure to the elements, starvation, and disease.
The near-annihilation of Native American culture and lifestyle continued through various fronts for decades upon decades. They have been stripped of their culture, heritage, and way of life, often being forced to assimilate to white America. The plight of Native Americans could been seen in the near-extermination of buffaloes, a cultural and dietary staple for many tribes which once numbered in the millions but in four short years were nearly driven to extinction. Settlers would often shoot buffaloes on sight for no reason other than pure enjoyment and trains would plow through entire herds of the quadruped who were unknowingly standing on train tracks, destroying yet another vital aspect of Native American way of life.
The disparity did not end with their removal, however. It followed them to their reservations where living conditions are often comparable to Third World countries. Employment and economic opportunities are scarce, with some reservations facing adult unemployment as high as 80 percent. Poverty remains a problem even among those that have a job, with rates ranging from 38 percent to as high as 64 percent in some reservations, compared to 14.5 percent nationwide. The housing on reservations is often inadequate, crowded, and unsanitary. Alcohol and drug abuse, especially opiates, is extremely prevalent among the reservation youth and adults. Reservations rarely have any pharmacies and doctor’s offices on them, let alone access to mental health services. As such, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis and cancer run rampant in these communities; suicide rates within reservations are nearly double the national average and are the second leading killer of Native teens. Less than half of Native teens finish high school and only 13 percent of the Native population has a college degree (compared to nearly 25 percent of the general population). Domestic violence and sexual assault plague many reservations, with Native women experiencing it “more than twice as often as any other ethnic group”.
Native Americans have been consistently marginalized and oppressed since the first Europeans settlers arrived in America– the Dakota Access pipeline is but another example of this. Yet supporters of the pipeline have seemingly eschewed the rights of these tribes, instead citing the economic benefits that such pipeline or others like it would have. On that note, I wish to end this article with a specially poignant Cree Indian proverb, which goes as follows:
Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.