For over two weeks, hundreds of people have been camped out in protest near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, halting construction of what would be a 1,170-mile oil pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the Bakken to connect with other pipelines in Illinois, but tribal members say it would threaten both their water supply and ancestral burial grounds. The protests, which have now drawn thousands of participants, are the latest event in a long history of battles between Native American communities, on one side and extractive industry and the federal government on the other. One thing that makes the current protests different from those in the past: Images from social media are reaching a broad audience and a public that is more apt to rally around climate change issues following the high-profile fight over the Keystone XL oil pipeline last year.
In this case, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, represented by the national nonprofit Earthjustice, sued the Army Corps of Engineers, who issued permits to Energy Transfer Partners to build the pipeline. Earthjustice and the tribe say the permits violate the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Rivers and Harbors Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The pipeline would not cross directly over reservation land, but it would traverse ancestral land. It would also be built beneath Lake Oahe, a dammed portion of the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for the tribe and also holds spiritual significance. The tribe is concerned that oil spills could taint the water and that the construction would disturb significant tribal sites. The tribe claims in an Aug. 4 motion for injunction that the government did not adequately consult with the tribe before granting a permit to begin construction, which is required by the NHPA.
The Army Corps of Engineers “effectively authorized construction of the vast majority of the pipeline in and around federally regulated waters without any provision to ensure against destruction to culturally important sites, in violation of the NHPA,” the complaint says. The tribe is requesting that the government withdraw the permit.
The agency apparently conducted surveys to assess potential damages to burial grounds and sacred sites, but tribal officials say they were conducted by surveyors without proper training or knowledge of what to look for. The complaint outlines a series of events beginning in late 2014 in which the tribe tried to give input to the Army Corps of Engineers in assessing potential impacts of the project. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department submitted letters to the Army Corps, expressing concerns that tribes had not been adequately consulted.
The federal government said in court last week that they believed the tribe had been given adequate time to respond to the pipeline proposal before construction began. A district court judge in Washington, D.C., will rule by Sept. 9. The media office at the Army Corps told High Country News they cannot comment on the situation until the lawsuit is resolved.
A long, rankling history
Taken in larger historical context, the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline appears not as an isolated incident — but as a piece of a much longer story. The tribe is a descendent of the Great Sioux Nation, a combination of Lakota and other tribes whose territory in the early 19th century stretched from eastern Montana through western South Dakota, into southern North Dakota, northern Nebraska and northeast Wyoming.
These tribes were pushed into a reservation in western South Dakota under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. In 1889, U.S. Congress seized parts of that reservation land and created several smaller reservations, one of which was Standing Rock. In 1946, the Army Corps began construction to dam the Missouri River, flooding Native American communities in the Missouri Valley, forcing them to move yet again. The Dakota Access Pipeline is planned to traverse land that is less than a mile north of today’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The potential threat to water and sacred sites further rankles tribe members who see it as part of a long-term pattern, helping fuel both the lawsuit and the subsequent protest.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II points to dams that created hydropower for the greater region as part of a history of exploitation: “We’re all in favor of energy independence, but not off our backs. This has gone on for too long, where we pay for it," he said in an interview.
According to court documents, original proposals for construction placed the pipeline near the water supply for Bismarck, a city that is 88 percent white. “They altered the route because people were concerned about the impact on the city’s water supply,” Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing the tribe said in an interview. “(The government) put the risk on the tribe. That’s not right.”
Those traditional tensions have helped keep people at the protests, but they haven’t led to major violence. Up to 30 protestors have reportedly been arrested in recent weeks. Firearms and alcohol are apparently prohibited from the encampment. According to media reports, however, protestors threw rocks at construction workers' cars earlier this month.
In the public eye
While a Native American protest against a potentially harmful extractive endeavor is not new, the North Dakota events are playing out in a quickly evolving Western context. University of Colorado law professor Sarah Krakoff noted that heightened awareness of climate change activism, ushered in by the high-profile Keystone XL fight last year and increasing protests of fossil fuel extraction on Western public lands that have ramped up in the past year, has set a new context for events such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
This changing attitude may bring new significance to mainstream news consumers when it comes to protests that they may otherwise have seen as a relatively obscure event. “Part of it is the connection to Keystone XL,” Krakoff said. “Pipelines are in the public consciousness — there’s a lot of symbolism there. I wonder if some of that has transferred over.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests also illustrate a new era of direct action enabled by social media. Activists in Western states — across the political spectrum — may be particularly well positioned to benefit from social media, which can bring people together across the vast reaches of the West. Mark Trahant, an independent writer and professor at the University of North Dakota wrote last week of the decision to move the Dakota Access pipeline to threaten Native American water supply: “A decade ago, even a couple of years ago, that might have worked. But not in the era of social media. People of goodwill easily recognize this injustice.” Ironically, among the few similarities that the Dakota protests and the Bundy standoffs share is that they each benefited from easy-access internet tools, such as fundraising interfaces, and social media (See below).
“Social media has given a voice to us as Native people we never had before,” says Jaynie Parrish, a member of the Navajo Nation and an Indian studies and communications instructor at the University of North Dakota. “The internet has been able to give us that lens and that perspective directly from Native people in their communities… it’s not being filtered through anyone else. The content is what’s unique and really unseen before.”
Energy Transfer Partners has sued the Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman and several other individuals for blocking the pipeline. The company’s complaint said protestors threatened employees and refused to cooperate with law enforcement earlier this month.
A smaller group of protestors first appeared at the site in April, and participants now say that they will remain at the camp at least until the court decision Sept 9. Some reports have estimated up to 2,000 protestors as of last week, though exact numbers are unknown.
See videos below for comparison: A protestor on his way to the Dakota Access Pipeline encampment, and below, a protestor on his way to southern Oregon for a Sagebrush Rebellion showdown between militia members and the federal government last year.
Tay Wiles is the deputy editor - digital at High Country News. Follow @taywiles
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