Opinion: Dakota Access pipeline threatens tribal sovereignty

Jim Gray, former principal chief of the Osage Nation, calls it, “The biggest story no one’s covering.” A crude oil pipeline planned by Dakota Access, LLC, was approved in July with little media attention.

The Dakota Access pipeline would cross the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe opposed it from the beginning, fearing that if the pipeline leaked, their water would become polluted. Additionally, the tribe feared the destruction of their historically and religiously significant burial sites, which the pipeline would also cross through. According to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Sioux own the land the pipeline crosses through. However, when American prospectors found gold in the Black Hills, the United States went to war against the Sioux, forcing them to give up the Black Hills under threat of starvation. The U.S. would later distribute the Sioux land to homesteaders. During the Great Depression, much of this land was abandoned, but instead of giving it back to the Sioux, the U.S. government took it. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the Black Hills were taken unfairly, and ordered the U.S. government to compensate them according to the market value of the land. The Sioux refused — they wanted their land back.

Lake Oahe, which the pipeline is meant to travel under, was created in the 1960s, when the U.S. government seized Native American land along the Missouri river to construct a series of hydroelectric dams. Burial grounds, medicinal plants and villages on the Standing Rock reservation were flooded, requiring tribal members to evacuate and move to less fertile land. Over all, the reservation lost 55,993 acres of land, and the tribe was never fairly compensated.

The story has been repressed in both journalistic and social media. Amy Goodman, a journalist from the news outlet Democracy Now!, was charged with rioting after filming an incident in which Dakota Access security used dogs and pepper spray to attack protesters. At the time, no broadcast news networks had even mentioned the pipeline or protests while on air. The charges against Goodman were thrown out, but filmmaker Deia Schlosberg is not so lucky. She has been charged with three felonies, and faces up to 45 years in prison. In a similar incident, two journalists from Unicorn Riot were arrested while recording police activity. Unicorn Riot recorded the arrests and live-streamed them, but Facebook blocked the link because it “violated their community guidelines.”

Originally, it was planned for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided the route needed to be changed because a leak would risk poisoning Bismarck’s water supply. Residents of the Standing Rock reservation, on the other hand, worry a leak would still contaminate their water.

Bismarck alone has an estimated population of 71,167, whereas the Standing Rock reservation only has a population of 8,250. This means that in the event of a leak, less people would have their water affected. But Bismarck’s population is also 92.4 percent white, and does not face poverty the way Standing Rock does, raising the question of whether economic, political or racial bias played a role in the Army Corps’ decision.

Native reservations have long faced patterns of environmental racism — a term used to describe how pollution causing facilities are more likely to be placed near communities of color. Sociologists Gregory Hooks of Washington State University and Chad L. Smith of Texas State University found Native American lands are statistically more likely to include “extremely dangerous” military sites that store unused explosive weapons. By endangering the Standing Rock Sioux water supply, Dakota Access continues this pattern. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious decision to discriminate (or an unfortunate coincidence) it’s at best extremely ignorant and insensitive for Dakota Access to ignore how their actions fit into this history.

Today, a broad coalition of Native Americans has come together to stand against the Dakota Access pipeline — and they have every right to. Opponents of the pipeline are not, as the US Chamber of Commerce described them, “anti-energy protesters” that want to “[stop] oil development period.” Rather, they carry on a longstanding tradition of indigenous resistance to colonization.

The Standing Rock Sioux are the rightful owners of the land where the pipeline will be built — land that holds religious significance to them. Their voices should be prioritized in decisions about what to do with that land. It is admirable that despite brutal suppression, they are making their voices heard.