The Dakota Access Pipeline Protest: American Rupture and Unity

By: Leah Klahr  |  February 5, 2017


On January 24, four days into his new administration, Trump signed an executive order advancing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172 mile-long underground oil pipeline which will run from North Dakota to Illinois. While the construction is expected to create over 12,000 new jobs and the pipeline itself is designed to transport nearly half a million barrels of crude oil daily, it can also be harmful to a group of Americans who are fighting to be heard by the U.S. government. The pipeline cuts into land only half a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. To the Standing Rock tribe, the pipeline carries the threat of oil leaks and spills that will poison the tribe’s Missouri River water supply, and desecrate burial and heritage sites that are sacred to the tribe.

According to the 1996 National Historic Preservation Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is required to consult with Native American tribes when federally planned or approved projects affect Native American historic sites. The Standing Rock Sioux have filed an ongoing lawsuit claiming that the USACE has failed to properly consult with the Standing Rock Sioux before approving the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. Though the USACE has carried out some assessments, it has declared that the pipeline will not affect any historic property. The tribe argues that it is impossible for this to be determined without consultation with the tribe itself.

In a CNN report, Faith Spotted Eagle, a Sioux tribe “Grandmother,” or female spiritual leader commented on the lack of consultation. “Archaeologists come in who are taught from a colonial structure, and they have the audacity to interpret how our people were buried,” she said. “How would they even know? Over the course of thousands of years, can they identify the correct stone placements or the specific sorts of vegetation? What’s sacred cannot be confirmed through their eyes.”

The refusal to recognize the tribe’s historic and burial sites, despite existing legal enforcement, is reminiscent of centuries of U.S. derision of Native American practices and identity. Yet, the Standing Rock Sioux are more immediately concerned about oil spills that will poison their only water source. Water is essential to Native American life. Mni Wiconi, or Water is Life is a common tribal name that has become a symbol of the tribe’s opposition to the pipeline. Oil pipelines often leak, and even rupture, despite monitoring equipment. In December of 2016, the Belle Fourche pipeline ruptured, leaking more than 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a North Dakota Creek. The rupture occurred just miles away from the Standing Rock Reservation.

Since April of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux have stood in prayerful protest against the construction of the  Dakota Access Pipeline. To the tribe, a central form of protest is prayer, and prayer ceremonies. The Standing Rock Sioux see themselves as not only protesters, but also, as “water protectors.”

“We’re just speaking out for Mother Earth,” one man at the site said, according to The Atlantic’s report. “No matter how bad you tried to annihilate the native people, we’re still here. We still exist. We’re still the protectors of the Earth. We’re the voices speaking up for the four-legged brothers that can’t talk for themselves—all the animals down the river that can’t speak out.”

Since the start of the protest, thousands of people have joined the tribe in its mission to obstruct the pipeline construction. Over 100 Native tribes have joined the Standing Rock Sioux, marking an unprecedented tribal unification. However, the protesters are not only of Native American origin. The protest has drawn thousands of supporters to the campsite, expressing their belief in the importance of both environmental protection, and recognizing Native American identity and rights. Environmental groups have become vocal supporters of the cause, including the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Interior. Groups advocating for a national transition to clean energy have joined the cause, emphasizing the harmful amount of fossil fuel and carbon emission that the pipeline will produce.

On December 5, the Obama Administration halted the pipeline construction, ordering the USACE to explore alternative routes for the pipeline that will not interfere with the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply and Reservation. However, as of January 24th, the Trump Administration has issued an executive order to resume construction “with caution.”

Proponents of the pipeline argue that the pipeline will significantly aid the presently suffering American economy; it will create thousands of new jobs, and support industries that produce the materials required for construction. Pipeline proponents have stressed the importance of oil independence for the country. The Council on Foreign Relations holds the position that U.S. oil independence is imperative for economic stability. Oil imports account for nearly two-thirds of the annual trade deficit. The Dakota Access Pipeline can increase oil production, and lead to less oil imports, potentially saving billions of dollars.

In light of Trump’s past investments in Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas company building the pipeline, and his economic promises, his order was not unexpected. Yet, it was still received as a blow to protesters who have spent months fighting the project.

For months, people have been protesting against the pipeline. Native American tribes, Americans of all backgrounds, and people from across the globe have joined the Standing Rock Sioux in its cause. These people have left the routine and comfort of their daily lives to protest through rain, snow, and even rising police aggression. Protesters have been arrested for “rioting” and “trespassing.” They have also been the targets of police aggression through as the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and freezing water hoses in the fierce cold of the winter.

These protesters are fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Yet the passion and power of the protest reveals that the deep opposition to the project is about more than only the pipeline. It is about centuries of the U.S. government turning a blind eye to the plight of the Native Americans who have protected this land even before the founding of America. It is about the endless contempt and disregard they are treated with, and the refusal to hear or find any wisdom in their voices. The degree of support for the protest signifies that Americans are beginning to listen; they are beginning to hear the voice and values that the tribes stand for. The thousands of protesters flocking to join the Standing Rock Sioux demonstrate that Native Americans are no longer the only water protectors of this land.

Yet, proponents of the pipeline are not necessarily callous toward environmental concerns. In fact, according to the Dakota Access Pipeline website, the pipeline is the “safest and most environmentally sensitive way to transport crude oil from domestic wells to American consumers.” The site predicts that the pipeline will eliminate the 740 rail cars and 250 trucks needed to transport crude oil daily. According to reports, this will reduce transportation costs as well as produce a lower carbon footprint.

However, these promises do not comfort the Standing Rock Sioux who recall multiple oil pipeline spills in the past decade, and the most recent one this December. Additionally, these possible environmental benefits fail to address the destruction of sacred tribal sites. Despite the latest executive order, the Standing Rock Sioux have not given up. Along with ongoing protest, Standing Rock Chairman, Dave Archambault II has written a letter addressing the President, requesting to discuss the pipeline together.

“We are not opposed to energy independence,” he explained. “We are opposed to reckless and politically motivated projects like DAPL, that ignore our treaty rights and risk our water.”