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First proposed in 2014, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will link the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. It will transport approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois per day, making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil and stimulating local economies. However, part of the pipeline’s proposed route crosses under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, just half a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Map showing the pipeline’s proposed route through North Dakota. The red square shows where it would cross the Missouri near the reservation. Credit: Vox.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1977 requires that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve the construction of anything that may contaminate any of the nation’s water. However, under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), before approving undertakings on federal property, the Corps is also required to “consult with any Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization that attaches religious and cultural significance to [the] property [in question].” Consultation involves allowing tribes to advise on identifying and evaluating historic properties, express their concerns about the undertaking’s effects on these properties, and participate in creating resolutions for any negative effects on the properties.

Originally, the pipeline’s route crossed the Missouri ten miles north of Bismarck, but the Corps rejected that plan, citing threats to water supplies among other reasons. When the route was changed to half a mile away from the Standing Rock Reservation, no such concerns were raised.

Protestors hung banners and graffitied Dakota Access machinery. Credit: Washington Post.

In July, the Standing Rock Sioux issued a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for failing to properly consult with the tribe before issuing permits for the current DAPL route, thus violating both the CWA and the NHPA. The tribe also accused the Corps of violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to release assessments of the effects any federal undertakings on the environment. In the lawsuit, the tribe requested an injunction preventing construction of the pipeline under current permits.

The Corps’ failure to comply with federal policy is not the first time that the American government or American corporations have infringed upon the rights and land of the Sioux. Rather, the Sioux Reservation is a site with a long history of exploitation of Native peoples.

Protestors march towards the pipeline’s construction site. Credit: Sacred Stone Camp Facebook.

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is home to people from the Dakota and Lakota nations, often referred to as the “Sioux, ”the name that French traders gave to them. Originally, Standing Rock was a part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which was established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The treaty acknowledged the sovereignty of the Sioux tribes and allotted roughly all of present day South Dakota west of the Missouri River for the reservation (meaning tribes had exclusive rights to this land), with rights to hunting grounds that extended further.

The land included the Black Hills, one of the most sacred sites in Sioux culture. The green, rocky hills, rising out of the barren landscape of the surrounding Badlands, are the spiritual center for the several different tribes that constitute the Sioux Nation.

However, the Black Hills are also rich with natural resources, including gold. In 1874, the U.S. Army sent the 7th Cavalry, led by General Custer, into the Black Hills to investigate rumors of gold. The expedition’s discovery of gold confirmed the rumors, and the Black Hills Gold Rush began. White settlers flooded into the reservation, exploiting the sacred land which just six years earlier the federal government promised exclusively to the Sioux.

In 1876 the Black Hills were removed entirely from the Great Sioux Reservation. Not only was this illegal, as the government had done so without the approval of at least three quarters of adult Sioux males (this policy was outlined in the Fort Laramie Treaty), but it showed the blatant disregard of both the U.S. government and the white population for Native cultural sites. Today, the Black Hills remain outside of the reservation, home to various state and federal parks, including the national monument of Mount Rushmore; they generate about $2 billion per year for the state of South Dakota.

Mount Rushmore, carved in 1927, is widely criticized for honoring the government that stole land from the Sioux, on a sacred Sioux site. Credit: National Park Service.

The 1889 Sioux Act further shrunk the Great Sioux Reservation by dividing it up into six smaller ones, one of which is Standing Rock, the site of current contention. While the Sioux Act was technically legal, the majority of Sioux only agreed to it because of intimidation by the U.S. government. This coercion was largely a result of mounting pressure by white settlers to expand the territories of North and South Dakota as they approached statehood. After the required number of Sioux males signed the act, the Sioux Nation lost nine million acres of land, all of which the government opened to non-Indian settlement.

Map showing the original Great Sioux Reservation and how the land that was lost. Credit: Wikipedia.

The short span of time in which the U.S. government forced Sioux tribes on to smaller and smaller reservations was a particularly violent time in the history of federal-Native relations. Across the Western frontier, white settlers and the military engaged in frequent conflict with Native American populations. Known as the Plains Wars, between the early 1850s and late 1870s, the U.S. government sanctioned the deliberate, violent removal of tribes from their homelands in the name of manifest destiny.

The Plains Wars is just one piece of a pattern of subjugation and extermination of indigenous populations by European settlers. On the San Francisco Peninsula, Spanish missionaries forced local Ohlone tribes into Missions Dolores and Santa Clara, where disease and other factors related to colonization essentially wiped them all out. On the Stanford campus, a sign honors the Puichon people (the tribe of Ohlone that lived in present day Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View) who were here before us. The sign sits a few hundred feet away from Stanford’s new Central Energy Facility.

The sign reads: “This site was originally inhabited by the Puichon tribe of the Ohlone Indians. There were over 50 Ohlone tribes altogether, each inhabiting a specific part of the Bay Area. The watershed of San Francisquito Creek was the territory of the Puichon. Here in the West Campus area, the Puichon hunted tule elk, bear and deer, and collected several hundred species of useful plants. A typical Puichon village held about 200 people who were related to families in neighboring villages through trade and intermarriage. Fourteen village sites are located within a mile of West Campus; the oldest was inhabited more than 5,000 years ago. Today many Ohlone descendants continue to live in the Bay Area. University buildings in this area are named after the Puichon and other Ohlone tribes in recognition of Native Californian contributions to our history. The map shows the tribe and village locations of the Ohlone People.

For tribes that did not suffer such decimation to their population, the effects of the violent history of oppression are still keenly felt. Quality of life on tribal reservations is significantly lower than the rest of the nation; according to the National Congress of American Indians, Native Americans “experience higher disease rates, lower life expectancy rates, higher dropout rates, and higher poverty rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the country.” In tribal communities nationwide, over a third of housing is substandard; rates of substance abuse, depression, and domestic violence are higher; water infrastructure and delivery is underdeveloped and underfunded; and North American indigenous people are disproportionately susceptible to the effects of climate change.

On the Standing Rock website, tribal leadership states that “problems with water quality and inadequate supply are common throughout the reservation and have a detrimental effect on health and quality of life as well as deterring economic growth…Many residents currently depend on poorly constructed or low capacity individual wells or have water hauled to underground cisterns. These sources are often contaminated with bacteria or undesirable minerals, provide an inadequate quantity of water, and are costly to maintain and operate.”

The Missouri River is essentially the only reliable source of clean water for the Standing Rock Reservation. It also provides water for millions of other people, and irrigates thousands of acres of farms and ranches. If the DAPL were to break, the effects would be disastrous on community economy and health.

A young girl stands with other demonstrators outside the White House during a protest against the pipeline. Credit: The Guardian.

The DAPL is not only a threat to the native people’s water supply, but also to their culture. Water is an essential part of life for many indigenous cultures, including the Sioux. “The understanding is that water is the first life,” said Kandi Mossett, one of the leaders of the fight against the DAPL, in an interview with Fusion. “It’s our very essence. Our very being is made up of water.”

Mossett and women like her are at the forefront of the fight against the DAPL. In Sioux culture, women are the keepers of the water, so many feel personal responsibility to stand up to the pipeline. “I am not a protestor,” Mossett stated. “I am protecting the very essence of what I am made up of.”

One such Lakota woman shares why she feels the need to stand up against the pipeline, and why she brought her three year old son with her to witness it.

Strong hearts, strong prayers. Strong actions. Many people have asked me why I have come with my son on my back, especially with the false rumors in the press about violence. First, this has been the most peaceful and prayerful month of my life. Second, if we ever were to encounter any negativity or difficulty where I had any sense that we were not safe, I would not go. My mama intuition is like a jungle cat. And third, most importantly… I do this for my child’s future. I have been blessed to grow up in a world where I can swim in the river, eat fresh foods… And we are at a time where we must make change or our children won’t have what I had. So, when he looks up at me and asks me what did I do to protect his future, he will already know. Because I am doing this with prayer, and with my son on my back. #motherhood #frontlines #waterislife #mniwiconi #nodapl #peacefulwarriors this photo from a great article on the gathering of the nations in Indian Country Today Media Network. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/08/24/manning-so-many-ways-we-have-already-won-165567

A photo posted by Kelli Love (@kellilovemusic) on

The DAPL also threatens the Sioux culture that is tied to the land. On Friday, September 2, the Tribe proved in court that the site where the pipeline is to be constructed is sacred burial ground. A day later, bulldozers dug through the site, leveling the ground and destroying the rare graves.
Tim Mentz, the formal tribal historic preservation officer, said that these sites were located where tribal leadership would stand to fast and make pledges. “They put their mark on the ground through stones…they’re placed very specific to the contour of the land,” Mentz said of the location, which is slightly lower than surrounding area, allowing water to drain towards the site.“Every site that we have culturally is linked to water.”

People at a camp in Cannonball, ND, gather for a daily prayer ceremony. Credit: National Public Radio.

On September 9, a federal judge denied the tribe’s injunction request. However, the federal government quickly ordered a pause on construction, saying in a statement that “important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe…regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically…remain.” The statement also added that “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

David Archambault II, chairman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a press release that “[members of the tribe] will continue to explore every lawful option and fight against the construction of the pipeline.” He, like many others lobbying against the pipeline, emphasized that stopping the pipeline is not just for the people of Standing Rock. “As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie, we need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of the millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline,” he said in an opinion piece written for the New York Times.

Anishinabek Nation members arrive from Michigan. Hundreds of tribal flags line the entrance to the camp behind them. Credit: Alyssa Shukar for The New York Times.

Over 250 other tribes have arrived in North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, from places as distant as Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Ecuadorian Amazon. Some tribes arrived by canoe, traveling down the Missouri to join the growing camp of Standing Rock supporters. While not physically present, countless other groups and people around the world have shown their solidarity for Standing Rock. On the Internet, people use hashtags like #NoDAPL, #StandWithStandingRock, and #WaterisLife to express their solidarity.

Of the surge of support for the tribe, Archambault said, “We have seen the power of tribes coming together in unity and prayer and we will continue to pray for the protection of water, mother earth and her creation, as well as all past and future generations.” Indeed, the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux against the DAPL is greater than just one pipeline. It is a symbol of the struggle of indigenous people across the globe to fight histories of oppression and colonialism, and to preserve their culture, their land, and their water.

Art by Jesus Barraza. Bobbi Jean is a youth activist and has been at the forefront of the fight to defend her tribe’s water and land.

To show your support for #NoDAPL, sign this petition or donate to the Standing Rock DAPL fund.

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