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In rural North Dakota, Native American groups have gathered from across the nation to stand united with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The group is gaining momentum in their protests to try and block the construction of an oil pipeline near their tribal land. They want to draw attention to the detrimental impact the pipeline will have on the water and sacred burial lands. These areas used to officially be a part of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The pipeline is still planned within half a mile of the reservation. The Native Americans have argued that the construction was rushed through before they could be consulted about the possible environmental impact of the pipeline.
Originally, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River, near Bismark, the capital of North Dakota. However, this plan was scrapped after local authorities expressed concern that an oil spill would have disastrous consequences for the drinking water of residents there. So,the crossing of the river was moved to its present location, near Standing Rock. The land belonged to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as recently as 1958, although the land was taken away from them in a still contentious action. One of the concerns of the Sioux tribe is that the construction would dig up many of their sacred burial grounds.
Historically, this is not the first time that the issue of construction on Native American land, particularly Sioux land along the Missouri River, has generated controversy. The Great Sioux Reservation was originally formed in the 1860s, although it has consistently continued to diminish in size ever since. During the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built numerous dams along the Missouri River, leaving Native American villages with no choice but to relocate. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land, belonging to the Standing Rock Reservation, were submerged under water, where they remain today. In 1980, a federal court spoke of the history of taking land away from the Sioux tribe and suggested that it was one of the most despicable chapters in American history, one filled with “dishonorable dealings.” The court went so far as to suggest that anything worse “will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
Construction was approved by the government, especially by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it was even sped along with something known as Permit 12, which greatly accelerated the construction process. In part, that is why the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline has not received nearly the level of attention as the more well known, Keystone XL Pipeline. Although, the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has clearly started to change that.
The Standing Rock protests have been gaining momentum across the nation, generated headlines, and increased publicity in much of the rest of the world. They have powerful detractors. North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness, suggested that the protest was actually an attempt by environmental activists to systematically shut down all pipeline projects. He suggested that they had been responsible for the halting of the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as the Sandpiper line from North Dakota into Minnesota. Both were bogged down by complications in the permit process.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for building the $3.7 billion oil pipeline, has no intentions to halt or delay their work. It has already completed construction on half the pipeline. When finished, the proposed pipeline will run from the northernmost part of North Dakota, near the Canadian border, all the way to Patoka, in southern Illinois. In a statement, Energy Transfer Partners argued that the building of this pipeline had gone through only after all of the necessary permits on the local, state, and federal levels had been cleared. However, the company brought in security dogs, and an incident ensued where protesters were attacked by the dogs. The protesters have insisted that they have remained completely peaceful, although Energy Transfer Partners blamed them for the incident, claiming the dogs were attacked first. The scene only added more publicity to the dissent. Some comparisons have been made to the infamous episode of dogs attacking peaceful civil rights demonstrators, in Alabama, during the 1960s. In a memo to employees, Energy Transfer Partners CEO, Kelcy Warren, suggested the worries about the pipeline polluting and even poisoning local water near Standing Rock are baseless.
The company started the construction process with bulldozers over the Labor Day weekend. This was despite the Sioux tribe filing an emergency petition with the court citing the historical and cultural significance of the sacred burial grounds on this land. A federal judge was scheduled to rule on this matter a few days later. However, construction was suspended on the order of the government, as the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the Army all got involved and blocked further construction. This was hailed as a huge victory for the Native American protesters, who called this a “game changer.” The issue is far from being settled.
Standing Rock Tribal Chair Dave Archambault, applauded the federal government for stepping in and at least temporarily halting construction. He argued that the Sioux tribe relies on the public water from nearby Lake Oahe, and that these waters also hold historical and religious significance to the people. He and other demonstrators are proud of this protest and stress the importance of peaceful demonstrations, come what may. They also proudly point out that it is the largest assembly of various Native American tribes since the Battle of Little Big Horn and Custer’s Last Stand. They are hoping that this protest protects environmental standards in the region and nationally. They are hoping to halt the project and allow them to continue a more traditional way of life, and enable future generations to hold on to their cultural heritage. In a court statement, the Native American groups argued that “the cultural and religious significance of these waters cannot be overstated.”
Demonstrations have continued to spread. Perhaps the most significant sign that protests are gaining momentum is that there were members of Native American tribes, from all across the nation, came to Standing Rock to join in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. There have been groups from as far away as New York, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, California, and even Alaska. They have been joined by environmental activists and protesters, standing in unison during the demonstrations against the pipeline.
Commentary by Charles Bordeau
Edited by Jeanette Smith
The San Diego Union-Tribune: Local native groups, climate activists back North Dakota pipeline opposition
Minnesota Public Radio: At Standing Rock, protest camp becomes a movement
The New Yorker: A Pipeline Fight and America’s Dark Past
ABC News: Government Steps In After Judge Denies Tribe’s Request to Stop Pipeline
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