A banner reading “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” proudly flies over the heads of 2,100 U.S. military veterans as they march to the Northern Plains. Robin Gage is one of them. She is a former member of the California National Guard whose grandmother was a part of the Choctaw Nation. “Here’s my chance to use my energy as a vet and as a Native American,” she said to Sandy Tolan of the Los Angeles Times. She and her group will join the more than 5,000 “water protectors” at the Seven Council Fires Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
For the past year, the water protectors have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, an Energy Transfer Partners project that was first introduced in December 2014. This $3.78 billion pipeline is set to span 1,172 miles, crossing North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. It will be able to transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil every day.
This project would ideally make America more energy independent, keeping the oil market within its borders, and is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has concluded that pipelines are the safest method of transporting oil. Proponents of the pipeline are also hopeful that this will stop the flow of money into countries such as Saudi Arabia, a country known for funding terrorism and backing oppressive regimes. However, only 12 percent of our oil comes from this region, the bulk of it coming from the U.S. and Canada.
Supporters of the pipeline are also hopeful in the prospect of creating new jobs. Energy Transfer Partners states on its website that the pipeline “will create 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs during construction” and “will generate an estimated $55 million annually in property taxes.” But compare this to the $1.25 billion spent to clean up the BP oil spill or the 20,000 Sioux already living and working on the land. These benefits are not enough to justify police brutality, a blatant disregard for Native American rights, and the possibility of environmental pollution.
The media has represented the unarmed protesters as violent, with headlines from right-wing news sources such as The New American reading, “Greenies, Lefties Protest Dakota Access Pipeline With Violence.” The Chamber of Commerce dubbed the Standing Rock tribe as the “anti-energy protestors.”
An example of a peaceful protest that was labeled as aggressive occurred on the evening of November 20, when around 400 people gathered on Highway 1806, north of Standing Rock. The protectors were moving trucks in order to block the highway and the flow of supplies to the camp so that construction would be delayed.
The police came armed with tear gas, mace, guns with rubber bullets, attack dogs, and water cannons. The police used water to stop the protesters in below freezing temperatures. The New York Times reports that after hours of hosing down the crowd, 167 injuries, including head trauma and hypothermia, had to be treated.
Trespassing on private property is a crime, and the police have every right to enforce the law. However, when the police hose down a group of peaceful protestors in subfreezing temperatures and the right-wing media reports it as rioters getting punished for violence, law enforcement crosses the line. These armed policemen are not fighting an immediate threat, yet their use of tear gas against children and the elderly suggest they’re treating a peaceful protest like a war zone. But the issue is more complex than one legal infraction.
Completing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be sacrilegious and detrimental to Native American culture. The pipeline runs under burial grounds, which are sacred sites where the Sioux recite protection prayers over the burial places of relatives. These prayers are believed to facilitate the walk to the spirit world. Faith Spotted Eagle, 68, lives on the Yankton Sioux Reservation of South Dakota. When told that the pipeline didn’t cross any burial grounds, she said, “Archaeologists come in who are taught from a colonial structure, and they have the audacity to interpret how our people were buried. How would they even know?”
Government officials who have no background with the Sioux have no authority over their culture and should not get to choose what is sacred to the Sioux and what is not. After all, like Spotted Eagle says, “What if the Great Sioux Nation decided to build a project through Arlington Cemetery? The point would be taken that you don’t disturb people that have been put to rest.”
Politicians have made it clear that the U.S. isn’t proud of its treatment towards indigenous peoples, including putting them on reservations in the first place. Obama signed a Native American apology resolution as recently as 2010. But for it to now take away the 38 miles of territory that legally belong to the Sioux demonstrates a blatant disregard for Native American rights. Perhaps not taking advantage of indigenous peoples for once would be a way for the government to symbolically right past wrongs.
The Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Sioux possession of the land that the Dakota Access Pipeline is set to cross in 1868. 11 years later, the U.S. government threatened the Sioux with starvation in order to regain the Black Hills of South Dakota, where gold was mined. The Sioux were forced to give up this land even though they considered it sacrilegious. When the Supreme Court ruled that the territory did not legally belong to the government in 1980, the Sioux were supposed to be compensated. However, the Sioux did not and still have not taken that money because they want official ownership of the land, not small monetary compensation. Now, the government may ally with Energy Transfer Partners in order to once again milk the Sioux’s remaining territory of its natural resources, with no regard to the people that live there.
The federal government must also consider the effect that this pipeline will have on the environment. The Army Corps of Engineers permitted construction of the pipeline using a process called “Nationwide Permit 12,” which ultimately allowed the Corps to fast-track approving the project. However, using this process undermined federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
These laws exist for a reason. The planned trajectory of the pipeline cuts through wildlife habitats and the Missouri River. A spill or contamination would threaten the quality of drinking water and compromise the life of all organisms living in the river. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that the Belle Fourche Pipeline, only 150 miles from the Standing Rock Camp, leaked 176,000 gallons of oil into the Ash Coulee Creek. This creek eventually leads to the Missouri River.
President Obama rejected the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, which would have spanned the land between Canada and Texas and transported 800,000 barrels of oil a day. To justify his decision, he said, “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.” While construction and maintenance of the pipeline would have created jobs, the potential effect on the environment and its contribution to climate change should be a larger concern.
On the other hand, President-elect Trump has recently made a public statement that he “intends to cut the bureaucratic red tape put in place by the Obama administration that has prevented our country from diversifying our energy portfolio.” The issue here is that he sees preventing the construction of a 1000-mile oil pipeline that directly threatens the Sioux and everyone else that depends on the Missouri River for water as a step back in terms of environmental technology.
Trump had invested anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million worth of shares in Energy Transfer Partners as of May 2015. However, according to him, his support for the divisive pipeline “has nothing to do with personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans.” Clearly, Trump does not consider the Sioux a part of “all Americans.”
Ultimately, it seems as though the government must choose between an economic gain and the welfare of all of its citizens. The Army Corps of Engineers recently halted construction in order to “explore other routes” as requested by the Obama administration. However, whatever their findings, the Trump administration can still push for the original plans once Trump is inaugurated, making this a temporary victory.
It was only in 2010 when the country officially gave an apology to all of its Native Americans citizens in a resolution passed by Congress. The Defense Appropriations Act also promises to work towards a “brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together.”
This time, let’s keep our promises.