Duke University welcomed Standing Rock Sioux tribal council members Chad Harrison and Cody Two Bears to campus last week to share their thoughts on the conflict surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline. Since April, the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of other Native Americans have been protesting the construction of the pipeline as an infringement of their rights, arguing that they were not properly consulted before construction of the pipeline began. The Standing Rock Sioux’s battle is only the latest in a long history of conflicts between the federal government and a Native American tribe, a trend that began before this nation’s founding.
Plans call for the Dakota Access pipeline to run oil 1,170 miles from North Dakota to a river port in Illinois. The point of contention arises where the pipeline nears the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Missouri River. The pipeline does not enter the Sioux territory, but it enters territory which was allocated to them by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 and has spiritual significance to the Tribe. In 1877, following the Great Sioux War, the U.S. government renegotiated the Treaty to exclude this land from tribe ownership, but the Sioux felt, and still feel today, that the terms of this renegotiation were unjust. The government threatened them with starvation if they did not accept the terms.
The Army Corps of Engineers determined the route for the pipeline to be acceptable and according to the Sioux, construction on the project began with no consultation between the government and the tribe until it was too late. Since 1992, Native groups have held the right to be consulted whenever a federal agency approves a construction project where sacred sites may exist, regardless of whether the sites are on reservation land. The Sioux assert the Corps ignored their right and argue that the permitting process for the pipeline was rushed, that the Tribe was not included in the historical surveying process, and that the Corps only came forward with areas of concern once the approval of the pipeline seemed inevitable.
The Sioux contend that consultation should include dialogue between tribal leaders and the U.S. government in order to reach a solution on areas of issue. Cody Two Bears, Sioux Tribe district representative, expressed frustration that, in his opinion, consultation for the Dakota Access Pipeline lacked appropriate opportunities for the tribe to respond.
While the Standing Rock Sioux direct their blame fully toward the federal government, they too may have played a role in fueling the current conflict. The Army Corps of Engineers documented dozens of attempts of reaching out to the Standing Rock Sioux from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2016. These attempts included maps documenting cultural sites and information about proposed routes, and while the Tribe was given thirty days to respond after each attempt, it never did. Only once the Corps approved preconstruction notifications on the pipeline did the Tribe file suit demanding for the permits to be withdrawn.
Tribes relate to the U.S. government on a nation-to-nation basis, so the lack of consultation between the two entities has become one of the Standing Rock Sioux’s main arguments against the pipeline. The pipeline’s route under the Missouri River constitutes another issue, drawing the ire of environmentalists that cite a significant risk for catastrophe if the pipeline were to leak (which, given the Colonial pipeline’s recent explosion, is a legitimate possibility). The Missouri River is the Standing Rock Sioux’s only source of water, and as the pipeline is to cross the river directly upstream from the Tribe, the potential exists for their water supply to be poisoned. Furthermore, both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require input from Native American Tribes in situations where their water is threatened. The Standing Rock Sioux argue they have not had the opportunity to provide such input, and that therefore, the pipeline violates both of these acts.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lost its suit in September, but the U.S. government immediately blocked construction on a 40-mile stretch of the pipeline surrounding the Missouri River, with the other 1,130 miles of the pipeline still under construction. Since the court decision and the government’s hiatus on construction, anti-pipeline protests that had begun five months earlier began to draw significant national attention. Since September, thousands of people have joined Native Americans in protesting the pipeline, flocking to Standing Rock to confront the possibility of construction.
Most of the protests have been peaceful and ceremonial, but as the numbers of people with differing interests have multiplied, the protests have turned increasingly violent. In one case, protestors charged a horse at a line of officers that was blocked only as a police car sped between the horse and the officers. In another case, protestors on a bridge set fire to an SUV, threw rocks and other debris at a row of armored vehicles, setting fire to them when police abandoned the trucks. Police have responded harshly to all protestors, making over 400 arrests and employing tear gas and rubber bullets liberally.
Most Native Americans, referring to themselves simply as water protectors, reject the violence by both protestors and police. They are not asking for conflict; they are seeking protection for their water supply and sacred sites. President Obama weighed in this week, revealing that the Army Corps of Engineers is examining alternate pipeline routes away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. All parties oppose the conflict that has consumed the area, and the Standing Rock Sioux and the government alike hope for a mutually agreed-upon solution.
As the Standing Rock Sioux make their stand, Native American nations across the country are watching the government’s response. Historic failures by the government to protect tribal nations have created deep-rooted hostility amongst many Native people. The Dakota Access pipeline conflict presents an opportunity for the government to more forward and strengthen relations with the Standing Rock Sioux, potentially setting a new precedent for cooperation and understanding.