Analysis Environment

Why We Must Not Forget Standing Rock

Dr. Elizabeth Ellis

The government shouldn't help businesses trample our rights and vulnerable communities.

In recent weeks, media outlets have reported that the company behind the controversial Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) is responsible for massive spills of drilling chemicals in Ohio wetlands during construction of a different pipeline—this one carrying natural gas instead of oil.

This news reminds us that we must not forget Standing Rock and what the company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), is doing on the Great Plains and beyond. As federal courts have repeatedly rejected the Standing Rock Sioux’s legal claims and the water protectors have faded from the headlines, many who watched the conflict playing out have asked: Now what? Given that it looks like the pipeline will be completed, does the fight at Standing Rock still matter?

The answer is yes. It matters because the DAPL fight is the latest episode in a long line of U.S. state-sanctioned violence against Native Americans—including destruction of sacred sites—and environmental racism that amounts to illegal land grabs and use. But this struggle is also about corporate law-bending that prioritizes profit over the environment and vulnerable people, and our federal government’s collusion in this project. That collaborative exploitation needs to concern everyone who worries about how Big Business can undermine our rights, safety, and democracy.

The DAPL story begins well before the pipeline. ETP has unquestionably violated centuries-old treaties that the Sioux Nation signed with the federal government. The contested section of the pipeline, which runs just outside of Standing Rock Reservation and under the tribe’s primary source of drinking water, falls on land that the United States guaranteed to the Sioux Nation in perpetuity by treaty in 1851. Even after the United States broke this first treaty and renegotiated territorial claims with the Sioux in 1868, the subsequent Fort Laramie treaty continued to recognize the territory in question as part of “unceded Indian territory.” If that weren’t enough, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that Native nations retain water rights on their territories.

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In theory, this decision from the nation’s highest court and the trail of treaties should have protected the Standing Rock Sioux from this construction. But here the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) failed. To legally approve this construction, the federal government and ACOE needed to consult with and obtain consent from the Standing Rock to build the pipeline, but again they did not do so. This represented a failure to comply with both federal policy and international accords: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulates that “states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

The Army Corps of Engineers also enabled ETP’s evasion of environmental regulations designed to protect public lands. As ETP sought permission from the government to construct this pipeline across federally controlled lands and under more than 200 rivers and streams, it applied to the ACOE for hundreds of “Nationwide 12” permits, which were granted. These permits are designed for small, discrete projects that cross no more than one stream and have no substantial environmental impact. But oil companies increasingly rely on this segmented permitting process to fast-track the approval of construction projects because, in using permits that treat larger projects as if they were much smaller ones, corporations can avoid extended environmental review and periods of public comment.

While the ACOE helped ETP circumvent a full environmental review, President Donald Trump’s January executive order expediting the pipeline negated the Obama administration’s mandate for a complete environmental impact assessment and stifled the period of public comment. As with so many of the flurry of orders the president has signed, the administration did not follow customary procedure, and it waived the typical 14-day waiting period after congressional notification.

The end result: Construction crews quickly returned to drilling under the contested territory. This decision is further troubling because, until December 2016, President Trump had substantial investments in ETP, and its CEO, Kelcy Warren, donated more than $100,000 to the joint Trump and Republican election campaigns in the 2016 cycle.

What’s Next? 

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is running out of legal options. Yet they have vowed to fight on.

The bigger question is: What are non-Native U.S. residents as a whole going to do about a government that responds to peaceful dissent with militarized violence, on a project that has vast environmental and political consequences for us all? The construction of DAPL threatens Native people by undermining tribal sovereignty, and it sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a private oil corporation to bypass federal regulations and conduct a state-sponsored assault on some of this country’s most vulnerable communities. Therefore, as the Standing Rock Sioux call on the federal government to honor the treaties, let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are protecting not only the drinking water of 18 million people, but also our rights to live in a country that actually respects and follows its own laws.

For as dark as our current moment looks, we must remember that the Standing Rock Sioux and Native nations across the country are only here fighting today because their ancestors continued to fight centuries of “unwinnable” battles against the state.  The Standing Rock Sioux are the descendants of Crazy Horse, of Sitting Bull, of Red Cloud, of the Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means, and of the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) men and women who took on the federal government at Wounded Knee in 1973. We remember the AIM stand at Wounded Knee as a turning point for Native rights and Indigenous revitalization.

We are in a corollary moment now, but with a much larger and more diverse movement comprised of 360 allied Indigenous nations and hundreds of thousands of non-Native allies.

And there is much to be done. Anti-DAPL activists have called on the public to support local Native nations and to advocate for green energy and renewable resources in their own communities and campaigns. Activists continue to fight DAPL by pushing to defund the corporations backing the pipeline, and urging state and municipal governments to remove their funds from the banks that are financing this project. In cities like Philadelphia, efforts to defund the DAPL overlap with community initiatives to stop Wells Fargo from preying on vulnerable citizens and charging millions in fees from the city’s public school funds.

We can also see the force of this beautifully intersectional movement in Native people’s responses to Trump’s immigration ban and the creation of the #NoBanOnStolenLand movement. Native nations like the Navajo have long fought state attempts to exert control over immigration on their territories. More recently, a Tohono O’odham chairman vowed that “only over my dead body” would Trump build his border wall through that Indian nation’s lands.

Yes, there is oil in the Standing Rock Sioux’s territory and little legal recourse left to challenge the pipeline. But there is also a fire burning in the heart of Indian country, and it has ignited a generation of activists and forged broad solidarity unlike any we have ever seen. The Standing Rock movement gained traction because this struggle encompasses issues that affect communities across the nation, whether those issues are environmental, community health, gender-based violence, racism, or corporate exploitation.

Therefore we must continue to support this movement, fight regulatory capture, and learn from the resilience of Native nations across the country. We know these amazing people will never give up or stop fighting to protect their nations, their children, and their beloved homelands. Not only for their sake, but for the sake of our democracy, we must continue to stand with and beyond Standing Rock.

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