The Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would carry over 450,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois, is regarded in three ways. The company backing the pipeline, and its supporters, view it as a powerful tool that will ultimately make them more money through the efficient transportation of oil. Many Indigenous people, and their supporters, believe it is a cultural and environmental danger that will have a negative impact on themselves and others. Those who do not stand to benefit from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or are unaware of how it will affect them, may find themselves apathetic or in disbelief of the commotion. It is important to note that while this controversy began with the Standing Rock Sioux deciding to make a stand against the pipeline, they are just the beginning. While classified primarily as an Indigenous concern, the Dakota Access Pipeline represents a cultural, environmental, and civic risk to many Americans; therefore, opposition to its construction should not be limited to indigenous people alone. Much can be learned from the culture and history of those leading the way.
As the sun rises, a warm breeze sweeps through golden grasses on a vast prairie where tipis speckle the land overlooking a quiet river. With the dawning of a new day the village comes alive with the sounds of horses as they graze, children’s laughter, and the prayers of elders. To the ancestors of indigenous people living in present day North and South Dakota, this could have been the beginning of any day. Local indigenous tribes were once the stewards of hundreds of thousands of acres in the Dakotas alone. They were born, lived, and died on the land that now houses the bones of their ancestors. The creation of reservations led to the people being forced into increasingly smaller boundaries, while the United States government claimed “the area west of the Missouri River and east of the Rockies reserved for the “absolute and undisturbed use' of the Sioux," which assured they would retain rights to their ancestral lands (Treaty of Fort Laramie). In less than 10 short years, that too would change. “The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was originally established as part of the Great Sioux Reservation under Article 2 of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of April 29, 1868. In 1877, the U.S. government initiated the still ongoing process of chipping away and dividing the land it had granted to the people of the Lakota and Dakota nations, with significant reductions taking place in 1889 and then again during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers built five large dams along the Missouri River, uprooting villages and sinking 200,000 acres of land below water.” The Sioux have continually survived many hardships and retain strong cultural beliefs. They have maintained a strong relationship to the land to this day. It is for this reason many Sioux are so strongly affected by the construction of the pipeline and continually request their treaty rights be upheld.
While the indigenous people relocated, settlers undertook painstaking trips from east to west via wagon. They faced unimaginable hardships and many perished. Some of their descendants now inhabit land where the Sioux once lived and have carried on several generations of farming and ranching. The settlers also feel a connection to the land which is responsible for their livelihood. These families have formed their own unique cultural beliefs and heritage, which may explain why some have treated the pipelines approach so differently. "Some farmers and ranchers have welcomed the pipeline, signing agreements to allow it to cross their land in exchange for large sums of money, but others oppose it." It may also explain why a cultural divide and tension exists in areas such as North and South Dakota during a time where one side believes that progress means big oil, and on the other side believes that big oil means negative environmental impact.
How common are oil spills; do they really impact the environment? For those who have yet to be affected by crude oil spills, it’s difficult to understand why some farmers and indigenous people are so worried about the increase in oil pipelines, especially in North Dakota. The truth is, landowners struggle with spills from oil pipelines on a regular basis, and clean up can take several years. As summarized in a report from the Associated Press, “North Dakota had nearly 300 oil pipeline spills in less than two years, which were just a fraction of approximately 750 oil field incidents that took place in the state without the public’s knowledge.” The frequency of these spills threatens the livelihoods of local farmers and is detrimental to the environment. If that isn’t bad enough, the secrecy surrounding these spills has only caused distrust from many indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.
For farmers, whose livelihood depends on the land they farm, even small spills can be a big concern. Can you imagine farming land as far as the eye can see, and waking up one day to find an area saturated in oil. You can locate a pipeline rupture by smell. For Steve and Patty Jensen, who farm 1,800 acres of wheat, this became a reality in 2013 when an underground pipeline spilled over 20,000 barrels of oil into their field. “This was the largest spill to occur on U.S. soil; yet, two weeks passed before the public was notified. Companies are only obligated to notify the health department, and the state does not have to release that information to the public.” Several years have now passed and cleanup continues. Mrs. Jensen said, “They are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But it’s so big and it’s not as easy to clean up as they thought it would be.” The Jensen’s story provides only one snapshot into the lives of Americans whose lives were changed by oil spills, but agricultural damage is only a small part of a bigger concern. Oil spills continue to cause damage regardless to being overlooked or ignored, which is why raising national awareness is important.
Oil spills can cause immediate and long-term harm to the environment, wildlife, and humans. While supporters might claim transporting the oil via pipeline will protect the environment rather than destroy it; the fact is that road, rail, and cargo ship will continue to be used for its transport regardless of pipeline installation. Oil spills are a verifiable fact that is part of an endless cycle. What’s more concerning is that pipeline spills will be larger than road or rail by the time they are contained, if they can be contained at all. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states in Effects of Oil on Wildlife and Habitat that “Oil causes harm to wildlife through physical contact, ingestion, inhalation, and absorption. It has the potential to persist in the environment long after a spill event and has been detected in sediment 30 years after a spill.” When oil finds its way into our waterways entire ecosystems can be destroyed, and water sources for hundreds of people may be at risk. Because oil is toxic, some oil spills have already resulted in disabilities and loss of human life.
How can oil be responsible for human casualties? Oil production, spills, and dispersant chemicals are hazardous to human health; and can result in death. While oil occurs naturally, there is nothing in nature that would disrupt it the way humans do. A member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, in response to the Keystone XL Pipeline that preceded the Dakota Access Pipeline, shared, “As First Nations people, we abide by natural law, and there is nothing natural about a people dying from cancer and suffering from respiratory illnesses caused by tar sands [oil] production.” This may sound like a hasty prediction, but history reveals the truth. After an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; over 300 people, including both cleanup crews and nearby residents, reported spill related symptoms. These symptoms included blood in urine, heart palpitations, kidney damage, liver damage, migraines, multiple chemical sensitivity, neurological damage, memory loss, rapid weight loss, respiratory system damage, skin lesions, muscle spasms, seizures, and temporary paralysis. The chemicals used to disperse the oil only made matters worse. “Per Dr. Susan Shaw, no safe level of exposure to the carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals in oil exists. Both oil and dispersants damage the same organ systems in the body's nervous system, respiratory system and immune system.” The result was that people hired to clean up Gulf of Mexico beaches and marshes during the oil spill have significantly altered blood profiles that, just as Shaw and other toxicologists warned, put them at increased risk of developing liver cancer, leukemia and other disorders leading to untimely deaths. These short and long term health effects are only a few examples of how oil production and spills can affect the human population. Additional reports of mental illness, suicide, and deaths during explosions have also been recorded.
The Sioux’s cultural beliefs and connection to the land allow them to readily notice these dangers. Many are concerned for the future of the land and continued availability of clean drinking water. If history is any indication, the evidence suggests they have every reason to be concerned. “The Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis clearly shows pipelines in North Dakota reported crude oil spills at least 60 times between 1996-2016 which, when added to another 25 hazardous liquid spills, is an average of four spills per year in North Dakota alone.” This may seem like a small number to some, but it only takes one leak to easily contaminate the drinking water for the entire reservation and have a negative impact on others down-stream. The Standing Rock Sioux are not the first to have concerns for drinking water contamination in the area, but they were the first to make a stand in the best interest of the people and the earth.
When the Dakota Access Pipeline Project began, its original route placed the river crossing north of Bismarck, North Dakota. Objections from concerned citizens who worried it may contaminate their water supply caused the original proposal to be rejected, so planners relocated the river crossing to an area north of the Standing Rock Reservation. The Sioux’s concern for clean drinking water, and potential destruction of their ancestral land, quickly became some of the driving force behind the protests that followed. It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why the Sioux wish to be granted the same consideration as those living in Bismarck. Instead, they have been met with escalating force even amid peaceful prayers. The Dakota Access Pipeline infringes on the rights of indigenous people and their allies, including the right to non-violent direct action. The most obvious violations began with the Standing Rock Sioux. Camps of protestors, referred to as Water Protectors, quickly grew in number to include members from over 200 tribes as well as non-indigenous people from around the world. Militarized police forces from several states, including Indiana and Wisconsin then traveled to North Dakota to control the crowds. The intentional change to the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline led many to wonder if discrimination may have been a factor, but the use of what many are calling excessive force by authorities and security personnel has been used on both indigenous protestors and allies alike.
The amount of force being used to subdue unarmed protestors including men, women, children, and elders is difficult to describe as anything else but violent. One of the first events in a string of illegal activity involved Dakota Access Pipeline security guards using strike dogs on protestors. Their lack of experience was visible in video footage shared by “Democracy Now’s” reporter Amy Goodman; and several others via social media following the incident. Dakota Access Pipeline security clearly allowed the dogs to attack indiscriminately, before losing control, which resulted in the dogs turning on each other and their handlers. Protestors bitten by the dogs included a pregnant woman, child, and those retreating. Dakota Access Pipeline security was later found to be operating outside a legal capacity. Morton County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Gruebele wrote, “Through this investigation it has been proven that the dog handlers were not properly licensed to do security work in the State of North Dakota.” This means that not only should they not have been using strike dogs, they were not legally authorized to do security for Dakota Access Pipeline in the first place.
Following the K9 attacks, hundreds of people from various age groups continued to endure questionable treatment. Social media was quickly flooded with personal reports from those who were being tackled, beaten, hooded, Maced, gassed, shot by less lethal projectiles, strip-searched, zip-tied, caged, numbered like cattle, subjected to sound cannons, injured by concussion grenades, and blasted with water cannons in well below freezing weather with no way to rewarm themselves. The new images and video of these confrontations that followed elaborate on actions one might expect to see from our country’s darker past, or of countries at war. These displays of excessive force have no place being used against unarmed men, women, children, and elders. Floris White Bull described her arrest as “traumatic” as she recounted how indigenous elders were violently arrested. Once she could gain some composure she added, "We were caged in dog kennels, sat on the floor, and we were marked with numbers. I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that this was something happening today instead of something we're reading about in history books."
The incident White Bull described was followed by a frigid confrontation with law enforcement where tear gas, projectiles, and water cannons were used on the unarmed protestors after they tried to move burned out vehicles from the road to allow emergency services through. The use of water cannons in such conditions posed a very real possibility for loss of life. Linda Black Elk, a member of the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, described the scene: “People were walking through the dark of a North Dakota winter night, some of them so cold, and sprayed with water for so long, that their clothes were frozen to their body and crunching as they walked. So you could hear this crunching sound and this pop-pop-pop.” Another medic added, “They were just hosing people down with their water cannon that continued for the entirety of the four hours I was out there watching.” Officials first stated the cannons were being used to keep people safe by dousing fires, but this was later disproven with the small fires having been used as a lifesaving attempt to warm those who were soaked and in danger of freezing. The medic and Healer Council later reported that other injuries included an elder that went into cardiac arrest; internal bleeding, seizure, head, and an eye injury from fist sized rubber bullets; and a severe injury to a young woman’s arm caused by a concussion grenade. The young woman’s father said “All of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away and she will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand.” Police claimed no concussion grenades were used and tried to blame the incident on protestors despite many eye witness testimonies; but fragments from the grenade that were removed from her arm by surgeons will not be so easily disputed according to her father. With North Dakota protest sites being made to resemble war zones by military and police presence; the Dakota Access Pipeline seems to be progressing by what seems like any means necessary.
Many wonder why the men and women sworn to protect the people – whose tax dollars pay their salaries – are protecting the oil companies instead since pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline threaten our environment and the world our children will inhabit when we are gone. The actions of Dakota Access Pipeline employees and various law enforcement agencies continue to be investigated for excessive force. What can anyone do to stop it? It’s all about politics, money, and big corporations that can and will get their way, right? That’s not true. There is an amazing strength in unity that can only be achieved by setting aside any difference and working together. While there is currently not as much call for those willing to travel to North Dakota, unless fully prepared to safely live in subfreezing temperatures at a primitive campsite, there are many things supporters can do locally to raise awareness and support the cause. Some of these include organizing or attending local protests, being mindful of how one personally uses fossil fuels and look for alternatives, signing online petitions, calling the White House, contacting local politicians, closing accounts at banks responsible for funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, and participating in collecting items for the supply runs. An urgent call to action also exists to help other indigenous communities around the U.S. who are struggling with similar battles. Everyone has their work cut out for them, but spirits continue to be high. As Clark, a veteran of the armed forces, stated: “The problem is all over the county. People have been treated wrong in this county for a long time.” Veterans who were at Standing Rock are leading by example as they head to Flint, Michigan to continue their protests. These pipelines are being fought in many places, with new proposals made on a regular basis. As updates come and go it is important to remember this is only the beginning. These protests remain as necessary as ever. Will you stand with us?
Kay Isaac is enrolled with the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama, a member of the Indiana Indian Movement, and a full-time student. She lives in Southern Indiana with her 3-year-old son, two service dogs, rabbits, and chickens. Topics she writes about include indigenous rights, the environment, cultural activities, subsistence living, education, public service, storytelling, veterans, and two spirit equality.