The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock movement

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Photo by Kat Weaver. DU Stands with Standing Rock event, November 15, 2016

In a post-election climate when human rights, corporate greed and climate change are some of the biggest concerns Americans have, the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) falls no shorter than an environmental crisis.

In January 2015, Dakota Access LLC and Energy Transfer Partners received permit approval to start building a 0.76-m-diameter pipeline spanning 1,168 miles, intended to transport up to 570,000 barrels of domestically produced crude oil each day from areas in North Dakota to Illinois.


A huge controversy spans from the fact that the proposed route for the pipeline travels through burial grounds and holy lands of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation of Fort Yates, North Dakota. It also travels under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe which are major sources of clean drinking water for the tribe.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for evaluating and issuing permits for all water crossings. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed a lawsuit against the United States Army Corps of Engineers in July 2016 after they approved construction of the pipeline in parts in North Dakota.

The tribe stated that the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.”

To many, this isn’t just an issue pertaining to the Standing Rock community, or Native Americans overall. Viki Eagle, the director of Native American Community Relations & Programs at the University of Denver says at the heart of the issue is the right to clean, safe drinking water.

“It’s not necessarily a matter of if the pipeline will break, but really when. Then once it does break and it’s under the Missouri River, you’re talking about cleaning water that goes through four states. So it’s not just about Native people, it’s about water,” she said.

Pipeline bursts aren’t unusual occurrences, either. In just April 2016, 187,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota. According to the Associated Press, North Dakota had 292 oil spills in just two years.

In an article in the journal Science titled “Scientists stand with Standing Rock,” environmental concerns are validated.

“To date, more than 90 scientists have signed a resolution in support of halting all construction of the DAPL until revised environmental and cultural assessments are carried out as requested by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”

Danny Brown is a senior Media Studies Major at the University of Denver and the External co-ordinator for DivestDU. DivestDu is a student organization with the goal of getting institutions to sell their investments from fossil fuel stocks.

Brown says that the pipeline is detrimental to the environment in three ways: fossil fuel extraction, transportation and burning. Extracting fossil fuels can be very detrimental to the environment, for example fracking can cause earthquakes. The transportation of the fossil fuels create a huge risk for an oil spill and water pollution. And the actual burning of fossil fuels is detrimental to the ozone layer.

“I think that people are tired of the way the way fossil fuel companies do business. Obviously they’re going to be polluting the water and the land of any place they go to and often times they just get a slap on the wrist and don’t have to properly deal with it,” he said.

Although not all fossil fuel companies do business in the same way, the ethical issue of reaping land for profit has always and will always remain.

“If it’s not oil, we’re talking coal mining. If it’s not coal mining, we’re talking about uranium mining. If it’s not uranium mining, we’re talking about Oakflat. So, environmental issues and Indian issues are hand in hand. And this is not the only issue,” said Eagle.

In addition to environmental impacts are the cultural implications towards Native Americans. The construction of the pipeline not only runs through holy burial grounds, but it violates treaties that gave specific pieces of land to the Lakota and Sioux tribes after the colonization of America and displacement of Natives. The Treaty of Fort Laramie is the one being most contested since it encompasses the Standing Rock reservation.

“Because of these treaties, we have our own government system,” said Eagle. “We should be on jurisdiction allowed to decide what we do with our land. Technically, the U.S government should not be able to impose, but they are.”

In a journal written by Melissa Cottle titled, “Indian Land Reform,” Cottle points out that the land allotments given to Native Americans, which are just fractions of their original land, are being infiltrated by the US government when they should be restricted from alienation.

“The loss of land from Indian ownership is not merely a problem of the past, as many might be inclined to think. Rather, the bleed-out continues at a swift pace today; for example, during the 20 years between 1978 and 1998, the Secretary of the Interior removed restricted status from nearly 12,000 acres of the Five Tribes’ lands,” she wrote.

This is definitely not the first instance of the US government taking back the lands promised to Native Americans. The construction of the DAPL is just taking more land from Native people, violating treaties and the could now endanger the main source of life.

“This is the only land the United States gave Lakota people now and that’s it. That’s all we have. And the minute you kick water out, then we can’t even live on the place where our small square footage was already granted to us,” said Eagle.    

Corporate greed is another thing many people feel is contributing to this ambivalence towards Native rights and treaties. More and more companies are subjecting communities to dangerous conditions in pursuit of money and the extraction of fossil fuels.

“A company that is drilling for oil and fossil fuels is already at a baseline doing work to get the oil and not for communities. They’re driven by the desire to get oil and to make money and get big profit and it’s shown in the lack of respect in how they treat communities,” said Brown.

The pipeline actually had two proposed routes, one that would travel through the Standing Rock reservation and another that would travel through Bismarck, North Dakota. The people of Bismarck didn’t want the pipeline running through their land, so it was re-routed through the reservation. What does is say about a pipeline company who would rather pollute the water and destroy the land of an Indian reservation? 

Hundreds of environmentalists and Native American Tribes have traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to protest these injustices and stand in solidarity near the proposed site. These protests have become increasingly violent and dangerous. The United Nations recently wrote a report about the dehumanization of the Standing Rock protests and local police forces who have used pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons, attack dogs and tear gas against protesters.

Other young people who can’t be at Standing Rock are creating college or city-wide marches and protests to show that they “stand with Standing Rock.” The hashtag, #NoDAPL is prominent in social media, news and the protests.

Autumn Murphy, sophomore at the University of Denver and co-chair of the Native Student Alliance helped organize the protest of a pipeline leadership conference happening on campus which included attendees from Michels Pipeline Construction, one of the contractors actually building DAPL. There were about 600-900 people from the Denver community who came to the protest over the course of the day to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock.

While these protest and solidarity events don’t always affect direct change, they create a community spirit and build towards the fight for clean energy.

“We brought together a community in a way that hasn’t really been done before,” said Murphy. “Everyone’s hurting right now, there’s so much going on. And I feel like this event brought together a broken community and it let us stand for something that’s pretty damn important.”

Again, social media has been another big contributor to the support shown for Standing Rock. In its wide scope, protests aren’t just protests anymore — they have created a social revolution among people that might actually affect change. As of November 14, the US Army Corps of Engineering stated the pipeline would not be able to continue until Dakota Access LLC and Energy Transfer Partners organize a timeline with Standing Rock “that allows for robust discussion and analysis to be completed expeditiously.”

“Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline is one battle. But it’s more than a battle now, it’s a movement, it’s an idea, it’s a feeling, it’s a belief. In addition to wanting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline itself and protect the water, it’s growing the fight against fossil fuels. And it’s bringing Natives to the forefront of the fight,” said Brown.


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