Water Is Life: Native Groups Push Back Against Environmental Racism

At the Sacred Stone Camp, thousands of people have gathered for an indigenous-led protest against a planned oil pipeline. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).

We explored this topic—in part—because a Bitch reader asked us to look into it. Got a question about feminism and pop culture that you want answered, too? Tell us! 

The Cannonball River runs along the eastern edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Along its banks, thousands of people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,200-mile-long crude oil pipeline that will transport approximately 570,000 barrels of oil each day from oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois. The proposed pipeline, which would pass under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, puts the water of the Missouri River at risk from leaks or spills.

“Water is life: you can’t drink oil,” Ashley Compton, a board member at Duluth’s All Nations Indigenous Center who camped with the protest last week, told me. “This is about a people’s right to exist, it’s about one injustice too many. When you know that you’re right, and that water is life, how does anyone argue that?” The Standing Rock Sioux say that in addition to contaminating their water supply, the Dakota Access Pipeline would permanently destroy sacred sites and burial grounds of immense cultural value.

The Standing Rock Sioux’s struggle is part of a long and powerful history of indigenous-led environmental movements.  In Canada, First Nations groups have been leading large and powerful protests against the extraction of tar sands crude oil, which contaminates the area with toxic substances such as arsenic and mercury. In 2015, groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network were central in the activism that led to Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Last year, REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction of Indigenous Lands) was a key organizer of the “Shell No” campaign against Royal Dutch Shell’s proposed offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea last year. These modern movements also call upon the history of state violence against Native groups.

The Sacred Stone Camp is delivering a very clear message. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons)

The pipeline’s route is a textbook example of environmental racism. It originally crossed the Missouri just north of Bismarck, ND, but the Army Corps of Engineers rerouted the pipeline further south because of the danger that any spills or leaks would pose to Bismarck’s municipal water supply. The alternative route crosses the Missouri by drilling under Lake Oahe only a half-mile upstream of the Tribe’s reservation boundary, and endangers the Standing Rock Sioux’s central water supply and cultural heritage. The Tribe was excluded from the public process on deciding the route—out of 154 public meetings held by the private company building the pipeline, not a single one included the Standing Rock Sioux.

On August 24th, the Standing Rock Sioux filed for an injunction to stop construction. The judge will decide on the injunction by September 9th. The Tribe’s larger lawsuit will move forward over the course of the coming year.

Meanwhile, the protest has swelled to thousands. Some people come for weekends or take temporary leave from work; others have quit their jobs and live at the protest site, Sacred Stone Camp, long-term. Delegations from over 100 other tribal nations have arrived in the camp in person, and almost 200 have passed resolutions of support. Local farmers and ranchers, not affiliated with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe but who also rely on the Missouri for their livelihoods, have also shown their support, as well as a delegation from Black Lives Matter. The movement has also galvanized efforts by environmental organizations, climate activists, and allies across the country.

“The energy there is really amazing; kids, elders, families are all there,” said Nathan Holst, a minister and racial justice organizer at Duluth’s Peace United Church of Christ, whom I spoke with last week. “This is a camp full of families that are peacefully protecting the water.” He travelled to the camp with the All Nations Indigenous Center.

Compton also emphasized her sense of community at the camp. “It’s not just militants or radicals, but it’s all sorts of families, women with their little ones, elders, and a real sense of community-centered, woman-centered leadership. It feels extremely positive, prayerful, and peaceful,” she said.

In response to the growing movement, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has declared a statewide state of emergency. Activists report road closures and racial profiling by law enforcement along the routes to the camp. Meanwhile, Dakota Access, LLC, the firm doing the construction, has filed their own, unrelated lawsuit against Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux David Archambault II and several other individuals for interfering with pipeline activity.

This situation didn’t just materialize out of the blue. It’s a result of the intersection of settler colonialism, extractive capitalism, and environmental racism. Because these systems of oppression are always interlinked, radical feminist work requires the advancement of struggles for indigenous sovereignty, racial justice, and climate justice. Yet, mainstream feminist movements have a history of not showing up for these struggles. What does it look like, then, to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux? How can we really show up in support? A critical part of supporting the protest is understanding how this movement isn’t happening in a vacuum. We must ask about the politics of voice in land rights and management decisions: who has a voice in this process, who is not heard, and why?


Over 1,000 oil pipeline leaks or spills took place between 2005 and 2015. Source: High Country News

With oil pipelines, the question is not if a leak or break will occur—but when. As the National Lawyers Guild noted in a statement of solidarity with the protestors, in one year alone there have been over 300 pipeline breaks in North Dakota. In January, over 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River in Montana. In 2015, High Country News reported that in the past five years, there had been over 1,000 crude oil pipeline leaks and ruptures reported to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

On July 27th, the Tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for the pipeline’s permitting. They argue that the Corps violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, when it issued the pipeline’s permits. But it’s crucial to note that even when permitting processes and Environmental Impact Statements are carried out within the letter of the law, they perpetuate dynamics of oppression because they’re based on legal structures that privilege resource extraction above indigenous sovereignty.

Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).

The tribes standing against the pipeline—at the Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp—are highlighting direct connections between the construction of the pipeline today and the disregard for Native rights of the past.  “Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri [River] or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity,” Archambault wrote in a New York Times op-ed this August. “We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now.”

The historical pattern here is clear. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie established the Sioux reservation in the context of repeated white settler encroachment on Sioux land and natural resources. According to the Supreme Court, treaties and other nation-to-nation negotiations should be the supreme law of the land and override any other interests. Yet only eight years later, the United States broke the terms of its own legally binding treaty when it seized the Black Hills region without consent and extinguished Sioux hunting rights in the unceded territory. Nearly 100 years later, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court would write: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

Today, the pipeline route is on federal land managed by the Corps and does not cross reservation lands. However, that land was part of the original Treaty boundaries, and was taken from the reservation without consent as part of the Corps’ Pick Sloan project for the reservoir and hydropower dam of Lake Oahe. This fact alone seriously calls into question the legitimacy of the Corps’ claim to the land of the pipeline route. More broadly, the federal government’s long history of breaking treaty terms and otherwise taking land without consent undermines the moral, legal, and ethical authority of the federal government’s jurisdiction. Centuries after the United States first began overriding the sovereignty of other nations, permitting processes and land management decisions continue to reinforce the dynamics of settler colonialism.

Hundreds of delegates from tribal groups have joined the Standing Rock’s protest. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).

On September 3rd, Energy Transfer Partners began preparatory work on another tract of land, disregarding the injunction currently under deliberation as well as a host of other environmental laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Construction crews bulldozed the topsoil across an area about 150 feet wide stretching for two miles, northwest of the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Sacred places containing ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts were forever destroyed.

“We’re days away from getting a resolution on the legal issues, and they came in on a holiday weekend and destroyed the site,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in a press release. “What they have done is absolutely outrageous.”

To protect the sites, activists placed their bodies in the line of the bulldozers. In response, private security officers used pepper spray and trained dogs to attack the water protectors. According to tribal reports, 30 people were pepper sprayed and and six were bitten by officers’ dogs. (Democracy Now! has footage of the incident here.) Though some media reports have characterized the activists’ actions as violent, the activists say that’s not true.

“From all I saw, they were practicing non-violence and resisting incredibly,” said Holst. “If anyone was violent, it was the security officers.” He stressed that organizers at the camp are focusing on nonviolent direct action tactics. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s struggle calls us to reflect on the history of state violence against Native peoples, and the way legal and political systems built on settler colonialism endure in our modern society. September 3rd is the 153rd anniversary of the Inyan Ska (Whitestone) Massacre, where 300 to 400 Sioux people were killed by the US Army in North Dakota—just 50 miles from the current camp. The founder of the Sacred Stone Camp, LaDonna Bravebull Allard, is the granddaughter of a survivor of that conflict. As she wrote for Yes magazine, “We must remember we are part of a larger story.  We are still here… We should not have to fight so hard to survive on our own lands.”

“This is a continuation of those historic battles,” said feminist writer Rebecca Solnit in a recent Facebook post about the protest. “Except this time some of us white people can get on the right side of history—and ecology.”

Regardless of the outcome of the injunction, activists plan on staying to protect their water. Organizers are already gathering winter clothing and insulation.

“People will camp until they defeat that pipeline,” Compton said. “That pipeline will be defeated.”


What you can do to support the protest:

• Donate items from the Sacred Stone Camp Supply List!

Consider donating to the ongoing protest and litigation efforts.

• Call North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200. You can leave a message stating your thoughts about this. Tell him that the use of dogs and pepper spray against indigenous people is unacceptable.

Write to your congressional representative. The Standing Rock Sioux have proposed email language and provided some background information.

Sign the petition to the White House to stop DAPL.

• Talk with your friends, family, and community about the protest and the issues around it.

Learn more about the history of treaty law and land appropriation across the United States: not just at Standing Rock, but wherever you live as well.

by Vivian Underhill
View profile »
Vivian Underhill is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on environmental and queer issues. Follow her at vivianunderhill.wordpress.com.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment