Standing Rock is a multifaceted movement that began with a simple concept: water is life. From it arose a globally recognized issue that encompasses human rights, historical and cultural preservation, and environmental protection. The movement is centered around the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and brings to light the historical and contemporary disregard of the United States towards Native peoples, including their rights, culture, and wellbeing. The tribe is currently represented by the environmental law firm, Earthjustice, in a lawsuit that states the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has infringed upon multiple environmental laws with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Though the movement does not directly address the Man : Nature binary, it is an evident theme that can be observed through the federal government’s actions. DAPL is a characteristic example of environmental racism, as the original route for the pipeline was just north of a majority white community (Bismarck) and was moved due to concern over its proximity to the city’s drinking water supply. Another issue that is emphasized is that of profit being valued over people’s lives.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe was not consulted about the pipeline construction and they are affirming their legal right to be heard. DAPL not only avoided consulting the Tribe, but actively worked against them, destroying sacred sites that were identified by natives and putting them in direct risk of hazardous oil spills. Four months after the release of the draft route, the USACE archaeologist noted five culturally significant sites within the construction zone and more than two dozen others nearby (shortly after the USACE stated that no “historic properties” would be affected by the construction) (Hersher, 2017). As the movement has grown, its objectives have as well, but many individuals continue to protest DAPL as it relates to Native Americans. Others have joined the movement to protest issues such as police brutality, environmental degradation, and capitalism. This has allowed it to garner more support while still emphasizing the rights of Native peoples.
Standing Rock unofficially began when a few dozen local individuals stepped into the construction zone for DAPL in protest of it being built. By the evening of that same day, numbers had swelled to over 100 who stood in solidarity against the environmental racism taking place. Below is a summarized timeline of major events that led to and followed the day that the Standing Rock movement commenced.
Army Corps releases DAPL draft plan for comments
Army Corps approves plan w/o consulting tribes
Gov't Council states need for tribal consultation
Corps states route is not injurious to public
Standing Rock Tribe sues Army Corps
Protesters halt construction of pipeline
Tribe states that sacred sites were demolished
Police dogs reportedly attack protesters
District Judge temporarily halts construction
ND Governor sends in National Guard
Judge denies tribe request to halt construction
Justice Dept. asks for tribal consultation
Construction resumes after 3 fed. agencies ask for halt
Sheriff arrests 27 protesters at demonstration
Tribe requests investigation from Attorney General
Law enforcement uses tear gas/water cannons
Corps demands protesters leave by 12/5
Construction halts, Corps says it will release EIS
Corps states EIS is being prepared for public
Trump signs executive order to expedite review
Corps approves DAPL crossing under Lake Oahe
Tribe asks court to block construction
Corps intends to rescind EIS, construction resumes
Judge denies motion, states oil isn't flowing yet
Plaintiffs state Corps decision is contrary to law
Corps terminates environmental review
Governor states remaining protesters must leave
Judge denies motion for injunction
Judge states tribes are unlikely to prevail
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is primarily taking action through nonviolent protests (accompanied by supporters) and litigation. As seen in the timeline, the USACE actions have repeatedly been met with opposing legal action. The attorney representing the tribes, Jan Hasselman, stated that “Other people get all the profits, and the Tribes get all the risk and harm.” (Earthjustice, 2017) The movement calls for a recognition and protection of the Tribes, their sacred lands, and their right to water. The Tribes are calling for fair and equal treatment and to be taken into consideration. They have demanded proper consultation and transparency between the USACE, DAPL, and the Standing Rock tribe. In light of the spill in December, the court has granted the Tribe their requests for an independent audit on DAPL’s actions, a requirement that any pipeline maintenance or spills be reported to the public, and collaboration with the Corps on developing spill response plans.
The protests that lasted more than five months have exemplified the injustices that face natives and other minorities in the United States. These have largely been the actions that most successfully thwarted the construction, but it did not come without cost. Many people were arrested, bit by police dogs, sprayed with tear gas, and blasted with water cannons in below freezing temperatures while peacefully protesting the destruction of culturally significant lands. Protesters physically blocked the construction of the pipeline and demanded the Tribe and Lake Oahe be recognized and protected. Because the protest was initiated and predominantly led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the overall vision and style of operation has obvious native roots. Many non-native individuals who were interested in getting involved were frowned upon because they were attempting to support the movement with a colonialistic perspective, thus masking the native perspective. This peaceful protest was met with violence and hostility from the military, who threw flashbang grenades at the protesters in addition to the previously mentioned harassments. The native people of this land peacefully (and rightfully) ask to be treated like humans and they are met with violent opposition and injustice.
a. Historical/socio-cultural context
As discussed in Patel and Moore’s A history of the World in Seven Cheap Things, western societies have been quick to exploit the earth. Lives have been cheapened, and history has shown that some of the most exploited people are Native people, who European colonizers considered subhuman and placed in the category of nature. This made it easy to take advantage of the indigenous people as their rights were stripped from them and they were themselves seen as a commodity. White people have historically manipulated and taken advantage of Native peoples across the globe, including in Humboldt County. Legislation was passed in 1850 termed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that gave colonizers the ability to enslave them. They were considered a “resource,” and the trafficking of Native American children persisted beyond the civil war (Mullen, 2012). Although we are led to believe that things are different now, the fact remains that hundreds of years of oppression has left significant impacts that have not yet disappeared, as much as people try to ignore them. As is seen with DAPL, cultural and environmental laws were disregarded and the Native population has been put at risk so that the elite could seize an opportunity to make money. This poses several issues. The first and most prevalent issue is the fact that the Native people living nearby were completely disregarded. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is fighting for their livelihoods, religion, and culture in the face of corporations that are destroying their sacred lands. The risks of DAPL were known, but not officially or properly reported. The laws that prevented the pipeline from being built were broken because large government bodies and corporations had no interest in the protection of Native peoples. Other issues with DAPL involve the destruction of nature and the motivation behind it. Native people were disregarded and put at risk for the further profit already rich people, showing a continued cycle of white people exploiting tribes to make money. The construction, maintenance, and operation of DAPL has and will continue to have negative consequences for the animals that live in the area. The pipeline will also lead to further reliance fossil fuels and continued emissions that negatively impact the earth. While each of these problems are adequate reasons to prohibit the construction of a project such as this, the core issue from which each aspect stems is our society’s hunger for money (fueled by capitalism). It allows all of these issues to unfold, as the primary interest is monetary wealth over a respect for the well-being of humans and land we exist in.
Figure 1: Map Showing Location of the Standing Rock Reservation, the DAPL, and the Protest Site (Source: North Dakota state government, Natural Earth, U.S. Census Bureau, USGS, Energy Transfer Partners, Bakken Pipeline Map, Carl Sack, staff reports)
a. What Works
Social media, news, and any sort of broadcasting of the issue raises awareness and promotes support from a larger audience. There was a huge effort to suppress media attention by DAPL and the government, but protesters broadcasting the events helped raise global awareness. Many non-Native individuals who were not directly affected by DAPL have given their support as a result of effective outreach with many residents of Bismarck sharing in the outrage of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. This helped spread their message and made it possible to turn a fairly local protest into a globally recognized movement. Standing Rock utilized social media to reach a wide audience and become a distinguished movement across the world. Hash- tags such as #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife quickly became associated with the protest and trended on social media platforms such as Twitter for some time. The Standing Rock movement also used traditional media coverage such as network news to their advantage to get their message across to a wide audience. Protesters knew the power of media and transformed it into a platform upon which to further their message of resistance. During the protests themselves, activists stood their ground despite harassment and police brutality. They sent their opponents the message that it was their land and that they would fight for it. Beyond Standing Rock, solidarity marches took place in major cities such as Denver and New York City.
The Standing Rock tribe’s persistent use of litigation has also proven to be a thorn in the side of DAPL and while it has often favored the USACE and DAPL, it has also impeded the pipeline’s development greatly. More recently, the court has granted the Sioux tribe a greater level of consideration and transparency (albeit, after an oil spill did occur). The law firm representing the Tribe, Earthjustice, is dedicated to fighting for environmental justice and is demanding that protection be extended to the Tribes and their water supply. Using the legal system is the most effective way to create lasting change and set a precedent for the protection of Tribes on a national level.
b. What Matters
Standing Rock has illuminated some of the current issues facing Native peoples, as well as shown the length that our government is willing to go to repress minorities and degrade the environment to strengthen our economy and our reliance on a finite resource. One of the most significant impacts of this movement was the fact that the events were broadcasted. Much of the resistance to DAPL began as a local protest against the pipeline, but many more people gave their support once they saw the shadiness with which the USACE was operating. Issues of police brutality among minorities and peaceful protestors is not new, but the documentation of the violence helped push Standing Rock to the forefront of the news, social media, and other platforms. Had it not been for the unjust violence used against the protestors, the movement may not have grown to the size and significance that it did. Other movements such as Black Lives Matter, employ similar media tactics, which has allowed them to jump from small to international scale by simply showcasing the injustices that take place. However, it is important to note one of the issues at hand. If the only way to spread the message of a cause such as this is for violence to take place, then it means no movement can achieve results without subjecting the protesters to harm. It is important for the protesters to remain non-violent, but it is also crucial for the general public to raise awareness about issues because of their moral value rather than media appeal. Standing Rock represents a rising up of marginalized people against those in power to bring about justice for whose who have been oppressed.
Room for Improvement
Although Standing Rock appeared very inclusive and diverse, there were two main aspects to the movement which we believe could have been improved upon. The initial group, being the Natives, could have been more open to collaboration with other groups. They had a tendency to dismiss assistance from outside organizations because they believed the issue was being manipulated away from their perspective. On the other side in the non-native community, there could have been more openness to the Native American perspective and a willingness to hear them out and learn from them. With the opposition that this movement was up against, it was imperative to have a large following with strong group cohesion. While it’s challenging to critique a Native issue from a westernized position, more could have been accomplished with a greater willingness for collaboration among groups. The fact remains that while Standing Rock is a movement that was initiated by and for Natives, DAPL has a multifaceted reach that should still be addressed. Every aspect of the pipeline should be fought against, but dismissing the Native perspective in favor of environmental issues only supports their claim that Natives are not being taken into consideration. With that said, unity is the only way to succeed in this issue. Even if the motivation behind protesting was not universal or identical, preventing the success of DAPL requires a joint effort to fight against the negative consequences associated with the pipeline.
Even though the movement could have improved, there was tremendous good that came out of it. Standing Rock was able to spark other movements, such as when veterans Michael Wood Jr and Wesley Clark led about 1000 veterans to join the fight against the injustices of Standing Rock. Spokeswoman for Veterans Stand, Ashleigh Jennifer Parker stated, "We’re hoping if we stand together in formation and look the aggressors in their face ... if they can treat us the same way (as they have the protesters) then that should showcase to the American people what's going on up there," (usatoday.com). Their goal was to create a human barrier by standing in between the protesters and to protect and create a safe space for the water protectors. For the veteran’s movement to have been possible, donation accounts such as GoFundMe were created to pay for supplies and travel. By doing so, the movement grew beyond the veterans group to people who wanted to help in any way they could. After Standing Rock, the veterans vowed to take their movement to Flint, Michigan to address the water crisis.
Standing Rock remains an important movement in the fight and has served to highlight multiple other issues throughout the country. It has brought many to recognize the injustices that are faced by Native American groups even today and it is paving the way for future consideration and equality. The fight against environmental racism and injustice rigorously continues in America. The Standing Rock movement is a powerful reminder that there is an immense need for a shift in our society’s treatment of Native American tribes and our reliance on fossil fuels. We believe that Standing Rock movement is the beginning of a greater movement that empowers the oppressed and brings justice for indigenous tribes and marginalized groups on a larger scale (perhaps even globally).
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