By Becca Hartman
When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Okay, since it’s probably checking your phone to see which texts/tweets/class cancellations you hoped for overnight, what’s the second thing you do? It’s probably some variation of brushing your teeth, showering, or making coffee – all three of which have one very vital component in common: clean water. So many of us are fortunate that we even have the option to take clean water for granted. Water can be tainted in so many ways, from lead poisoning to pollution by man-made objects, but one method of contamination is currently making the news: oil pipelines.
For the past couple of years, the Sioux tribe residing at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota has been on the front lines of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In case you haven’t yet heard what this pipeline is, or why it affects the Sioux living at Standing Rock, here is a quick overview: The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, has been in the works since 2014. Headed by Dakota Access, LLC with the intent to transport between 470,000 and 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day between North Dakota oil fields and Illinois storage facilities, the DAPL was originally set to pass near Bismarck, North Dakota. Bismarck residents sensibly requested that it be rerouted due to concerns that it might tarnish their water supply.
Now, you’re probably wondering: if this has been going on since 2014, why is it only garnering national attention now? In July of 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greenlit a new route that would take the DAPL directly under the Missouri River within a half of a mile of the Standing Rock Reservation. There are two issues at play here. Firstly, the Sioux are concerned about contamination entering their water supply, as well as construction affecting their sacred burial lands. Secondly, the Army Corps supposedly did not consult the Sioux before signing off on the new DAPL route. The Army Corps has an obligation to consult any indigenous group before doing anything that may affect the land where they live, or even where they have lived in the past. This is the case at Standing Rock.
With this background in mind, there’s obviously a lot at stake here. Let’s unpack it, issue by issue.
Firstly, and most pressingly, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is at high risk of losing their main source of potable water. They have been assured by officials that there is no danger to their water, but with fracking, there is never a guarantee. Since 2010, there have been over 3,300 pipeline breaks in the United States that released crude oil and natural gas into the atmosphere and surrounding lands. This adds up to 660 fractures per year, mostly in the midwest. In 2013 alone, a pipeline in North Dakota ruptured and spilled 840,000 gallons of oil into a wheat field. What happened to break this pipeline? It was struck by lightning. It was struck by something so unpredictable, so unexpected, that no amount of reassurance from oil industry officials could possibly protect against it. The Sioux have every right to be concerned about their water supply being damaged when there is absolutely no way that the DAPL can be foolproof.
On another note, what about the tribe’s burial lands? After everything that we as a nation have done to indigenous people (and yes, collectively, we must acknowledge the atrocities that our ancestors committed), how can we ignore the legally binding agreements that we did make? Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is obligated to discuss with Native Americans any construction involving their land, past or present, acknowledging that the reservations that tribes have been forced onto may have no relation to the lands they lived on pre-colonization. In the instance at Standing Rock, tribe officials sued the Army Corps, saying that the building of this pipeline was not discussed with them prior to its construction. The lawsuit is still ongoing. How can we possibly allow the NHPA to be disregarded in such a way? We stole tribal lands historically, and continue to steal them today. It’s obscene.
The Native Americans and their allies at Standing Rock have maintained peaceful protest since the beginning of the DAPL issue, even going so far as to call themselves “Water Protectors” and not protesters. In response to this peaceful protest, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple declared a State of Emergency (which is, in itself, a disgusting misuse of the term) and summoned police from no less than seven states. Seven states. All because… a group of Native Americans want the right to clean water and cultural lands? Dalrymple’s invocation of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact is taking advantage of a system and funds specifically designated for natural disasters.
Following the summoning of these officers, Sioux and allies alike have become victims of police brutality. Tribe elders, guilty of nothing but singing and praying, have been maced, shot with rubber bullets, and even attacked by police dogs. So have children. Tell me, Griffs, when the Bundys – two white brothers and their compatriots – took over the government-owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon while armed and led a standoff that lasted for 41 days, why were they were ultimately acquitted? Why are these peaceful, indigenous protectors being charged at with K-9 units, but armed white men were acquitted of all federal conspiracy and weapons charges? I know why, Griffs, and I think you do, too.
Almost 400 of these Water Protectors have been arrested, including Divergent actress Shailene Woodley. In a statement she wrote for TIME, Woodley asked, “What if we used [the protests at Standing Rock] as a catalyst for a full societal shift in the way we start thinking and treating and learning from indigenous peoples? So that in the future, it doesn’t require a non-native celebrity to bring attention to the cause.” Woodley presents a good point: the way many people heard about Standing Rock was through her own arrest, her Facebook livestream, and the Twitter hashtag #FreeShailene. But why is that the case? Why are we so content to turn a blind eye to the plights of Native American people, who have every right to plead, until white people begin pleading with them? Why are we, white Americans, so self-righteous that we honestly think our right to clean water is more important than anybody else’s? It is time for, as Woodley put it, a full societal shift in our treatment of native people. Their voices are just as strong, and important, and worthy of attention as anyone’s.
So what can we do about all of this? We’re here, in Buffalo, 21 hours and seven minutes away from the reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. (I know this from looking into bus tickets because, if I had no school or work obligations, I would be at the site myself.) People at Standing Rock have made it obvious that they plan on maintaining their protests through the North Dakota winter, where temperatures reach an average low of 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, the Standing Rock Sioux have created a donation link on their official website (standingrock.org) as well as an Amazon WishList of items to prepare every Water Protector, indigenous and allies alike, for the brutal winter. Donations to their fund will also help to cover legal fees of Protectors arrested during the demonstration. If you can’t donate – we’re private college students here, I know we’re on a budget – TheFreeThoughtProject.org has compiled a list of phone numbers of politicians to call and petitions to sign to bring about change.
The front lines of Standing Rock are historic ones that will set a precedent in government-indigenous relations for generations to come, but the fight will continue to unfold into the winter. What side will you be on, Griffs? Do you stand with Standing Rock? I do.