Conflict between inhabitants of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and supporters of the Dakota Access oil pipeline reached a fever pitch over the past few weeks.
Tension was catalyzed in August when the Dakota Access L.L.C. sued the Standing Rock Tribe for interference and has continued to escalate as Native Americans from across the country have gathered to protest in North Dakota.
However, protesters enjoyed a major victory on Sept. 9. While federal judges denied a request to halt construction on the pipeline, the Obama administration ordered that it be suspended in an unprecedented intervention.
The pipeline, which would have the capacity to transport 470 thousand barrels of oil each day over four states, has raised concern among the Native American community over significant threats to their water supply and sacred ancestral lands. The White House’s action is a commendable first step in defending the rights of Native Americans who have been pushed behind for centuries.
The list of possible objections to the pipeline is long. Resuming construction on the pipeline will seriously threaten existing Native American culture and add to the extensive list of abuses that the U.S. has inflicted upon native people.
Construction of the pipeline includes a significant risk of serious environmental degradation. There is concern about potential leakage in the pipeline near its intersection with the Missouri River which would contaminate the water supply of the Standing Rock Tribe and populations downstream.
Moreover, the pipeline was rerouted to its current path to avoid affecting the water supply of Bismarck, North Dakota. Many protesters detect hypocrisy: the pipeline now threatens their water instead.
While the pipeline does not directly encroach on reservation land, it bisects sacred ground immediately to the south. The ancestors of the current inhabitants of the Standing Rock Tribe used the land to the south (which was removed from the tribe through treaties over 150 years) for hunting and burial ground, and the region carries great spiritual significance. Even though the area is not considered hallowed by the majority population, it is every bit as special and sacred as places significant to American culture. It would be absurd to build an oil pipeline across the front yard of the National Cathedral or through a treasured cemetery or national forest. It is no more unacceptable to defile sacred Native American grounds.
Not only does the pipeline physically attack Native American culture by threatening sacred land, it attacks their worldviews and spiritual beliefs. An essential aspect of Native American culture includes taking care of land and protecting natural resources. It is a blatant dismissal of Native American culture for the Dakota Access pipeline to not only violate some of their core beliefs, but to do so on their most sacred land.
Rather than constructing an oil pipeline that will further enable American dependence on fossil fuels, Americans should emulate Native American principles of conservation and preservation by investing in renewable resources instead.
Proponents of the pipeline argue that its construction will create as many as 12,000 jobs, but they would only be temporary; a much smaller number would be required to operate and maintain the pipeline upon its completion. Moreover, few if any of the jobs would likely be filled by Native Americans. Reservations, which are often fraught with high unemployment and poverty, will require sustained job investment for their economies to thrive.
This past summer, I spent a week on Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota on a church mission trip. While that particular reservation is not directly threatened by the pipeline, the experience instilled in me how important it is that Native American culture be nurtured —not further extinguished. It has survived the Trail of Tears, unfair treaties and forced assimilation schools, but it remains vulnerable.
I was able to witness the vestiges of Native American culture that have blended with American culture in a beautiful conglomeration: children sing Dakota and One Direction songs, wear traditional Jingle dresses and sneakers and eat Fry bread and Cheetos. Proceeding with the pipeline and destroying ancient tribal lands could push Native American culture further into oblivion and ostracize its populations at a time when native heritage must be celebrated.
Nevertheless, the passionate protests and gatherings of Native Americans from across the country have served to reinforce Native American culture and unity. Frank White Bull, a member of the tribal council at Standing Rock, recently told the “Washington Post”that “people have shown they’re here to help us…We made our stance and the Indian Nation heard us…It’s making us wanyi oyate. One nation. We’re not alone.”