I arrived at the meeting early and was promptly greeted by Doug and the tribe’s lawyer. After quick introductions, they started to give me the background on what has transpired over the last four years. To do this effectively, we had to rewind all the way back to the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868.
This was the (second) treaty signed between the Sioux Tribes and the US Government that decided how the territories of the Dakotas would be governed and controlled. In article two of the treaty, it was established that The Great Sioux Reservation would include areas of present day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills. This was set aside for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians”. Making the total land area smaller and moving the tribes eastward, this was to “take away access to the prime buffalo herds that occupied the area and encourage the Sioux to become farmers.”
As insignificant as this fact may seem to us today, it was the first in a series of actions that set precedents with the intent of the government to change the culture of the tribes from “hunting bands” to farmers, and in consequence, trying to control the culture of the tribes.
Since then, the reservations have continued to shrink, and the land has been seized by the government as new technologies are developed to find affordable ways to extract more resources. Before today’s fracking fight, the most notable siege of land was the Black Hills taken by Ulysses S. Grant when gold was abundant in them. Per the treaty, any construction of utilities on original treaty land has to be approved by land surveys through the tribe—seizing the land is a blatant violation of this.
After we caught me up to speed, we were able to fast forward to modern times. The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally stated to run across the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota. After the permits were filed, protest from the residents about possible contamination of the water supply (Bismarck happens to be the capital of North Dakota) resulted in the planned pipeline to be moved south of the capital, just outside of the Standing Rock Reservation. This of course led to protests from the tribe about the environmental impact on their water. “Why is there a double standard between the capital’s water supply and the tribe’s water supply?” they rightfully asked.
The local animal kingdom lives off of the water of the Missouri River. They drink the water, absorbing the contaminants into their bodies, and then inevitably inside its meat. The animal is then hunted and eaten by the tribe. The local fauna also pass the contaminants through their waste, fertilizing the local plant life that gets eaten by the tribe and other animals. This vicious poisonous cycle that infiltrates the ecosystem becomes almost impossible to break.
Even though they are now primarily a farming tribe, the impact is just as significant. River water is used to irrigate plants that are used by the tribe to sustain itself—and for the farmers to sell. Contaminated water would be passed into whatever is grown, then passed down into anyone or anything that eats it—a cycle that empowers poison instead of purity.
Why would the water quality be a problem if there is proper testing done at the local facility? There, they only test the water that is drunk by the locals, not what is used to irrigate or what the wild animals drink, and all the animals drink from this river.
When the decision was made to move the planned pipeline, according to the Laramie Treaty, the tribes had the right to work with the government to do an Environmental Impact Statement. The statement would analyze how the pipeline would cumulatively impact the area for the existing and foreseeable future. The tribes also have the right via the National Preservation Act to review all land, including all original treaty land, for any cultural impacts the construction would have.
When informed that the American Indians wanted to exercise these rights, the oil companies, along with the local law enforcement and government, decided that they would conduct an Environmental Assessment Study instead, which is less conclusive to the actual impact and does not asses any cumulative effects or think about what unforeseen consequences would come about. This assessment was paid for by the oil companies as well, which brings up many red flags. We all know that these studies should be paid for by independent organizations to help fight any bias in the study. Furthermore, the state did not hold any public hearings or open up any avenue for public concerns, ignoring the pleas of the tribe’s lawyers. Suing the companies and the state were the only options that the tribes had. Unfortunately, as the pipelines were rushed through the approval process, without an injunction by the court, nothing could stop the companies from building.
Knowing that they weren’t getting any help from the local government, the tribes contacted the locals that had land bought from them via easements and asked if they could conduct surveys looking for cultural significance on the land. The locals were more than happy to comply, and hundreds of grave sites were found on these lands. Normally this would mean a complete halt of construction, but not in the case of Big Oil. Once the court was informed, a hearing was set up but delayed long enough for the construction to change their schedule and destroy all the grave sites. Without a burial site left there would be no evidence to halt construction thus the construction continued.
“How is this even possible?!” I asked myself. After this blatant violation of treaty rights, the National Trust of Historic Preservation wrote a letter to the state recommending that the companies never get another permit. Ignoring these requests, the government kept the construction going.
This is the current state of affairs and knowing this one might ask, “But what is the issue? If assessments are done, and they report that there should be minimal impact, what are the tribes angry about?” The answer is quite complicated and Doug explained it as “A constant fear that their way of life is under attack.” We briefly talked about how a spill could impact the local ecology, but if there is a spill, won’t they just stop the pipeline and fix it? This was my initial thought. I assumed that there would be some sort of pressure sensor system that would be able to tell when a spill has happened—this is in fact not true. (authors note: since writing, a federal judge has ordered a full environmental impact study, including an assessment of the ability to detect spills.) There is no way to tell if there is a spill at any time over the thousands of miles of pipeline, someone has to just figure it out. The current governmental model is unregulated to the point that, since beginning, a recent spill had to be reported by a man walking his dog. The finding of another spill happening at the time of this writing is still unknown. The company is not releasing that information. A spill could be happening under the river right now and no one would know. Knowing this, anyone could see how this would lead to a “constant fear.”
An argument could be made for the silver linings of the project. The pipelines do bring jobs if nothing else, but the companies end up moving employees to the area opposed to hiring from within, creating “man-camps” throughout the area. “I never want to stop a brother, from anywhere, from getting a job to feed their family,” Doug told me, “With that being said, these man camps bring up men that do not care about the local area, and lot’s of times have a history of substance abuse. This isn’t an issue if the companies provide resources for these workers to help their issues, but they don’t.”
The pipeline has led to a toxic environment in more ways than one. The cartels now operate in the reservations full force, providing both drugs and humans to the out-of-state workers. Women are lured away from the tribes with money and drugs, then go missing. They either never turn up again or return drug ridden and abused. At the time of my visit, a councilman’s daughter had gone missing a few days prior.
A few hours had passed by and I felt I had taken up enough of their time, but I had one last question for Doug. “I know that your tribe has built themselves around the wild buffalo for hundreds of years. Do you find that the oil companies have made it harder to have that be the focus of your community?” With sad eyes, Doug looked at me and said “There are no wild buffalo anymore.”
I shook his hand and set off back to Bismarck. The next day I was planning on exploring Edinburg where a section of the Keystone Pipeline was spilling.
Standing Rock Level 2 Charger
Prairie Knights Casino
7932 ND-24, Fort Yates, ND 58538
Ready for Pt 4? Find it here!