By Grant Regen
On Sunday Dec. 4, the Obama administration expanded the president’s legacy with an unfortunately unaccustomed political action: upholding the rights of America’s Native peoples.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began a national outcry in July over the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ oil project known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The project would transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to a transport hub in Illinois. While the underground line does not encroach on the reservation’s legally owned, sovereign land, the project crosses the tribe’s sole water source, cemeteries, and historical monuments. Although the D.C federal district court dismissed the legal case prior on Sunday morning, President Obama’s overriding suspension of Access Pipeline construction created a clear precedent that the U.S. government cannot disregard Native peoples’ pleas and continue to deny their human rights.
As the developing, 19th-century United States continued its invasion of the Native American West, the Sioux Tribes’ ancient lands of the Black Hills soon gained fame as possible gold fields, attracting hoards of eastern miners and prompting the forced acquisition of Sioux lands. Since, the Supreme Court has ruled the occupation as an illegal act, offering the tribes a hundred million dollars in settlement; although, none of the money has been accepted in protest over the continued annexation of their land.
The Dakota Access Pipeline continues this historic abuse of the Sioux nation. Evidence of such modern oppression becomes clear through the original location change of the pipeline. In early drafts of the project, the line would cross over the non-Native town of Bismarck in the north. The Army Corps quickly rejected the plan as the pipeline would encroach crucial water supplies. Instead of potentially harming Bismarck, the team moved the project south, only to cross the Sioux’s sole water source.
Chances of a leak into the Missouri River remain the tribe’s main contention against construction, and justifiably so. On average there are about one hundred oil pipeline incidents each year, and both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act protect all peoples from such threatening projects with, at the least, a cease in activity until parties have analyzed all environmental risks.
Natives also legally hold the right to be consulted of any government projects that infringe on historical sites before commencement of any activity to protect ancient monuments and grounds sacred to tribes. The Army Corps failed to consult the tribe and instead began to tear apart ancestral burial sites. Once tribe members surveyed the area, they discovered ancient constellation monuments as well as the burial place of one of their most important historical chiefs. Once presented such information, the Army Corps steamed forward with building and purposely destroyed several historical artifacts of the Sioux, which forever are lost.
Such cruel actions spurred the incredible growth of their main protest camp, Sacred Stone Camp, where police furthered the violation of the occupying Natives. In subfreezing temperatures, police shot water cannons at the protesters, putting them at risk of hypothermia in the frigid temperatures. During other protests, police dogs injured Natives, and police shot pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets at the crowds. All of this could have been avoided by simply suspending construction for further negotiations.
The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline follows centuries of persecution against the Sioux Nations, but now, the United States Government has the chance to protect their rights or continue Native persecution.