Protests against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, have been underway for seven months now. The controversial 3.7 billion dollar, 1,200-mile project — which will link oil production sites in North Dakota and Illinois — enjoyed a brief respite from attention last week because Donald Trump unexpectedly won the national presidential election. The North Dakota protest camps remain active, however, and it appears the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of other environmental activists are prepared to extend their fight indefinitely — no matter who the president is. Indeed, DAPL takes part in a long bipartisan tradition of settler-colonial violence against the indigenous peoples of America. It is no accident the pipeline threatens the Standing Rock tribe — environmental hazards are often thrust onto people of color. In an era of accelerating environmental decay, we must be vigilant to these incidences of environmental racism and oppose them wherever they might occur.
The DAPL protests are centered around an area a few miles north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where the pipeline is set to cut under the Missouri River. This area — while not an official part of the tribe’s territory — is home to many sacred burial and cultural grounds, according to a Nov. 2016 Business Insider article. The river is also the Reservation’s major source of drinking water, raising concerns over potential oil spills. Between 2013 and 2015, an average of 121 oil accidents occurred each year, according to the same article. The Standing Rock tribe is vehemently opposed to the project and all its risks, spearheading the long campaign of protests that has seen hundreds of arrests and countless outbreaks of violence. In late October soldiers and police in riot gear led raids on protest camps with armored vehicles, pepper spray and sound cannons. In an interview with the LA Times a detainee described protestors having numbers written on their arms and being kept in cages like dog kennels, without bedding or furniture.
This campaign of state violence is conducted in violation of Standing Rock’s tribal sovereignty — preceding colonization and formally guaranteed by treaty. DAPL would effectively undermine the tribe’s right to self-determination by forcing it to accept enormous health and environmental risks. But construction looks set to continue anyway. The company that owns the pipeline — Energy Transfer Partners — was reported by the Seattle Times to be marshaling its equipment last Thursday in expectation of a go-ahead from the Obama administration. The Standing Rock tribe, then, like other communities of color, will disproportionately bear the weight of environmental ruin. An early proposal for DAPL planned for it to cross the Missouri River eleven miles north of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, according to an August article by the Bismarck Tribune. The proposal was rejected because of dangers posed to Bismarck’s water supply. Incidentally, Bismarck also has a population that is more than 90 percent white.
Standing Rock joins other prominent news stories — like lead-poisoned Flint, Michigan — as being a case of environmental racism. A 2016 study by researchers at the Universities of Michigan and Montana found “a consistent pattern of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.” Minority communities represent a “path of least resistance” for such projects, as they generally have less political influence to reject them. The move of DAPL’s river-crossing from Bismarck to Standing Rock reflects the role of race and class in deciding who will suffer the consequences should it. Standing Rock’s tribal sovereignty, the health and well-being of its people and the integrity of its burial and cultural grounds are all treated as unfortunate — but necessary — casualties of corporations’ profit-seeking. In any enterprise of DAPL’s size there will be losers. But such losers are not decided randomly — they are, in most cases, those least able to bear the loss.
The Standing Rock Sioux’s struggle against DAPL not only opposes environmental degradation, but racism and colonial oppression. If construction on the pipeline is allowed to proceed, it will signal America’s continued contempt for indigenous communities’ well-being and self-determination. That the past election season saw neither presidential candidate condemn the project, nor the vicious campaign of state violence assembled to ensure its completion, exposes the indifference of the major political parties to these issues. We cannot, in all fairness, expect them to thwart the interests of their major donors. Instead, we should put our faith in the direct action of the Standing Rock tribe and the thousands that have joined them. They deserve our solidarity and assistance. In a world driven by ecological collapse, we should resist all efforts to place the effects of the crisis on people of color. Now, DAPL can succeed on the basis of our division. Against unity, it is doomed.