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Understanding the Standoff at Standing Rock (with Lesson Plan)

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After a long standoff with authorities, protesters at the sprawling camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota celebrated a tentative victory last week following an announcement by the Army Corps of Engineers to halt construction of a nearby oil pipeline.

The protest has attracted international attention and drawn thousands of activists, including members from hundreds of American Indian tribes and their supporters, making it one of the largest American Indian resistance efforts in history.  For months, they have waged a hard-fought battle against the completion of the Dakota Access project, a 1,170-mile pipeline that would transport more than 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota across the Plains to Illinois. The $3.8 billion project is almost complete, except for a portion underneath Lake Oahe near the Missouri River, which borders the reservation.

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline was originally expected to start up in late 2016, delivering more than 470,000 barrels per day of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale formation to Illinois.
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline was originally expected to start up in late 2016, delivering more than 470,000 barrels per day of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale formation to Illinois. (Ashlyn Still, Jiachuan Wu, Christine Chan/Reuters Graphics)

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation has long been overlooked and under-resourced, with a poverty rate nearly three times the national average. Residents say the pipeline would threaten their main water supply and desecrate sacred ancestral lands while providing no direct economic benefit. The environmental concerns are similar to those voiced by leaders in Bismarck, N.D., where the pipeline was originally slated to pass through. However, the project was rerouted after the city successfully lobbied against it. Standing Rock activists claim they were not appropriately consulted about the move, and some suggested racial motivations for moving the route from a largely white community to an American Indian one. In their defense, pipeline engineers countered that the Bismarck plan would have been less direct and impacted a significantly larger population than the revised route.


"The purpose has been served and it's time to go home," Standing Rock Tribal Chair Dave Archambault II told KFGO radio the day after the Army Corps' announcement.

But with the harsh North Dakota winter closing in, many protesters are vowing to stay through subzero temperatures and blizzard conditions to ensure construction does not resume. The pipeline, they note, is hardly dead: President-elect Donald Trump, who's invested in the company, says he supports finishing the project and may have the power to help undo the Army Corps' decision, which will likely land in federal courts.

The standoff began in mid-summer and grew steadily through the fall. Although it's remained mostly peaceful, there have been a number of violent clashes with law enforcement, including last month, when police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and a water cannon at hundreds of protestors in subfreezing temperatures. The protest has also drawn a diverse patchwork of supporters, with demonstrations taking place in cities throughout the country. And earlier this month, about 2,000 veterans came to the camp to support the protestors.

“The city council of Bismarck and other people stood up and said, ‘No, we don't want this pipeline to cross the Missouri north of Bismarck, that's going to mess with our water supply,’” Linda Black Elk told PRI's The World. “So they decided that putting it just north of the Standing Rock Reservation was OK. And they absolutely expected us to not care. They think that we are quiet, drunk, poor, Native people who are just going to kind of put up with anything that they throw at us. But they were wrong.”

In the last 30 years, there have been nearly 9,000 significant gas and oil pipeline-related accidents nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And just this week, 176,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a creek about 150 miles from the protest camp.

Despite these concerns, Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based corporation in charge of the project, counters that the pipeline would boost the economy and ultimately be safer and more efficient than transporting crude oil by rail.

A history of resistance

"If you don't know very much about Native American people, you wouldn't understand that this is something that's kind of natural to us," Ruth Hopkins, a reporter for Indian Country Today and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation, told NPR. "When we have ceremonies, we do camps like this. It's something that we've always known how to do, going back to pre-colonial times."

Perhaps the most prominent American Indian resistance effort took place in the late 1800s when more than 10,000 members of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes set up camp at the Little Bighorn River in Montana to resist the U.S. Army's effort to displace them after gold had been discovered in the area. In June of 1876, army soldiers attacked the camp but were ultimately driven back in what became  known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or (Gen. George) Custer's Last Stand, a major land rights victory for the tribes.

Notable American Indian civil rights and resistance efforts in more recent history include the emergence of the American Indian Movement in 1968, the the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and the 71-day showdown at Wounded Knee in 1973.

Broken treaties

indian-reservationsStanding Rock protesters also argue that the land in question legally belongs to their tribe under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which was signed by eight tribes and the U.S. government. For more than a century, the tribes have waged legal battles against the government for failing to honor this or other treaties like it.

U.S.-American Indian relationships have been fraught with broken promises. [Scroll through this fascinating timeline of treaties.]

As noted in a recent New York Times editorial: “The Sioux know as well as any of America’s native peoples that justice is a shifting concept, that treaties, laws and promises can wilt under the implacable pressure for mineral extraction.”

Up until 1871, when the federal government ceased to recognize tribal nations as sovereign entities (a policy that continued for roughly a century), it signed nearly 400 treaties with American Indian tribes. The agreements were often considered last-ditch efforts by tribes to preserve what territorial rights and security they could in the face of the United States' insatiable thirst for land and resources. But the agreements were often ignored or broken when financial opportunity arose, leading to the further displacement of tribes, who were pushed them farther West into increasingly undesirable areas.

"In treaty discussions, US troops often intimidated the negotiators, federal agents misrepresented the terms of agreement, and land speculators bribed participants," writes Claudio Saunt, a history professor at the University of Georgia and director of The Invasion of America mapping project. "In desperate times, Indians signed away their homes in order to feed themselves and their families."

Between 1776 and 1887, the project notes, the United States used treaties and executive orders to acquire more than 1.5 billion acres from America's indigenous people.

The project maps every treaty and executive order during that period, and also shows the location of present-day federal Indian reservations.

The data are based on the maps produced by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1899.  Below is a time lapse of land seizure. Explore the project's in-depth interactive map here.


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