Trouble in the Pipeline: Native American Environmental Activism on the Rise

Dakota Access Pipeline

Less than a year after the Obama administration blocked construction of the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline, environmental activists have forced another pipeline project, the Dakota Access pipeline, into the media limelight.  The Dakota Access pipeline is an 1170-mile, four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline being constructed by Energy Transfer Partners, Inc. to send 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the oil fields of western North Dakota to Illinois, where it would be linked with other pipelines.[i]  This and other pipeline projects have been proposed as a safer alternative to rail transport, which has suffered from several significant derailment accidents. In June, a Union Pacific train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames in Oregon, forcing the evacuation of a school and the closure of a highway and in 2013, a runaway train in Canada crashed, killing 47 people and destroying buildings in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic[ii], prompting increased pressure to find a safer alternative.

At the center of this protest movement is the Standing Rock Sioux, who claim that the current pipeline path would involve the destruction of a considerable number of sacred burial mounds outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.  The pipeline, which crosses under the Missouri River upstream of their reservation, would also endanger the water source essential to their way of life if it were to leak. These and other concerns have created a growing protest camp just outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.  Thousands of environmental activists and tribal representatives from over 200 tribes have poured into the camp in recent weeks, leading daily parades on foot and horseback to block the path where preparatory work has begun on the pipeline.[iii]  This has sparked clashes between protesters and private security contractors working for Energy Transfer Partners which turned violent last week when private security guards employing pepper spray and guard dogs clashed with protesters whom they claim had been throwing rocks at workers.[iv] At least six protesters were bitten, including one child, and over 30 protesters were pepper sprayed. Four guards and two dogs were also injured in the encounter.[v]   The protests have led to over 20 misdemeanor arrests, including that of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, her chief aide, and independent journalist Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow, who filmed the clash[vi].

This protest movement has occurred alongside a legal battle between the Standing Rock Sioux and the Army Corps of Engineers in federal court surrounding whether or not the tribe had been properly consulted on the project.  As the pipeline is constructed almost exclusively on private land and doesn’t pass through reservation, there has been little regulatory oversight by the federal government.  However, since the pipeline crosses the Missouri River, it needs federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.  A federal judge ruled last Friday, September 9th, in favor of the Army Corps of Engineers, but immediately after this decision the Departments of the Interior and the Army agreed to a temporary pause in construction at that location until the tribe’s concerns can be heard by the agencies which approved the permit. The Justice Department and other agencies have also called for “serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”[vii]

This fight has deep historical resonance for the Standing Rock Sioux, one of six reservations created in 1889 breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation following the US Congress’ 1877 unilateral annexation of the Sacred Black Hills.[viii]  This is not their first fight with the Army Corps of Engineers. Fifty years ago, hundreds of Native American families lost their homes and land to rising waters after the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam along the Missouri River, part of a huge midcentury public-works project approved by Congress to provide electricity and tame the river’s floods.[ix] The tribe has spent more than 20 years trying to gain control of 19,000 acres of waterfront land that was taken through eminent domain during dam construction. 56,000 acres of Standing Rock Sioux land had been condemned for the dams and 190 families relocated, one of 23 tribes affected by the project.[x]  Needless to say, it’s not surprising that preliminary discussions between the Corps and the tribe were perceived as insufficient and the tribe feels a sense of déjà vu.

This protest is part of a recent upsurge of Native American environmental activism starting with the 2015 high-profile protests of the Keystone XL pipeline.  Native American tribes in both the United States and Canada played a central role in the four year battle which secured President Obama’s veto of the pipeline in the days leading up to the Paris talks on global climate change.[xi]  Only time will tell if these protests can take the recent moves by the Departments of the Army, Interior, and Justice and turn them into practical reform over how the federal government handles infrastructure projects affecting Native Americans.  However, the pipeline issue has become a rallying point between Native American tribes and signals an increasingly united and determined native voice in environmental politics.

[i] Jack Healy, “North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Who’s Fighting and Why”, The New York Times, August 26, 2016.

[ii] Reuters, “North Dakota Pipeline Fight Gives Spark to Native American Activism”, The New York Times, September 7, 2016,

[iii] Zoë Carpenter, “The Standing Rock Sioux Have Been Heard. Now What?”, The Nation, September 13, 2016,

[iv] Carpenter. “The Standing Rock Sioux Have Been Heard. Now What?”

[v] The Associated Press, “Oil Pipeline Protest Turns Violent in Southern North Dakota”, The New York Times, September 3, 2016,

[vi] Carpenter. “The Standing Rock Sioux Have Been Heard. Now What?”

[vii] Jack Healy and John Schwartz, “U.S. Suspends Construction on Part of North Dakota Pipeline”, The New York Times, September 9, 2016,

[viii] “History”, Standing Rock Sioux, accessed September 13, 2016,

[ix] Jack Healy, “I Want to Win Someday: Tribes Make Stand Against Pipeline”, The New York Times, September 8, 2016,

[x] Ibid

[xi] Coral Davenport, “Citing Climate Change, Obama Rejects Construction of Keystone XL Oil Pipeline”, The New York Times, November 6, 2015,


Daniel Runyon, United States,


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