Native Sovereignty and the Dakota Access Pipeline

About this Episode

Guests
David Nichols, Christine Ballengee Morris, Daniel Rivers

As the struggle between members of the Standing Rock Reservation and their allies against the Dakota Access Pipeline coninues, History Talk takes a look at the long-term patterns of Native American relations with the U.S. government. Hosts Jessica Blissit and Brenna Miller and guests David NicholsChristine Ballengee Morris, and Daniel Rivers discuss the specific environmental and sovereignty concerns surrounding construction of the DAPL, as well as how this issue fits into the larger history of Native American treaties, resistance, and protests.

For more on the Standing Rock protests, see Origins' article, "Treaties and Sovereign Performances, from Westphalia to Standing Rock."

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Cite this Site

Jessica Viñas-Nelson, Brenna Miller , "Native Sovereignty and the Dakota Access Pipeline" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
February, 2017
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/native-sovereignty-and-dakota-access-pipeline?language_content_entity=en.
February, 2017

Transcript

Brenna Miller 

Welcome to History Talk the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Brenna Miller.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

And I'm your other host Jessica Blissit. In dramatic protests since August 2016. Native Americans and their allies have gathered on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and throughout the US to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, in an area that will threaten their water supply should the pipeline leak. After months of silence from the Obama administration and clashes with the police, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced in December that it would look into alternative routes.

 

Brenna Miller 

The new Trump administration, however, has reversed course, in an executive order issued on his very first week in office, President Trump greenlit pipeline construction, claiming it as a necessary component of the nation's infrastructure and oil security and a means to create American jobs. Today, we have three panelists to help us tease out the issues at stake in North Dakota and the entangled questions surrounding oil infrastructure, Native American sovereignty, rights and environmental concerns.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Via phone from Indiana State University, we have Dr. David A. Nichols an Associate Professor of History specializing in early American Native American history.

 

Dr. David Nichols  

Hello.

 

Brenna Miller 

And in the studio, we have with us Christine Ballengee Morris, a professor at Ohio State University's arts administration education and policy department and the American Indian Studies coordinator for OSU.

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

Hello there.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

And finally, we also have from Ohio State University, Daniel Rivers an Associate Professor specializing in 20th century LGBT communities, Native American's history, sexuality and protest movements.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

Hello, thanks for having me today.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thank you to all of you for joining us today. So our first question, David, could you give us a brief overview of the protests over the North Dakota Access Pipeline? Who are the protesters? What exactly are they protesting? And what's the background on the pipeline that we need to know

 

Dr. David Nichols  

Well, the Dakota Access pipeline is and approximately 2000-kilometer pipeline that connects the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota, to an oil storage center in South Central Illinois. The pipeline was approved several years ago and in early 2016, the officials of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation began to organize a series of direct-action protests against its construction in vicinity to that reservation. The core of the protesters are officials and activists from the Standing Rock community which is most directly threatened by the pipeline. They make the case that the pipeline crosses sovereign land guaranteed to the Sioux Nation by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie land that they never legitimately ceded  to the United States. The pipeline also crosses the Missouri River about half a mile upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, which threatens the water supply for that reservation and for about 15 million people downstream. In the case that it ruptures.

 

Brenna Miller 

Anything that either of our guests in studio would like to add to that?

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

I would add that one of the interesting things about the protests as they emerge in the spring of 2016, is that much of the initiative after the state approval of the pipeline went through on the part of the Standing Rock came from youth. And it was the Native youth among the Standing Rock who organized a walk, a relay race actually from the site to Nebraska in May of 2016, and really energized the protests.

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

I would also add that since the beginning of this protest, who is protesting has grown as well. And it includes even Vietnam veterans that have come to Standing Rock and actually create a sort of a wall at one point, making a point about the fact of you know, it's their country, it's our country, all of us should be concerned based on environmental issues. And also the Standing Rock American Indians, the Sioux are also very concerned about the fact that some of the land that the pipe will be going through is also a sacred land, where there's cultural artifacts. And I think we also have to take that into consideration as well.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

So with that in mind, has the protests become about more than just a particular pipeline? Does this case symbolize larger issues? And to what extent have the protest tapped into specific questions like sovereignty or climate change? Christine?

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

I really think one of the points is that it's a safety, it's a safety issue, environment issues. We are seeing some of the ramifications today of fracking, with the increase in changes in say in Oklahoma, as well as the impact of mountain topping in West Virginia where the soil and mudslides and so on go, I think the question becomes what happens if there's a leak? What happens to the water? What happens to the people? My goodness, we're right at the tail end of something. That's the catastrophe that's happened in Flint with water, although they're different in the sense of what we're of how this is happening. It's what we are doing, and we have choices. And I think that's what's in question at this point. But I also think that it is also an alternative way of thinking about land, and about sovereignty, and about promises and contracts that have been made with the American Indians that we also need to take into consideration. United States government has not had a good history when it comes to honoring those particular treaties and contracts.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

That's right. As David mentioned, several treaties in the Dakotas region signed in a period of US military aggression against the Lakota, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho in the 1850s and 1860s, predominantly the 1851 and 1868 treaties with the Lakota guarantee independence and sovereignty over exactly this territory.

 

Dr. David Nichols  

And I would add that the No DAPL protests also draw our attention to the ways indigenous sovereignty have been threatened. Additionally, by sub national and supranational groups. Regional governments, like the state of North Dakota have been deploying their militarized police power against the protesters, North Dakota called on not only many of its county police forces, but also on police assistance from other state governments, in order to, as they say, to restore order actually to help break up the protests. Similarly, it shows the ways in which indigenous sovereignty is threatened by supranational groups. So such as multinational corporations, Energy Transfer Partners, and in this case, is the corporation that is constructing the DAPL pipeline in order to transfer oil from western North Dakota to the rest of the United States.

 

Brenna Miller 

Is this a pan-Indian issue or a Standing Rock Sioux issue? So what's the history of pan-Indian activism? And have we seen alliances like this before? And likewise, is this more of an environmental protest or Native American protest? And can all this be separated?

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

I definitely think we have to see this as a pan-Indian protest. And there's a long history, of course of panned-Indian resistance. It's fitting that we discuss this here in Ohio, I think that much of this can be traced back to a moment in the late 18th, early 19th century, when the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, made a last-ditch effort to prevent settlement that was spreading across Pennsylvania and coming across the Ohio River into this region to push that settlement back. And to claim the territory for various Ohio tribes that were here. This was a central moment of panned-Indian resistance that we can see. Another important moment would be as the western wars ended, and the final hope of claiming territory and putting any limit on settlement declined in the 1880s. As part of the 19th century, we see a spiritual resistance movement called the Ghost Dance that emerges as a pan-Indian movement from the Great Basin region, but spread East across tribes and West and then coming out of a moment of, of deep crisis for Native American tribes in the United States that is marked by these Western wars and the establishment of non-reservation boarding schools. We see across the 20th century, the emergence of various cultural and artistic traditions that we could call pan Indian, we could use the powwow circuit as one example. And out of this comes a new consciousness of Pan-Indian identity and political Coalition's so I think we certainly have to place this in that long tradition in history. As to the second question, what aspects of this are environmental? What are Native American? I think that all of these things are intertwined in really, really crucial ways for us as we move forward and think about political coalition. One important point is the kind of broad-based Coalition's that we see here, groups like Black Lives Matter and Greenpeace have taken part in the protests and provided material support. And I think that that, that gives us a solid and critical precedent for political action. At the same time, the issues of the environment and the issues of sovereignty can be seen as tied together, in that many North American native tribes held to a held to various concepts that can be seen as ones of interdependency and focus on an interdependent relationship between individuals and the ecosystem were in which they resided. These notions of interdependency, I think, are crucial to the pan-Indian resistance to the understandings of the importance of the water, and to the issues of sovereignty that would hold to the critical nature of indigenous ways of seeing the world in this moment.

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

I would add for me, but what I see is happening is another version of colonization, which gives it the need for that pan-native coalition, because it speaks to many, many groups that have had in the past and even presently, still separate fights. My goodness, you had the copper mining in on the southwest. And you have just recently you had up in the First Nations you had the timbering and the mining that was between them and the Canadian government. So this is definitely a North America issue that we share, and that we need to support each other as it progresses and hopefully there's a win somewhere.

 

Dr. David Nichols  

I think that's well said. And I would add to Dan's excellent history of pan-Indian activism. The development also of more nonviolent forms pan-Indianism, sort of nonviolent infrastructure of pan-Indian activism in the early 20th century. First through the establishment of the Native American or peyote church, which was always a multiethnic organization from its very founding. Also through the creation of activist groups, like the Society of American Indians in the 19, teens and 20s. And later the American Indian youth movement in the 1960s. And then also, during the 1940s and 50s and early 60s, Native Americans began to interact on a much more regular basis with Indians from other tribal groups as a consequence of the Federal relocation program, which encouraged about 100,000 native people to relocate to cities like Chicago and Denver, and place them into fairly close contact with Indians from other national groups they might not otherwise meet. It's out of that particular process that organizations like the American Indian Movement grew by the end of the 1960s. The aim was was not a non-violent organization. But many of the other pan Indian activist movements that native peoples formed in the late 20th century have embraced that nonviolent direct action as a strategy.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

I do think that's really critical, David. And if we think about the history of non-violent native resistance, we see also ties to this understanding of the environment, the importance of sovereignty, both of these things. One good example I think, is fish-ins of the early 1960s were tribes of Israel civic Northwest, who had been guaranteed fishing rights by the governor of Washington territory in the mid-1850s, rights that had never been honored as commercial fishing arose as a very powerful industry in the Puget Sound area, those tribes began pushing back through a series of protests in the 1960s that we know as the fish-ins. These nonviolent protests were centered around sovereignty and treaty rights. They were centered around both a sacred and very important material relationship to the environment. They were met with violent aggression. But by the 1970s, they had pushed the courts to recognize those initial treaty rights.

 

Dr. David Nichols  

That's an excellent example.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

How does this protest fit into the larger history and patterns of protests and confrontations over similar issues before and what was their outcome?

 

Dr. David Nichols  

Well, I would say confrontations with whites over land have very rarely gone well. When Indians and European Americans have had disputes over life that have not ended violently. The US government has generally tried to settle them by paying Native American leaders or those that is identified as leaders token sums of money or aid in exchange for treaties that represented quick claims on the part of those tribal leaders to large parts of their nation's lands. The US government did so and it's 1851 and 68 treaties with the Sioux, for instance, that Dan previously mentioned, in the 20th century, the Indian claims commission, established in 1946, recognize that Indian nations didn't always receive compensation for lands they had ceded. And over the course of about 30 years, it paid out about $800 million in claims I'll be at for several million acres of land, so the actual payments were relatively small and acreage basis. Many Indian litigants in those cases wanted to have the lands that had been taken from them returned but the United States government was not interested in doing so it simply wanted to quiet the claims through the payment of money. When the Lakotas sought Return of the Black Hills of South Dakota in the claims commission proceedings. They ultimately had to go to federal to other federal courts and eventually got a ruling in their favor in 1980, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the seizure of that territory had been illegal and mandated compensation. But the Lakota and Dakota Sioux have subsequently refused to take the money because they want the land back. They don't want to silence their claim to it.

 

Brenna Miller 

Are there any other different conflicts over different kinds of issues in the past culture or autonomy on reservations?

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

When I think about this, I think one of the important things for students of Native American resistance movements, certainly for my students here at Ohio State one that surprises them, when we look at Native American resistance movements, certainly since World War Two, although groups like the National Congress of American Indians NCAI, and the American Indian Movement differ widely, as David correctly noted in terms of tactics in terms of their goals, they are remarkably similar. Sovereignty and treaty rights for Native American nations are fundamental to these post war, Native American movements, no matter which one they may be. So that models of assimilation versus revolutionary or revolutionary versus reform activities don't quite fit Native American post war resistance movements the same way that they might other movements. And I think that's an important lesson for students of Native American history and activism. Because it really does foreground, the way that many Native Americans see themselves as by national citizens. Certainly, I'm a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and I certainly see myself that way. And as such, we are primarily concerned with sovereignty and independence of our nations.

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

You know, and sovereignty is a complicated term that, that we we use, and it's sometimes viewed as a political place in space, which it is, but it also comes out of spirituality as well as a different way of knowing the world. And, and so there's different layers, to the ideas of sovereignty, and philosophy. And I do like to add that it is also a philosophy, a way of being in this world. So it really begins with creation stories. Of course, all nations have different creation stories. But certainly, some of the similarities is the elements, the land and the water, as we have been talking about. And so it comes to a deep place. It's not only the head, it's in the heart. And as my grandmother would say, some people are right hearted and wrongheaded. And some people are right headed and wrong hearted. And you got to figure out which one you want to be in the way that you navigate the world. But it really is about how you see yourself. And one of the I think, for me, the fundamental difference in my growing up and understanding the philosophy in which I was coming up in was that I was not the center of the world. We are all centers of the world. And that's a different way of looking at our world then a Western view. And I hate to generalize it in saying Western, but I don't know how else to make that statement. But we're certainly not I did not grow up to know and think that I was the center of the world. It was my responsibility to be a part of the world.

 

Dr. David Nichols  

I think that that Christine's point about sovereignty is is a very important one. And I think she's absolutely right, that sovereignty is a very complicated term, scholars would say a very multi valence term for Native Americans. It refers to the rights of people to determine their own collective identity, who gets to belong to a particular Indian nation and how identity gets to be defined. It refers to the ability of a people to preserve continuity with the past their economic and religious traditions. It refers also to the more modern sense of sovereignty as the right of a people to have some political control over their own destiny, and to maintain equal or equitable government to government relationships with other sovereigns in the case of Native Americans. That usually, but not always means the US government. So conflicts that Indians enter into with American governments, while they appear might appear to be economic or religious are always in some way or other go back to that ultimate question of maintaining collective identity, maintaining collective autonomy, maintaining collective sovereignty.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

The current protest seems to be on a much larger scale than other recent protests, Native American protests, attracting many allies and attention across America, from environmentalist to celebrities. And most recently, even Malia Obama, there have been other violations of rights before so why has this protest taken off in the way it has?

 

Dr. David Nichols  

Well, protests have been an important part of Native American politics since at least the 1960s. Many of them have been regional and while they have attracted attention from the federal and state governments and from pan Indian movements such as aim, they've garnered relatively little attention in the national press. The Wounded Knee confrontation of 1973 was an important exception. In large part because of the violent tactics used by both sides. I think the no DAPL protests became noteworthy for two reasons having to do with more recent historical developments. A lot of the attention that was given to the protests was generated by the one-sided violence employed by law enforcement. And I think this elicited a great deal of sympathy from communities, like Ferguson, Missouri and St. Louis, similarly menaced by militarized police, which has become an issue of growing national attention in the last few years. And I think also the no DAPL protests became noteworthy and generated as much attention as they did, because of the protesters skillful use of social media to share their experiences, just as the aim members who occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, were very careful to bring in and carefully to use TV, news reporters to get their story out. So to the know DAPL protesters have used Twitter, and Facebook and other social media platforms to share their experiences and their story, and the nature of their protest with a much larger audience than they might otherwise have reached.

 

Dr. Christine Ballengee Morris 

I also think when I think of the figures that I hear, I think that strikes people, what is it $3.8 billion? That's quite a bit of investment, as well as what is it 470,000 barrels of oil a day? I can't even imagine what that looks like, and how many states that that will travel and who will it benefit? And, you know, just listening to President Trump just recently, we need to be relying on our own resources. Therefore, that's why we just need to finish that pipeline, and it will benefit everybody. I think without him really examining the critical issues that, you know, why are people protesting? And where is the assurance that the fears that people have won't happen? And of course, we know that they can't really promise that there will not be a catastrophe or a leak in the water, they can't promise that. And so those things are still, you know, obviously simmering, which is causing a very politically charged climate in South Dakota.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers   

That's right. I think both David and Christine bring up really critical points. And just underline the fear that exists in the minds of so many people about these pipelines that have actually been in the news, right, since at least 2010, when the original Keystone pipeline was approved, not the XL increase of the pipeline, but the original Keystone pipeline, that the Lakota also opposed, and that they lost that opposition for and when the Keystone pipeline was constructed, they were assured that, that the maintenance would be sufficient to prevent any leaks. But in actuality, from 2010 to 2016 15, leaks of that Keystone pipeline have occurred five of them in South Dakota, in the most recent in April of 2016, more than 16,000 gallons of oil was spilled 10 to 12 feet under Sioux lands. So I think the gap between the assurances that these energy companies have been giving now for really quite a long time. And the reality of what happens on the ground has really contributed and plugged into a deep and widespread fear of negligence on the part of corporations over critical environmental issues.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Any final thoughts?

 

Dr. David Nichols  

What might be of concern now at the moment to those who support the DAPL protest or no DAPL protest, and those who are taking part in it is how things are going to change with the new administration. And that raises the question of which agencies and government have jurisdiction over Native American rights and over land use and over the ability to continue the construction of pipelines like DAPL. Now Congress has had plenary power, as it's called over law and government on Native American land since 1885. But since the 1930s, it is ceded a fair number of those powers by statute to elected tribal governments beginning with the 1934. We are going to Indian Reorganization Act. It is possible that in a new administration, and with a not quite new Congress, but certainly one that that now has the support of a president of the same party, that some of those rights may be eroded by statute. What is more likely, I think, is that there will be pressure placed by the new executive upon the Army Corps of Engineers, which I believe either owns or has considerable authority over the land, which the pipeline crosses adjacent to the Standing Rock Reservation to clear the way and to speed the process of constructing the pipeline near Standing Rock, and also possibly that the new president might endeavor to use federal law enforcement assets to support and reinforce the state police who are already on the ground in South Dakota.

 

Brenna Miller 

We'll wrap it up on that note, thank you to our three panelists. David Nichols is an associate professor of history at Indiana State University, Christine Ballengee Morris, American Indian Studies coordinator at Ohio State University and Daniel Rivers is an associate professor at Ohio State University. If you'd like to learn more about this topic, see David Nichols new article from Origins, "Treaties and Sovereign Performances from Westphalia to Standing Rock."

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Thanks, everyone. This episode of History Talk podcast is brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative, and the Goldberg Center and the history department at Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, and our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening.

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