Opinion

Defeating the Dakota Access Pipeline

“For Potawatomi people, our culture and philosophy of governance are built off of a seasonal round system in which human society is carefully structured to adjust to the dynamics of ecosystems.”

This blog, in its entirety, was sourced from the University of Sydney blog – Sydney Life. To Access the original blog, click here.

On Tuesday 21 February 2017, SEI in partnership with Sydney Ideas presented public lecture by Associate Professor Kyle Powys Whyte, of Michigan State University. Kyle spoke about his work on climate and environmental justice and writings on the #NoDAPL movement.

In the lead-up to the event, I spoke to Kyle about his research on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I am incredibly honoured to have this opportunity, not just because Kyle has published invaluable research on the DAPL, but because over the past year I have followed the case and Kyle’s research closely.


What led you to become a researcher and activist on issues surrounding Indigenous peoples and the environment?

As a Potawatomi person, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, I’ve always been deeply interested in human interactions with ecosystems.

For Potawatomi people, our culture and philosophy of governance are built off of a seasonal round system in which human society is carefully structured to adjust to the dynamics of ecosystems. I am rather fascinated with how that system is completely different from some of the governance systems we grapple with today.

Moreover, my Tribe was forcibly relocated in the 19th century from our homelands to completely different ecosystem hundreds of miles away. That collective memory and the legacies of relocation figure importantly in driving my interest to think about how human societies can adapt to live in new ecosystems.

My Tribe experienced environmental injustice throughout our history with the U.S., and I have been concerned about identifying these patterns with my Tribe and others too, then thinking more broadly about Indigenous peoples everywhere.

Can you briefly summarise what the Dakota Access Pipeline is, and why you believe it is so important to prevent it from being completed?

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a business enterprise that seeks to find a more profitable way to deliver oil to refineries from particular oil fields in North Dakota than the current options, including rail transportation. The pipeline is also supposed to be safer than rail.

The problem is that the current construction path of the pipeline was moved due to concerns about water safety from a path closer to the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, to an area within the ancestral and treaty territory of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The pipeline must pass underneath the Missouri River, which is a major water source for the Tribe and a place infused with the Tribe’s living heritage.

The pipeline project is wrongful both because of its risks to water and cultural heritage (and it is questionable how well the U.S. consulted the Tribe in advance) but also, and perhaps fundamentally, because it is another attempt to use the Tribe’s land in a long history of the U.S. and business interests reducing and degrading the Tribe’s land in ways that prevent the Tribe’s self-determination.

What do you think the next step should be in the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Resistance to the pipeline needs to keep occurring on large scales. We need to keep showing on the ground that the pipeline is wrong and unjust but also that as Indigenous peoples our forms of resistance are about prayer and ceremony.

Other people who participate directly in the actions on the ground need to learn from elders and others who are there about what it means for acts of resistance to be a ceremony, so to speak.

At another scale, people need to financially support the legal battle that the Tribe is involved in, as well as the specific organizers in the Tribe.

What can University of Sydney students do locally to support this movement?

Hold events on campus that raise awareness of the injustice of DAPL and draw connections with analogous struggles in Australia.

The University of Sydney’s curriculum should equip students to be able to understand why something like DAPL is an injustice, meaning that courses should cover the history of Indigenous peoples in places now commonly referred to by most as Australia or the U.S. Without infringing on academic freedom, there is a space to bring attention to students’ desire for curriculum that teaches people about issues that are often ignored, such as histories of Indigenous land dispossession, that ultimately frame the most pressing issues of injustice today.

University of Sydney students should harness the energy of #NoDAPL in events looking at wider issue related to the global impact of the Trump administration (which has recently endorsed DAPL, re-energising DAPL) and connecting the dots of the U.S. and international finance structure that supports environmental injustice everywhere.


Anastasia Mortimer is SEI’s Knowledge Translation Officer & Communications Coordinator. In 2016, Anastasia completed Honours in Sociology at the University of Sydney and was one of SEI’s Honours Research Fellows. Anastasia is a passionate advocate for indigenous rights, feminism, animal rights and veganism.