Opinion

The North Dakota Access Pipeline and the Fight for Long-term Justice

Why the the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s battle for Justice has continued in 2017.

This blog has been adapted from an article written by Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte, titled ‘Five reasons why the North Dakota pipeline fight will continue in 2017’ as featured in The Conversation. 

In December 2016, the Sioux tribe and #NoDAPL movement experienced victory when Energy Transfer Partners (the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline’s development), were denied access to Sioux territory by the Army Corps of Engineers. This delayed Energy Transfer Partners from completing their plan to connect the oil fields of North Dakota with terminals and refineries in Illinois.

However, three weeks ago President Trump signed an executive order directing the Army Corps of Engineers to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. In a Presidential Memorandum Regarding Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for the secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers, Trump stated that they take all actions necessary to:

“Review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.”

The fact that Present Trump has pushed forward with the pipeline does not come as a surprise for some. Associate Professor of Michigan State University, Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte has previously cautioned that the victory in December 2016 (although monumental), would only provide temporary protection for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and argued that further battles for justice lie ahead.

In an article written by Whyte, featured in The Conversation, Whyte provides five reasons that he claimed would lead to the Dakota Access Pipeline going forward under the leadership of President Trump. In light of Trump’s recent executive order, we have summarised the points presented in Whyte’s article to help shed light on the underlying reasons why indigenous nations across the United States, continue to be disadvantaged in mineral development on their tribal lands.

The issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline have shown us that there is a need to reform consultation and consent requirements surrounding resource development and extraction on tribal land. Whyte argues that consultation requirements allowed for the Army Corps of Engineers and developers (before their denied easement to DTP) to “fulfill their duty to consult with the [Sioux] tribes, without really giving them a fair opportunity for free, prior and informed consent.” The numerous objections and concerns to development, expressed by the Sioux tribe were ignored by the Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners. Furthermore, the decision to develop the pipeline on the Sioux tribe’s territory, instead of Bismarck, North Dakota further highlights the necessity to implement policy and practice which respects indigenous interests and culture, and genuinely allows for free, prior and informed consent.

The injustices faced by the Sioux are not an isolated incident, as resource development and extraction projects continually occupy and destroy tribal lands and waters around the United States. For example, the Lummi tribe, the Menominee Nation, and the Navajo Nation have mounted campaigns of resistance against extractive industries and hydropower projects which impacted their land and waters.

Whyte cautioned that the threat of continued development loomed as the Trump administration came into power and discussed the possibility of privatising tribal lands.  Whyte highlights that Trump was previously a stakeholder of Energy Transfer Partners, but recent claims suggest that “Trump sold his stake in ETP… to explore policies that make it easier for extraction to occur on tribal lands.” Such policies would ultimately weaken tribal governmental sovereignty, and favour the economic interests of developers.

Whyte also suggested that it is unclear whether or not the #NoDAPL movement managed to educate the public on the injustices faced by the Sioux tribe. This stems from the refusal of mainstream media outlets across the U.S. to cover the Dakota pipeline and #NoDAPL movement. Also, U.S. public and private education fail to provide adequate coverage of indigenous histories and current issues. Due to the lack of available information, potential allies of indigenous peoples are often not aware of how they can contribute to lasting change outside of donations and “direct action” campaigns. “They do not, for example, seek to regularly pressure their political leaders to reform the U.S. government’s duty to consult with tribes before construction of projects.”

Lastly, it is essential that we recognise the role that colonialism plays in the past and present injustices experienced by indigenous people. Since colonisation, Nation States and companies have exploited indigenous people, their lands, and waters. This is commonly achieved in claims of economy building and national interest. This means that their interests and culture have continually been violated and overshadowed since colonisation to the present.  Whyte argues that “we must question why the underlying assumption is always that indigenous peoples must sacrifice their cultures, economies and political self-determination for the sake of the aspirations of businesses and U.S. national interests.”

As long as the public, governments, and corporations continue to place business interests over the needs and interests of indigenous people, the issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline will continue. As will similar projects that impede the rights, needs, and culture of indigenous people in the U.S. and across the world.

To access the original article, click here.

For more literature on the North Dakota Access Pipeline and the #NoDA movement, written by Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte, click here.

On Tuesday 21 February 2017, Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte will present a public lecture hosted by SEI in collaboration with Sydney Ideas. The lecture explores his work on climate and environmental justice and writings on the #No DAPL movement. For more information on this event, and to register, click here.


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.