Dakota’s Dividing Pipeline

Indigenous Resistance Against Big Energy

Protesters stand on heavy machinery after halting work on the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, September 6, 2016. Andrew Cullen / Reuters

In North Dakota, the Cannonball River joins the Missouri River near the grassy plains of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Since April, this juncture has become an epicenter of indigenous resistance to the United States’ powerful energy sector. The focus of the protest is the Dakota Access Pipeline, a planned 1,134-mile channel that would bring roughly half a million gallons a day of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field to Illinois. But the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is deeply worried that the $3.7 billion project of Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which would pass under the Missouri River a half mile from the reservation, would not only contaminate its lone source of drinking water but also destroy sacred cultural and tribal burial sites located along the pipeline’s path.

In April, a handful of the tribe’s water protectors, as the activists prefer to be called, gathered for the first time to pray at the Sacred Stone Camp along the water’s edge. The encampment’s numbers have since swelled to the thousands, spilling over to a larger camp across the river, uniting tribes that were once bitter rivals, and galvanizing environmental and climate activists. (The road leading into the main camp is now lined with the flags of hundreds of Native American tribes.) In short, this is no ordinary uprising. It is the largest Native American gathering in decades, and it has drawn support from as far away as Ecuador.

The legal dispute centers on the permits that the government gave Dakota Access for certain stretches of the pipeline that the tribe believes would affect its water source and sacred cultural sites. But the political fight involves issues such as tribal sovereignty and self-determination, freedom of expression and assembly, tensions between corporate, human, and environmental rights, and preserving indigenous ways of life. History looms large—resistance to the pipeline is deeply influenced by the centuries of displacement, forced assimilation, marginalization, and decimation that have

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