Showdown at Standing Rock

How Obama Can Still Reroute the Pipeline

An encampment at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, November 2016. Stephanie Keith / Reuters

In a bid to ease tensions over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, U.S. President Barack Obama announced on November 1 that the Army Corp of Engineers is considering alternate routes for 1,172-mile pipeline, which was designed to bring half a million gallons of crude from North Dakota’s Bakken fields across four states to Illinois. The pipeline’s path is set to cross the Missouri river within a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In his statement, Obama attempted to defuse the standoff between the pipeline company and its opponents - the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its growing ranks of allies, saying “we're going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

Obama’s recognition that the pipeline should be reconsidered is laudable, if long overdue. But rerouting the pipeline is no easy fix. Centuries of dispossession, colonization and annihilation have heightened the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s determination to protect its sovereignty. They believe that much of the land the pipeline traverses, was guaranteed to the Tribe by the Treaties of Fort Laramie of 1851 and 1868, and was wrongfully wrested away thereafter, markedly diminishing their territory. In other words, moving the pipeline a few miles further from the reservation boundaries but still within unceded Sioux treaty land will not resolve the conflict. Moreover, under the colonial legal paradigm, federal law ensures that Tribe’s have the right to meaningful consultation over projects that affect their ancestral lands, not merely those contained within their Reservations. International law requires the Tribe’s free, prior and informed consent to projects that affect them.  And even if a revised path circumvented treaty land altogether, the pipeline would still likely cross the Missouri River and imperil the Reservation’s drinking (and that of millions of others downstream) while further entrenching instead of easing the nation’s

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