DAPL: Another Notch in the American Belt of Environmental Racism

The first Americans – the Indians – are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation. On virtually every scale of measurement – employment, income, education, health – the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom. This condition is the heritage of centuries of injustice. From the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands, and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny. ~ President Nixon, in a statement to Congress, 1970
My administration is determined to partner with tribes, and its not something that just happens once in a while. It takes place every day, on just about every issue that touches your lives. And that's what real nation-to-nation partnerships look like. ~ President Barack Obama, June 13, 2014 

The above quotes sounded promising; but, true to historically traumatic form, the reality has continued to play out in a very different manner.

The colonization of Indigenous peoples in this country has left a legacy of historical traumas that are cumulative and unresolved. Despite a litany of documented overtly hostile policies enacted by the United States government with regards to the "Indian problem," the issues that have continued to plague Native peoples rarely gain the attention of popular media. Instead, media and social networking sites focus on romanticizing the Native with their long flowing hair and "peace pipes" and sexualizing Native women with imagery depicting them scantily dressed with Caucasian features. At the other extreme of the narrative, we find "savages" stripped of their identities, converted to Christianity, and ultimately defeated by the United States. Little is presented about the effects of colonization and genocidal experiences or postcolonialism on Native American lifeworlds. While empirical studies of the effects of historical trauma on Native Americans’ well-being are growing in number, the available evidence indicates that genocidal experiences on Native peoples negatively affects their social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being (Alvarado, 2010; Duran & Duran 1995; Walters & Simoni 2002). That said, Native peoples are resilient, having endured ongoing injustice and unfair treatment throughout history. And despite the social problems experienced as a result of this injustice, they are strong and proud people.

There is a long history of federal extermination and assimilation policies with regards to Native Americans that include deliberate attempts by mainstream institutions such as government agencies, schools, and churches, to obliterate the foundations of Native American family systems, clans, tribal organizations, languages, religious beliefs and practices (Deloria, 1994; Heinrich, Corbine & Thomas, 1990; Locust, 1988; Reyhner & Eder, 1992). These policies have had a devastating effect on Native American identity development and so-called "nation-to-nation partnerships" (Herring, 1990; Locust; Mitchum, 1989; Sue & Sue, 1990). 

The Significance of Sacred Sites

In the Native American lifeworld, there is an intimate connection to origins, the land, and the natural world, as opposed to the heavenly world (Deloria, 1994). An excellent example of this is the common perception across indigenous cultures of the earth as Mother, the source of all life forms (Arbogast, 1995). Mother Earth is the source of cultural resources such as water and plants that provide the gift of life, sustenance, and healing. 

Geographic locations hold special significance to Native peoples because of what was experienced there in the past, as well as the continuity of the relationship between the land and the people over time. These places are remembered and considered sacred sites where ceremonies and rituals can be performed throughout the generations. Federal land management agencies, however, have historically disregarded Native people’s requests for the conservation of sacred land sites, and it wasn’t until 1978 that Congress passed the American Indian Freedom and Restoration Act (AIFRA; 42 U.S.C Section, 1996; 1998). The purpose of AIFRA was to force government recognition and respect of traditional Native American religious practices. Despite being granted the right to practice their religions, Native Americans continue to fight for the right to worship and pray in a manner that is unobstructed and meaningful. One of the main reasons for this continued struggle is the lack of understanding by the government of the central role sacred land sites play in Native American religious practices. To illustrate, one of the original sacred land site claims to transpire following the AIFRA was Sequoia versus Tennessee Valley Authority. Cherokee plaintiffs contested plans for the Tennessee Valley’s Tellico Dam, which would flood the Little Tennessee River Valley. Within the valley were several sacred sites central to the practice of the Cherokee religion, and the plaintiff’s claimed that flooding the valley would essentially prevent them from practicing their religion. While Judge Robert L. Taylor recognized this formally in his opinion for the court, he ultimately concluded that “the impoundment of the Tellico Dam has no coercive effect on plaintiff’s religious beliefs or practices” and that “the flooding of the Little Tennessee will prevent everyone, not just plaintiffs, from having access to the land in question” (Linge, 2000, par. 32, lines 6-7). Similar outcomes were experienced in 1977 by the Navajo (Badoni versus Higginson) regarding impounding the Colorado River water behind the Glen Canyon Dam, as well as the Lakota and Tsistsistas (Crow versus Gullett) 1983 claims that construction projects at Bear Butte and regulation of Native American access to Bear Butte violated their religious freedom. Other examples of government and corporate refusal to respect Native American religious practices as they relate to sacred land sites are evidenced in Inupiat Community v United States, Wilson v Block, Havasupai Tribe v United States, Attakai v United States, Manybeads v United States (see Linge, 2000 for details on all of these cases), and most recently, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (Case No. 1:16-cv-01534-JEB) filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on July 27, 2016.

The Dakota Access Pipeline Follows a Long History of Environmental Racism

According to the parent company of DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, the Dakota Access Pipeline will pump millions of dollars into the economy and create up to 12,000 jobs. The 3.7 billion dollar project will "carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the oil fields of Western North Dakota to Illinois, where it will be linked to other pipelines." In addition, Energy Transfer states "Protecting landowner interests and the local environment is a top priority of the Dakota Access Pipeline project. As an operating principle, Dakota Access Pipeline is committed to working with individual landowners to make accommodations, minimize disruptions, and achieve full restoration of impacted land. We will listen to and address questions from the community, landowners, and other interested stakeholders about the project, proposed routes, landowner communications and more. It is our intent to live up to our promises of openness, honesty, and responsiveness before, during and after construction and throughout operations."

According to the residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, comprised of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota in North Dakota and South Dakota, the pipeline is viewed as a cultural and environmental threat and is referred to as the "Black Snake." Of major concern is the desecration of sacred ancestral lands, including sacred burial sites, and the high likelihood of breaks in the pipeline which would poison the land and water. This concern is not unfounded, as there are regular occurrences of pipeline breaks across the country. The New York Times reports, "In 2013, a Tesoro Logistics pipeline in North Dakota broke open and spilled 467,000 gallons of oil onto a farm. In 2010, an Enbridge Energy pipeline dumped more than 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan resulting in a cleanup that lasted years and cost more than a billion dollars, according to Inside Climate News."

Another issue at hand according to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is the infringement on tribal sovereignty and a blatant disregard by the Army Corps of Engineers of federal regulations governing environmental standards and historic preservation. The Army Corps of Engineers is required to consult with the tribe prior to construction and reportedly failed to do so, and thus, the incident prompted the tribes' legal representatives to file a temporary restraining order in an effort to halt further construction of the pipeline in that location. Despite the injunction, DAPL has continued to encroach on the land, following a shameful history on the part of big corporations and the American government regarding their attitudes towards Native peoples. Eleven days following the filing of the injunction, Energy Transfer Partners files a suit against Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, Dave Archambault, II and others for obstructing construction of the pipeline. 

Unfortunately, there is a historical precedence for stealing land and ignoring the rights of Native Americans in this country, specifically with regards to the Sioux Nations. According to standingrock.org:
The Great Sioux Reservation comprised all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the sacred Black Hills and the life-giving Missouri River. Under article 11 of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the Great Sioux Nation retained off-reservation hunting rights to a much larger area, south to the Republican and Platte Rivers, and east to the Big Horn Mountains. Under article 12, no cession of land would be valid unless approved by three-fourths of the adult males. Nevertheless, the Congress unilaterally passed the Act of February 28, 1877 (19 stat. 254), removing the Sacred Black Hills from the Great Sioux Reservation. The United States never obtained the consent of three-fourths of the Sioux, as required in article 12 of the 1868 Treaty. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history." United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371, 388 (1980).

Indeed, there is perhaps no better illustration of the marginalized status of Native peoples than environmental racism, and if DAPL were a boy, it would be the reigning poster. Native American reservations have long been targeted for toxic waste dumps and nuclear testing (Bullard, 1994), and there are many instances of this practice. Environmental concerns among the tribes in Maine, for example, include exposure to mercury, dioxin, lead, and cadmium (Kuehnert, 2000). Besides concerns regarding the impact of these toxins on individual health, these toxins act as barriers to tribal members following traditional lifestyles and have a negative impact on spiritual and community health and wellbeing (Kuehnert). Unequivocally, environmental toxins are a major source of unwellness, causing disease by creating mental confusion, a weakened spirit, and “polluting the breath (the energy of life)” (Cohen, 1998, p. 49).

Following a long tradition of targeting Native communities for toxic dumps, the tiny Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians Reservation in Utah was marked for a very big nuclear waste dump in 2001 (Kamps, 2001). Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a limited liability corporation representing eight powerful nuclear utilities, sought short-term storage of 40,000 tons of commercial high-level radioactive waste (nearly the total amount that presently exists in the U.S.) next to the two-dozen tribal members who live on the small reservation. Unfortunately, this tiny, impoverished Native American community fell victim to environment racism before. In 1968, for example, Dugway Proving Ground tested VX nerve gas, leading to the "accidental" killing of 6,400 sheep grazing in Skull Valley. The toxic sheep carcasses were then buried on the reservation without the tribe’s knowledge, let alone approval (Kamps).

In addition to the obvious health concerns facing tribes who live near toxic waste dumps and nuclear testing is the impact these conditions have on intertribal relationships. Corporations typically offer thousands and even millions of dollars to impoverished communities in exchange for allowing them to park their waste in their backyards. Most tribes oppose such offers; however, in the case of the Goshute Indians, a lease with PFS was secretly signed without the knowledge or approval of the Skull Valley Goshute General Council (the 60 adult members who govern the tribe) by Tribal Chairman Leon Bear for an undisclosed amount of money. It is still unknown to anyone outside the three-member tribal executive committee how much money the tribe would receive for hosting the nation’s atomic waste dump, although estimates of the secretive payoff to the tribal council range from 60 to 200 million dollars (Kamps, 2001).

Environmental racism is traumatic on many levels to those who are affected (Markstrom & Charley, 2003). In 1939, Niels Bohr of Denmark, noted for his work with the atom, came to the United States with the news that German scientists were experimenting with nuclear power derived from uranium. Concerned that the Third Reich would produce nuclear weapons first, the United States commenced on its own research for the development of nuclear power (Hawkhill Associates, Inc., 1999). Thus, mining for uranium began in 1948 in over 60 locations on the Navajo Nation. In order to process the ore, four mills were built. While the industry brought jobs to the otherwise impoverished Navajo people, the workers were subjected to radioactive dust, sulfuric acids, sodium chlorate, radon gas, and solvents from the extraction operations, and what's more, were not told of the potential hazards of exposure (U.S. Department of Energy, 1995). Personal protective gear was not provided or available, and what resulted were malignant and nonmalignant respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, obstructive lung disease, silico-tuberculosis, and pneumoconiosis among the workers (Mulloy, James, Mohs, & Kornfield, 2001). Among the psychological repercussions found were themes of human losses and bereavement, environmental losses and contamination, feelings of betrayal by government and mining and milling companies, prolonged duration of psychological effects, anxiety and depression, and the psychological impacts and exacerbating conditions of poverty and minority status. In addition, there are concerns about the long-term genetic damages that may result from long-term exposure to uranium environmental hazards (Markstrom & Charley). 

Another example of environmental racism involved Native Americans living in six northern California forest tribal communities. Pesticides and herbicides were used on a wide scale commercial basis in the forests and roadsides during the 1960s for the purpose of eradicating invasive and noninvasive plant species deemed by chemical companies to compete with commercially valuable plants, and for reducing safety and fire hazards on roadside right-of-ways (Indian Dispute Resolution Services, Inc., 1997). The local Indian people were reassured that the chemicals had been tested and approved as safe for use. Intuitively, Native peoples believed the pesticides were dangerous and would cause illness. A subsequent increase of illnesses confirmed this belief; yet, the increased incidence of illnesses was discounted by the chemical companies as “statistically insignificant”. At the same time, there were several out-of-court settlements made by chemical companies during this period in response to suits filed by tribal members for health problems alleged to be caused by pesticides (Indian Dispute Resolution Services, Inc.).

According to the Indian Dispute Resolution Services, Inc. (1997), the trauma of the California Indians was not limited to health problems. For example, sacred sites used for ceremonial activities were contaminated, and plants and herbs used as traditional medicines became toxic. There was a noticeable decline in many fish, animal, and insect species, and ongoing aerial spraying contaminated dwellings, schools and water sources. All of this illness and toxicity was compounded by the insistence of chemical companies for full disclosure of sacred ceremonial sites and plants used for traditional medicines. The Indians feared full disclosure would result in further restrictions and damage to the sites. Furthermore, the disclosure of specific information was in violation of spiritual principles and beliefs. In the report, the Native tribes stated they felt important cultural patterns of life were disrupted, they felt their concerns were not taken seriously, and felt they had no rights as a people (Indian Dispute Resolution Services, Inc., 1997).

Standing Rock's Protest of DAPL

Environmental racism is a form of external oppression and one cause of internalized oppression. It is the unjust imposition of authority and power by one group over another and has devestating consequences. The divide and conquer dynamic that is set into motion when such issues are presented to disadvantaged populations sets a stage for ongoing oppression and a potential for disaster, but also for change. The residents of Standing Rock are exercising their right to peaceful protest. The current atmosphere of the country is such that Native peoples are no longer bowing to big corporations and are holding the United States accountable for their actions and lack of support in enforcing treaty agreements, and lack of intervention when human and civil rights are violated. 

The peaceful protestors of the Standing Rock Indian reservation have been joined by activists, environmentalists, and other allies from over 200 tribes as well as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson, Susan Sarandon, and Mark Ruffalo.

Sadly, the current presidential candidates have avoided the issue altogether. Only Green party candidate Jill Stein has visited the site and publicly declared support for the tribe. Stein states: 

The water protectors have invoked their rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which grants the Sioux Nation sovereignty over the territory. A Stein/Baraka administration would honor the Sioux claims under this treaty, as well as the right to free, informed, and prior consent under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We call for an immediate halt to the construction of the pipeline and all attempts on the part of the police to remove the water protectors.
We express our outrage and shame at the silence of the Obama administration and the other presidential candidates in regards to this human rights crisis. We stand with the 14-year-old girl who traveled to the Clinton campaign headquarters from Standing Rock today to deliver a letter appealing to Hillary Clinton for support. She was turned away at the door and the letter was not even accepted for review.

While it is true that a teenager was unable to meet with Clinton or her representatives, she was able to leave her letter, and later Clinton advisor Charlie Galbraith gave this official statement in response:

We received a letter today from representatives of the tribes protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. From the beginning of this campaign, Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects. Now, all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest. As that happens, it's important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators' rights to protest peacefully, and workers' rights to do their jobs safely.
Bernie Sanders also expressed support for Standing Rock and wrote an Open Letter to President Obama to Take a Bold Stand Against DAPL. In his letter, he urges the president to suspend all federal permits to the construction until the Army Corps of Engineers conducts a full environmental and cultural review of the area and to compel governor Dalrymple to remove the National Guard from the site in an effort to reduce tension. 

How You Can Help

Make a donation to the Official Standing Rock Sioux Tribe DAPL Donation Fund through PayPal! Donations will be used for legal, sanitary and emergency purposes!

Spread this article and others using the #NoDAPL hashtag and social media sites.

The following actions are suggested by the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Opposition page on FaceBook:

* Call North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200. When leaving a message stating your support for the NoDAPL movement please be respectful and ask for peaceful resolution, and that respect be shown for the constitutional rights of those engaging in nonviolent direct actions involving civil disobedience. Remind him that the 1960s Civil Rights movement gained success through similar peaceful actions and was met with extreme local state repression and violence that is unacceptable in the 21st century. Ask him to recuse himself from the State Industrial Commission and avoid conflicts of interest in his service to the People of North Dakota and Big Oil. Ask him to visit the camps and share prayers and songs with our people, to listen to us as human beings who want only to protect our children and our future generations, and our water.

* Call the Morton County Sheriffs Department at 701-667-3330 to ask them to demilitarize their tactics and protect ALL ND citizens and visitors. Request that they refrain from mass arrests, macing, clubbing, hooding, strip searching, and armed confrontation with UNARMED peaceful water protectors engaged in constitutionally protected civil disobedience. Ask them to inform their officers about treaty law, federal Indian law, and to provide training to their officers on sacred sites protections and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

*Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414. Tell President Obama to deny the Army Corps of Engineers’ Permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and remind his administration of their commitment to combating Climate Change, and to implementing green/renewable nrg solutions -- and that fracking and fracked oil are NOT clean nrg. Tell them that Bakken oil extraction pollutes our air and water and yields millions of gallons of radioactive water and waste that is destroying our region's future in the name of nrg security -- which is meaningless without water security in the arid Northern Plains.

* Call the Army Corps of Engineers and demand that they deny the DAPL the permit: (202) 761-5903
Remind them that the federally mandated Tribal Consultation Process is broken when Tribal Nations are merely informed that projects are already in process on our doorsteps, and we have been given no opportunity to propose alternatives.

*Call the executives of the companies that are building the pipeline:
Lee Hanse Executive Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6455 Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com

Glenn Emery Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6762 Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com

Michael (Cliff) Waters Lead Analyst Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 1300 Main St. Houston, Texas 77002 Telephone: (713) 989-2404 Michael.Waters@energytransfer.com



Alvarado, D. (2010). The Native American Wellness Scale (NAWS): An Intertribal Quality of Life Measure for Indigenous Populations. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Walden University.

Arbogast, D. (1995). Wounded warriors: A time for healing. Omaha, NE: Little Turtle Publications.

Bullard, R. D. (1994). Environmental Justice in the 21st Century

Deloria, V. Jr. (1994) God is red. A native view of religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

Duran, E. & Duran, B. (1995). Native American postcolonial psychology. Albany: SUNY Press

Heinrich, R. K., Corbine, J. L., & Thomas, K. R. (1990). Counseling Native Americans. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 128-133.

Linge, G. (2000). Ensuring the full freedom of religion on public lands: Devil’s Tower and the protection of Indian sacred sites. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, (27)2, 307-340. Retrieved from Academic Search Premiere database.

Locust, C. (1988). Wounding the spirit: Discrimination and traditional American Indian belief systems. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 315-330.

Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (1990). Counseling the culturally different: Theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Walters, K. L., & Simoni, J. (2002). Reconceptualizing Native women's health: An 'indigenist' stress-coping model. American Journal of Public Health, 92 ; 4, 520-525.

Keywords: #NoDAPL, Dakota Access Pipeline, Environmental racism, Lakota, Standing Rock, Sioux, sacred sites

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