Take your oil, at the expense of the Sioux

In this Sept. 9, 2016 file photo, More than a thousand people gather at an encampment near North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux reservation. (James MacPherson/AP)

Over the past month, tensions have been high in North Dakota, where a crude oil company known as Energy Transfer Partners LP has been attempting to construct an oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois, according to a Reuters report. If completed, the pipeline will cross through land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, but claimed by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and it will pass under a nearby lake. As of yet, the oil company has used the principle of eminent domain to justify its seizure of this land, and hundreds of Native Americans have flocked to the site to join the largest Native American protest in decades. Though the Sioux tribe failed to win an injunction to stop the project, the Obama administration has halted construction until a Federal Appeals Court can review the case. In order to avoid doing a great disservice to the Native American community, the Appeals Court must rule against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The first issue with this case is the contested land through which the Dakota Access Pipeline will be constructed. According to the Associated Press, while the land legally belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers, many Native Americans believe that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe are still the rightful owners, due to a 150-year-old treaty. United States history is not lacking in discrepancies about what is and is not Native American land, making this case just one of many in which tribes lay claim to land that has been taken by the federal government.

Despite the fact that the land technically belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers, one of the grievances of the Standing Rock Sioux is that if the current construction plans are followed, the pipeline will cut through a sacred Native American burial site. This land has been given to Energy Transfer Partners under the clause of eminent domain, which Executive Order 13406 limits to “situations in which the taking is for public use, with just compensation, and for the purpose of benefitting the general public.” But how can the federal government compensate an entire tribe for invading their home, disrespecting their culture and destroying their burial grounds? It is difficult to imagine an oil company attempting build a pipeline through Storrs Cemetery, and even more difficult to imagine the state of Connecticut authorizing such a project under the clause of eminent domain. This hypothetical scenario, however, is not far from the reality at hand.

The Standing Rock Sioux have also expressed concern over the proximity of the pipeline to the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers, which provide drinking water for millions of Americans, including members of the tribe. While the tribe has been assured that the pipeline will be safe, and no leaks will affect their drinking water, many Native Americans are doubtful that any oil company can guarantee this over a longer period of time. As Dallas Goldtooth, a spokesperson for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in an Al Jazeera report, “It’s not a matter of if a pipeline spills, but when a pipeline spills. You have significant risk to a vast amount of drinking water supplied to North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa … all the way down.”

The United States has too long of a tradition of making false promises to Native Americans. If the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is allowed to continue, the Standing Rock Sioux will lose what little land they have left. They will lose a sacred burial ground, and their drinking water would be threatened by any possible mishap of Energy Transfer Partners. Therefore, to allow Native Americans to protest on federal land is not enough. To listen to their grievances, and at the same time continue to disrespect their culture, is not enough. To do justice to the Standing Rock Sioux, the federal government must decide to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or at least redirect it away from an area that has lost so much, and has so much more to lose.

Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.