The Dakota Access Pipeline: An Issue of Tribal Sovereignty

A few months ago I wrote a post about the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon by the Bundy brothers gang. They had come to the rescue (in their opinion) of locals who had been convicted of burning forest land. They saw these rural Oregonians as fellow victims of the federal lands policies—policies that deny them free use of public lands. They were not welcomed by most locals who preferred to handle the situation in their own way and resented the outsiders capitalizing on their site specific conflict.

The Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota have drawn thousands of sympathizers, Indian and non-Indian, from all over the country, who are encamped near the site of a proposed pipeline that would cross under the Missouri River just upstream of the reservation. They are protesting with the tribe against the pipeline company and what they see as the complicity of federal agencies. Non-Indian residents in the area are concerned for their property, and some are frightened by the mere presence of thousands of Indians so close by. But the tribal leadership expresses gratitude for the support that they feel will help draw attention to the injustice of the situation.

So, is this the same scenario—Malheur and North Dakota?

I would argue that the stakes are different, that this is an issue of tribal sovereignty, not an individual citizen complaint against the feds. This is about US history, treaties, court cases, and policies that define the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government. Standing Rock is calling for scrutiny of this relationship and a recognition of abuses in the past as well as the present. This is an objective shared by every federally recognized tribe across the country. The encampment at Standing Rock has galvanized tribal voices into a powerful protest. Many feel they are reclaiming a cultural identity and finding a new unity among tribal people which they hope to maintain and nurture.

But the two situations share one important reality. When all the commotion is over, the locals—in this case the tribe and their non-Indian neighbors —will need to resume the task of living side by side. As Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II reflected “I have to live here when everybody’s gone.” Public officials quoted in the recent New York Times article have started to talk about their hopes of a “peaceful endgame.” And a county commissioner summed up the future: “When this is all over, we’re still friends and neighbors.” The protest has empowered and emboldened Standing Rock, but it has also put yet another strain on local relationships. Perhaps coming from a place of greater strength, the tribe will be able to forge stronger relationships with their neighbors. After all, they share a deep love of the land and caring for their communities. All they have to do is reach across those fences with respect and a desire to be good neighbors. I wish them luck.