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Construction of Dakota Access Pipeline May Have Bulldozed Indigenous History

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in August, as seen in New Salem, North Dakota (photo by Tony Webster/Flickr)
The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in August, as seen in New Salem, North Dakota (photo by Tony Webster/Flickr)

Last Friday, Tim Mentz, Sr., former Standing Rock Sioux tribal historic preservation officer, filed a declaration with the US district court detailing archaeological sites, including graves, alongside the planned pathway of the Dakota Access Pipeline. By Saturday morning, bulldozers had plowed through those sites, gouging a blank path of earth across land once populated with bones and cairns. “Even without a formal damage assessment, my conclusion from what I have been able to see is that any site that was in the pipeline corridor has been destroyed,” Mentz stated in a new declaration supporting a request for a temporary restraining order on the site.

On Tuesday, US District Judge James Boasberg did order a temporary halt to the pipeline construction in South Dakota, although it can still continue on private property. By then, however, the ruination was irreversible, that long history of the indigenous people on the land obliterated. A procession of demonstrators who encountered Saturday’s wreckage were met by private security agents and trained dogs, leaving several people bitten and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department describing the “crowd of protestors” as “violent” as they reacted to the destruction.

The face off between the demonstrators and the construction site’s security team can be seen in the video from Democracy Now! below:

The $3.8 billion pipeline being built by Energy Transfer Partners slices through four states, and concern is not just for the preservation of cultural sites, but for the safety of the drinking water. Environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation (NWF), have decried the approval of the pipeline by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s national director for tribal partnerships, and Jim Murphy, NWF senior counsel, wrote in an August 31 post that, through the Clean Water Act, the “Corps can issue expedited permits for activities that will only cause minimal adverse impacts.” By treating “each water crossing like it’s an independent project not connected to the other pipeline crossings,” Voggesser and Murphy argue that the Corps is disregarding the broader evaluation necessary for a nearly 1,200-mile-long project.

The pipes are not elevated, but instead bore under the Missouri River, and future degradation could impact the irrigation of nearby crops, the water’s quality, and its safety for consumption. Hyperallergic’s request for comment from Energy Transfer Partners was not returned at the time of publication. On its site for the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, the company states that it “will enable domestically produced light sweet crude oil from North Dakota to reach major refining markets in a more direct, cost-effective, safer and environmentally responsible manner.”

The Sacred Stone Camp protest site for the Dakota Access Pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota (photo by Tony Webster/Flickr)
The Sacred Stone Camp protest site for the Dakota Access Pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota (photo by Tony Webster/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a federal lawsuit on July 27 to stop the pipeline’s construction, and a judge is expected to make a ruling tomorrow. In a release on September 3, the Tribe affirmed that it was “not properly consulted before the US Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked construction approval.”

In April, the Sacred Stone Camp was set up alongside the planned route of the pipeline; now hundreds of tribes who have joined the protest in North Dakota in a massive movement of solidarity. The ground that the pipeline drives through is the ancestral land of the Lakota and Sioux, the rights to which have been eroded through broken treaties, such as 1868’s Treaty of Fort Laramie, which originally claimed to protect their life on the Black Hills. Notably, the Sioux Nation has refused to accept money for the land, as doing so would end their legal claims on the Black Hills.

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in July, as seen in South Dakota (photo by Lars Plougmann/Flickr)
The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in July, as seen in South Dakota (photo by Lars Plougmann/Flickr)

“These things keep happening, and the indigenous people are taking a stand and saying no, we are not allowing this to happen any longer,” Erin Joyce, a curator active in the Native political landscape (and a Hyperallergic contributor), told Hyperallergic. “What is also interesting is that this has taken place the same year as the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). To many, the NPS seems like a good thing. However, for American Indians, it represents oppression as an agent of colonialism that forced Native people from their lands under government-sanctioned acts.”

Cannupa Hanska Luger, an artist who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation, recently returned from the demonstrations to work on a mural in Atlanta at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (through the nonprofit Living Walls) to bring greater attention to the pipeline.

“We have creation stories that are bound to the geography, not to mention these sacred sites for prayer and burial, and when they plow through these places, it’s a systematic erasing of the land that we come from,” Luger told Hyperallergic. “The thing that’s most hurtful for that is, I have two little boys. When your history is bound to the landscape, I can take them to places and tell them the stories, and have points of reference I believed would always be there. Despite what fences were put up, I believed those places would remain. The removal of the sites makes it even more difficult when our traditions are oral and when those regions are desecrated and removed and demolished, it’s hard to find the point of reference to bind your story to the landscape you’re from.”

Cannupa Hanska Luger
Cannupa Hanska Luger working on his mural at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (courtesy the artist, via Instagram)

Luger grew up on a reservation situated on the Bakken oil field, which feeds the Dakota Access Pipeline, and has already seen how the removal of oil from the earth can scar a landscape. He explained that graves, cairns, and remains of villages are all along the Missouri River, squarely in the pipeline’s future path, but it’s the threat to the river itself that he finds even more troubling.

“We have alternatives to oil, we don’t have alternatives to water,” he said. “If they build a bridge where they’re planning to build the pipeline, you wouldn’t see this. We’re just trying to protect water as a basic human right.”

Luger’s piece is focused on three portraits of the female leaders in the camps who he says have been running the movement on the ground. When completed, their faces will be partly submerged, their mouths dipping into the Missouri River, with the natural landscape flowing around them. The whole panorama is meticulously built with nails and string.

“For every nail in the coffin, it binds our connectivity,” Luger said. “And we’re all connected.”

Update, 9/9, 3:00 pm: U.S. District Judge James Boasberg denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to stop the pipeline construction. According to the Associated Press, it was “a one-page ruling that included no explanation,” and asks all parties to join a September 16 status conference.

Update, 9/9, 3:55 pm: The Department of Justice issued a release that stated that while they “appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act,” they acknowledge the issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other nations and will temporarily halt construction:

The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws. Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time. The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution. In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.

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