As the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) continues operating in violation of the law and the wishes of the vast majority of Lakota People, it takes its place among a long-standing tradition of similarly problematic projects throughout the history of this land. When we look at the Sandy Lake Tragedy of the Ojibwe Peoples, the horrific Trail of Tears, Indian boarding schools, all the broken treaties, and mining projects and oil pipelines constantly railroaded through frontline communities, one thing rings true: The U.S. government’s lack of care for and honesty with Indigenous Peoples has always led to reprehensible injustice.
Throughout history, blatant racism was right out front. Today, these injustices usually take subtler — but still insidious — forms. One of those is failing to live up to the promise of nation-to-nation tribal consultation when it comes to infrastructure projects, much less seeking tribal permission, which the United Nations ascribes as a right of Indigenous nations. More specifically, tribes may be given lip service, but not much else. In a world where they don’t have the information, tribal nations are thus unable to provide real input into processes and projects that directly impact their ways of life. Lack of transparency, then, is a modern equivalent of lying during treaty negotiations, siloing tribal communities onto reservations, or condemning children to the horrors of residential and boarding schools.
According to DAPL’s website, parent company Energy Transfer intends to live up to transparent and communicative standards. “We will listen to, and strive to understand, stakeholders' concerns while negotiating honestly and in good faith,” they write. “Energy Transfer is committed to building trust, delivering mutual advantage and demonstrating respect for human dignity in all relationships.”
In light of DAPL’s heavily redacted emergency response plans and insufficient Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) drafts provided to the Standing Rock Nation, however, this doesn’t ring true. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the pipeline project, conveniently hired an Energy Transfer ally — Environmental Resources Management (ERM), an oil industry consulting firm and members of the American Petroleum Institute — to draft most of the EIS. This same firm also participated in litigation against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which calls ERM’s participation a conflict of interest. Thus, the tribe is now calling for the public to demand a new and valid EIS and the shut down of this illegal pipeline. If you have not done so, please submit your comment and make your voice heard.
Though the Army Corps of Engineers is currently accepting public opinions regarding the EIS, it blocked tribal leaders and advocates during “public” meetings. The Corps did not set up a microphone and moderator until a story broke in the Associated Press about the undemocratic feedback process. Even now, the Corps has said it will not treat all comments as equal in validity, clearly suppressing the voices of Indigenous People and allies like you. It’s as if the Corps begrudgingly allows public participation only in order to appear “democratic.” There is a clear lack of maintenance regarding “respect for human dignity in all relationships” and listening to Native voices in “good faith.” Their latest draft EIS — weighing in at a hefty 438-pages — remains devoid of any content indicating respect for tribal concerns. The demonstrated lack of will to be transparent in their proceedings or address tribal feedback is beyond alarming.
Lakota Law co-produced the Dakota Water Wars video series with Standing Rock and the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance. In Chapter 18, Standing Rock’s water resources director Doug Crow Ghost brilliantly critiques the lack of transparency regarding DAPL’s emergency response plans by showing page after page of officially redacted information — placing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in further danger. “In order for me to do my job, we need information, and this information has not been given to us. It is for a pipeline that could potentially threaten 18 million users downstream,” he says.
Dakota Water Wars, Chapter 18: No Transparency = No Democracy
Let’s look a little deeper at the history showing the United States government’s storied tradition of lying to and coercing Native Peoples, starting with the Sandy Lake Tragedy. In the 1850s, the U.S. government lied to the Lake Superior Ojibwe, saying the Native People should leave their home in so-called Wisconsin to receive annual treaty payments in Sandy Lake, located in so-called Minnesota. The money never arrived, and the government provided only spoiled rations. When many Ojibwe tried to go back to Wisconsin, they suffered disease, starvation, and hypothermia, resulting in the death of 400 people.
In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson imposed another horrific forced migration, which has come to be known as the Trail of Tears. The Treaty of New Echota — which gave the federal government 7 million acres of ancestral tribal lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for $5 million and other concessions — relied on the negotiations between the government and a group of men who did not represent the entirety of the Cherokee Nation. When this news spread, petitions were organized and 14,000 signatures were collected in protest of the treaty.
Jackson signed it anyway. Peoples from a number of Native nations, including the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago, were forcibly removed from their homes and given no preparation for what lay out west. Once again, disease, starvation, and exposure caused the death of many. When Indigenous Peoples are lied to and denied a platform to be heard, devastation is sure to follow.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is currently facing injustice in their resistance to lithium mining in Thacker Pass, a spiritually significant site for the Paiute and Shoshone People. It is the site of two massacres. One occurred in 1865 during the Snake War, in which 60 percent of Paiute people were killed. The second was an inter-tribal conflict with Native adversaries from the west. The ancestral remains still lay in Thacker Pass, yet zero consultation with Indigenous Peoples occurred before the mine’s Record of Decision was signed in 2021, nor was notification even sent out about the project. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the federal group conducting the operation — lied about tribal consultation, saying they sent notification of the lithium mining to three of 22 tribes. No record has been found.
Even if an alert is given, notification is not consultation! There has been little transparency regarding the mine’s scope of the work and illegal procedures at every turn. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP suits) followed against mine protestors to intimidate and coerce them through costly legal burdens. Tribes contend that the BLM has violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act and that it’s also guilty of Breach of Contract. Yet, any opposition to the mine’s buildout and eventual operations has been immediately silenced.
Yankton Sioux activist Faith Spotted Eagle speaks to the systems of oppression the government imposes on tribal nations in the Chapter Five of the Dakota Water Wars series: “We are fighting against people who work 9-5 to oppress us,” she says. “They’re paid to create these structures of violence. They are gatekeepers who appoint themselves as the people to talk to Native People.”
Water Wars, Chapter 5: Ignoring Tribes, Ignoring Laws
Even when we’re taught about our national history in school, there is often not much transparency regarding what really happened. History books and teachers often talk about Native Peoples like they only exist in the past — and the U.S. government’s damage and culpability are not reliably taught either. History should be our greatest teacher. When we are not honest in modern education, these events and injustices will continuously, inevitably repeat themselves.
Lakota wisdom keeper LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who recently passed, spoke to the importance of cultural preservation in an interview with YES! Magazine. “The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas, and as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people,” she said. “These sites must be protected, or our world will end. It is that simple. Our young people have a right to know who they are. They have a right to language, to culture, to tradition. The way they learn these things is through connection to our lands and our history.”
Perpetrators of continued colonialism like to pretend the lack of transparency toward and respect for Native Peoples is something of the past — that tragedy only occurred in historical contexts. But it is still happening today, with regularity. The Dakota Access pipeline is just one example of how opacity toward Native Peoples and the failure to listen to Indigenous knowledge is an ongoing offense inflicted by the U.S. government. That’s more dishonesty and injustice.
Despite the Army Corp’s repeated attempts at silencing Native voices, the fight to #EndDAPL is not over. The health of the Missouri River — an invaluable water source for the Standing Rock Nation and so many others — and the delicate ecosystems she supports is at stake. The public comment period is open through Dec. 13, 2023. Please submit your comment now. Let’s give it everything we’ve got to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline once and for all.