“This conflict is nothing new for my people. America has been taking what isn’t theirs for centuries, and this is more of the same.”
Katie McCleary ’18 is one of the dozens of Native students at Yale who has protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) since April.
On December 4th, the Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement required for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross underneath Lake Oahe, which provides the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation land with freshwater. The decision will halt the construction of the pipeline for the immediate future while the Corps explores alternative routes. However, the decision to halt construction is not permanent and could change once President-Elect Trump is inaugurated and assumes control over the Army.
Under the rejected route, the Dakota Access Pipeline would have passed through more than a thousand miles of North Dakotan oil fields. To end at a river port in Illinois, it would have run under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A break in the pipeline would have leaked oil into the Sioux Nation’s water — and oil and water do not mix.
Greg Buzzard LAW ’18, a Native student studying Indian Law, acknowledged the immense importance that the anti-DAPL movement has had for America’s Native peoples.
“Tribes have protested a lot of things, but this is the biggest thing to happen to Indian country in thirty or forty years. Nothing has unified Native people in the same way for decades,” Buzzard told The Politic.
Supporters of DAPL argue that the pipeline’s construction would have serious economic benefits. If constructed, the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to Illinois. Executives at Energy Transfer, the corporation behind the pipeline, argue that it would have added thousands of jobs in North Dakota.
But Kenneth Gillingham, assistant professor of economics at Yale, rejects the argument that this pipeline would have helped North Dakotans. “There is little evidence that the pipeline [would] create more than a few thousand jobs,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “And after the project is completed, pipelines take very little to maintain. We’re talking about a few dozen jobs. So job creation isn’t a serious benefit for construction.”
Pipeline supporters also argue that construction would boost the national economy and stem reliance on foreign oil. “Right now, eighty percent of our oil comes from ‘unstable nations.’ That puts a lot of power in the hands of governments that have been accused of serious human rights violations,” Gillingham said.
“If we built the pipeline, we could enter the world stage as a major oil producer, and cheap oil production from a stable country is always a plus,” he argued.
“The United States is too small a player in the world economy to change oil prices or change the oil market in any way, but if [we] sell our own oil, instead of buying other people’s oil, that’s more money circulating in our economy, rather than money leaving for other nations’ economies,” Gillingham said.
But for most Native people, the conversations around DAPL have little to do with the economy and everything to do with history.
“Dakota Access Pipeline [is] not [an] isolated event in history. The state, in collaboration with private corporations, is continuing a history of environmental degradation of Native lands and attacks on Indigenous sovereignty,” the Association of Native Americans at Yale (ANAY) wrote in a public statement.”
“It seems like people want to treat the pipeline’s construction as a simple cost-benefit analysis,” Native student Elia Taffa ’20 said in an interview with The Politic. “But we’re talking about entire nations’ cultural heritage here. We’re talking about basic human injustice.”
“To me, where the pipeline goes isn’t life or death, economically or environmentally. This isn’t about water, this isn’t about the environment, at least not to me,” Buzzard said. “This is about Indian country rights. This is about tribes having the authority to do unpopular things and this is about tribal sovereignty. And this is about whether the U.S. government deems it necessary to listen to tribal concerns.”
Robert Mendelsohn, Davis Professor of Forest Policy and Economics, agrees that the decision to build the Dakota Access Pipeline ultimately revolved around cultural concerns, rather than environmental or economic analysis.
“All of that talk about climate change and leaks and water issues is a total red herring. Natives are mad because this land is precious to them, and they want[ed] the government to recognize that,” Mendelsohn said. “Perhaps it would be easier if they just brought that into the open, because frankly, the pipeline will be better, not worse, for the environment.”
Leading up to the decision, protests at Standing Rock swelled in numbers, perhaps leading to demonstrators’ recent victory. Thousands of protesters flocked to North Dakota to join in the rallies. On November 2, officers in riot gear attempted to remove protesters from the camps near Cannon Ball, the portion of the Standing Rock Reservation closest to the Missouri River. Since the standoff, more than four hundred people had been arrested.
Human rights agencies nationwide protested the local police’s use of riot-control weapons like tear gas and water cannons on the protesters. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department responded that riot control was necessary given the violent actions of protesters.
Buzzard, who visited Standing Rock, said he saw only peaceful tactics by the demonstrators. “The camp was a prayer place. The ethos is not of violence, at all. It was a ceremonial sacred place, and the tribal leadership made that very clear,” he described.
Buzzard noted that alcohol, drugs, and contraband were strictly prohibited from the campsite to preserve its sacred origins. “Police have said there have been gunshots and rocks, but I saw no signs of any of that. There were training sessions about staying peaceful in the face of any conflicts. They were very on message about non-violence,” he said.
Even on Yale’s Campus, the Native American Cultural Center’s work on Yale’s campus allowed Yale students to directly protest the pipeline’s construction before the decision. As soon as media coverage of Standing Rock spread during the summer, the Center began planning initiatives to help the Sioux Nation. The Center’s board members declared their solidarity with Standing Rock in a letter they drafted to President Obama and legislators involved with the Environmental Protection Act.
“We don’t know how much work our writing did,” said McCleary, “but we like to think that we made a difference.”
The Native American Cultural Center also organized a September teach-in with Mary Kathryn Nagle, a Native lawyer who specializes in commercial litigation. Nagle described the corporations invested in DAPL, the economic implications of rerouting the pipeline, and the human rights violations at Standing Rock. She noted that men – usually police officers or ranchers near Standing Rock — would invade the Sioux reservation and would violently assault the female protesters.
“These violations are a huge part of why we [were] fighting,” McCleary said. “I think Nagle opened our eyes to the side of the protests that have nothing to do with the environment or facts or figures. We are just looking out for our people.”
The Native American Cultural Center also started a fundraiser to collect winter clothing for the many “water protectors” who lack basic necessities. After placing collection bins in the residential college dining halls, the Center gathered four hundred pounds of winter clothing for Standing Rock.
On the weekend of November 5, the Center hosted the Ivy League Summit for Native Peoples, the largest gathering of Native college students on the East Coast. Students shared their experiences protesting DAPL and discussed ways to improve campus awareness of Standing Rock’s conflict.
“We were so lucky to engage with a broad base of college students,” Taffa said. “It was inspiring to know how big our community is because it doesn’t always feel that way, and it’s nice to know that together, we can be powerful and we can be heard.”
Despite the Native American Cultural Center’s work to support the DAPL protesters, some members of the Native community feel their efforts were not matched by the rest of the Yale community. Yale publications initially hesitated to cover the Cultural Center’s engagement with DAPL, according to McCleary.
“No one wanted to cover us,” she said. “It took all the Facebook protests and check-ins to make people interested.”
When masses of people used Facebook to check in at Standing Rock and prevent the Morton County Sheriff’s Department from geotargeting DAPL protesters, Standing Rock received another round of media attention on campus.
However, some Native students believe that although the pipeline may be built over an alternate route, indigenous people outside of Standing Rock will still feel its effects.
“If not the Očeti Šakowin, then another community will suffer the effects of the pipeline,” said ANAY in a public statement. “Indigenous peoples and other communities of color and low-income communities suffer first and most from environmental degradation.”
Chase Wester, a Native Yale student from Standing Rock, agreed that environmental concerns about the construction of pipelines are important despite the Army Corps’ decision.
“We still have to worry about a Trump administration that wants to privatize reservations for our oil reserves. I hope that tribal sovereignty and rights can expand from this fight, and also a turn away from oil and towards clean renewable energy,” he told The Politic, “I’ve heard elders say this many times, ‘We do not own the earth. The earth owns us.’”
Given continued concerns about environmental hazards and tribal sovereignty, to some Native students, the DAPL decision serves a crucial reminder to keep fighting.
“The rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline represents a hard-fought victory not only for the Očeti Šakowin, particularly the Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota, but also for Indigenous peoples globally; However, we must not forget that this fight is not over. ” ANAY wrote, “We must remember that the #NoDAPL movement represents a global fight for Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice.”