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What Oil Pipelines Can Do to Native American Land and Life

Just a few hours away from Standing Rock is another reservation that has dealt with the oil industry very differently, and has very different problems.
November 28, 2016, 2:30pm
A view of an oil production site overlooking Lake Sakakawea on Fort Berthold Native American reservation in North Dakota. All photos by the author

Black, ant-like figures crown a russet hill ringed by the Cannonball River at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Soon they come into focus: dozens of policemen in full riot gear, stationed on high ground so as to better surveil the handful of people lingering in the aftermath of what Native Americans protesting a new oil pipeline and their allies call a "direct action," or a confrontation with the law.


On closer inspection of the hilltop from the ground across the river, at least two officers are peering through rifle scopes. Others seem jovial, laughing as they wave contemptuously to the few demonstrators lingering on the far side of the river. Most glare back, stone-faced. One girl in a flowing purple skirt raises two fingers, flashing a peace sign. A black-clad young man with a long, glossy braid and a bandanna draped over the lower half of his face gives the cops the finger.

"There were people from that shoreline to that shoreline," an activist named Marcus says when asked about the confrontation, one of several here in recent weeks. "People were walking on the boats to get across to the other side and advancing up the hill. The cops shot two guys [with rubber bullets], and they were walking down the side of the hill—with cop boats coming around, too. [The protesters] were playing drums. Everyone was just standing their ground."

Asked how the cops behaved toward the demonstrators, Marcus turns his head and spits before responding. "I mean, you could hear them laughing up there, you could hear them just cracking jokes," he says, with a bitter smile. "Apparently that's the word from other people who have been here for a while… They're just having a good time."

Back at their camp, wounded demonstrators receive medical care: Bandages are applied to injuries left by rubber bullets, though some of the demonstrators seem to be suffering from the effects of tear gas. Down by the water, the standoff between police and the stragglers continues.


Often calling themselves "water protectors," hundreds of people from all over America have joined many members of the Standing Rock Sioux as they demonstrate against a massive oil transportation project known as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The oil company Energy Transfer Partners and its subsidiary, Sunoco Logistics Partners, won approval to begin construction from the US Army Corps of Engineers in July. The Standing Rock Sioux promptly sued to block it, but a federal court denied the tribe's appeal in October. Meanwhile, the DAPL was opposed by a wave of social-media-powered activism starring prominent allies like actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, backed by advocacy groups like the ACLU.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, dozens were arrested as cops and private security forces tried to extinguish the protests. But what many protesters and observers have described as a pattern of swift and brutal law enforcement response may have injected new life into their cause. On November 20, police hit activists with water cannons in freezing temperatures, sparking a fresh wave of condemnation and outrage. Prior to that incident, protesters were reportedly kept in confined spaces that resembled dog kennels after arrest, and injuries have been reported on both sides following clashes between cops and demonstrators.

Those at the encampment have refused to back down, insisting that the pipeline will desecrate burial grounds sacred to the Sioux, and that it poses a serious risk to the environment, threatening to contaminate the local water supply in the event of a leak. A few days after Trump won the White House, the Army Corps of Engineers announced another delay in construction, citing the need for additional study of the project. But on Friday, the Engineers sent a letter to Dave Archambault II the Standing Rock Sioux chairman, ordering protesters to disperse by December 5. A "free speech" zone is apparently to be established south of the Cannonball River, but activists have vowed to stay put in defiance of the order.


Meanwhile, protests over Trump's win were followed by demonstrations against the pipeline by Standing Rock allies across the country. Given the current president-elect's throwback views on fossil fuel and the increasing urgency of climate change, it's clear that many of the people camped out at Standing Rock aren't just protesting the construction of one pipeline—they're making a statement about the way the United States has treated Native Americans, and their lands, for centuries. And you can find evidence of that treatment—and its consequences—just a few hours down the road, in Fort Berthold, another North Dakota reservation.

Police surveil demonstrators near the Standing Rock Native American reservation in North Dakota. All photos by the author

Pipelines are built to move crude oil from production sites to its intended destination, which can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This can be a messy process. As American oil production has soared in recent recent years, pipelines have leaked at sites around the continent. Since 1995, there have been 2,000 significant accidents involving pipelines carrying crude oil and refined petroleum products in the US, causing about $3 billion in property damage.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would snake across the northeastern tip of the state, where it meets Canada, down to Illinois. Its oil would come from the Bakken formation, which includes land belonging to another Native American community that has a very different relationship to the oil industry. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes, otherwise known as MHA Nation or the Three Affiliated Tribes, live on Fort Berthold, a few hours away from Standing Rock.


The Berthold reservation lands are starkly gorgeous, even in their drab winter colors. Red cliffs rear up against the sky, split by canyons and creeks that spill into the wide blue expanse of the lake. But every few miles or so, oil rigs and hydraulic fracturing sites dot the landscape. Fiery flares shimmer into the air, and pools of wastewater produced by the fracking process collect in large bins.

Fracking is the process of injecting liquid into subterranean rocks to widen fissures, granting access to previously impossible-to-reach reserves. These liquids often contain toxic, hazardous chemicals that can gravely impact the health of local populations if they leak into the air or water. This year, Environment America, a national federation of environmental advocacy organizations, released a report detailing the adverse health and safety effects of fracking. Though data on the impact of fracking upon local populations remains scarce, a 2014 study in Colorado linked prenatal exposure to fracking chemicals in the air to higher rates of birth defects. "People who live close to fracking sites are exposed to a variety of air pollutants including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, xylene and toluene," the Environment America report reads. "These chemicals can cause a wide range of health problems— from eye irritation and headaches to asthma and cancer."

While the DAPL is meant to carry oil underneath land that borders Standing Rock, the reservation itself doesn't sit atop valuable oil, so there was little financial incentive for oil companies to ingratiate themselves with the community. But Fort Berthold is at the very heart of North Dakota oil country. It also includes Lake Sakakawea, a primary water source for MHA Nation.


The reservation is on prime fracking land. Until the technology advanced in the early 2000s, it was known that large oil and gas reserves existed in the Bakken shale formation, but there was no way to obtain it. Once fracking became available as a method of extraction, oil companies were able to gain access to the massive reserves that exist under layers of stone. The development greatly enriched the state economy for a time, but plummeting oil prices have recently burst that bubble, leaving many North Dakotans without a primary source of income.

Still, Fort Berthold is pumping out massive amounts of oil—nearly one-fifth of North Dakota's daily production. And even as it enriches parts of the local economy, the deluge has had serious consequences for the reservation's environment. In 2014, a massive pipeline spill caused more than 1 million gallons of saltwater used in the fracking process to leak onto reservation land, raising concerns that Lake Sakakawea had been compromised. Several other spills have been documented in the years since.

In June 2015, the Three Affiliated Tribes made a move to increase tribal involvement in oil production, which had traditionally been dominated by outside companies that lease land from the tribes. Prior to that decision, the tribal council, MHA Nation's governing body, had a troubling history of oil-related corruption. The former tribal council chairman, Tex Hall, lost his bid for a fourth term after being accused of mismanagement and misappropriation of oil funds. Though the council receives a significant amount in oil royalties, as well as hundreds of millions in oil tax revenue, some Fort Berthold residents say that money still isn't making its way to the community that so desperately needs it.


"Right now, we have a lot of social issues," explains Lisa Deville, a local environmental activist, as she drives through the oil-rich cliffs of Fort Berthold. "These guys are so excited to fund powwows… and aren't helping those tepee families that live right along the power grids without water and sewer… Some of [Fort Berthold] looks like a third-world country."

Deville is outspoken about the need to regulate oil development in Fort Berthold—and her distaste for the oil companies. "They think they have answers for everything, these white people [working for the oil companies]," she says. "They think everything they do is right and they have all the solutions. They think these pipelines are good. It's like, What don't you understand? You guys just contaminated us. We have proof, and you guys are sitting there and saying, 'How much?' You don't live here. You don't have to drink this water. You can go home whenever you choose."

She also thinks that getting in bed with the oil industry is a betrayal of the tribe's ideals. "I don't know where we've gone wrong, where we've lost our identity as Native Americans," Deville says with a sigh. "We would rather have these nice things, these material things that we never relied on. We were raised to protect the earth. Every time we put a hole in her, we are killing her."

Deville is deeply disliked by some MHA Nation leadership, even as she has won support from other activists. At a large powwow, or gathering of Native American tribes, held at the Four Bears Casino in nearby New Town, a man affiliated with the tribal council who prefers to remain anonymous makes a face when her name is mentioned.


"That bitch is always spreading lies about our leaders," he sneers. "She's a real pain in the ass."

The powwow is a lavish gathering, and it's no secret that the oil industry has enriched segments of the reservation economy. In 2014, MHA Nation reported $184 million in oil tax revenue accrued in less than one year, much of it officially designated for reservation infrastructure and activities. At the casino, dancers and singers in traditionally elaborate dress perform their ancient rituals in an event hall. It's a light-hearted, festive affair, with hundreds of attendees celebrating until well into the early morning. Stands sell intricate pieces of silver jewelry and T-shirts with defiant slogans like "Proud Indian Warrior," while children with jangling bells sewn to their tribal costumes scamper through the building's hallways.

In an empty ballroom on the second floor of the sprawling casino, two teenage girls who prefer to remain anonymous discuss how they've seen oil impact their reservation during the course of their short lives. Asked if they've noticed any positive impacts of the industry, one of the girls nods.

"We have a lot more buildings and more activities," she says. "But I don't know where half of our money goes."

Asked why no one in Fort Berthold is resisting oil development on tribal lands like the Standing Rock Sioux, the other girl giggles nervously. "Our tribe just signs deals," she responds. "They don't really look through it at all. That's what we think, anyways, because of how much [oil companies] are taking over our tribe. It's mostly like we're run by oil companies here. People from surrounding tribes say that."


"Besides, [the Sioux] are just fighting people, you know?" the other chimes in, laughing. "The Lakota people [a subgroup of the Sioux], they used to come over and steal our horses all the time."

Lisa Deville, a local environmental activist, stands between warning signs that water, gas, and petroleum pipelines exist underground in this area of Fort Berthold Native American reservation in North Dakota.

The oil industry may fund extravagant powwows, but researchers and advocates say it is severely impacting Fort Berthold's environment. Nicole Donaghy, an oil and gas organizer at Dakota Resource Council, the same group dedicated to monitoring environmental damage in the region to which DeWitt belongs, collaborated on a study with Duke University earlier this year. It produced alarming findings about fracking's impact on Fort Berthold.

"We took six samples from oil and gas–impacted landowners, as well as from saltwater spill [sites] on Fort Berthold reservation," Donaghy says. "What Duke University found was that even though there was reclamation done on most of these sites, there is still a high level of radioactive material that has been left behind…. Radium causes many types of cancer, mostly bone cancer. In terms of agriculture, nothing will grow where there has been a saltwater spill and it's not properly reclaimed, and in my experience, it's not possible to completely reclaim the affected lands."

Marcia Mikulak, professor of anthropology at the University of North Dakota, notes that MHA Nation has historically resisted efforts to investigate and amend the harmful effects of fracking and drilling on reservation land because the oil industry has permeated the tribal economy.


"People are living with it every day," Mikulak says. "But all that data, those numbers, are not put in our daily newspapers. They are not talked about in terms of everyday people's lives. People who earn their living from oil—and this goes back to the Three Affiliated Tribes—corruption also is there, and people who live in poverty, when you take their jobs away, when technologies change, they freak out. There's always a pushback."

Mikulak says that in order to understand why these tribes would allow their lands to be damaged by the industry without resistance, one has to examine the historical treatment of Native Americans by the United States government.

"These people were forced to assimilate, or actually be eradicated," she explains. "People learned, through this constant enforced rhetoric of identity, that they were different, worth less than others—and were even constructed constitutionally—as dependent[s] that the state had to take responsibility for, and create laws to control, indigenous ways of life. These are deeply embedded in our legal systems, in our cultural systems, our narratives of education… It's a nightmare scenario."

"We're not against all pipelines. We just want responsible development."
—Mark Fox, MHA Nation Tribal Chairman

For his part, Mark Fox, the current chairman of the MHA Nation tribal council who campaigned under a platform of transparency and fighting corruption in the wake of the scandal surrounding former tribal leader Tex Hall, says the oil boom has had mixed effects on the reservation.

"I can honestly say that since 2008 to the present, the negativity has outweighed the positivity, as far as what we have to contend with and what opportunities we get," he says. "That's [negative] impact to the environment. That's death on our highways and the tearing up of our roads. That's having to put a heavy burden on the [Three] Tribes to protect its land, its reservation, and its people.

"Now, on the positive side of things, has it brought in more revenue toward tribes to do programming to build facilities and things of that nature? Absolutely, it has," he adds.

Asked about his feelings toward the protesters at Standing Rock, Fox says that MHA Nation supports the Sioux tribe's desire to block risky oil development.

"We're not against all oil and gas development," he explains. "We're not against all pipelines. We just want responsible development… That being said, if our fellow tribal nation says, 'We don't want that,' that is their right. We stand firmly behind them."

But perhaps because of complicated tribal ties to the oil industry, not everyone at the casino powwow is eager to join the protests. A man belonging to a Native American tribe from Washington State who says he's close to members of the MHA Nation tribal council remains unconvinced.

"The reason why I'm not actively taking part in this protest is because the issues that are being protested were already addressed in court," he explains as the casino empties on the day after the powwow. Families trudge to their cars carrying their jangling costumes, readying themselves for the drive back to whichever part of the Americas they came from. Some say they are headed down to Standing Rock, but the Washington man won't be joining them.

"They have already ruled against the tribe's point of view in protecting the land because of the pipeline and the investment that's already been made," he says. "The money that already has been put down is sealed and dealed. Bagged and tagged. We can't beat a dead horse. The horse is lying there, but it's still dead because the ruling wasn't favorable."

He pauses for a moment, taking in the bright lights and cheerful dings of the casino playing floor. "But there's a part of me, in my heart, that wants to be there at Standing Rock," he says longingly. "I should be with my people."

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