The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is at the center of the extraordinary public protest surrounding construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a multibillion-dollar project which would carry more than 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. Since the US Army Corps of Engineers approved plans in July for the pipeline to cross the tribe's main water source, putting it at risk of contamination, thousands of protesters have flocked to Standing Rock in an effort to halt construction.
The protests have sparked something of a media frenzy—despite limited attention in the mainstream media—inspired social activism, and captured the attention of celebrities like Shailene Woodley, who was arrested at Standing Rock in mid-October. Sadly, the protests at Standing Rock are par for the course for the Sioux, who have had to fight for their right to the region's natural resources for more than two-and-a-half centuries.
Most people only know of Standing Rock from the #NoDAPL protests, but the land is the ancestral home of the Dakota and Lakota Sioux people. According to the tribe's website, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was originally established as part of the Great Sioux Reservation by Article 2 of the Treaty of Fort Laramie on April 29, 1868. The treaty entitled the Sioux to the entirety of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills.
Article 12 of the same treaty said that the land could not be taken away from the Sioux, unless a sale was approved by three-fourths of the tribe. In violation of the treaty, on Februrary 28, 1877, Congress revoked ownership of the Black Hills from the Sioux, without the consent of the tribe. In 1980, more than a century later, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux, claiming "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."
Sioux territory was further parceled in 1887, when Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act. It divided the remaining land into six separate reservations and permitted the government to survey tribal land, assign small allotments to Sioux families, and sell the rest to white settlers. Tribespeople were forced to assimilate, and many children were sent to boarding schools where they were expected to learn English, convert to Christianity, and suppress their traditions.
By 1889, the Sioux were struggling to survive. A ceremonial ritual called the ghost dance, which was rumored to rid the land of settlers and restore the ancestral way of life, gained popularity among the Dakota and Lakota people, but the gatherings unsettled pioneers. In December 1890, a government agent named James McLaughlin ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull, an eminent Sioux leader who was fiercely opposed to allotment and who McLaughlin believed was behind the popularity of the ghost dance. Police killed Sitting Bull and his closest followers when they arrived to make the arrest; just a few of weeks later, the US Seventh Cavalry murdered nearly 300 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee.
In the following four decades, the Sioux struggled to preserve their land and civil rights. In a move that foreshadows today's Dakota Access Pipeline conflict, in 1948 the US Army Corps of Engineers began building the Oahe Dam just south of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation despite tribal protest. Part of the Pick-Sloan Plan, which proposed building five dams up and down the Missouri River, the construction flooded 160,889 acres of prime agricultural land and displaced a quarter of Standing Rock's residents.
As Trymaine Lee reports for MSNBC, “Natural resources and wildlife along the river bottom were almost completely eradicated, including 90% of the tribes’ timber, which also served as cover for wildlife […] Entire towns were destroyed. Sacred ground, including gravesites and other places of spiritual significance, were lost.”
Lee emphasizes that the Pick-Sloan construction not only uprooted the Sioux, it also forced the people to be further dependent on the government. “While the US is bound by treaty obligations to protect Native rights and provide certain financial benefits to the tribes, often because of neglect, mismanagement, and historic ill will, that relationship has often left tribes deeply vulnerable when it comes to economic, food, and housing stability. That vulnerability, exacerbated by the impact of Pick-Sloan, continues today.”
Mixing Cement for Drain, 1940, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Standing Rock Agency
To learn more about the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and how you can get involved, click here.