Dakota Access Pipeline and Indigenous Resistance

#NoDAPL Last Stand. Taken as part of the Northwest Resistance Photography Project. CC BY 2.0. 1

Mni Wiconi. This Lakota phrase, which translates to water is life, has taken on great meaning in the #NoDAPL movement in the U.S.2 In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners applied to build a pipeline that would carry half a million barrels of crude oil through four states, crossing the Missouri River.3 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accepted the application and did not respond to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s claim that the pipeline would “destroy valuable cultural resources” before deciding to claim jurisdiction over the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux Nation) treaty territory, including the Missouri River.4 This series of events brought national attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline and led to resistance from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in their fight for land, rivers, and clean water. 

Indigenous people in the United States have a long history of oppression and resistance. Starting in the nineteenth century, the United States began a long effort at Indigenous land dispossession, which led to wars and eventually agreements such as the Fort Laramie Treaty, which gave Lakota people the Great Sioux Reservation and undisturbed use of reservation lands.5 

Throughout U.S. history, the government has introduced many laws with the intention of freeing up Native lands, such as the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which took land from the Great Sioux Nation, among other Indigenous nations, and gave it to white settlers. The U.S. government also approved the Pick-Sloan Plan in 1944, which allowed for the creation of five dams that ended up targeting and flooding Native lands. These intentional eliminations of Indigenous people and their lands were just some of many attempts at genocide that served as hallmarks of U.S. policy. House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in 1953, and Public Law 280 also encouraged termination and control over tribes. On top of this, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was created with the intent of relocation from reservations.6 The creation of all these laws continued the cycle of genocide in Indigenous history and paved the way for further acts of removal from the land.

In resisting against these various laws and policies, Indigenous people organized in the form of activist groups, such as the American Indian Movement, which occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the site of a massacre of roughly 300 Sioux people in 1890.7 AIM occupied Wounded knee for 71 days in 1973 in an act of resistance. Another act of resistance occurred when the Oceti Sakowin came together against South Dakota to try to stop Public Law 280.8 Indigenous groups unified in nonviolent ways to resist, but, without fail, the government responded with violence. Their entire fight, lasting for hundreds of years into the present day, expresses a desperate struggle for humanity, resources, and basic rights.

In response to the Dakota Access Pipeline, nonviolent protests took place with participation from both Native and non-Native people. They protested with marches, sit-ins, and a peaceful encampment.9 There was also advocacy from people of all ages in the form of organized events such as relay runs; Oceti Sakowin Youth & Allies organized a relay run from Standing Rock Reservation to Washington, D.C., and this encouraged other youth groups to participate in the #NoDAPL movement.10 This youth involvement was key in resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. These efforts worked, and in 2016, the Obama administration tried to stop the pipeline until a full review on the environmental impact statement was complete, but the Trump administration reversed this in 2017, so construction continued on the pipeline, and Indigenous resistance will endure for years to come.11

These responses to the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrate the ability of communities to come together and mobilize to fight for equity. Indigenous people have long fought for their rights and land, and their resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline illustrates how dedicated Indigenous people are to preserving their cultural resources and reminding the U.S. government that they are still here, still powerful, and still fighting for justice.

  1. Joe Frazier, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Nick Estes. “Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context.” Wicazo Sa Review 32, no. 2 (2017): 115.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access Pipeline: Teacher Resource.” Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access Pipeline | Teacher Resource. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/plains-treaties/dapl.
  5. Estes, 116.
  6. Ibid., 117-18.
  7. Wounded Knee: We Shall Remain–America Through Native Eyes. PBS, 2009.
  8. Estes, 118.
  9. Ibid., 119.
  10. “Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access Pipeline: Teacher Resource.”
  11. Estes, 120.