Pipelines Are The Latest Development In A History of Exploitation of Indigenous Lands and Resources

Image from Lenny K Photography via pxhere

Ever since European settlers set foot upon America, they’ve been exploiting Indigenous people and their land for resources and economic gain. This all began in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, when the United States purchased a large swatch of land from France without consulting any of the Indigenous tribes.1 What resulted was an initial expedition we know as the Lewis and Clark expedition, followed by a century of westward expansion. During this time, the US Government often forcibly removed Indigenous people from their homelands via force, resulting in decades of battles and a dwindling of resources.2 Not quite satisfied with the damage and oppression, the Dawes Act was passed in 1887, allocating large tracts of land to white settlers and separating families and communities. In 1944, the Flood Control Act arose, allowing the Army Corps to erect five dams at the main stem of the Missouri river, disproportionately impacting Indigenous lands and communities. Even today, we face similar issues of resource exploitation and ecological damage upon Indigenous lands in the form of pipelines and other infrastructure.

Image via Wikipedia under Creative Commons copyright. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Keystone Pipeline System was implemented in 2010, and transports diluted bitumen from Alberta to Oklahoma and then refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.3 Already damaging native water sources and land, an extension of the pipeline was proposed in 2012, aiming to directly connect the source in Hardisty to part of the existing pipe in Nebraska. In March 2012, the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council took “direct action by establishing a blockade to prevent trucks from carrying equipment for the pipeline from crossing through the Pine Ridge Reservation.”4 One year later, in 2013, Lakota activists Faith Spotted Eagle and Armando Iron Elk Jr. went before the State Department. There, they called up on the sacredness of creation as well as the idea of treaties as living documents in order to condemn the construction of Keystone XL. They state that the treaties are “legally binding on the United States, and they establish boundaries of the lands for the exclusive use of the Great Sioux Nation, Oceti Sakowin.”5. While treaties are legally binding permanent contracts in the US, it seems that the US Government is all too willing to violate them for the sake of self benefit. However, in 2015, Indigenous tribes scored an important victory when the Obama administration declined the pipeline due to environmental concerns. Later, however, the Trump administration has since revived the plan.

In 2014, the same situation arose but with a new pipeline. Coined the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), this new pipeline would stretch from North Dakota to an oil terminal in Illinois. For the tribes in the area, DAPL poses an immediate risk to their own lands and safe drinking water. Nick Estes states that, “For most, it’s not if the pipeline breaks but when. After all, all pipelines break and leak. Crossing these major waterways, the threat posed to freshwater is immeasurable. Thus, the movement galvanized around the Lakota affirmation Mni Wiconi, or water is life.” Thus began another nonviolent battle against the economic interests of an energy company trampling on the land and livelihood of Indigenous folks. This time around, however, they had learned a few lessons from Keystone XL. They had learned that there was power to be found in multinational unity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. With this coalition, they were able to band together and defeat a rich and powerful adversary. Unfortunately, this battle was eventually lost, and the Dakota Access Pipeline completed construction in 2017.

“Cultural practitioner Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, along with Kahoʻokahi Kanuha and Hawaiian sovereignty supporters block the access road to Mauna Kea in October 2014, demonstrating against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope.” Image and caption from Wikipedia via Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

In addition to pipelines, other Indigenous communities within the United States also face external pressure towards major construction projects upon their soil. In Hawaii, a dormant volcano known as Mauna Kea stands tall on the Big Island. To naive tourists, the mountain is devoid of much flora and seemingly barren. To native Hawaiians however, mountain peaks are sacred, and Mauna Kea is no different.6 Numerous telescopes reside upon the mountain, due to its stable airflow, dry environment, and high altitude. However, the construction of telescopes on what is a sacred spot continues to be a topic of debate. When the Thirty Meter Telescope was proposed, Indigenous Hawaiians banded together to protest the construction. With the project starting in 2003, the proposal of construction of the TMT represents “Dismissals of Maunakea’s significance for Kanaka Maoli, whether as a site of worship for ali‘i (royalty) and kahuna (spiritual leaders) or a dwelling place for akua, remain deeply implicated in a commitment to imagining the summit as an empty space without Native peoples or Native worlds to contend with,” directly mirroring the desire to build oil pipelines on native soil in the US mainland.7

Throughout history, the US Government has repeatedly sidelined treaties and Indigenous voices in order to expand its power. In the past, this came in the form of oppressive legislation as well as military action. In the modern day, however, the government continues to exploit Indigenous communities and lands for economic or academic gain. From both pipelines to the Thirty Meter Telescope, it is clear that this mistreatment of Indigenous lands and ignorance towards Indigenous spiritual beliefs and their relationship with land continues.

  1. Nick Estes, “Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context,” Wicaso Sa Review 32, no. 2 (2017): 115–22.
  2. Estes
  3. Colin G. Calloway, ed., First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, 6th Edition (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2019).
  4. Armando Iron Elk and Faith Spotted Eagle, “We Will Be There to Meet You,” in Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887, ed. Daniel M. Cobb (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 242–44.
  5. Cobb, 243
  6. Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, “At Home on the Mauna: Ecological Violence and Fantasies of Terra Nullius on Maunakea’s Summit,” Native American and Indigenous Studies 6, no. 2 (2019): 30–50.
  7. Hobart, 45