Social justice is undeniably an important issue to tackle in every society. Within the past few years, the topic has been discussed frequently in regards to systemic racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other sources of inequality. One branch of this issue that is occasionally regarded on a significantly smaller scale is Native American rights. However, Native American rights recently gained media attention after protesters, in their fight against a large oil company that became a threat to historic and sacred land belonging to a North Dakota tribe, were attacked by a private police force.
A pipeline construction project proposed by Energy Transfer Partners — which could transfer up to 470,000 barrels (19,740,000 gallons) of crude oil per day — has been set to run through South Bismark, North Dakota, after the initial plan to run it under the Missouri River was declined due to possible contamination of water sources linked to the capital. The new route runs, debatably, on the reservation designated for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The pipeline will run upstream of the tribe’s main source of drinking water. This plan has sparked an uproar from the Standing Rock Sioux community, as well as thousands of supporters who believe that the act is a violation to the tribe as it will destroy areas of cultural significance. Most disturbingly, the Standing Rock Sioux were not even consulted before the project was cleared.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux and many others began to peacefully protest this plan in April by forming a camp. The protesters were attacked by dogs, pepper spray, and other means, and were even jailed on counts of “trespassing” or other “misdemeanors.” This ongoing situation has not received continued coverage in the media, yet has remained a constant struggle for the tribe throughout the past year.
Construction on the pipeline has been stopped twice due to local and federal implications. Construction first began in a culturally significant location to the tribe, and an emergency request to halt construction was submitted. After a two-day standstill, the emergency request was denied and construction was set to begin again. However, on the same day, the federal government stepped in and halted construction a second time after damages were reported in the area of cultural significance that had been previously recognized in court documents.
The suppression of Native Americans is certainly not new. The issue has existed for hundreds of years since Caucasian explorers first reached the Americas. This, along with the rapid spread of foreign diseases exposed to American Indians by Europeans for the first time around 1492, severely affected the lives of the millions who lived in America before caucasians ever arrived. From tribes being forced off the land they had lived on for centuries to Native American children being “assimilated” into traditional American society by strict boarding schools, it cannot be denied that the American government has encroached upon the Native American population through demonstrations of overt discrimination.
Despite this, many Americans believe that we have progressed past the point of such blatant discrimination, as it occurred hundreds of years ago. It’s easy to think that times have changed. However, this situation would make it appear otherwise.
In fact, the occurrence with the Standing Rock Sioux is not the first time that an oil company has attempted to construct a pipeline that could negatively affect a tribe’s land and water resources. The Keystone XL Pipeline received nationwide attention two years ago after triggering protests across the country with environmental groups as well as Native American protection agencies. Nearly identical to the case with the Dakota Access project, the Keystone pipeline was scheduled to be built off of another structure that was becoming old and problematic. The pipeline was originally mapped to run from Alberta, Canada to Houston, Texas, without getting in the way of any major cities or water supplies. However, numerous tribes in Midwestern America faced the danger of a contaminated water supply. Groups rose up all over the country to protect these tribes and succeeded. The pipeline proposal was rejected by President Obama in November 2015.
This was but a small victory in the history of Native American rights, however.
Since the 1850s, the Standing Rock Sioux have had their reservation perimeters reduced from being nearly the size of North Dakota and South Dakota combined to just a small portion of southern North Dakota today. It is not uncommon among the hundreds of tribes who have been forced into a small percentage of their own land to not get the representation they need. That is why it is up to others, especially those in positions of privilege, to support them and protect them from multinational companies like Energy Transfer Partners who have the power to take advantage of minorities for their interests.
Tribes that would have been affected by the Keystone XL Pipeline received astonishing support, proving that with the help of many people, real change can happen. This support, however, could not have been garnered without the help of national news media outlets — and that is where the Dakota Access Pipeline protest is at a loss. Though it received attention at the beginning of September when many protesters were attacked by police dogs and pepper spray, it has not secured a consistent flow of support from national media. Needless to say, this would most likely not be the case if it were Caucasians in this position rather than Native Americans.
Though it may feel, being in the bubble that is South Eugene, that racism and discrimination is no longer as common, this situation serves as evidence that certain types of racial bias that we assumed had ended a century ago continue to persist in places that we may not even see.