Fighting for Our Lives Again: No Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle in Historical Context


by Nick Estes – September 18, 2016

Thousands are camped along the banks of the Missouri River at Cannon Ball in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL; #NoDAPL), which proposes to carry half a million barrels of heavy crude oil a day across four states, under the Missouri River twice, and under the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico for global export. Camp Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior Camp, and Sacred Stone Camp, the various Native-led groups standing in unity against DAPL, have brought together the largest mass-gathering of Natives and allies in more than a century, along a river the Army Corps of Engineers claims jurisdiction over. To understand the transformative possibilities in the current struggle, historic context is helpful.

In 1803 the U.S. settler state “bought” 827 million acres from the French Crown in the Louisiana Purchase. None of the Native Nations west of the Mississippi consented to the sale of their lands to a sovereign they neither recognized nor viewed as superior. For the next hundred years, the U.S. led military campaigns to annihilate and dispossess us of our lands. These wars, for our part, were entirely defensive. More than ten million buffalo were slaughtered to starve us out. Settler hordes invaded to pillage the Black Hills for gold. Decades of intense warfare took its toll.

Settler society entreated the Oceti Sakowin, and in 1854 and 1868 the Oceti Sakowin signed peace treaties with the invading settler government at Fort Laramie, which defined the 25-million-acre territory of what became the Great Sioux Reservation. We entered these relationships with the understanding both parties respected a common humanity with the people and the lands, but in 1876 the settler state lost its humanity when it violated the treaties, when Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, which abolished treaty-making with Native Nations. The Black Hills Act of 1877 followed, which illegally ceded the Black Hills and created the present-day reservation system.

The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 attempted to factionalize the Oceti Sakowin by forming five smaller reservations, to open up “surplus” lands to white homesteaders. From 1907 to 1934, millions of acres of the remaining Great Sioux Reservation were lost.

South Dakota and North Dakota statehood played a role. In 1890 a year after statehood, these states drummed up anti-Indian sentiment to open reservation lands for settlement. They fabricated the Ghost Dance crisis, calling in federal troops to intervene. This resulted in the assassination of our military and political leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull; and the murder of over 300 unarmed women, children, and elders at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We never signed treaties with these states, yet they lay claim to the destinies of our lands, our river, and our people.

In the early 1900s Missouri River Basin states organized in an attempt to usurp Native water rights for large-scale irrigation projects. These states proposed a dam system that would create large reservoirs, flooding Native lands. But in 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court held that tribes retained control of water within their original treaty territory, even if that territory was diminished. The Oceti Sakowin’s prior claim to both the Missouri River and its shorelines was spelled out in the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties. Still, from 1907 to 1934, millions of acres of the remaining Great Sioux Reservation were lost.

After unseasonal mass flooding in 1944, Congress passed the Flood Control Act known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation to erect five dams on the main stem of the river. Four of the five dams flooded the lands of seven nations of the Oceti Sakowin, condemning 309,584 acres of vital bottomlands of the 611,642 acres in the “taking area.” Inundation forced entire communities, without their consent in patent violation of their treaty rights, to move to marginal reservation lands. As a result of this condemnation, the Army Corps of Engineers claims sole jurisdiction over the Missouri River and its shoreline.

The dams worked in tandem with federal policies. In 1953, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108), ending federal recognition of the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribes. That same year, Congress passed Public Law 280 (PL 280) authorizing states to assume jurisdiction over Native lands.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs supported these programs and carried out the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 that forced thousands off the reservation to urban centers. HCR 108, PL 280, and the Pick-Sloan dams did not just promote assimilation —forced relocation amounted to cultural genocide.

The Oceti Sakowin unified to thwart the state of South Dakota’s attempts to implement PL 280 to overthrow Native governments, and assume control over their lands. Natives on relocation also began to organize. Groups such as the National Indian Youth Council and the American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in the urban centers to combat the wholesale destruction of Native life on and off the reservation.

In 1973, AIM occupied Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The occupation was the catalyst for a mass gathering of thousands at Standing Rock in 1974, where the International Indian Treaty Council was founded. There more than 90 Native Nations from around the world laid the foundation for four decades of work, culminating in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The anti-colonial uprising taking place in Oceti Sakowin territory in 1974 that spilled onto the world stage and was met with violent repression. AIM leaders were assassinated and imprisoned. Leonard Peltier sits behind bars to this day, one of the longest serving political prisoners in United States history. From 1977 to 2012 South Dakota’s prison population increased 500 percent. One-third of this prison population is Native, although Natives make up only nine percent of the population.

With tar-sands extraction and heavy crude pipelines destroying water supplies and the earth, other Natives have once again united with the Oceti Sakowin. Blockades have successfully halted pipeline construction in Canada’s First Nations’ territory. In 2014, the Oceti Sakowin began a massive organizing effort with help from allies against the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline that proposed to crisscross the Missouri River. While our Nation is made up of some of the poorest people in the Western hemisphere, organizing to some of the most powerful and wealthiest people on the planet, KXL was defeated on November 6, 2015, when, after mass protests the Obama administration denied the pipeline’s permit.

Important lessons were carried from the KXL struggle into #NoDAPL: The power of multinational unity between Natives and non-Natives, and the transformative power and potential of anti-colonial resistance to successfully mobilize poor people against the rich and powerful — and win! Controlling the “Indian Problem” has always meant maintaining unrestricted access to Native lands and resources, while keeping Indians silent, out of view, and factionalized, but this movement has drawn the support and solidarity of more than 200 Native Nations and countless thousands of allied forces sending a clear message to corporate interests: North Dakota’s “Indian Problem” is out of control.

The #NoDAPL movement is explicitly nonviolent, which accounts for its mass appeal to Native and non-Native communities. The peaceful encampment practices an unsettling counter-sovereignty. At Standing Rock, an unarmed, nonviolent prayer camp poses such a serious threat to settler proprietary claims that North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, who has direct ties to the oil and gas industry, has deployed the full force of the Highway Patrol and the National Guard. These forces are not there to serve an impoverished Native community or protect the integrity of the land and river. They are there to carry out the will of the DAPL backers, Energy Transfer Partners: some of the richest and most powerful people in the world. They have used attack dogs against unarmed, nonviolent water protectors. More than 60 have been arrested, including journalists.

Like our ancestors’ wars, our current war is defensive — to protect water and land from destruction in the name of profit. Violence has been the political tactic of state repression against the water protectors engaging in nonviolent direct action to disrupt construction, as well as those not engaged in direct action. The camp and the Standing Rock reservation are under constant surveillance. Native bodies stand between corporations and their money, halting the accumulation of capital, which in this context is the exploitation of our river and lands.


The Army Corps of Engineers claims jurisdiction over the river in violation of the 1854 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties, and maintains it holds the final say about whether the DAPL can cross the Missouri River. The #NoDAPL encampment, in an exercise of Native sovereignty, sits atop lands claimed by the Corps, who only recently “permitted” the camp’s presence.


On September 9, the Department of Interior, the Department of Justice, and the Corps issued a joint statement halting — for now — the construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River, as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s case against DAPL is considered and reviewed. This temporary halt of construction at a key site is a victory —proof that this enemy, no matter how powerful, violent, or spiteful, can be defeated when Native people and their allies refuse to back down, and act in unity and cooperation.

While construction has been halted under the river, it continues everywhere else; and so too do direct actions. The peaceful encampment continues, as must our focus and support on #NoDAPL. The encampment will remain until the pipeline is completely defeated. Oceti Sakowin and Native resistance, as it has for centuries, will also continue until our common enemy is defeated.

From this action we take the following lessons to guide future efforts:

  • The colonial state does not possess, and never has possessed, the moral high ground. It defends corporate access to Native lands and uses violence as a political tactic to maintain its contested authority over the land. The North Dakota National Guard has never in its history been deployed in force against an unarmed “domestic” population– until now. The National Guard and the Highway Patrol protect corporate interests and enforce the colonial state’s monopoly on violence against the most vulnerable and marginalized populations – Native people.
  • The profits that corporations like Energy Transfer Corporation reap from colonial projects like the DAPL should be seized and used to repair damage to the land and river. With this also comes a long-term goal to restore the Missouri River to its rightful protectors – the Oceti Sakowin – and its natural path. This means the Army Corps of Engineers must relinquish its claim to the river and begin to demolish the Pick-Sloan dams so that the river and its people may once again live.
  • The prayer camp has galvanized multinational unity, mobilizing everyday people in defense of Native sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights.
  • Treaty rights, and by default Native sovereignty, protect everyone’s rights. In this case, they protect a vital fresh water source for millions – the Missouri River.
  • #NoDAPL anti-colonial struggle is profoundly anti-capitalist. It is the frontline. It is the future.


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