Dakota Pipeline: When Race Leads and Environmentalism Comes Second

Going onto one’s Facebook feed, you may have been inundated with story after story describing the peaceful turned violent confrontations between North and South Dakota police and Native Americans.  Predominately people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have lead the protests, which their reservation land crosses both North and South Dakota state lines. In this day an age of quick media soundbites and a maze of links (errr, much like this one), getting more context for your reading becomes a game of cat and mouse.  Then there are the postings which just cut to a more pointed narrative: native americans vs the white man.  Depending on who you follow, these stories quickly latch onto follow up stories with accompanying hashtags: #nativelivesmatter, #culturalappropriation, #whiteprivilege, #whitewashing, #indigeniousrising… Historic references follow an America with a history of oppression.native memes

I will not argue away or deny any of the ugly sides of American history.  Yet, overlooked ingredients helps make emotionally charged debates have more focus with less volatility.

Pipelines in North Dakota Are Nothing New

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Underground oil and gas pipelines are not new to the Dakotas, particularly North Dakota.  There are already 16 oil pipelines in operation: Bakken Oil Express, BakkenLink, Basin Trainload, Belle Fourche, Bridger, Butte, Crestwood, Double H, Unbridle, Four Bear, Kinder M, Keystone Pipeline, Little Missouri, Plains, Targa and Tesoro.  There are two major refineries: Dakota Prairie and Tesoro.

In 2013, North Dakota was considered the number one state for per-capita personal income growth greatly due to the oil boom.  Between 2003 and 2013, the average household income rose 93%, from $29,569 to $57,084. The oil boom produced such high earnings and job demands that 22 year olds with no job experience were earning over $100K and McDonald’s was even offering new hires $15 an hour with a $300 bonus. An insightful docuseries by Lisa Ling for CNN chronicled the North Dakota oil boom in places like Williston, where the promise of lucrative careers in oil paved the way to an influx of sex trade and a housing crisis.

Criticism has often been focused on race in the Dakota Pipeline narrative, not to mention criticism against the Obama administration’s handling of the pipeline.  Government agencies have addressed the Dakota Pipeline issue since 2015, (i.e. EPA & Director Philip Strobel of the NEPA care of Lisa Lloyd from the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation), but whether the internal dialogue is substantive enough is still worthy of debate.

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Television and films have showcased the rise of oil in North Dakota, from the Academy Award wining documentary White Earth to ABC’s Blood & Oil to would-be reality television shows like Boomtown Girls. Environmentalism hasn’t been lost on non-Native American residents and authors like Lisa Westberg Peters, author of “Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil”.

North Dakota has some curious demographics.  Prior to 2014, North Dakota was the only state without voter registration.  All one needed to qualify to vote was proof of US citizenship, at least 18 years of age on election day and a resident of North Dakota (driver’s license, non-driver’s identification, tribal identification or long-term care certificate is valid). These rules have since changed. At times, North Dakota has ranked as a state with highest voter turnout (63.9% in the 2012 Presidential Election).  At other times, North Dakota has come close to last in voter turnout (17.13% in the 2014 elections).  The interest in local politics seems to have relatively no public interests, yet national campaigns have drawn attention.  Makes the debate over who has control over municipalities and state government a fruitless one when it appears the vast voter population does not take interest in their local laws.  One could argue, this lack of voter interest in local politics runs equal across racial divides. Unfortunately, lack of voter participation isn’t a new phenomenon in America, where local elections turn out low voter numbers in every demographic. One can say America leads the world in taking pride in democracy, just not executing those rights.

What is also curiously omitted is other Indian reservations who have joined the Sioux have been collecting revenue from oil pipelines that are already drilling on their reservations. Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is embodied by North Dakota’s oil-rich Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. These nations have been in dispute over tax revenues and profit shares from the 50/50 split from Bakken Oil and have questioned the lack of revenue.

For brevity, jumping to the point is best before losing one’s audience in this hashtagged, social media world.  An argument can be made here that since 16 pipelines have already been laid since 2003 and the North Dakotan economy has done nothing but flourish, many in this predominately Republican leaning state do not mind that pipe has been laid in their backyards to their personal fortunes.  To focus on race has its benefits but also can be decisive and simply excludes a reality which affects all mankind. It is also not to say that the state hasn’t worked effortlessly with oil companies to make swift transistions enabling pipe to be laid. The pipeline itself isn’t crossing into Standing Rock Reservation land, but the argument the Standing Rock Sioux and allied critics cite how the land could be effected if there was any spill has complete merit. The likelihood of an oil spill in North Dakota, or any of the other state’s the pipeline would cross, would have tremendous impact to the people and the economy. Contamination into the Missouri River water supply could affect the entire Mid-West.  The obvious argument is those who would suffer most would be those historically who lived off the land, Native Americans.

Again, the arguments concerning the dominant, white race in America exploiting those who are not has its place. What should not be forgotten is oil contamination affects us all.  Even fracking contamination has reared it’s ugly head in North Dakota.

As the 2016 Presidential Election comes to a head, one might want to remind themselves how the fracking narrative has been one based on “clean energy”, often overlooking the environmental dangers.

Damaging the environment affects more than humans, whether our conceptual renderings on identity take the lead in this debate.  Alas, the Native American people can draw upon a greater appeal, their longstanding relationship to the Earth.  Hopefully, environmentalism can bridge a divide rather than create another one.

Last observation, must we bring children to protests?

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