Did Obama Just Avoid War with the Great Sioux Nation?

Photo by Rob Wilson for Bold Alliance

Replica of flag taken from General Custer, held by Sacred Stone Camp defenders/Photo by Rob Wilson for Bold Alliance

The Obama administration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today made a stunning announcement which nullified a much-anticipated federal court ruling regarding a pipeline opposed by Dakota Native American tribes.

A U.S. District Court decision removed a major barrier to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would deliver Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to Illinois. But in a joint statement shortly following the court’s ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement saying that the Army Corps would not grant Dakota Access, LLC a crucial permit needed to complete the pipeline and might even reconsider previous decisions.

In addition, the government called for a discussion on a major sticking point in the case just considered in federal court: how much tribes are consulted during the permitting of major infrastructure projects.

This fall, according to the statement, they “will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations” on two points: how the federal government can better ensure tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews, and whether new legislation should be proposed to Congress to adjust the “statutory framework” governing the permitting of infrastructure projects.

The Army Corps was expected to grant an easement for Dakota Access to bore under Lake Oahe, but now says, in the statement just released, it will refrain from granting the permit until it conducts a review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws. The Environmental Protection Agency, in disagreement with the Corps’ previous position, had pushed for such a review.

The statement also calls on Dakota Access to voluntarily refrain from construction activity within 20 miles of the lake. So far, Dakota Access has declined to comment on the ruling and the government’s announcement.

Thousands have flocked to North Dakota to block construction of access roads and clearing and grading for a section of the 1,172-mile pipeline which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says will pollute their drinking water supply just north of its reservation. Two encampments, in addition to the original Sacred Stone Camp, were established to accommodate members of numerous Sioux tribes and their supporters from all over the country, who call themselves protectors rather than protesters.

Court Sides with Government Against Tribe

The government’s announcement immediately followed U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg’s denial of a motion of preliminary injunction on the Army Corp’s permitting of Dakota Access construction around Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had sought the injunction on the basis of irreparable harm to sites of cultural and historical importance under the National Historical Preservation Act.

Judge Boasberg agreed with the Army Corps that it had adequately reached out to the Standing Rock tribe, yet the tribe had largely refused to engage in the process. He contended that he lacked jurisdiction on areas west of Lake Oahe because they are private property and not subject to Army Corps permitting, which applies only to waterways on federal land. Furthermore, the judge noted that the purpose of an injunction is preventive. Since 48% of the pipeline has already been completed, he wrote, “the risk that construction may damage or destroy cultural resources is now moot.”

Heightened Conflict

Dakota Access, with the support of local law enforcement, has seemed determined to flatten any resistance which would delay getting the $3.8 billion project completed. The governor of North Dakota has firmly backed the company by declaring a state of emergency and deploying the National Guard. Dakota Access and law enforcement allege that protectors have engaged in violent conduct and vandalism, at times wielding “hatchets” and sticks, while the Sacred Stone Camp maintains that its tactics are nonviolent.

About 50 people gathered outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, DC on Sept. 9 when the court was about to release a crucial ruling./Photo by Alex Lotorto

About 50 people gathered outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, DC on Sept. 9 when the court was about to release a crucial ruling./Photo by Alex Lotorto

After the Army Corps gave Dakota Access permission to proceed with clearing and grading in late July, water protectors have conducted blockades and chained themselves to construction equipment. Conflict climaxed last weekend when a private security company hired by Dakota Access sicced dogs on tribe members, who were incensed that the company was bulldozing an area just identified as a burial site and possible archeological goldmine.

The optics of Natives bitten and wounded by vicious dogs egged on by hired white guards dressed like military were devastating. The Army Corps did not oppose an emergency motion to halt construction until Friday’s court decision. Rallies in sympathy with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been held around the country.

The Great Sioux Nation Rises

Jim Gray, former chief of the Osage tribe, calls the Sacred Stone Camp “the biggest story no one is covering.” In particular, the confluence of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, often called the Sioux, is unprecedented when there have habitually been inter-tribal conflicts.

In the last year, thousands of Native people have traveled to Standing Rock’s reservation to join their brothers and sisters in what could be a long sustained presence to resist the construction of this pipeline project. In recent months, over 150 tribal governments across the U.S. have passed letters of support, resolutions and have sent tribal delegations with provisions to the reservation to assist the “Protectors”. This kind of commitment is unprecedented in the modern era. Even during the height of the 70’s, there never was this level of support both politically and in resources to help another tribe in their time of need.

Following the U.S. District Court’s denial of a motion for a temporary restraining order on construction west of Lake Oahe on Sept. 6, people are reported to be arriving at the camps at an even greater rate and preparing for a long stay. The Great Sioux Nation is united and determined.

Long History of Betrayal

In his ruling, Judge Boasberg referred to the long history of “indignities visited upon the Tribe over the last centuries” by the U.S. government. The U.S. Army has of course historically played an outsized role in persecuting the Sioux, among them the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also inflicted harm on Native American tribes. The Standing Rock Sioux and surrounding tribes have reason to bear a grudge after the Corps dammed the Missouri River in 1958, flooding an area where tribes for many long years had met for trade and ceremony, land they considered sacred. The result was Lake Oahe, under which the Dakota Access now wants to drill to place a pipeline transporting shale oil from North Dakota.

The Obama administration may have wanted to avert an inevitable and possibly violent crackdown after the U.S. District Court unequivocally denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s motion. It’s also likely that Obama doesn’t want to leave office with the legacy of having started another “war” with the “Indians.”

Whether the U.S. government, with its history of breaking every single treaty it has ever made with Native American tribes, is dealing in good faith with the Sioux Nations remains to be seen. It hasn’t actually stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline, only requested a “pause” for further review, perhaps in the hopes that delay will allow time to disband the encampments or exhaust them by winter.

“We have a long history of working with Army Corps of Engineers, a long history of them not being truthful, and a long history of them destroying land,” Sacred Stone Camp Director LaDonna Bravebull Allard said after the government’s announcement. “The Army Corps has never been truthful with the tribes, so we must always be cautious of whatever they say.”

UPDATE: Sacred Stone Camp posted the following on its Facebook page:

Let’s be cautious about celebrating this. On one hand it seems clear that our pressure is having an effect. Let’s keep it up.

But we have seen time and time again a consistent strategy from the State in these situations: string out the process, break it to us gradually to avoid a big confrontation, present the illusion of careful thoughtful review of the case, tempt us with promises of modest reforms…but then in the end make the same decision that serves money not people. So far this is just talk, not actions, and actions are all we should care about.

Stop the pipeline, and then we’ll celebrate.

We are not leaving until this is over.