A Dakota pipeline’s last stand – Washington Post

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In the Dakota language, the word “oahe” signifies “a place to stand on.”

And that’s what the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies in the environmental and activist movements say they are doing: using Lake Oahe in North Dakota as a place to take a stand by setting up camps and blocking roads in order to block the controversial $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline.

Their confrontations with police — who have responded with water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets — have steered attention to the 1,170-mile long oil pipeline project and its owner, Energy Transfer Partners. But the real source of Native Americans’ grievance stretches back more than a century, to the original government incursions on their tribal lands. And those earlier disputes over their rights to the land, like the one over the Dakota Access pipeline, pitted the tribes against a persistent force, the Army Corps of Engineers.

The federal government has been taking land from Lakota and Dakota people for 150 years, tribal leaders say, from the seizure of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota after the discovery of gold in the 1870s to the construction of dams in the Missouri River that flooded villages, timber land and farmland in the Dakotas in the 1950s.

Through the ages, the warring tribes of the Northern Plains lived, hunted and fought across a sprawling expanse of land. Many were migratory, moving with the seasons. Each treaty with the U.S. government, most notably the 1851 and 1868 treaties of Fort Laramie, restricted their movement further though left them large areas west of the Missouri River and recognized them as sovereign nations.

Police sprayed water cannons in freezing temperatures on protesters just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota Nov. 20. In a Facebook post, law enforcement officials said they were involved in an “ongoing riot.” (Zoeann Murphy,McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Much of this was contested, leading to Gen. George A. Custer’s ill-fated military campaign to protect miners. Later land was taken to make way for homesteading.

In 1889, Congress passed legislation that created the modern reservation system, pushing the Sioux, also known as Lakota, into smaller areas. And later in the 1900s a series of dams across the Missouri River rolled back the scope of those reservations too.

“This government honors international treaties like they are the Holy Grail, but within our own homeland they find ways to break them,” said Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault, who under the treaties and American law is the head of a domestic sovereign nation.

Lake Oahe illustrates his point. The lake, the site of the current dispute, exists because of a dam project built by the Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency that has been weighing whether and where the Dakota Access pipeline could be built.

Empowered by the flood control act of 1944, the Army Corps erected the Oahe Dam in central South Dakota, forming a reservoir that extends about 250 miles upstream to within a short distance of Bismarck, N.D. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy dedicated the dam, hailing it as a symbol of a free society tapping its natural resources.

But for the Lakota tribes, the dam didn’t exploit natural resources. It buried them.

The project inundated and destroyed the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s “most fertile bottom lands,” home to medicinal plants, wildlife and timber, said Everett J. Iron Eyes, Sr., former water and natural resource director for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and now a water consultant. In the process, he said, the Army Corps acquired 56,000 acres of land and destroyed 90 percent of the tribe’s timber land.

The Army Corps simply condemned the land and paid little to no compensation. The Standing Rock Sioux sued and won compensation — $90.5 million in a trust fund from which it can draw only from the interest on the account to spend on social welfare and economic development.

Iron Eyes said that the government also changed the tribe’s water boundaries. Originally, according to the act of Congress in 1889, the tribe’s territorial boundary stopped at the low water level mark on the east bank, giving it ownership of the water and river bed. After building the dam, the Army Corps seized strips of land on either side of the river. Those strips are the areas in dispute now, giving the Army Corps a central role in letting Energy Transfer Partners complete the line, or not.

“When they dammed the Missouri River they did it specifically and purposely so that it would flood the Standing Rock reservation,” said Harry Sachse, a partner at the Washingtonfirm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry and who has represented other Native American tribes. “So the Standing Rock tribe still feels very abused. The government drowned all of the towns the tribe built along the river.”

Under the Fort Laramie treaties, the Standing Rock Sioux’s northern border was recognized as the Heart River, which winds up to Bismarck, about 25 miles north of the Cannonball River that was declared the northern border by an act of Congress in 1889. The pipeline battles of the past three months have taken place near the Cannonball.

“They violated every treaty ever made with the tribe,” Iron Eyes said.

“It’s important not to lose sight of the greater sovereignty issue,” said Jennifer Baker, a senior associate at the law firm Fredericks Peebles & Morgan who has represented tribes. “That’s what the DAPL fight and all the fights against these ticking environmental bombs really boil down to. To overlook that would be to not do justice to such an important cause.”

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