Dakota Access Pipeline and the inconvenience of history

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.8 billion conduit that when completed, will stretch 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, delivering about 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

The pipeline is currently about halfway done and is anticipated to be completed later this year.

Protests emerged after the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed papers saying that it found several sites of significant cultural and historical value along the path of the pipeline.

The DAPL was originally intended to cross the Missouri river north of Bismarck but was redesigned due to concerns regarding the local residents’ water supply in the case of a leakage. The pipeline is now to cross under the Missouri river upstream of the reservation, which would significantly endanger the tribe’s main source of water during a leakage.

On Sept. 9, the tribe was denied a request to temporarily halt construction of the pipeline. Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened and requested that the Army Corp of Engineers to temporarily stop authorization for construction of the pipeline while previous decisions regarding the reservoir are reviewed.  The U.S. Court of Appeals will decide on the injunction on Sept. 23.

Natives tribes across the country have expressed solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. The protest has also garnered the support of a wide variety of activist groups, including environmentalists, the Black Lives Matter movement and even a group of 50 museum directors. Tensions rose after reports of dog attacks and pepper spray used against protestors surfaced online, and the governor of North Dakota has issued a standby alert to the North Dakota National Guard in anticipation of Friday’s decision.

The company behind the DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, has refused to acknowledge the validity of the Standing Rock Sioux’s claims, or the cultural impact the pipeline will create if built as proposed. Energy Transfer Partners’ willingness to proceed with the pipeline has produced a clear message. Culture can and must be sacrificed in the name of capitalism.

Future court decisions will either reject or solidify this message, but in the meantime, it is important to recognize that this rhetoric is dangerous to not only Native Americans but also to all non-white ethnic groups in America. The implicit warning is that ethnic minorities can celebrate their unique identities but only within certain limits. The Standing Rock Sioux can practice tribal sovereignty and be Native American as long as their way of life doesn’t get in the way of a pipeline.

Therefore, discussion around the DAPL must acknowledge the ethnicity of those involved and recognize the historical relationship between Native Americans and the rest of the country.

The narrative of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been canonized in storytelling and American history. A group of natives stand in solidarity against a corporate monolith that threatens the way of life of the local population in the name of capitalism and economic progress. However, the modern retelling of this tale holds a few key differences from its Hollywood predecessors. In James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Walt Disney’s “Pocahontas,” the aboriginals of Pandora and the Powhatans were only able to be rescued from their inevitable genocide by the romance between a female aborigine princess and the white male protagonist. Sadly, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reality —and history — is slightly less romantic.