Dakota Access Pipeline Prophecy for Worse to Come

Treaty rights as a grim lesson

Media coverage of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline has been hopelessly myopic. Certainly environmental justice, police brutality and the violation of sacred burial grounds are important topics, but no one has addressed the larger systemic issues at play: Native American treaty rights and how their handling portends dismally for the everyone else. Even the most self-centered and politically apathetic must realize Pastor Martin Niemöller’s warning that it’s only a matter of time before even the most mainstream of society are persecuted.

To truly appreciate the full significance of the face-off at Standing Rock, one has to understand understand the historical context of this struggle, which has seen supporters from 300 Indian tribes lining up to back the Sioux People.

Every person in the United States has the right to clean water, but for Native Americans, that right is two-fold. The treaties that set up Indian reservations were not simply land ownership agreements. The terms actually dictated a broader set of terms. This includes not just land, but also the obligation to protect tribal property and assets; in other words, natural resources such as clean water.

Protectors at Standing RockProtectors at Standing Rock

Furthermore, the Snyder Act of 1921 delineated that the federal government is also obligated to provide health care to federally recognized tribes. While this typically takes the form of providing clinics and health insurance through Indian Health Services, ensuring clean water is obviously a basic tenant to providing basic public health care.

So when the Sioux who live on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation demand that their source of clean water is protected, it’s not simply a matter of basic human rights, but also a contractual financial obligation.

But the bigger concept at play here is that the 56.2 million acres of land that are identified as reservation land (at totally of only about 2% of the United States), are actually held “in trust.”

Most of us don’t know what that means. In life experience of the average American, you either own something or you don’t, but a “trust” is something in between. Some rich children have an idea. It’s similar to the “trust funds” that wealthy people set up for their children. The money is named to them and for their use, but with active management and significant restrictions on its use. Only at least with rich kids, at a certain age, the trust money usually is given to them outright and they can spend it however they see fit. That will never happen for the lands held in trust for Native Americans.

What that means on a practical level is that even if a specific tribe has rights to the land of reservation, it’s only in the setting of the high regulation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Conrad Stewart the Chair of the Natural Resources Infrastructure Committee for the Crow tribe explains that even if their tribe wanted to mine coal on their lands there would be a 49-step process that involved the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and the Commerce Department, all of which can take months, if not years. He estimates that just to dig a hole requires a $6,500 up-front payment for an application for a permit to drill.

In comparison, land just off the reservation requires about $125, 15 minutes, and a 5-step process for approval.

In a world run by capitalism, this means the land is “dead capital.” Because it’s held in trust, few people see it as a lucrative investment. Furthermore, since no individual owns it outright, it can’t be used as collateral for a loan or as an investment of wealth.

In reality, reservations do not offer true sovereignty and self-determination, but paternalism. They are a fraudulent attempt to assuage the guilt of a country built on the genocide and pillaging of other peoples.

What we need to realize is that fighting for the rights of the Sioux at Standing Rock is also fighting for the rights of every person.

The dispute at Standing Rock is not only a fight over treaty rights; it’s a fight over human rights for everyone in this country. And more than just a singular battle in the never-ending war between justice and exploitation, it’s an allegory for the continued shift in power away from the people towards corporations.

In theory, all Native Americans deserve, at the very least, what the wildly unfair treaties promised: self-government, cultural agency and independence, and the protection of natural resources and basic services such as health care and education. In actuality, the recognition and fulfillment of these rights are up to the whims of the federal government. To this day, despite the Supreme Court ruling that the federal government is contractually bound to provide healthcare, the budget comes out of the President’s Discretionary Funds. Obama’s attempts to change funding to a mandatory status have been blocked year after year.

Similarly, in theory, we all deserve law enforcement that protects individuals and maintains a peaceful society. In actuality, the rights to security and safety all too often fall prey to racism, militarism, and officers on a power-kick.

Many of the folks at Standing Rock prefer to be called “water protectors,” not protestors. As Irene Yeh, a water protector recalls, “From a hilltop, I saw groups of police officers with batons, some with rifles, armored vehicles, a tank, a helicopter droning overhead… The protectors had agreed to cooperate with police demands… That’s when a line of officers encircled the group… they began to grab people, hitting some with batons and pushing them to the ground, spraying mace and punching one protector in the face. The protectors were just standing there, calm and unarmed.”


Unfortunately we are all too familiar with this sort of brutality. It’s the unchecked power that too often escalates to the murder of people of color all over the country. It’s the result of a police force that has been requested to respect our rights instead of demanding it of them.

And finally, in theory we deserve an environment, places to live, that are clean and healthy. In actuality corporations plunder and pollute, only pausing to consider environmental impact when it suits their interests.

We must stand up in outrage as the Standing Rock water protectors and their supporters are doing now because protest is the only reliable means of protecting the rights of the Great Sioux Nation. In a world where human rights are seen as a request, not an obligation, it is the only way to ensure that we all get the rights that we deserve.

  • Published at This Can’t Be Happening.
  • Jess Guh, MD, writes her thoughts on race, on privilege, on class, and on being a doctor. Read other articles by Jess, or visit Jess's website.