Contextualizing the Dakota Access Pipeline: DAPL’s reminders about present-day colonialism

Contextualizing the Dakota Access Pipeline: DAPL’s reminders about present-day colonialism

The controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is somewhat of an old story. It’s not because the pipeline resembles many before it like the recently greenlit Pacific North West LNG or the infamous cross-border Keystone XL. Nor is it because DAPL has been in the works for over two years— undergoing review, acquiring permits, and attempting to sidestep critics. It’s because DAPL tells the timeworn tale of how the consequences of corporate greed intersect issues of health, the environment, and Indigenous rights.

DAPL is an energy project poised to stretch over 1800 kilometres across four American states. Starting in North Dakota and passing through South Dakota and Iowa, the pipeline ends in Illinois and has been designed to transport crude oil. Proponents see the pipeline as an economic necessity for creating jobs, boosting a stagnant industry, and ending the United States’ reliance on foreign energy. However, it is this promise of financial gain that has overridden the concerns and consent of largely Indigenous communities. DAPL and the various agencies that endorse it have prioritized the short-term profit of land exploitation and forced displacement over the long-term sustainability of the land, its inhabitants, and their well-being. It’s not difficult to flip through a history textbook and find this recurring theme— you’ll see it under the section titled, “colonialism”.   

The disastrous costs of colonial endeavours on the natural world have been long documented. In the late 1800s, as fur hats became all the rage in Europe, the North American fur trade nearly drove the beaver to extinction, and later the bison population met a similar fate. Throughout the same century, as Europeans settled across the lands, large fields of native plants like camas and salal berries were destroyed and foreign crops of potatoes and strawberries were introduced in their place. These historical environmental adversities severely debilitated the pre-existing biosphere, and climate activists argue that DAPL would be no different. They say the pipeline poses many ecological hazards, not limited to soil erosion, water pollution, and the host of problems for flora and fauna that would follow from a leak. Opponents also assert that DAPL’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change would harm surrounding communities by increasing the potential for drought and rising freshwater temperatures. For these reasons, biologists, conservationists, and agriculturalists alike have firmly positioned themselves in the anti-DAPL camp. They recognize that there is something ostentatiously familiar about a corporation invasively exploiting communal land with little regard for local residents and Mother Nature.

But the strongest objection to DAPL has come directly from Indigenous communities who live in and around many of the region surrounding the pipeline. Their subjugation, of course, is not a new experience. Having their lands dispossessed, their consent violated, and their well-being undervalued in favour of growing imperial economies— ones from which they scarcely benefit— is a tragic pattern that spans eras and borders. This is likely why Indigenous nations from across the world— including Canada, Mexico, and Brazil— have joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota to protest DAPL’s construction. With demonstrators amassing in the thousands, some reports have stated that this is one of largest gatherings of Indigenous peoples in history. Certainly, the Standing Rock Sioux have been dealt a sympathetic injustice. It is believed that DAPL will cut through sacred burial grounds and contaminate local water resources. While the former would be a cultural offence, the latter would give rise to serious health complications for generations of Indigenous peoples. Regardless, both display a reminiscently profound disrespect toward Indigenous peoples and highlight a clear link between past and present-day colonialism.

On September 9th, the U.S. federal government temporarily halted work on the pipeline pending further environmental assessment— a Band-Aid response to mounting pressure from those opposed to DAPL. Still, to this date, protesters continues to stand strong in North Dakota with many peacefully camped around the construction site. While DAPL might remind us about the persisting remnants of colonialism, it is evident that resistance to the pipeline will also show us a fairer future.