The Standing Rock Native American Reservation has been in the news extensively recently, primarily due to the protests over the rerouting of Dakota Access Pipeline near their water supply. Straddling the line between southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota, the area is one of five remaining reservations leftover from the American conquest of the Sioux people. And the DAPL is far from the first controversy over land and water rights in the area — not by a long shot.
After the United States had encroached on Sioux territory for nearly a century, a treaty was signed giving the people all of the land in South Dakota west of the Missouri River. But, like most treaties the US signed with native groups, it was almost immediately and repeatedly violated. The notorious general George Armstrong Custer invaded the area and, discovering gold, kicked off a gold rush in the Black Hills — land considered sacred to many Sioux. Military expeditions into the region forced the Sioux from, and thousands were killed over the years. Revised treaties continued to chop away at the reservation until they were split up into tiny fractions of the originally agreed upon lands, and homesteaders and ranchers followed miners in making the conquest complete.
Even as the current borders took shape, abuses against Standing Rock and its people continued until the modern era. During the 1960s, families were pushed from their homes in order to dam the river and flood even more of the land. And oil pipelines were routed through, with little regard to the impact they would have on the local populace or environment.
This came to a head in 2016, as the Dakota Access Pipeline was scheduled to be built near Bismarck, North Dakota. But concerns about the impact it would have on the city’s water supply led to the relocation of the DAPL — directly through Standing Rock and under its own water supply.
What followed were months of protests and, eventually, a temporary hold on the project by then President Obama. But Donald Trump promised to push the project through, consequences be damned, and his election seems to have sealed the fate of the Standing Rock people once more.
Adding insult to injury, both North and South Dakota went overwhelmingly for Trump, nearly 2-1 — numbers that would’ve been unlikely had the land not been stolen away and given to a largely white and rural population. Native Americans, like most minority groups, feared what a trump administration would herald, though the threat to Standing Rock was much more direct and overt.
Soon after taking office, President Trump shut down environmental impact studies in the area and pushed for the pipeline to move forward, water and land rights be damned. Trump’s history of using eminent domain for his own businesses indicates that he will have little problem allowing the same to be used in Standing Rock to take over whatever land and water the oil companies want.
Oil is big business in the Dakotas, especially North Dakota. During the Great Recession it was one of only a handful of states that weathered the downturn relatively unscathed. Jobs poured into the state, especially in the west. The state had the lowest unemployment rate, the highest growth and GDP in the nation. They operated with a billion dollar surplus, also a national best.
Unlike other areas where growth has largely changed the political landscape, however, North Dakota’s remained heavily conservative. The oil industry is largely made up of blue-collar white workers, many of whom were easy snags for Trump.
But the influx of outsiders did bring some instability to local communities. Entire communities sprung up virtually overnight, and trailer parks and low-cost housing took over entire towns. While this was a boon to local businesses, and others opened up to cater to the thousands of newcomers. Some towns doubled in size in a very short period of time, putting massive strain on infrastructure systems.
The oil boom slowed significantly as oil prices began to drop. And while the state’s economy took a downward turn, it still remained near the top in the nation. But thousands of people began losing their jobs, and many blamed President Obama’s environmental regulations, as well as increasing foreign trade and immigration.
So when it came time for the DAPL, as well as expansions to the Keystone XL Pipeline, many people in North Dakota welcomed the idea of bringing those jobs back in one form or another. Of course, this put them at odds with those whose land and water would be at risk, and the “not in my backyard” attitude of the state’s capital forcing the reroute through Standing Rock put them squarely at odds with Native Americans and other landowners.
While neither North nor South Dakota appear to be at risk of flipping blue in the near future, the internal battles over environmental and land rights against economic concerns will largely be at the center of the debate over oil for years to come. That this particular fight also includes more violations of treaties and abuses of minority groups who have historically been on the receiving end of repeated and continuous abuse by the government only adds more gasoline to the fire.
But the most important lesson to learn from the fights here is that the Republican Party has largely abandoned their previous tenets of small government when it comes to energy and oil, instead pushing for eminent domain and big business at the expense of civil and land rights. Whether this trend continues will largely depend on whether the big government wing of the party, led by President Trump, or the more laissez-faire loving libertarian wing will win the soul of the party. In the Dakotas, Trumps seems to have a healthy lead.