You may be following the news out of Standing Rock right now about the protests. Like most things Native American Law-related, there’s more to it than meets the eye. 

Many eyes are turned to the Native people who are standing up against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which would become a 1,172 mile long underground oil pipeline. Much of the activist attention has focused on the environmental impact of the project, and how it would affect the sacred sites on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation—which is a significant burden. But for Native folk this pipeline is more than one site.

After all, Native people are used to getting ignored by the law. It doesn’t help that Dakota Access reportedly rerouted their pipeline through the land upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation after North Dakotans rejected it for the exact reasons the tribe is now protesting.

Photo Credit: BobboSphere cc
Photo Credit: BobboSphere cc

Whether it’s statutory rights, offensive IP, or environmental racism, there’s a long history there of needing to fight for their rights. That’s what made the Obama Administration’s recent halt on the Dakota Access Pipeline construction so meaningful, says Lael Echo-Hawk.

“Indian Country knows that the judicial system is not with us,” wrote Echo-Hawk on her blog Smoke Signals. “Native America has gathered to support our cousins at Standing Rock and today, when the Court turned its efficient back on Indian Country, the Obama Administration stood with us…I was an employee of the Obama Administration and I cannot over-emphasize what a phenomenal effort this must have been by our friends and family working so hard on our behalf inside the government.  It can take weeks to get an even seemingly “simple” document approved by one Agency, let alone three.  And make no mistake, the POTUS himself had to approve this decision.”

Though the gesture itself is small—it’s not like the pipeline is fully stopped—it was a big show of support to tribal communities everywhere. After all, many see themselves fighting this battle, even if theirs isn’t the land being surrendered, as Pipeline Law writes:

Although the Standing Rock issues do challenge COE approval of water crossings, and federal decision-making under the NHPA, NEPA and related statutes, Standing Rock presents issues more unique to tribal lands and interests.  In creating the Oahe Reservoir, the COE flooded areas of former Standing Rock settlement and grave sites.  Although ETP has proposed that its HDD parallel an existing pipeline, thus passing through previously disturbed ground, the fact that the crossing will traverse previous tribal settlements raises issues different than most environmental or procedural challenges to water crossing.  Construction on or near reservation lands, in general, requires more consultation and anticipation of cultural resource and sovereignty issues.  Indeed, tribes from around the country have strongly supported the Standing Rock opposition to the pipeline route, but more due to concerns about development on or near Indian lands (that could affect cultural issues, environmental impacts and drinking water supplies), than due to climate change issues; requesting early consultation on pipeline and other projects based on tribal sovereignty more than environmental law.

That’s why activists have been flocking to Standing Rock, camping out, and withstanding a firehose in below freezing weather. Like when the Supreme Court considers a case that’s tort law on its face but sovereign rights for tribes, Native people have always known that their promised rights will not always take precedent. And they’ve always been fighting not just for their own land, but the land.

So while this fight may be about environmental destruction, oil, and a bunch of other buzzwords, it’s also yet another straw on the back of Native rights. Climate change often comes first and strongest to marginalized communities. Standing Rock seems to be no exception. That’s why there’s such a prolific stand off: Though the law hasn’t granted them more protection, public awareness and opposition has grown. For once that’s something to be thankful for.