10 Nov 2016: Interview

At Standing Rock, A Battle
Over Fossil Fuels and Land

The Native American-led protest against the Dakota Access pipeline has gained global attention. In an e360 interview, indigenous expert Kyle Powys Whyte talks about the history of fossil fuel production on tribal lands and the role native groups are playing in fighting climate change.

by katherine bagley

For more than eight months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota has been leading a protest to stop an oil pipeline from crossing near its land and potentially threatening its drinking water and sacred sites. In many ways, the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil some 1,200 miles daily, is a traditional fight over Native American land rights. But as indigenous environmental justice expert Kyle Powys Whyte sees it, the demonstration also points to the important role tribes have played in opposing fossil fuel energy projects in recent years, from the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. to the Northern Gateway pipeline in Canada.

“Almost everywhere you go, tribes have taken direct action to protect their health and their cultures and their economies from the threats,

Kyle Powys Whyte
as well as the false promises of, extractive industries,” says Powys Whyte, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies climate policy and indigenous peoples and is a member of the Potawatomi Nation.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Powys Whyte talks about the long history of coal and oil and gas development on native lands, the longstanding divisions within indigenous communities over allowing such projects, and why the Standing Rock protest has become a lightning rod for opposition to fossil fuels.

__

Yale Environment 360: The Standing Rock Protest in North Dakota has been going on for more than eight months. Is this largely a land and water rights issue, a climate issue, an environmental justice issue, or all of the above?

Kyle Powys Whyte: It's an issue that has to do with direct threats or risks that are posed by the pipeline to the water and the land, including sacred cultural sites. This case is indicative of an entire history of U.S. settler colonialism that has, basically, destroyed our land bases as indigenous people and has made it very hard for us to exercise the right to self-determination. The irony of this, of course, is that all of these reductions to our land base and our access to clean water, going back to the 19th century, were deliberate attempts to move us out of the way to foster the development of industries that now scientists are showing have contributed to increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Scientists and many others are also showing that it's indigenous people that are among the populations most affected by climate change impacts.

e360: Is that what you mean when you use the term “climate justice” in talking about the Standing Rock situation?

Powys Whyte: Absolutely. What the protectors are doing is saying no to the continuation of the development and maintenance of fossil fuel industries, for the sake of indigenous survival. That statement reverberates for a lot of indigenous people, especially those such as people in the Arctic, in the Pacific, and in the Gulf of Mexico who are experiencing climate change impacts right now that pose threats of the highest severity.
The reality is that extractive industries have been part of the experience of every single tribe in the U.S."


e360: What role has energy infrastructure — things like pipelines, oil and gas wells, and coal mines — played in modern Native American history? How common are projects like these on indigenous lands?

Powys Whyte: The reality is that extractive industries have been part of the experience of every single tribe in the U.S. Before U.S. settlement really ramped up, we had our own governing systems that ranged across very large areas of water and land that were organized to adapt and adjust according to seasonal changes. In the 1870s, the U.S. stopped signing treaties with tribes and began dealing with them primarily through congressional statutes and the courts, which basically means that the U.S. can set Indian policy without the direct consent of indigenous peoples. The General Allotment Act of 1887 sought to provide certain amounts of land, such as 160 acres and other amounts, to Indians as private property, the thinking being that Indians would become farmers and that settlers would inhabit and develop the leftover lands. That Act was very quickly modified in 1891 to explicitly support mineral leasing on unallotted lands.

It's also the case that the property that indigenous persons were allotted became subject to mineral leasing. Many indigenous persons had no interest or lacked support from the U.S. to become farmers. And a probate system wasn’t set up, meaning allotments got divided up between a ton of different heirs who received equal shares. You'd get what's called fractionation, which is land with too many owners to make use of. So when the U.S. saw the fact that a lot of the land wasn't able to be put to use as intended, they just leased that land to extractive industries or to commercial agriculture. The indigenous persons then would get an account into which they would get to share in some of the profits from those activities. Fast-forward into the late 20th century and a [Blackfeet Nation] woman named Elouise Cobell launched one of the largest class action suits against the U.S., which was about how many of those accounts were mismanaged and indigenous persons weren't really getting their fair share.

If you look at [the history], the U.S. very deliberately sought to find ways to lease indigenous lands to extractive industries without our consent.

REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People have gathered on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the building of a pipeline near Cannonball, North Dakota.



e360: How much say do indigenous groups have over what happens on their land? Can the federal government green light a construction project without their approval?

Powys Whyte: There are laws and policies [related to] the duty of the U.S. to consult tribes, or even the capacity of tribes to develop their own agencies that operate like states and can set their own water and air quality standards, and so on. But really what you find is that even though the letter of the law has all these requirements agencies are supposed to fulfill, it oftentimes doesn't happen in practice. Tribal leaders are often overwhelmed with letters from all these different parties saying, "I'm informing you I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that." In many tribes, we just don't have the capacity to process all of that information, and it is tough to try to find ways to protect ourselves from activities that are supported by people with far more financial resources and political influence than many tribal governments have.

e360: Historically, has there been any sort of divide within the community over approving or rejecting energy projects, like pipelines or oil and gas wells?

Powys Whyte: Tribes are extremely diverse communities that include members with all different religious persuasions, different socioeconomic situations, different political views, and on and on. Because of that, when extractive industries — the coal industry, or oil and gas industry — are trying to site themselves within or nearby a tribe, that oftentimes divides the community. One of the things to understand is that there are tribes — the Navajo through coal, the Crow tribe through coal, and others as well — that have been operating their own extraction and processing industries that then contribute energy to state residents.

While it's true that many people debate whether tribes should continue to participate as much as some of them do in the fossil fuel industry, what I think is hard to disagree with is the fact that for many tribes, we wouldn't have gone along with any of these schemes or leases for extractive industries if it wasn't for the fact that the U.S. had put us in a situation with a diminished land base. It made it impossible for us to exercise our own governance systems, or even to develop and change in ways that were more sustainable than simply being dependent on industries that we know are contributing to climate change, that contribute to pollution, and that are bad for people's health.

e360: Standing Rock has gotten a lot of attention, but it is by no means an isolated protest. Where else have indigenous groups been fighting energy projects in recent years, and how successful have these campaigns been?

Powys Whyte: Indigenous people have really been at the forefront of taking action against extractive industries. A great example of that is the Crandon Mine. This was a mine in Wisconsin that was going to affect the lands and waters of the Mole Lake Sokaogon Tribe, the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe, and other nearby tribes, such as the Menominee.
The activism, the acts of protection we engage in today are no different from what our ancestors were doing 200 years ago."
These tribes and their allies rallied together and not only used direct action, but used some really effective legal and political approaches [to stop the project]. They even purchased the land that the mine was on to foreclose the possibility that a future mine could be proposed there. One of the interesting things is that some of the money that was raised to buy that land came out of the tribes’ gaming revenues. So the tribes used their own gaming enterprises to shut down something that was going to pose huge threats.

Almost everywhere you go, you can see that tribes have taken direct action to protect their health and their cultures and their economies from the threats, as well as the false promises of, extractive industries.

e360: You're a member of the Potawatomi Nation [in Oklahoma]. Have you seen a shift in how indigenous communities, including your own, have viewed fossil fuel projects in your lifetime?

Powys Whyte: In a lot of ways, the activism, the acts of protection we engage in today are no different from what our ancestors were doing 200 years ago when they were facing the barrage of U.S. colonialism. So for a lot of us, we always re-situate what we're doing and the heritage of our ancestors and see ourselves as taking guidance from what they did and the struggles that they faced.

On the other hand, there have been some important developments. There is now a global indigenous people's movement, a lot of which focuses on environmental protection. Indigenous people are the largest group of non-state actors to have a presence in the United Nations, with three different institutions devoted to indigenous rights.

e360: Many pipelines and fossil fuel projects cross international borders from Canada to the U.S. Do Canadian and U.S. tribes have different rights or say over these decision processes?

Powys Whyte: Yes. One of the big issues that many indigenous people face is that we also have to confront these nation-state borders, and we have to reckon with some of the difficulties that arise because of these borders. One of those difficulties is that the Canadian legal system and the U.S. legal system operate very differently. Specific legal solutions or direct action solutions that might work well in the U.S. wouldn't work in Canada, or vice versa. In the U.S., indigenous issues very rarely are public issues. It took major news outlets forever to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline and even now the coverage is relatively minimal despite the monumentality of what's happening. In Canada, indigenous issues are public issues. Through movements such as Idle No More, First Nations have really been able to do a lot, given how daunting the power differentials are, to protect their rights and protect their cultures despite the fact that Canada's economy is almost entirely dependent on the exploitation of indigenous lands for extraction.

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Canada’s Indigenous Bands Rise
Up Against a Tar Sands Pipeline

Canada First Nations Tar Sands
TransCanada, the company behind the now-defunct Keystone XL, is proposing another pipeline that would ship Alberta tar sands oil to Canada’s Atlantic coast. But fierce opposition from First Nation communities could derail this controversial project.
READ MORE


e360: What tools can tribes use to fight these projects?

Powys Whyte: The U.S. does recognize 567 tribes as sovereign, and states recognize a little over 30 tribes. That's created a number of laws and policies that seek to recognize tribal sovereignty. One area of resistance is using these different laws and policies as leverage points in order to protect the environment. Another area that is important is education. Education can actually go to making people who, say, work for the Army Corps of Engineers, more understanding of the fact that when we talk about tribal land, we're not just talking about land on reservations. We're talking about the total heritage of tribal lifeways, which includes lands that are far outside of reservations.

Last, but by no means least, especially in relation to the Dakota Access Pipeline, direct action. As native people, we can't simply allow ourselves to advocate only through legal or educational or other types of institutions. We have to take a stand and put our feet down when things threaten us that are deeply unacceptable, such as this pipeline. But when we engage in direct action, we have to do it in a way that reflects indigenous values.

Katherine Bagley, who conducted this interview, is the web editor of Yale Environment 360.

POSTED ON 10 Nov 2016 IN Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Science & Technology Water Central & South America North America 

COMMENTS


Too bad this interview was not conducted with, say, Prof. Shep Krech, Y'67, of Brown, author of "The Environmental Indian (19999). He might also have been asked if he was familiar with Judge Boasberg's September ruling on the tribal petition for an injunction. Do we even know if the interviewers or their editors have read either the denial or the petitions themselves, and the supporting documentarion, on which the judge made findings of fact. (Judge Boasberg is a Yale College alumnus, class of 1985). One is inclined to think the judge is more familiar with the matter than an assistant prof who opines as to "facts" and uses such opinion to find other "facts." C'mon, Yale, get it together.
Posted by Christopher A. Kule on 20 Nov 2016


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.



 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


An Unusually Warm Arctic Year:
Sign of Future Climate Turmoil?

This year will almost certainly go down as the warmest on record in the Arctic, with autumn temperatures soaring 36 degrees F above normal. In a Yale e360 interview, climatologist Jennifer Francis explains why a swiftly warming Arctic may have profound effects on global weather.
READ MORE

How Warming Threatens the Genetic
Diversity of Species, and Why It Matters

Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.
READ MORE

African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.
READ MORE

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.
READ MORE

Unable to Endure Rising Seas,
Alaskan Villages Stuck in Limbo

As an advocate for Alaska’s Native communities, Robin Bronen points to a bureaucratic Catch-22 — villages cannot get government support to relocate in the face of climate-induced threats, but they are no longer receiving funds to repair their crumbling infrastructure.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Interviews


An Unusually Warm Arctic Year:
Sign of Future Climate Turmoil?

by fen montaigne
This year will almost certainly go down as the warmest on record in the Arctic, with autumn temperatures soaring 36 degrees F above normal. In a Yale e360 interview, climatologist Jennifer Francis explains why a swiftly warming Arctic may have profound effects on global weather.
READ MORE

Are Trees Sentient Beings?
Certainly, Says German Forester

by richard schiffman
In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are “wonderful beings” with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.
READ MORE

The Moth Snowstorm: Finding
True Value in Nature’s Riches

by roger cohn
Journalist Michael McCarthy has chronicled the loss of wildlife in his native Britain and globally. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why he believes a new defense of the natural world is needed – one based on the joy and spiritual connection it provides for humans.
READ MORE

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

by diane toomey
Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.
READ MORE

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

by diane toomey
Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.
READ MORE

At Ground Zero for Rising Seas,
TV Weatherman Talks Climate

by diane toomey
John Morales is part of a new breed of television weather forecasters seeking to educate viewers on climate change and the threat it poses. In South Florida, where sea level rise is already causing periodic flooding, he has a receptive audience.
READ MORE

Unable to Endure Rising Seas,
Alaskan Villages Stuck in Limbo

by diane toomey
As an advocate for Alaska’s Native communities, Robin Bronen points to a bureaucratic Catch-22 — villages cannot get government support to relocate in the face of climate-induced threats, but they are no longer receiving funds to repair their crumbling infrastructure.
READ MORE

Why CO2 'Air Capture' Could Be
Key to Slowing Global Warming

by richard schiffman
Physicist Klaus Lackner has long advocated deploying devices that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to combat climate change. Now, as emissions keep soaring, Lackner says in a Yale Environment 360 interview that such “air capture” approaches may be our last best hope.
READ MORE

Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

by diane toomey
Donnel Baird has launched a startup that aims to revolutionize how small businesses and nonprofits secure funding for energy efficiency and clean energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about how he plans to bring his vision to dozens of U.S. cities.
READ MORE

From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

by katherine bagley
For climate scientist Kim Cobb, this year’s massive bleaching of coral reefs is providing sobering insights into the impacts of global warming. Yale Environment 360 talked with Cobb about the bleaching events and the push to make reefs more resilient to rising temperatures.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ashaninka
An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale