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.

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, 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. 

Kyle Powys Whyte

Kyle Powys Whyte

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. 

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. 

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

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

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. 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. 

“The activism, the acts of protection we engage in today are no different from what our ancestors were doing 200 years ago.”

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. 

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.