The History behind the Protest surrounding the Standing Rock Reservation and the Dakota Access Pipeline 

Posted: April 19, 2017 by extremehistory in Uncategorized

By Julia Strehlau-Jacobs

Determined as can be, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe 2016-09-16-1474044012-2676960-defend_the_sacredprotested the construction of what they call the “Black Snake”, the North Dakota Access Pipeline. It will run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa, and finally Illinois, where it ends in Patoka. Along its way, Dakota Access dug and routed the pipeline underneath the Missouri River and across tribal land. Running nearby both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the pipeline puts these streams at great risk of pollution from oil spills. The drinking water of millions of people is therefore in danger of pollution. Furthermore, it runs across tribal land where scared sites and burial grounds have been destroyed. However, the tribe had little to say about land that is just off the reservation. Throughout history the federal government has systematically reduced the size of Indian Reservations and violated treaties. To completely understand the urgency of the protest at Standing Rock and the historical connection to the watershed, we have to take a look at the history of the Sioux Nation and its various reservations.

The Great Sioux Nation, as the name suggests, consists of a great number of different groups of the Sioux tribe. Today there are 14 Reservations in the US and 9 Reserves in Canada which the various bands call home. This provides us with an idea of the extent and variety of the Sioux Nation, however, we must remember that the history of all those groups varies. On American soil, or what soon would be part of the young country, the frontier territories were in the process of discovery and settlement by the American government and European settlers. With the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark as the first government officials to encounter the Natives of the American West. Soon after, Western tribes found themselves trading and signing friendship treaties with pale skinned and foreign sounding Americans. The first ‘Peace and Friendship’ treaties between groups of the Sioux and the American government were signed in 1815 and 1816. These treaties entailed for one that these groups remained loyal towards American settlers and officials as opposed to those from other countries, like the British for example. Consequential it aimed at preventing Indian tribes to ally with foreign and enemy forces to America. Furthermore, the treaty put these groups under the protection of the United States. In 1825, other friendship treaties were signed. Those put various groups under the protection of the United States, regulated trade with Americans and called for peace among several Indian tribes. None of the other treaties that were signed that year dealt with land cessions. We need to keep in mind that in the early 19th century contact among English speaking settlers and Native peoples was still not common. The language barrier was very high, and most likely many of those American Indians who signed the treaties were not aware of their content. Mistranslations were very likely to have happened.

1851 marks the year of first land cessions and first establishments of Indian Reservations in the American West. The ‘Treaty of Traverse des Sioux’ was signed on July 23 of 1851 between the Eastern Sioux in Minnesota and Iowa and the United States, leaving them with only a small area to settle along the Minnesota River. The other, and better known treaty signed on September 17 of 1851, was the ‘Fort Laramie Treaty’. This treaty, also known as the ‘First Ft. Laramie Treaty’ had tremendous impact on not only the Western, or Teton, Sioux, but also seven other tribes of the American West, among them Crow, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, and Hidatsa, to name a few. The Teton Sioux, also known as the Dakota Nation, included the Oglala Sioux and other Sioux groups of the plains, signed the treaty granting the United States the right to build roads and military and trading posts on Native land. The tribes agreed to face American travelers, traders, and laborers peacefully. However, travelers, settlers, and hunters, did not stay on designated roads and were already hunting scarce buffalo. The treaty established the ‘legal’ homeland boundaries of the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fire, which united the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota peoples. Referred to as the Original Great Sioux Reservation their homeland including “present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, part of western North Dakota, and large areas of eastern Montana, Wyoming, and western Nebraska, [it] was centered on the Black Hills of South Dakota, which were considered the sacred heartland of their lives, lands, and culture” (Dunbar Ortiz, 1977: 22). We can imagine that the treaty did not pan out the way it was supposed to. Travelers on the Oregon Trail and other main traveling routes increasingly got into fights with Indians, to a point at which the army interfered and held deceitful power games, intruding in Indian land, violating treaty rights, and killing Indian people. As conflict was inevitable with the increasing number of people coming to the United States and the connected westward expansion, it was time for another treaty.

The Second Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868 eventually established what today is known as the Great Sioux Reservation. Its boundaries entailed “all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River […] and acknowledged that other Sioux lands –  in western Montana and Wyoming – were “unceded” Indian land, in which the Sioux and Cheyenne could continue to hunt without interference” (Dunbar Ortiz, 1977: 24). On the reservation, the US government established agencies at which the Indians were to live. Furthermore, churches of any belief were introduced on reservations throughout the West. The goal was to educate and Christianize the Indians in a way that would fit the America of the white man. The hardest setback for the Sioux, however, was the intrusion into the Black Hills by gold rushers. No-one less than General Custer led the exploratory expedition for gold in the mountains, and later publicly announced the discovery thereof. The Battle at the Little Bighorn in 1876 was a key incident in the tribe’s fight against the exploitation of their sacred hills. Unfortunately, the Sioux were eventually forced to sell the Black Hills to the US government in 1877, which opened up the territory for mining. This is the start of what today is known as the Reservation period. During this time, sovereignty, freedom, and dignity started to be taken away from Native Americans.

In need for ever more land for white settlers and gold-miners the American government once again diminished the size of the Great Sioux reservation. In fact, 1889 defined the end of the Great Sioux Reservation. The General Allotment Act, note that it was an act, not a treaty, split the reservation up into five distinctively smaller reservations: The Standing Rock Reservation, the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and the Pine Ridge Reservation. And this was the final step to establish the reservations as they are today. Nine million acres of land was made available to white homesteaders and ranchers with the General Allotment Act of 1889.

From this point, we will jump in history to put the struggle surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline into historical perspective. This shall not leave other struggles the tribe faced, as the Dawes Act, imposed education for Native American children in boarding schools, and others, unacknowledged. However, the Standing Rock Sioux had to fight for their water rights long before the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Severe draughts and heavy flooding in the Mid-West throughout the 1930’s and 40’s urged several water management agencies to develop plans for irrigation- and flood control of the Missouri River. Lewis A. Pick from the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Glen Sloan from the Bureau of Reclamation both submitted plans for the introduction of dams along the Missouri River which were to benefit flood control, help the irrigation of drier parts of the Plains and generate electricity. In 1944, Congress passed the ‘Flood Control Act’ and with that ratified the Pick-Sloan-Plan which was now called the ‘Missouri River Basin Development Program’. $200 million was approved for the project which authorized the construction surrounding the Missouri River on seven Indian American reservations. It is unfortunate that neither of the tribes had been informed about any such plans when they were made, but only after the project was confirmed and construction about to begin. Two of the affected reservations were the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River reservations which were to sacrifice 200,000 acres of very valuable tribal land. The construction of the Oahe Dam, which is located North of Pierre, SD started in 1948 and finished in 1962. During the process of construction and later preceding the flooding of Lake Oahe, families were relocated, and forcibly or even at gun point removed from their homes. Their way of life was changed forever. The fertile land that disappeared under the water of the Missouri River was home to sacred burial grounds, old gardens, and ancient medicinal plants and were therefore places of spiritual significance. Until then the tribe was mostly independent from the industry, but then homes and whole villages were destroyed. The resources for the local timber economy and with that the forest wildlife and hunting grounds perished. For most people life as they knew it had ended and they had nothing left. Until today the people of Standing Rock live in high poverty and are mostly dependent on the federal government. They were never fully compensated and are left very vulnerable. And today, we are witnessing the continuation of injustice and wrong-doing to a sovereign nation that over generations has been traumatized and mistreated by the federal government of the United States of America.

The North Dakota Access Pipeline is yet another proof that big companies govern this country and that there is no room for ancient cultures in the world of money and fossil fuels.

April 2nd, 2016 was the day on which LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, at the time the THPO of the Standing Rock Tribe, established the Sacred Stone Camp on her land. It was the last solution to unheard written protests opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. After generations during which the Sioux’s treaty rights have been violated and ignored, the Standing Rock Sioux stood up and said ‘NO’ to yet again another threat to Native land and the environment.

The controversy surrounding the pipeline goes back to the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851. Even though the route of the pipeline does not cross the current boundaries of the Standing Rock reservation it crosses unceded territory that belongs to the tribe according to that treaty. It is land where ceremonies were held and ancestors are buried, it is sacred. Other than the federal government, the tribe rely on the treaty boundaries of 1851 and recognizes them as valid. Representing his tribe, the chairman David Archambault II has opposed the construction of any pipeline within those boundaries for a long time before planning for Dakota Access had even started.

After the development of Dakota Access started, it was initially routed nearby Bismarck, ND, a city of over 60,000 people. The concern was that possible oil spills would jeopardize the drinking water in the Bismarck area. Therefore, it was quickly re-routed, now very close to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The re-routing included that the pipeline would tunnel under the northern end of Lake Oahe, which is part of the Missouri river, and the primary source for clean drinking water for the tribe, and millions downstream.

And it is not solely about land, or treaty rights. The Sacred Stone Camp and other camps that evolved over the long period of protests by water protectors aimed at promoting awareness that ‘Water is Life – Mni Wiconi’. It is not only Native life that is at danger here. Their prayers included all creatures along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The protests were joined by Native peoples of several hundred American Indian tribes. Historic enemies to the Sioux tribe joined the Camp and united with them in peace. Native peoples from other countries, the Maori from New Zealand for example joined the ceremony. Celebrities and people of all colors from all around the country stood hand in hand for the rights of America’s Indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately though, the protests turned violent during a few incidents in which law enforcement used mace, dogs, water hoses and rubber bullets against the protectors. Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers reviewed and approved the route of the pipeline; and with the signing of President Trumps Executive Order on January 24, 2017, the path to completion of the pipeline was paved. The Sacred Stone Camp was to be cleared by February 22nd of 2017, which it was.

When researching the protests at Standing Rock, tribal members repeatedly stated that if the ‘The Black Snake’ would not be stopped, it will mean the end to the tribe. Protectors were so committed to the cause of ‘Mni Wiconi’ that they would have given their lives to ensure a safe future for the children and the unborn generations. This setback once again deepens the trauma which the tribe has been dealing with for a good century and a half. The only hope is that the uprising of the Sacred Stone Camp and the attendance of thousands of people on the reservation and attention worldwide, will have a lasting encouraging impact. The world recognized that injustice was done to Native people and this time the world stood up with them.

“Until the American system comes to a realization of the sacred ethic – value secured upon responsible and shared relationships – told very painstakingly in Indian oral history, it will continue to ignore everything except that which is exploitable and easily justified and its progress towards self-destruction will be steady.” (Dunbar Ortiz, 1977:15)



Dunbar Ortiz, Roxanne. The Great Sioux Nation. Sitting in Judgement on America. Lincoln:   University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Lee, Trymaine. “No Man’s Land: The Last Tribes of the Plains.”

Holywhitemountain, Sterling. “An Indian Perspective on the Protest at Standing Rock.”      Montana Quarterly. Vol.12, No.4 (Winter 2016): 8-18.


  • Sacred Water: Standing Rock, Part 1
  • Red Power: Standing Rock, Part 2


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