Briefly: a company, Energy Transfer Partners, has been building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7-billion (about ₹24,000 crore) project designed to pump about 4,70,000 barrels of fracked crude oil a day across four states to refineries in the south. The company argues that fewer trucks and rail wagons would be needed to transport the oil, lowering costs and reducing environmental effects. The pipeline was originally designed to pass through other communities but when they protested, it was shifted to Native American land.
Much of the construction is over and the recent protest challenges the project because it passes through the reservation land the Sioux consider sacred; in particular, it will pass under the Missouri river. The government and the company say there have been enough consultations, but the protesters say their voices have not been heard.
Apart from the indigenous people, protestors from overseas and environmentalists from elsewhere in the country have also joined. They worry not only about the sacred burial ground that has been disturbed in the construction but also the potential damage to the water from oil leaks. Just a few months ago, there was a leak from another pipeline in North Dakota, spilling over 500 barrels of oil.
The indigenous people in the US, about 4.5 million or 1.5 per cent of the population, are an unseen minority. Unlike the Latinos or the African Americans, they have a weak voice in national politics. The US has not dealt with its indigenous people as well as it could have. It has maintained a studied indifference. There is history to this.
Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970), shows how Caucasian settlers from the east systematically and violently pushed the Native Americans out into the west, shrinking their land, and finally into designated reservations culminating in much destruction in the latter part of the 19th century. The attitude of indifference and contempt has continued. For example, a trust fund was created in the late 19th century to help Native Americans keep track of their income from grazing and mining leases. It was badly managed, with records missing and money misappropriated, leading to about $100 billion (₹6,50,000 crore) in losses. The Native Americans filed several court challenges leading to a judge in 2002 charging the federal government and the interior secretary with egregious misconduct.
Construction has been halted and several federal departments have announced that they will review the permits issued and reconsider the effects on reservation land. The US needs to learn from Australia and Canada who have done a much better job of correcting past wrongs and helping their indigenous communities.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, and the Jindal Global Business School, Delhi NCR