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A victory and an uncertain future at Standing Rock

Last week, the Department of the Army announced it would not allow the $3.7 billion Dakota Oil Pipeline to be drilled under a dammed section of the Mississippi River, a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the protesters who have been camped there for months. The future of the project, though, remains in limbo, as President-elect Donald J. Trump had voiced support for finishing the pipeline.

We asked three faculty members—Daniel P. Aldrich, political science professor and co-director of the university’s Security and Resilience Program; Sarah J. Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies and an expert in social movements; and Ellen Cushman, associate dean of academic affairs, diversity and inclusion and Dean’s Professor of Civic Sustainability, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation—to weigh in on this multifaceted situation.

Do you predict President-elect Trump will indeed push for the pipeline to be finished? If so, what’s next for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and associated protesters? What are the various motivations at play in deciding what to do about the pipeline?

Aldrich: The announcement by the Army Corps of Engineers that it would not move forward on the last section of the Dakota Oil Pipeline was good news to residents and activists who have pushed against the project. However, Trump has indicated that he will push to complete the pipeline despite contentious political opposition to it from Native Americans, environmentalists, and local residents. His claims need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they do represent a developer’s perspective on the issue rather than one focused on understanding the opposition movement.

Many communities around the United States have fought to prevent unwanted projects from being placed in their backyards, and this is typically because the projects bring with them diffuse benefits, but focused costs. While energy companies may see profit and ease of access in the pipeline, local communities see the potential negative outcomes such as oil spills, fires, or degradation of the landscape. In the past, opposition to unwanted land uses have helped push developers to think through alternatives to the proposed project. Here, while there are alternatives, including transport of oil via boxcar, those bring their own environmental and social acceptance challenges.

Why did this protest capture such wide-ranging attention, nationally and internationally, and from so many different demographics? Do you think the victory (barring a reversal from Trump’s administration) will have a lasting impact on protests in the future?

Jackson: First, it is very important to recognize that protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline are one part of the much larger tradition of organized indigenous resistance to colonization and cultural and environmental exploitation that has always existed in this country. The occupation of land, which is central to questions of sovereignty and rights for indigenous people, has been used as a strategy by Native American activists many times, including the occupation of Alcatraz island by indigenous activists from 1969 to 1971 and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement and Oglala Lakota.

In terms of the successes of #noDAPL, we must recognize that attention to this protest was not at all swift or easily gained. Native activists have been protesting the pipeline since Energy Transfer Partners applied to build it in 2014, including attempts at various legal interventions. In terms of the recent occupation of Standing Rock, there was also initially very little mainstream attention paid; most of the communication about it was shared on social media, alternative media, and through activist networks among people already connected to issues of indigenous rights, civil rights, and environmental justice. Many activists complained that the mainstream media had what they called a “white out” on covering the issue and actively encouraged supporters to tweet at mainstream news organizations with the hashtag #mediawhiteout with specific messages demanding more coverage.

It is a great example of how multiple strategies are needed in order for activists to gain sympathetic mainstream attention, particularly in the case of issues that are not familiar to most politicians or Americans.
—Sarah J. Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies

Several other important things helped bring mainstream attention to the protest: First, the tenacity of the activists who camped for five months and responded courageously to physical threats from the security forces and police sent to drive them from the site. These stories and images were widely shared on social media with the hashtag #noDAPL, which helped to inform people of the issue.

This attracted the high-profile support of celebrities including Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo, Dwayne Johnson, and others whose mainstream popularity helped to bring more attention to the issue. Politicians including former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein also took public actions supporting the protestors, but only after activists had been organizing and pushing for some time.

Finally, in the past few weeks, word spread that U.S. military veterans planned to journey to Standing Rock to protect protestors from the security forces deployed to evict them from their land. Thus, the tipping point for mainstream attention came many months after the protests started with each of these strategies playing an important role. It is a great example of how multiple strategies are needed in order for activists to gain sympathetic mainstream attention, particularly in the case of issues that are not familiar to most politicians or Americans.

What do you think is missing from media coverage of this issue so far?

Cushman: There’s history behind this story that the media hasn’t traced. It’s a history of settlers, governments, and corporations encroaching on and disregarding indigenous peoples’ land- and water rights in the name of ‘progress.’ John Gast’s 1872 print of “American Progress” leaps to mind.

The details of the story of progress may change, but the plot remains the same. Fast forward to the Standing Rock Sioux resisting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The oil companies and banks supporting this are using the same logic of progress; the Sioux recently persevered against them using peaceful refusal of the intrusions, as many tribes have done in the past.

The larger message here is one of hope, one of bringing people together to become more fully human and humane.
—Ellen Cushman, associate dean of academic affairs, diversity and inclusion

Yet, what remains to be represented more fully by the media is how “progress” is now being deeply and thoroughly questioned in the United States and around the globe—by academics, activists, voters, some businesses, indigenous and first peoples, and by smart, good people who hold positions in public and private institutions. They’re asking: Progress at what costs? For whom? And under what terms? The media needs to be following those questions.

Two other important parts of the story have been missed from the media coverage so far. First, this movement was youth-led and elder-informed. The middle generations and likeminded activists continued this effort with food, shelter, water, and clothing. It has been an intergenerational effort through and through. Second, the ways in which the oil companies used the state National Guard and private contractors to suppress the activists must be investigated. Reports of unnecessary force have surfaced that included attack dogs, water hoses, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and drones to suppress the constitutional rights of the protesters.

Is this larger than Standing Rock, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and a fight for water rights?

Cushman: Yes, this is larger than water rights. Right now there’s a recalibration of what it means to be more fully human in this modern world—especially in the indigenous world, but increasingly so for many suffering here and around the globe. It’s about moving forward in a different way of living where people are more respectful of each other, where people are less inclined to consume and more inclined to protect the earth that sustains all life. It’s about finding ways to be resilient and secure through respectfully challenging discourse.

The Dakota Access Pipeline protest is certainly a part of a growing movement to reset everyday living to a well-balanced equilibrium. It’s not just about indigenous people and not just about water rights. It’s about coalitions of representatives from many American Indian Nations, celebrities, veterans, and feminists, the Black Lives Matter activists, and religious activists, all coming together to put a needed check on unchecked capitalism, on the continued destruction of the earth, on a reliance of fossil fuels. It’s about inclusion, taking control of representations in the media, remembering histories, and living sustainably with the land.

So the larger message here is one of hope, one of bringing people together to become more fully human and humane.

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