Lyle Uses Arrow of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stands atop a high hill and surveys his homeland. To the south lie the flooded ruins of his grandparents’ ranch. To the east, the sluggish Missouri River flows between wide banks. And to the north, just beyond the next ridge, sits Oceti Sakowin, the sprawling camp of the Seven Council Fires, where indigenous nations from across the continent have come together to assert tribal sovereignty, protect their sacred waters, and defeat the oil pipeline being built beside the tribe’s reservation.
The gathering at Oceti Sakowin is the most significant mobilization of North American native nations in a generation or more, and, indeed, walking among the tents and teepees, the open fires and windblown flags, the laughs, songs, and prayers, one feels steeped in historic consequence. The people here, after all, aren’t just resisting the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), heavily armed police, and North Dakota’s far-right political establishment. They face another, older foe as well—the US military and its Army Corps of Engineers.
If you’ve heard of the Army Corps, it’s probably in relation to the abysmal 2005 failure of its hurricane-damaged levees in New Orleans. But in Indian Country, where memories don’t fade fast, the Corps has a longer and more disturbing legacy. From Washington State and New Mexico to the Dakotas and New York, the United States’ premier public engineering and construction agency is known for erecting dams that severely damaged tribal lands, destroyed livelihoods, and trampled treaty rights. On this reservation and others like it, the Corps has a history of sacrificing native well-being for the benefit of white settlers.
“To put it bluntly, I’d say [the Army Corps] doesn’t give a heck about natives,” says Uses Arrow, a 60-year-old elder, as he looks out on the big river.
“It never has,” he adds.
Nevertheless, the Corps is the sole government authority still standing in the way of the Dakota Access pipeline’s march across the plains. The $3.8 billion “black snake,” as the Sioux call it, will carry oil from North Dakota’s fracking fields all the way to Illinois. In order to place pipe beneath the bed of the Missouri River and thereby complete the project, however, the principal developer, Energy Transfer Partners, must obtain an easement from the Corps. Despite the company’s feverish construction activity near the Missouri River in recent days, that easement has not been issued. Mass demonstrations at Army Corps offices across the country this Tuesday are asking the agency to deny it outright.