Oil and Water Don’t Mix: Why the ACLU Is Standing Up for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers did the right thing by refusing to give Energy Transfer Partners permission to build a portion of the nearly 1,200-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. The corps’ decision to perform an environmental impact assessment and explore alternative routes for the pipeline fulfilled the U.S.'s treaty obligations with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which vigorously protested the pipeline out of a credible fear that it could rupture and destroy its water supply, as well as acted in accordance with this nation's environmental protection laws. It was a big win for the tribe and its supporters.

But it didn’t last long.

Days after President Trump took office, he issued a memorandum and an executive order asking the corps to expedite its consideration of the company’s application for an easement to start construction. Soon after, the corps withdrew its call for the environmental study, and Energy Transfer Partners began drilling the next day. The reversal was a slap in the face of the tribe and its treaty rights with the United States. Quickly, the Standing Rock Sioux asked the courts to intervene and stop the pipeline so its impact on the environment could be assessed.

The courts are now the Standing Rock Sioux’s last hope to get the pipeline routed around its land.

That’s why this week the ACLU signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief with 34 Indian tribes and other organizations in support of a case filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in federal court against the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe’s lawsuit seeks to halt further drilling and construction of the pipeline until the corps conducts a proper environmental impact statement consistent with federal statutes, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the tribe’s rights and sovereignty under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. 

The federal government has once again betrayed the Standing Rock Sioux.

As outlined in our brief, the pipeline should be halted immediately consistent with the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty rights as well as to prevent, for good, any chance a pipeline leak or rupture could despoil the tribe’s land and water. Energy Transfer Partners, however, claims that the chance of a rupture in the river is low, but there are three responses to that claim.

First, the chance of a rupture isn’t that low. In July 2015, the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force issued a comprehensive report of pipeline failures. The study found “hundreds” of pipeline ruptures “that have occurred throughout the U.S. pipeline system.”

The report cites many examples of ruptures over the last few years. In May 2015, a pipeline failed off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, releasing 105,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A few months earlier, another pipeline spill released 42,000 gallons of oil underneath the Yellowstone River. Two years earlier, a pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas, releasing 134,000 gallons. In July 2010, a pipeline break released 840,000 gallons of oil, fouling 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

Second, the possibility of a rupture — whether low or not — must be considered together with the consequences of a rupture.  Even a “moderate” release of oil into the Missouri River would have profound and devastating consequences, a subject that the company’s press releases ignore.

Lastly, it is fair to ask: Who would suffer the most by a rupture? The immediate victims of a rupture of the pipeline would be the members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, now that the pipeline has been moved into their watershed. But the degradation of the water would also impact some 18 million people downstream who depend on water from the Missouri River.

Since 1974, it’s been the ACLU’s national policy to support Native Americans’ right to a tribal land base and its natural resources as well as support tribes who press their treaty rights with the U.S. government. Under treaties the Standing Rock Sioux made with the U.S. government as well as under federal statutes, the tribe has the right to protect its land, its heritage, and its water from contamination by a possible pipeline rupture. The treatment of the Standing Rock Sioux by Energy Transfer Partners and all levels of government compel us to help the tribe as they fight to stop the pipeline construction from proceeding so that a simple environmental impact assessment can be conducted.

The federal government has once again betrayed the Standing Rock Sioux and made a mockery of its obligations to the tribe while jeopardizing the drinking water of over 18 million Americans. We hope our brief helps convince the courts that a great injustice is taking place on federal land just north of the Standing Rock Sioux’s territory and that it should be stopped immediately.

Stephen L. Pevar’s book, “The Rights of Indians and Tribes” (Oxford 2012), is available here.

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US government kills 20 million Native peoples of this land from 16th to 19th century, and you say man up. What pity.


It's unfortunate when one spews assumption rather than facts, preconceptions and judgement at another (so obviously before educating oneself about the predicament of the other).
In the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the government pledged that the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills, would be 'permanently preserved' for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the tribe (Parts of Indigenous Lands between the Missouri River and Big Horn Mtns). The treaty further provided that no change to the reservation boundaries would be effective unless approved by at least 3/4 of adult male population of the Sioux Nation.
But In 1874, an expedition by Lieut. Col. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, so Congress seized the useful lands back and deprived all of resources to traditional survival and defense.
Before spouting off again, please take a moment, read the history, imagine it's YOUR FAMILY instead of 'a tribe.' Then ask yourself:
How would u cope if your parents' whole family owned a homestead for many generations, and its seized by new neighbors that you helped to survive thru winter (and agreed to peace for your land rights back), but by spring, all Your means to hunt, fish, farm, forrage and travel are stripped away, your water source, burial and hunting grounds destroyed by the neighbors' pals, invading gold miners.
Would your family accept the neighbors "welfare food" while suing 60yrs to restore your land? or would u let your whole clan just starve to death?
Now, they want to dig up and jeopardize what little you have left for a hazardous oil project, risking irreparable damage..
Now what's your response to another who would scorn and blame your family for where you're at?
Let us all heed Maya Angelo's words "when u know better, you've got to do better "


Wow, spoken like a true ignoramus. While you quote from different literature and mindless ranting, you have clearly showed your prejudice. Hate to break it you but umm our ancestors NEVER asked for reservations. So, you sit there and complain of the descendants who had no choice in being raised on the reservation, had no choice in not fully knowing their culture, had not choice in being "indian' as you Americans call it. Btw, what Federal welfare you are discussing here where do we sign up?I'd like to know since most of my family has fully funded their education (nearly going homeless) to get some degree. Paid our own healthcare, we don't rely on IHS funding which is very limited. Or we don't get free housing, we pay rent/mortgage like EVERYONE ELSE.


You are one of the deplorables...


You are one of the deplorables...


The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was made without the consent of the Indians themselves, and anything in there that violates the treaties is unconstitutional, given that the constitution states that treaties are the supreme law of the land. See here if you don't believe me:

If passing an act declaring people citizens were sufficient to nullify treaties, the United States could annex Canada just by declaring all Canadians to be citizens whether they wanted to be or not -- true, the United States could certainly try it, but it would not be unconstitutional.

The US government is illegally occupying American Indian land. Just because they post documents online saying they own it does not give them any moral right to it, nor a legal right according to their own constitution.

Also, the indigenous nations do indeed have international recognition, see here for example:

The water protectors are their military.

Fixed borders, currency, postal systems, passports, these are all Western concepts, not essential to the core definition of a nation. One of the definitions of nation given by the Free Dictionary is, "a people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality," and by that definition the tribes most certainly are nations. The Free Dictionary even specifically states "a federation or tribe, especially one composed of Native Americans" as one of their other definitions of a nation.

The taxpayers are occupying Turtle Island, which is American Indian land, except perhaps for a few residing abroad. As for the rest, those who are supporting continued warfare against those whose land they occupy are no innocents -- it is the taxpayers (barring, perhaps, those living abroad, those who are American Indians, and those who are respectful of Indian ways) who are living at the expense of the American Indians, who have been taxed not in cash but in their land and their very blood ever since the occupation of Turtle Island began.

Nina Fisher

People with tongues like yours are the ones i pray get cut out. Fools and such are not always stupid, but they're not always intelligent. I'd say you're the latter. I am only 17 and yet I can tell that this is not good not only for Native Americans, but for regular citizens as well. Mother Earth is beautiful, but it seems that the white human agenda wants to destroy beauty and life. So tell me what would you rather have, money or your life?


@ Nina Fisher -- I really hate to critique my own team, but to clarify the overall strategy, we are going for various non-violent actions here (Blockadia, other non-violent direct action, divestment from banks, letter-writing, phone calls, etc.), not cutting out people's tongues. Look up "Chase Iron Eyes" on Youtube -- a lot of good inspirational words from him.


I have thoughts to the replies given, some which are true, some which are not. You're reading this from some1 who is not White. First, for Nina Fisher to say people's tongues should be cut out is evil, bad and it doesn't help the Native American or American Indian cause, as it makes you look arrogant, haughty and a coward who advocates violence. That said, we need to cut down on pollution. We need to save fossil fuels & coals. President DJ Trump is wrong to promote coal & fossil fuels such as natural gas, because we need to save the fossil fuels. I support nuclear/atomic energy & I also support geothermal, hydroelectric dams.

With how many Native Americans were there in pre-Columbian Americas? I have not found the # of 10s of millions of American Indians being killed to be credible. European treatment of American Indians was arrogant, only that Native Americans treated eachother arrogantly. We don't know how many Indian or Native American tribes were killed to extincition by other Native American tribes in wars. When it came to Indians fighting wars with other tribes, Indian tribes would kill a neighboring tribes men in a war & then take the women and girls as wives.

In these cases, the defeated tribe did not even get a reservation to live on or often no treaty (not even a bad 1) by the winning tribe, they were killed off & the ethnic cleaning rapes. Yes, the reservations given by Whites was the Whites getting the better lands (with gold, iron, etc.) while the Indians got the sometimes not so good lands and we have had broken treaties such as Tears Trail. But @least with reservations or even a bad treaty, you have a fighting chance.

to say a Native American tribe (for eg. Cherokees) own the entire USA (or the North American continent) is like saying that China owns all of Asia because they're Chinese. American Indian or Native American tribes are distinct. You define let's say Cherokee territory by where they lived, raised their families, buried their dead, hunted for food and waters where they fished.

With was land stolen from Native Americans or American Indians? Wars were used by Whites to take lands from American Indians, only this topic is more complex and complicated. Yes, you have Europeans taking territory from Native Americans who were the original owners, who always had the territory without taking it from other tribes, so that would be stealing from original owners.

In some cases, Europeans took away Native American conquests such as los conquistadores conquest of the Aztecs and Incas would be taking away Native American conquests. Los conquistadores would not be the original owners, only the Aztecs and Incas would also not be the original owners as Aztecs and Incas got their lands conquering other Indian tribes before they were conquered, so that could be called taking American Indian conquests. Of course, the Spanish and Portuguese in conquering Iberoamerica & colonization did things for Spain and Portugal's (Brazil being a Portuguese colony) interests against that of Native Americans. In this case, it would be Europeans stealing American Indian conquests.

With territory, in some cases you have Native American tribes voluntarily abandoning a territory, because they found it of no use. If a territory is abandoned, then it would not be stealing if some1 else (Native American or White) settles on the territory as it's whoever wants it and arrives there first, gets it.

In some cases you had virgin territory in the Americas-lands which were not even touched. If a land had never been lived on (or even known about), then whoever finds it and settles there gets the territory (be they White or Native American). Here it would not be taking Native American lands.

With Solutrians or Solutrians-is it possible there were Europeans who immigrated to the Americas during the Ice Age? As they have found DNA mummied remains of Whites in the Americas and as some Native American art depicts people with light skin, it's possible that individual Whites could have immigrated to the Americas during the Ice Age, though it would be a small #. Solutrians or Solutreans would not own all of the Americas just as Cherokees would not own all of the USA. That also wouldn't change the fact that treatment of Native Americans or American Indians was sometimes arrogant, but it's possible individual Europeans or Solutrians could have immigrated to the Americas during the Ice Age.

Before continuing, will say that I am OK with American Indian reservations not paying property taxes and I am OK with Indian reservations only allowing Native Americans to live on reservations, it is their house.

With stealing American Indian or Native American territory-is it because wars were used to take land from them or is the main meaing of this that the Whites were better @ being greedy ? When American Indians or Native Americans wanted territory, they used wars to get it from a neighboring tribe. In some cases, American Indian or Native American tribes would kill a neighboring tribes men in a war and then take the women and girls as their wives. Quanah Parker was the last Comanche chief-his mom was kidnapped when she was 9 years old and forced to become a Comanche chief's wife.

I’ve found with Native Americans or American Indians is that many times when they talk of ‘stolen land’ what they imply is ‘you did what I wanted to do.’ There was greed & arrogance on both the Whites & Native American sides. Yes, this nations treatment of American Indians was arrogant & wars were used to take land from American Indians. Truth about greed is that Whites were just better in greed. Before the Whites, American Indians when they wanted land be it living grounds, hunting grounds, burial grounds & fishing waters got it from other tribes by wars. When the Whites came, they wanted the same things & more be they metals such as iron, gold, silver, copper & bronze.

Truth is that when people get advanced & complicated in their technologies, the more they want. People are just potentially greedy. If American Indian tribes (esp. tribes like the Sioux, Comanches, Apaches, Aztecs, etc.) had better weapons & capabilities, they would have been conquering other places in the world & imposing their laws on others. Whites ( I’m not White) had better military capability or capacity, but when it comes to thinking, they’re the same. People are the same everywhere-Whites, Blacks, American Indians, etc. That doesn’t excuse fact this nation’s treatment of American Indians was arrogant but when you have the view of ‘you did what I wanted to do’ then you’re no better than what you say to be against.


Other things for Nina Fisher, Christopher Busby, Mary Williams, Anna Villareal, etc. Again, let me say that I'm not White. American Indians or Native Americans have high rates of drug junkyism, alcoholism (drunkards), suicides, etc. People who are junkies and drunkards chose that and it would be wrong to blame Whites for that. I am against this pipeline but I think that there are more serious problems which American Indian reservations have which need to be solved such as the drug problems and suicides there.

President DJ Trump is wrong to promote coal & fossil fuels such as natural gas, because we need to save the fossil fuels. I support nuclear/atomic energy & I also support geothermal, hydroelectric dams. With global warming, it’s possible that global warming would still be happening naturally. Yes, there’s ideology on the global warming topic. But we’re better off w/o pollution & we’re better of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

I compare global warming to the tobacco & emphysema. Some people get emphysema because they have bad genes and some people get emphysema because they smoke tobacco. Then there are people who use tobacco their whole life, but do not die of any tobacco disease because they have good genes. But it’s better to not use tobacco. Not all smokers get emphysema, but if you smoke, you raise your risks of emphysema. Global warming discussions on pollution must be thought of the same way as tobacco. It’s better to not have pollution, incl. greenhouse gas pollution. It’s possible that even w/o greenhouse gas pollution, that global warming would still happen, because earth’s temperatures would change regradless. But cleaning pollution is a good idea.


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