The 1,200 mile-long, underground Dakota Access Pipeline skirts the northern edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, carrying crude oil beneath the Missouri River with plans to expand beneath Lake Oahe. On April 9, the Biden administration announced it will not block the pipeline 一 which lacks a key federal permit and threatens tribal drinking water 一 while an environmental review is underway.
The decision to not halt the project is a paradigm of the federal government’s relationship with Native tribes, says Indigenous scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker; it violates a treaty and the environmental rights of Native American communities.
“That’s the settler colonial system operating as it’s designed to 一 it’s not designed for justice for Native people,” she says.
Gilio-Whitaker, an educator and author who teaches at California State University San Marcos, will be one of three speakers at “Protecting Mother Earth: The History, Legacy, and Possibilities as Experienced by Native Americans,” an April 14 webinar held by the Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).
Elliott Moffett and Joseph Scott will also speak at the event. Moffett is the director of the Nez Perce Tribe Gaming Commission and a co-founder of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, an organization that educates Northwest tribes about tribal rights to protect treaty areas and natural resources.
Scott is a traditional dancer, singer and artisan in the Siletz Tribe and has spent nearly 20 years teaching tribal history, language and culture on the Siletz Reservation.
The three speakers will discuss environmental justice, traditional ecological knowledge and rights of nature laws.
“Rights of nature,” a legal principle that CELDF trains communities on, gives inherent rights to ecosystems and species. Rather than regarding nature as property that can be used in any way by its owner, it treats nature as an entity with its own right to exist and regenerate.
Many environmental groups that advocate for rights of nature-based laws partner with Native communities because of how well the principle fits with Native attitudes of respect and reciprocity with the Earth, Gilio-Whitetaker says.
56.2 million acres of land 一 about 2 percent of total U.S. land 一 are reserved for Native American tribes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the other 98 percent still contains places of religious and cultural significance. Native communities are increasingly working to use rights of nature laws, not only to encode the value of respect for nature within tribal governments, but to protect natural resources outside of reservation land, Gilio-Whitetaker says.
“The legal system is not built to protect Indigenous access to those places,” she says. “So there’s all these certain novel legal strategies that people are trying and often succeeding at using to regain access to these lands and to protect them.”
After the Dakota Access Pipeline construction started, opponents successfully argued in court that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by only conducting an environmental assessment on the pipeline. They were required to run a more in-depth environmental impact statement addressing the risk of oil spills, according to the U.S. District Court decision.
Representatives of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe also say that the pipeline violates the Treaty of Fort Laramie which sets aside the Sioux reservation “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians.”
ORCRN State Coordinator Nancy Ward, who helped organize “Protecting Mother Earth,” says ORCRN members are motivated to hold environmental education events because of their direct experiences with environmental threats 一 like aerial pesticide spraying in Oregon and previous proposals to allow crude oil trains in Columbia county 一 and a lack of legal protections.
“The biggest harm we have is that we’re precluded from protecting ourselves,” she says.
Ward says she wants others to learn from Native communities about adopting a healthier attitude toward nature and living in a sustainable way every day, not just once a year.
“We have a way that we believe we are celebrating Earth Day, but we’re instead turning our attention to people who have been doing this as a part of their culture forever,” she says. Earth Day is April 22.
Gilio-Whitaker says that environmental justice looks different for Native communities than other minority groups because of indigenous people’s unique history with American land and the U.S. government. She hopes her writing and speaking will help people learn from Native cultures about the philosophies needed to live in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet.
Indigenous communities view nature in a drastically different way than much of mainstream U.S society; they have a “spatial orientation to the world” and view nature as a relative, she says.
“When you hold that view, then you treat it in a different way,” she says. “You treat it with respect and reciprocity and responsibility. Those are not the values of the dominant society.”
To get the Zoom link for the April 14 webinar “Protecting Mother Earth,” email Info@orcrn.org.