Bucknell Institute for Public Policy: The Dakota Access pipeline only compounds past injustices against Native Americans

Jackson Pierce, Contributing Writer

It would seem that most people are aware of the immoral atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus after his arrival in 1492. Several states and institutions no longer celebrate Columbus Day on Oct. 12, instead opting for the more progressive Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While the modified name is a welcome shift, it is important to realize that the oppression of the Native American populace has had consequences which can still be felt to this day. These are deep wounds that a mere holiday of recognition cannot heal. One need only glance at the health statistics to better understand the damage: Native American teens have the highest suicide rate in the country. According to a 2009 report from the Indian Health Service, the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives, the mortality rate for chronic liver disease and cirrhosis is 4.7 times the rate for the rest of the nation’s races. Native individuals are also nearly three times more likely to suffer from diabetes and seven times more likely to die from alcoholism.

The Indian Removal Act, signed into law in 1830 by Andrew Jackson, resulted in the forced expulsion of Native American tribes from their homes. We now recognize this expulsion as the infamous “Trail of Tears,” in which an estimated 4,000 Native Americans died before reaching their designated reservations. But the woes don’t end there: according to the National American Indian Housing Council, some 90,000 Native American families are homeless or under-housed, and 40 percent of on-reservation housing is considered “inadequate.”

A 2013 report found that less than half of this housing was connected to public sewage systems and 16 percent lack indoor plumbing. There is little consistent work available on reservations, and unemployment rates range from 35 percent to 85 percent of native people on reservations, depending on the location. Even the Native Americans who are lucky enough to work full-time often fall below the poverty line. People struggle to feed and house their families on the very land they were forced onto.

With such an unstable foundation, it must be extremely challenging for Native American youths to escape the cycle of poverty in which they find themselves trapped. According to the National Indian Education Association, the average high school graduation rate hovers around 50 percent, while the national average graduation rate is about 75 percent for white students. Health, housing, and educational outcomes are dismal. Clearly, this is a community that deserves support.

The Dakota Access pipeline, approved by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), would occupy more than 1,000 miles upon completion, traversing four states. It would pump down 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois each day.

This project has been met with fierce resistance, particularly from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who filed a judicial motion for the cessation of construction near North Dakota’s Lake Oahe. There is a Sioux reservation just upstream from the pipeline construction site, and tribal leaders fear that the if the pipeline broke (as many pipelines have) it could contaminate a crucial source of drinking water. Additionally, Sioux leaders believe that the construction would desecrate sacred cultural sites. In September, when activists hopped over the wire fence at a construction site, they were bitten by K9 security units held by representatives from the Dakota Access company.

These protests caught the attention of officials from the Department of Justice, who refused to allow the pipeline to continue until ACE could reevaluate. Despite this ruling, protests have continued. Activists against the construction of the pipeline trespassed on the construction sites and chained themselves to the equipment in a non-violent protest. They accused local police of using unnecessary force to remove them from the premises, including pepper spray and needless strip searches.

Eventually, we will have to decide what matters more to us. Righting the wrongs of our territorial ancestors, or financial gain? Respecting the cultural practices and sacred land of marginalized persons, or cushioning our economy?

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