Big Oil and Broken Treaties: Settler Colonialism at Standing Rock Big Oil and Broken Treaties: Settler Colonialism at Standing Rock

Visual artist: Camily Tsai

No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space#5 No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space

Georgia Walker

Standing Rock
Dakota Access Pipeline

Big Oil and Broken Treaties: Settler Colonialism at Standing Rock

“Whether it’s gold from the black hills, hydropower from the Missouri river or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribe have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.” David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1876, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, presumably signed in earnest just 8 year prior, was quickly put aside in favour of the precious metal beneath the soil. The violation of this treaty, which guaranteed Sioux ownership of the Black Hills, led to an Indigenous gathering comparable to the one at Standing Rock today. The protests at Standing Rock, in fact, mark the first time since that all seven council fires have camped together [1]. The Sioux never got their hills back, but almost a century later, the seizure of land was deemed unconstitutional by the Court of Claims. The court concluded that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history” (Lazarus, 388). Over $100m dollars was offered to the tribe in compensation, but the money was refused. The Sioux just want their land back.  

These atrocities, along with hundreds like them, have been largely excluded from the American narrative. In Mahmood Mamdani’s words, “the American autobiography is written as the autobiography of the settler. The native has no place in it” (596). When histories like these are omitted from narrative, not taught in schools or memorialised or kept alive, the present is left without a context. It is unanchored, meaningless. The acts of colonisation, however, reverberate through history, upholding the structures of settler colonialism in the unequal relationships between people. Settler colonialism is not one historical event.  It is a structure, and the process of settling continues today. That process is not more evident in North America than at Standing Rock.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a 1,172 mile long oil pipeline, constructed to carry hydraulically fractured crude oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to an existing oil tank farm in Illinois. Originally planned upriver from the predominantly white town of Bismarck, the pipeline was rerouted after residents voiced concern over the safety of their drinking water [2]. The new route skirts Standing Rock reservation and crosses directly under Lake Oahe, the primary drinking water source for the reservation and another 17 million people downriver.

The imbalance of power inherent to settler colonialism is quite apparent in this incident, in which residents of Bismarck are able to get the pipeline rerouted without a fight and thousands of Native and non-Native allies are gathered for months, enduring brutal weather conditions without any signs of compromise. This is before the countless incidents of police brutality endured by water protectors [3] on the frontlines, the most recent of which resulted in incidents of hypothermia, cardiac arrest and head trauma. After numerous back and forths between the Army Corps of Engineers, Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, the US federal government denied the permit needed to cross under Lake Oahe pending an Environmental Impact Survey. This is an unexpected victory in a long battle and testimony to the efficacy of non-violent resistance, solidarity and perseverance. This victory is astonishing because it is unprecedented, and the dismantling of the structure of settler colonialism has happened at the intersection of Indigenous rights, environmental concern and Indigenous female leadership. However surprising, this victory has not come without loss.  

As Peter Wolfe says, “settler colonialism destroys to replace” (Wolfe 388). Whereas in franchise colonies the native is utilised as part of a workforce under a colonial system, the native in a settler colony needs to be eliminated to ensure the future prosperity of the settler. The settler has a perceived sovereignty over the land and its resources. In this logic, there is no room for Native sovereignty, and Native sovereignty is exactly what’s needed for decolonisation. 

At Standing Rock, this destruction has taken aim at anything that stands in the way of oil extraction, from active treaties to sacred sites. The day after the Standing Rock Sioux filed papers identifying the burial grounds of their ancestors, Dakota Access went 20 miles ahead of the current construction site to bulldoze the sacred grounds and avoid federal regulation. This act of destruction is aimed at eliminating native cultural identity. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, historian and founder of one of the camps at Standing Rock, reads this destruction as genocide: “Erasing our footprint from the world erases us as a people. These sites must be protected, or our world will end; it is that simple. If we allow an oil company to dig through and destroy our histories, our ancestors, our hearts and souls as a people, is that not genocide?” [4]. If histories are to be eliminated from the American autobiography, so too are objects and artefacts. The destruction of cultural heritage sites is a well-worn colonial tool which decontextualises a people’s relationship to the land and the history of that land. In doing so, it disables belonging.

Settler colonialism in North America has been largely about the seizure of land to support capitalist expansion, whether in the form of agriculture or resource extraction. The violence that is done to the land for profit is vindicated by the perceived ownership of that land, an ownership which is continually challenged by the presence of the Native. According to Audra Simpson in her article “The State is a Man,” the settler colonial state “seeks to destroy what is not. The state does so with a death drive to eliminate, contain, hide and in other ways “disappear” what fundamentally challenges its legitimacy: Indigenous political orders” (3). Moreover, settler colonialism is always gendered in its violence. Settler governments (in Simpson’s case, Canada) require the death and elimination of Indigenous women in order to maintain their power. That process of settling is ongoing. Amnesty International documented the disparate levels of discrimination and violence suffered by Indigenous women in Canada, finding that not only do Indigenous women experience violence at extraordinarily higher rates than non-Indigenous women, but that police and the state have consistently failed to provide adequate standards of protection to Indigenous women. In this understanding, it is not just indigenous political orders that will effectively subvert the logic of settler colonialism, but Indigenous political order led by women. 

The resource extraction industry can be seen as epitomising the notion of settler sovereignty and violence. Firstly, Indigenous communities worldwide are disproportionately affected by resource extraction in their territories. The rerouting of the pipeline from the white town of Bismarck to the treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux is a perfect example of environmental racism, in which vulnerable communities are more heavily impacted by the environmental destruction of resource extraction industries. Secondly, the presence of these resource extraction industries sees huge spikes in the rates of violence against women in the region: “Indigenous women and girls experience higher rates of sexualized violence from the frontline workers and security forces hired by national and transnational corporations seeking to exploit the natural resources on Indigenous lands” (Palmater 1). 

The Bakken Oil fields in North Dakota, where the Dakota Access Pipeline begins, has been home to some of the largest “man camps” in North America. These camps serve as temporary housing sites for oil industry workers, and often lead to huge spikes in the sexual assault of native women, most of which go undocumented and unprosecuted. After the oil boom in North Dakota, Indigenous women from the region repeatedly reported these sharp increases in crime, including gang rape and human trafficking. As these cases piled up, the federal government awarded $3 million in grants to go towards services for victims. But the man camps remain, and North Dakota has, as a direct result of the oil boom, become the 8th highest ranking state in reported incidents of rape. The violence which is done to the land, justified by the perceived sovereignty of that land, is displaced onto the body of the native woman. Both land and body are violable. Lou Catherine Cornum argues that “resource extraction creates situations of increased gender violence while relying on the logic which animates gender violence” [5].

The biggest threat to the logic of settler colonialism is organised and cohesive indigenous resistance led by women, which is exactly what’s happening at Standing Rock. Drawing on Matriarchal tribal structures, the women of Standing Rock are seen as the leading strategists in fighting the “black snake”, and have been on the frontlines of non-violent action against the pipeline since it was sketches on paper. It is at the intersection of Indigenous rights, environmental concern and anger at corporate power that the public psyche has turned to Standing Rock, and change has happened. Whatever is next for the pipeline, especially with Trump’s impending inauguration, the embers of this historical movement will continue engaging the public and changing minds. 


Georgia Walker works as a freelance editor and in marketing. She is also a member of the grid's editorial board.



[1] Océti Sakówin means the seven council fires, commonly known as the Great Sioux Nation. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota are all members of Océti Sakówin. 


[3] This is the preferred term for those gathered at Standing Rock, who assert that they aren’t protesting but protecting the water for future generations.




Works cited

Archambault, David, II. "Taking a Stand at Standing Rock." Taking a Stand at Standing Rock 24 Aug. 2016: n. pag. The New York Times. 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.

Lazarus, Edward. Black Hills/white Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States: 1775 to the Present. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Mamdani, Mahmood. "Settler Colonialism: Then and Now." Critical Inquiry 41.3 (2015): 596-614.

Palmater, By: Dr. Pamela. "Corporate Conquistadors Rape Indigenous Lands and Bodies." Opinion | TeleSUR English. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Simpson, Audra (Kahnawake Mohawk). 2016 “The State is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty.” Theory & Event  19 (4): in press.

Wolfe, Patrick. "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native." Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (2006): 387-409.