By Beth Kaveggia
The Anthropocene is a term used to describe how relationships with the environment are embedded into the earth’s geology. The racial Anthropocene, then, is a new framework used to analyze the relationships between historically powerful and vulnerable groups, and their role in altering our environment. In this framework, responsibilities and vulnerabilities to Anthropogenic changes are analyzed through a historical lens. Process carried out by the global North, such as colonialism, racism, and conquest have made the global South and poorer parts of the global North more vulnerable to consequences of anthropogenic change. Disparities in wealth and accesses to services are exacerbated between those who have historically held power and those who are marginalized in the process. I argue that my image of the Dakota Access pipeline is demonstrative of the Racial Anthropocene, through the historical and continuous displacement of indigenous communities, differential vulnerabilities to environmental degradation due to the cheapening of native lives, and colonialist governmental institutions that persist today.
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a pipeline that stretches 1172 miles from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to an existing pipeline infrastructure in Patoka, Illinois. This project is funded by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), a multimillion-dollar oil company that bought 99% of the lands that DAPL traverses. Typically, projects as large as the DAPL undergo an extensive federal permitting process, that often takes years to complete. Because ETP bought the land the pipeline would cross, the construction did not require a presidential permitting process or more strict procedures. This prompted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to sue the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on July 27th, 2016. The tribe sued under the Administrative Procedures Act for violations of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to take into account the effect of projects such as DAPL on historical properties. DAPL faced strong opposition from tribal communities before, during and after construction. While the pipeline does not cross any existing reservation boundaries, it does cross many tribes’ ancestral lands, as well as land that was reserved to the Sioux Nation in treaties and subsequently retaken by force.
The DAPL is demonstrative of the Anthropocene, as Native American communities continue to be displaced from their sacred lands in the name of economic prosperity for the Global North. Displacement is detrimental to indigenous communities’ social, political, and economic agency. Centuries of settler colonialism and violence have pushed Native Americans from their sovereign lands for the benefit of wealthier communities in the Global North. This displacement began in the nineteenth century, as US settlers moved to places where the ancestors of the Standing Rock members had complex cultural, economic, and political relationships. Indigenous communities had originally defined their territory as spread across 134 acres, separated by different tribal groups defined by their own governmental system. Economic incentives, along with further settler immigration, led the U.S federal government to pass the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which reduced the indigenous land base to 25 million acres and later reduced it to 2 million acres. As settlers continued to enter Sioux lands illegally, further legislative acts broke up reservation land into private property in an effort to force indigenous people to adopt farming. Indigenous communities were forced onto arid and undesirable land, requiring more resources and a dependence on costly fertilizer. As their land was stripped away, indigenous reservations became too fragmented to allow for tribes to follow the migration of animals they traditionally hunted. Loss of cultural and traditional knowledge was exacerbated, as boarding school forced settler cultures on children when indigenous cultures were made illegal in 1883. Further settler tactics, often enacted through legislation, were used to systematically erase the political self-determination of indigenous communities. Ultimately, their economic and cultural vitality was destroyed by transformations of ecosystems, which included the displacement and division of indigenous territory. DAPL is part of the larger history of displacement of Native American communities for the benefit of White settlers in the Global North. The placement of the pipeline on reservation land, which Native people were already displaced onto, demonstrates the Racial Anthropocene. Construction of the DAPL destroyed the sacred Sioux land, disregarding their sovereignty and contributing to their cultural and social vulnerability. Many indigenous communities feel that ETP did not allow sufficient time, resources, or attention to evaluating the risks of the pipeline. By doing so, ETP ultimately disregarded Indigenous peoples’ right to participate on equal footing with powerful private and government parties. Instead, peaceful protestors from tribes and their supporters were met with violence at the hands of law enforcement and DAPL’s private security. Protestors were pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, attacked by dogs, threatened by lawsuits, and drenched with cold water. This violence against native communities–and the ultimate construction of the DAPL pipeline– is situated in a deeper history of settler colonialism, and displacement of indigenous communities for the sake of private interests. This displacement is so violent because it disrupts the type of complex relationships that the Standing Rock people had spent centuries forming with their environment; further, it creates ecological conditions that contribute to climate change, excessive pollution, and the decline of ecological processes and services.
The DAPL also places unequal environmental burdens on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, some of which were deemed ‘too risky’ for affluent White communities. The construction of the DAPL threatens the tribe’s water source, making them disproportionately vulnerable to contamination. Original routing plans for the pipeline, which would have run across the Missouri River near Bismarck, were rejected. In the initial approval phase, USACE eliminated this route because of its proximity to wellhead source water areas that created a threat to Bismarck’s water supply. Conveniently, ETP moved the pipeline to an area where the political and economic agency of residents would not threaten their project: Native lands, where a pipeline could be constructed with exemption from environmental reviews required by the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act. Bismarck is a community that is 92.4% White with a median household income of $61,477. While ETP and USACE were concerned enough to move the pipeline for White Affluent citizens, they did not show the same concern for the Standing Rock tribe. Cheapening the lives of Native Americans allowed ETP to ignore any environmental concerns, as Native lives were branded as disposable. Through cheapening, indigenous communities suffered environmental damage that results from the wealthier Global North’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy. The Standing rock indigenous community is concerned for entire water supply, which they use to drink, fish, and sustain their traditional livelihoods. The pipeline route is buried directly under Lake Oahe, the Tribe’s primary source of water. A spill would put communities at risk for health and environmental impacts. Oil contamination of soil and water sources is a significant contributor to the elevated level of toxic heavy metals, which has a number of negative health effects.9 Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic have a number of consequences, including lung, liver, and bladder cancer, brain and kidney damage, miscarriages, and death. Tar sands pollutants found in oil also contribute to human health problems, including lung and heart disease, asthma, and cancer. In 2017, DAPL had already leaked 5 times within 6 months of operation. Energy Transfer Partners maintains that the Dakota Access Pipeline is “among the safest and most environmentally sensitive […] pipelines in the world.” Exposing indigenous communities to damaging environmental consequences while taking precautions to protect White affluent communities results in disproportional suffering characteristic of the Anthropocene.
Finally, the DAPL demonstrates how colonial systems of government continue to harm indigenous communities and push them to the margins of society. The DAPL functions within a larger system where indigenous tribes are dependent on the U.S federal government for anything not contained to their reservation. Though Native tribes are nominally sovereign, the U.S federal government acts as a ‘guardian’ who protects them and makes final decisions. It is not guaranteed that tribal concerns will be addressed or even heard. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe communicated their opposition to DAPL repeatedly for three years and were frustrated by the lack of consultation from ETP and the USACE. The Sioux tribe felt that both EPT and the USACE minimally adhered to governmental policies on consent and neglected to address the social and cultural impacts of development on Native land. In a report organized by the Sioux tribe, tribe members attested to how ETP has already produced 291 hazardous liquid pipeline incidents resulting in $56,590,698 in property damage, which was not considered in previous risk assessments by the USAEC. Risk assessments done by USAEC are based on unrealistic assumptions and do not include how subsistence hunting and fishing could be adversely impacted by an oil spill. Although indigenous communities continue to follow the correct legal processes, histories of settler colonialism and displacement have led to a deep mistrust of the federal government. The Sioux Tribe Chairman, Dave Archambault, stated that his tribe has “little confidence in the judicial system [because] it has failed [indigenous people] for over 200 years.” Histories of colonial oppression are reinforced as indigenous people continue to lose against colonial systems of government that seek to displace them.
The Dakota Access pipeline continues the legacy of settler colonialism that seeks to displace indigenous communities for the economic gain of the wealthy Global North. Continuous displacement of indigenous communities, differential vulnerabilities to environmental degradation, and colonialist governmental institutions demonstrate the unequal vulnerabilities that are characteristic of the Anthropocene. The bodies and land of Native American communities are treated as ‘sacrifice zones’ that accumulate waste and its consequences, which are produced by the Global North in the interest of economic development.
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