The Dakota Access Pipeline Endangers Women and the Environment

The Dakota Access Pipeline endangers the environment—and it threatens the safety of Native American women and girls living in the region.

Spanning about 1,200 miles, the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline would transport crude oil across four states from North Dakota to Illinois. The current plan for completing the $3.8 billion project by Energy Transfer Partners would direct a segment of the pipeline underneath a Missouri River reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota—posing potential risks to both the tribe’s drinking water and their sacred lands and burial sites.

To prevent the contamination of their water supply and the destruction of their sacred landmarks, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began protesting the pipeline’s construction in August. Since its commencement, the long-standing protest has grown in magnitude as thousands of activists and members of other tribal nations have traveled to North Dakota to join the cause.

Protesters have frequently encountered violence or arrest. An official from the United Nations recently released a statement criticizing the degree of violence that has been utilized against demonstrators, who for the most part, are protesting peacefully. According to the U.N. official’s statement:

“Protesters say they have faced rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades and bean-bag rounds while expressing concerns over environmental impact and trying to protect burial grounds and other sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”

Native American women assembled in Union Station in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to pray and to urge President Obama to immediately and permanently halt the construction. Organized by DC Standing Rock Coalition and FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, the group of 20 women partaking in the D.C. demonstration dropped a banner displaying the phrase: “WE ARE STILL HERE.” The women voiced concerns about the environmental danger the pipeline poses and the various forms of violence Native American populations have suffered throughout history.

In particular, the demonstrators stressed that rates of sexual violence against Native American women may increase if the federal government permits the completion of the pipeline. Native American women, as a population, already face a high risk of violence. According to FORCE, four out of five Native American women experience rape, stalking or abuse within their lifetime, and one-third of Native American women are stalked, abused or raped each year. Ninety percent of the individuals committing these crimes are not members of the native community.

The presence of the oil industry within the state heightens this risk. North Dakota, as a state, is one of the largest oil producers in the country, and the vast amount of oil produced in the state originates from tribal lands. Oil production within the region has led to the construction of temporary housing communities known as “man camps.” In these camps, men working for the oil industry are isolated for long periods of time, and the communities can often become sites of increased incidences of rape, assault, violence and drug-related crime. Man camps that sprung up in response to the Bakken oil rush contributed to higher rates of violence and sexual assault against Native American women.

Native American women, until just recently, possessed no means of legal recourse to address these crimes. Under the ruling of the 1978 Supreme Court case, Oliphant v. Suquamish, Native American courts were denied jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native individuals accused of committing a crime. A reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 permitted tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders in a limited quantity of cases concerning domestic violence.

The demonstration at Union Station was part of a nationwide day of protest. After the Army Corp of Engineers released an announcement stating that more information about the proposed route and more input from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was needed to authorize the pipeline’s completion, thousands of individuals participated in demonstrations and rallies calling for the federal government to take immediate action by either rerouting the pipeline or stopping its construction entirely. Energy Transfer Partner’s CEO, Kelcy Warren, recently expressed the company’s refusal to consider plans to reroute the pipeline.

With a new and uncertain political landscape ahead, further inaction from the Obama administration on DAPL only ensures an uncertain future where neither women nor the environment are guaranteed protection.




Melissa Scholke is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied English Literature and Communications Studies. When she’s not writing and discussing important feminist issues, she spends time reading and indulging her indie music obsession.