Photo of the Month: November 2016

A growing camp of activists at Standing Rock highlights a larger struggle for indigenous land rights and control over their economic future.

POTM Standing Rock


An estimated 10,000 people acting as "water protectors" continue to dig in for the winter on the Standing Rock Reservation, the heart of a nine-month protest against the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline. 

While the pipeline is 85 percent completed, indigenous activists led by the Standing Rock Souix and supported by 200 tribes say the pipeline will disrupt sacred burial lands and pose a threat to the Missouri River, the Standing Rock's main water supply. The protest has become a focal point for raising attention to the dire poverty faced by indigenous communities and the rapidly growing indigenous anti-fossil fuel movement.

The Standing Rock Reservation is one of the nation's poorest, with a per capita income of $13,474, more than 40 percent of the population below the poverty line, and an estimated 86 percent unemployment rate. Across the country,  27 percent of indigenous people are living in poverty, and indicators for unemployment, education, and health are worse than for other groups. While the federal government provides billions of dollars in aid to reservations, there is still a sense that their development is being neglected. When President Obama visited the Standing Rock reservation in 2014, he became only the third U.S. president in history to step onto a reservation.

For some, Thanksgiving this year was a time to highlight the connection between this poverty and the long history of land dispossession and exploitation of America's indigenous peoples. At Standing Rock, Souix activists have been raising awareness about previous instances where they were disposessed of land, including the Black Hills Gold Rush in the late 1800s and dam-building efforts in the 1950s. Indigenous activists argue that their struggle to maintain their land rights and resist the government's imposition of private land ownership is not just about cultural preservation, but is at the heart of their struggle for economic empowerment. As Kelli Mosteller writes in the Atlantic:

For Native people, a link exists between landownership and success, but it is much more complex and intimate than the personal ability to exploit or sell land for financial gain. Not all communities are facing the same kind of crises, but almost all recognize the importance of land to cultural preservation. Whether in our ancestral homelands, such as those where the Lakota have stopped the construction of the pipeline, or in areas of Oklahoma, where more than two dozen tribes were forcefully placed during the 19th century, protecting our tribal land bases is an intrinsic part of the formula that will lead to greater prosperity and success for individuals and tribes in Indian country…

Tribes should also be able to determine what constitutes success for themselves, and have recently done so by pursuing policy initiatives that recognize tribal sovereignty on their land, not by focusing on private property rights that would break it apart. In 2012 Congress passed a critical piece of legislation that provides tribes an avenue to greater sovereignty and will lead to more investment and economic development in Indian country. The Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act gives participating tribes the authority to lease reservation, or trust land, for residential or business purposes without further approval by the federal government. This advancement in self-governance means that tribes are able to determine the housing or commercial projects that are the most needed in their communities and the best way to utilize their land base. It also means they have more direct control of tribal assets, which makes them better able to shape their own future.

Update December 12, 2016: Following the announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers will force the pipeline to re-route, the leaders of the protest have declared victory and called for disbanding the encampment. However, with Energy Transfer Partners committed to the original route and a new presidential administration looming, the future remains uncertain

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