Resistance to the pipeline was met not only with official violence, but also suppression of opponents from voicing the environmental, land rights and indigenous self-determination conflicts at stake.
The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at the Sioux Standing Rock reservation shows incredible unity against the exploitation of indigenous lands.
For a long time, it looked like a foregone conclusion that the oil pipeline would be built close to the reservation.
And yet, in a remarkable twist in the usual of story of fights against big energy companies, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied permission for the building of a crucial part of the project.
As scholars of indigenous rights who have visited the camps of the numerous opponents of DAPL in North Dakota, we are sceptical that this decision will hold.
Having witnessed numerous abuses of the state against those trying to stop the pipeline, we are not confident that indigenous rights will be respected in the near future.
It took enormous efforts to get the US government to take notice of the environmental and land rights concerns at stake. Led by the native Lakota people, thousands of people calling themselves 'water protectors' converged upon the Standing Rock reservation in recent months to resist the adulteration of lands that have deep historical and sacred meanings. The rivers and lakes under which the pipeline was planned to pass are vital water supplies and abundant in wildlife.
The 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would carry highly flammable oil from the Bakken and Three Forks fields in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois. The proposed route is a short distance from the Standing Rock reservation and would go underneath Lake Oahe which flows into the Missouri River.
This project carries grave health and ecological risks, which were subject only to a light environmental review conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. As with oil pipelines on indigenous lands elsewhere, contamination of not only water but the local ecology is a real possibility.
Using official data on pipelines, the US Center for Biological Diversity maintains that "since 1986 pipeline accidents have spilled an average of 76,000 barrels per year or more than 3m gallons. This is equivalent to 200 barrels every day". The centre also lists 500 fatalities in the US from pipeline accidents since 1986.
Yet the US Army's decision on 4th December - based on environmental concerns - came as a big surprise. Until that time, the authorities policing Standing Rock showed little appreciation of the obligations of law, including civil rights and the freedom of expression - let alone the importance of the lands and waters to indigenous peoples.
Violence and threats
Resistance to the pipeline was met not only with official violence, but also suppression of opponents from voicing the environmental, land rights and indigenous self-determination conflicts at stake. This was evident when we visited the Oceti Sakowin camp with a delegation from the University of Wyoming in late November.
To stop people accessing the area where a stretch of the pipeline was to be built, police and National Guard units erected a crude barrier of concrete, razor wire and two burnt out trucks. Many protectors had attempted to remove the barriers, successfully towing off one of the burnt out trucks. As spokespeople for the protectors have said, the barricades were dangerous and prevented a lawful protest.
We witnessed police respond with tear gas, sound cannons, high velocity rubber bullets (which wounded one of our delegation) and, most menacingly, water cannons which doused protectors in subzero temperatures. Armoured vehicles, helicopters, and planes were clearly visible and several American Indian Veterans said they had seen snipers in the hills.
A young woman named Sophia Wilansky went to hospital facing possible amputation of her arm. A statement by her father alleged it was caused by a concussion grenade lobbed by police at the bridge. She, along with about 400 others at the scene were unarmed.
As well as this violence by the state authorities, even more disturbing acts of suppression were used over that fateful weekend of November 20-21.
A plane continuously circled the camps, flying at night without lights. NBC reported what many water protectors were saying; that the mysterious plane had been jamming signals so that witnesses could not disseminate what they saw, heard and felt. Several people mentioned in the NBC report as well as one of our party had their mobile phones rendered permanently unusable, possibly through interference of this kind.
The threat of arrest, the megaphones bellowing warnings that "munitions will be utilised to effect arrests" and the massed ranks of police and National Guard, all spread fear and discouraged the taking of photos because anyone considered a protester could be criminalised. Since our visit, even those who donate to the camps have been threatened with US$1,000 fines by North Dakota officials.
A long history
These acts of suppression contradict the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution (though it is not the first time that Native Americans have had this freedom denied them specifically). Equally humiliating and not unrelated to civil rights is that the DAPL traverses tribal lands that have been continuously confiscated.
The Great Sioux Reservation, which once stretched from the Missouri to the North Platte River in Wyoming, was marked out for "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" for the Lakota Sioux in a treaty with the US government back in 1868. It has since been reduced to four reservations in the Dakotas. Standing Rock Reservation, the home of great chief Sitting Bull, is one of these remnant spots that still belongs to the Lakota.
Land grabbing continued in the 1940s when the government dispossessed the Lakota and other tribes of their homes for a series of dam projects. This led to the flooding of burial sites, which caused human remains to float to the surface and was the precursor to many other acts of desecration of indigenous remains and sacred sites.
It had looked like DAPL would be approved via the same legal process (and with similar consequences) to these dam projects. However, the Army has called for a more lengthy environmental impact assessment and it has recommended that routes away from Standing Rock be explored. Whether any of this will happen is open to question.
The company that is building DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, has sizeable investments from numerous important backers, including Donald Trump. Trump himself assumes the presidency next month, and has a set of advisers already urging him to privatise oil-rich indigenous lands. The company may still go ahead with constructing the pipeline under the lake, having previously disregarded an Army Corps of Engineers request to cease construction.
What's been clear from the outset is a lack of meaningful consultation with indigenous people over the use of their ancestral lands. US security forces have been literally shielding Energy Transfer Partners and the state has discouraged those opposing it from expressing their views.
Perhaps the most egregious act of suppression is that the area where the pipeline is being built is made inaccessible for those who want to see what's going on. The freedom of the press is severely restricted by this concealment. Keeping informed about the environmental assessment, if it goes ahead, could prove equally difficult.
Where is the justice? The US has committed itself to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both require free, prior and informed consent for any intrusions on indigenous lands and stipulate that indigenous peoples shall own and control their traditional lands.
This has not taken place at Standing Rock, and despite the army's decision, the threats, the surveillance, the barricades and intimidation of those opposing the oil pipeline continues.
Colin Samson is Professor of Sociology, Indigenous Peoples, University of Essex.
Øyvind Ravna is Professor of Law, University of Tromsø.