DAPL, Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice: The Watershed That Was 2016

Dallas Goldtooth / Following the destruction of Lakota burial grounds and sacred sites by Dakota Access pipeline workers, more than 500 water protectors gathered to pray. More than 8,000 people representing 180 tribes have converged at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock to protect their water and sacred sites.

From the Dakota Access Pipeline to the Bears Ears National Monument, 2016 marked a turning point

It almost goes without saying that THE environmental story of 2016 was the standoff over the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The year was bookended by the DAPL resistance camps starting in the spring, and ending with the designation of Bears Ears National Monument—both stemming from Native-driven efforts. Beyond the environmental implications, however, the DAPL conflict brought indigenous Treaty rights to the fore, illuminated the abhorrent treatment of Native Americans since European contact, and demonstrated the lengths to which big business will go to get its way—even if it means perpetrating these acts on U.S. citizens.

In between these two milestones were any number of other success stories, from the Lummi victory over the Cherry Point coal terminal, to the designation of the beloved bison as the country’s national mammal. The list below covers the major points of the DAPL chronicle, followed by the other big environmental stories, some of which may have been missed the first time around amid the urgency of DAPL.


Though the pipeline was initially proposed—and objected to—in 2014, it wended its way piecemeal through various regulatory agencies in four states until July 2016, when the last state permits were granted. On April 1, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member LaDonna Brave Bull Allard began hosting about 25 to 30 people on land alongside the Cannonball River. When construction began across sacred, treaty-protected lands in August, people started pouring in, and the numbers soon swelled to hundreds, then thousands, of water protectors.

Courtesy Allie Fredericks / San Carlos Apache Tribe council member Wendsler Nosie Sr. embraces Standing Rock Sioux Tribe David Archambault II at the Camp of the Sacred Stones near the Standing Rock reservation, where Nosie came to offer support and prayers to those taking a stand against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The Apache Stronghold has been fighting for more than a decade to stop the takeover of sacred Oak Flat for copper mining by Rio Tinto.

​This included representatives from nearly 300 tribes whose leaders sent supplies, visited in person or both. Support became especially keen after it came out that the pipeline had originally been slated to run north of Bismarck, but that objections over possible danger to the mostly non-Native city’s drinking water had pushed the route farther south—to within a half mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. As protests mounted, the arrests began, and later the violence, from an increasingly militarized police force.

Adam Alexander Johannson / Hoses or water cannons were used to spray protectors in subfreezing temperatures overnight on Sunday November 20.

​It wasn’t just tribal members who did not want the routing underneath the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux and millions of others downstream. Three federal agencies—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation—stepped into the public fray over the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile-long pipeline and said it needed much more environmental and archaeological review. Three arms of the United Nations also weighed in, condemning the enforcement, the pipeline and the breaching of treaty rights, and the world began to pay attention. Amnesty International also spoke outagainst treatment of the water protectors. Numerous celebrities also came on board, most notably Shailene Woodley, who spent weeks at the camps and hosted Thanksgiving dinner along with Jane Fonda, who donated seven butchered bison and served food for 500 water protectors at Standing Rock. Woodley spoke exclusively to ICTMN about how to be an indigenous ally, and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt gave a concert the same weekend.

Courtesy / Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne performed at Standing Rock on Thanksgiving weekend.

Pressure mounted against the administration of President Barack Obama until finally, in mid-December, history was made as the U.S. Department of the Army declined to issue the one last easement that Energy Transfer Partners required to drill under Lake Oahe, officially stalling the project. With winter setting in, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II told the water protectors that it was time to go home. Some folks stayed, but many saw the wisdom of the request given the blizzard conditions, and the fight began moving to the financial front. In the end, water protector Faith Spotted Eagle even got an electoral college vote for President.

Lucas Reynolds / Water protectors won the day, for now.

The Year in Pipeline Company Drama actually began before DAPL became prominent, when TransCanada, peeved at having been rebuffed for its Keystone XL pipeline, first refused to withdraw its application from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, and then sued the U.S. government seeking $15 billion in damages. Then it had to shut down its original Keystone pipeline (KXL would have been an extension) south of Freeman, South Dakota, after an oil spill was reported by a local rancher.


The Yurok Tribe in California passed an ordinance banning genetically engineered organisms from within its territory. The ordinance, among the first of its kind in the Nation, was enacted in response to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration’s approval of genetically altered salmon as safe to eat. A lawsuit filed by a dozen defendants including the Quinault Indian Nation, against federal agencies that allowed the approval of genetically modified salmon went to court on Election Day.

“Frankenfish,” a genetically engineered super-salmon and the first biotech animal engineered for human consumption, grows twice as quickly as wild salmon.


The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a first-ever map forecasting human-caused earthquake activity, as opposed to natural quakes. It affirmed that injecting industrial wastewater deep underground makes the Earth shake, and it officially anointed Oklahoma as the new California when it comes to the likelihood of seismic disruption. At one point, operators of 17 disposal wells in the Osage Nation agreed to shut down operations following a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, the biggest in the state’s history.


Northwest tribes were elated after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for a proposed coal shipping terminal in the Lummi Nation’s historical territory on May 9, ruling that the potential impacts to the Lummi’s usual and accustomed fishing rights could not be mitigated. The company’s vice president told ICTMN in a letter that it would not take no for an answer.

Members of the Lummi Nation protest the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point by burning a large check stamped “Non-Negotiable.”


Fallout from the Gold King Mine spill continued, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of neglect for its responseto Navajo communities after 3 million gallons of mining waste polluted the San Juan River in August 2015. McCain demanded a criminal investigation. The Navajo Nation sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several other parties alleging that the spill could have been prevented, and sought $160 million in damages. Environmental and tribal activists welcomed the designation of the Gold King Mine as a Superfund site.

Courtesy La Plata County / After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released three million gallons of contaminated wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverado, Colorado, into the Animas River, above, it flowed from there to the Juan River, through the Navajo Nation.


The U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Bison Legacy Act designating it as the national mammal, and the Senate followed suit. Obama signed it into law, making the bison the national mammal. National Bison Day fell on November 5, the same month that the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming reintroduced its first bison since 1885.

File Photo / The bison was named as the national mammal, reintroduced on the Wind River Reservation, and continued to gain new reverence.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the state-recognized Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw $48 million to pay for a move inland away from the disappearing Louisiana Gulf coast. This made them the first community of official climate refugees in the United States, though they have a lot of unofficial company. With that, climate change joined colonization as a force removing Indigenous Peoples from their lands. Elsewhere, no sooner had a study come out saying that First Nation fisheries in British Columbia could be devastated in coming years by climate change, than U.S. agencies announced that 2015 had been the warmest year on record. Both NOAA and NASA both attributed the rising temperatures to human activity.


As the year drew to a close, Obama declared 1.35 million acres of land sacred to several tribes as Bears Ears National Monument, a move that Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said had been 90 years in the making. The place is of great spiritual significance, with visits from the likes of the renowned Tibetan monk His Holiness the Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang, the highest leader of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and United Nations Ambassador for Mountain People of the world. The resistance to designating the area reached fraudulent proportions as fake news releases and letters were posted in some towns on the Navajo Nation claiming that such a designation would close off access to tribes and that the U.S. Department of the Interior was going to not only reduce the size of the adjoining Navajo Nation but also throw a party that would leave out Utah Navajos. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited the Bears Ears region of Utah to learn more about what has prompted 25 tribes to ask for the 1.9 million acres of land to be designated as a national monument. She told ICTMN that President Barack Obama would make the decision. Meanwhile a congressional bill touted as an alternative to the Bears Ears proposal moved forward from committee to the full House of Representatives but has now become moot.

Tim Peterson / Bears Ears Buttes, the geological formation that gives the site in Utah its name. Twenty-four tribes worked to protect it, in collaboration with rock climbers, members of the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists and others. President Barack Obama named it a National Monument on December 29,


With the same stroke of a pen as Bears Ears, Obama created another national monument at Gold Butte. But his administration had been at it all year. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s cancelation of all oil and gas leases in the region known as the Blackfeet Cathedral, made it apparent that Obama has set a new standard for land into trust. He also declared 1.8 million acres in the Southern California desert as a series of national monuments, protecting 1,700 Native petroglyphs and linking Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. In addition he quadrupled the size of a Marine National Monument, Papah?naumoku?kea, a World Heritage Site containing areas of great significance to Native Hawaiians. Could the Grand Canyon be next? Tribal leaders joined Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, to urge Obama to designate 1.7 million acres around the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Tribes are also calling on the President to shield the Grand Canyon from uranium mining in perpetuity.

Courtesy James Watt/Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument / Colorful reef fish, like pennantfish, pyramid and milletseed butterflyfish, school in great numbers at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals in the Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument.