Victory for Standing Rock

Victory for Standing Rock

On DAPL, Indigenous sovereignty, and environmental justice (plus tips for you to get involved)

By Sofia Barandiaran, Social Initiatives Coordinator at Cycle

Earlier this week, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won a major victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) when a district court ruled that the pipeline must shut down pending an environmental review and must be completely emptied of oil by August 6. For four years, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been standing against the pipeline both in court and in on-the-ground protests, asserting that DAPL is a violation of their sovereignty and an environmental injustice. The Great Sioux Nation signed treaties with the United States government in 1851 and in 1868 that established the original boundaries and recognized its rights as a sovereign government. In 1889, the lands of the Sioux Tribe were reduced to a reservation. The tribal government maintains jurisdiction over all reservation lands which include: All right-of-ways, waterways, watercourses and streams.

The Dakota Access Pipeline passes through land that is legally Sioux territory under the terms of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Although that land has been occupied by the United States, the Sioux have never ceded their right to it. DAPL is therefore an infringement on Standing Rock’s sovereignty and a violation of their treaty rights. The pipeline, which crosses the Missouri River just half a mile upriver of Standing Rock’s reservation, puts Standing Rock’s water, land, and sacred sites at risk. In its first six months of operation, the pipeline leaked five times, the Intercept found. This pipeline is part of a history of environmental injustice in the United States in which people in power site environmental and public health hazards disproportionately in Indigenous communities, Black communities, and other communities of color. An alternative route for DAPL would have had the pipeline pass by the 92% white city of Bismarck, North Dakota–instead, the company chose to route the pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation.

The environmental injustice of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a product of colonialism, of Indigenous land violently stolen and occupied illegally in violation of the Sioux’s treaty rights. The fossil fuel industry is extractive, it is a cause of environmental injustice and of climate change, and it violates Indigenous sovereignty. The case of Standing Rock and DAPL shows that fighting for Indigenous sovereignty, fighting for environmental justice, and fighting against climate change are inextricably linked. As anti-colonial scholar Jaskiran Dhillon argues,

Our strongest chance of restoring balance on the planet and respecting the interconnectedness of all things, human and other-than-human, is to fervently advocate for justice for Indigenous communities and return to them the power of governance — which was violently apprehended through war, genocide, starvation, disease, abuse, the dispossession of land, and forced repression of Indigenous communities on reservations. The only way to upend this form of sociopolitical and economic ordering, I argue, is through the reinstatement of Indigenous authority and sovereignty (Dhillon 2017).

Monday’s district court decision deals a major blow to the Dakota Access Pipeline. This victory adds to building momentum in the fight against fossil fuels. A day before the DAPL decision, the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline abandoned that project under pressure of legal fees and activism. And on Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a Trump administration request to allow construction on parts of the Keystone XL Pipeline that a Montana court had blocked in April. Like the Dakota Access Pipeline, both of these pipelines have met opposition from Native American Tribes and create environmental injustices in Native communities.

These recent decisions represent important victories for these Native American Tribes, environmental justice advocates, and climate action advocates–but the fight is far from over. Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind DAPL, has said that it will seek a stay on the order to vacate the pipeline by August 6, and will appeal if that fails. The Trump administration has close ties to the fossil fuel industry, with fifteen out of twenty top environmental officials coming directly from careers in the oil, gas, coal, chemical or agriculture industries. The administration is actively working to dismantle environmental regulations that slow down climate change and safeguard against environmental injustice: Trump’s team has rolled back 100 environmental regulations, and last month the EPA created a new rule limiting states’ ability to block pipelines under the Clean Water Act.

Recent victories against DAPL, Keystone XL, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline show that we can beat these pipelines. Now is the time to keep fighting, to keep standing up in solidarity with Indigenous communities defending their sovereignty and their right to a clean and healthy environment. Show your support for Standing Rock by using this form from Earthjustice, the legal non-profit representing Standing Rock, to write to your representative and senators telling them to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sovereignty and environmental rights. Take the time to learn about and support activism for Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice in your communities. The EJAtlas maps cases of environmental injustice and activism around the globe–you can browse and filter it by the type of project and which groups are mobilizing against it. When you learn about injustice in your community, take action against it–go to the websites of the organizations leading the mobilization and find ways to support them. Finally, vote for elected officials that are committed to working for environmental justice, climate action, and Indigenous sovereignty and are not afraid to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We all have a part to play in achieving environmental and climate justice. This was a huge win–let’s keep going.


Brown, Alleen. 2018. “Five Spills, Six Months in Operation: Dakota Access Track Record Highlights Unavoidable Reality–Pipelines Leak.” The Intercept, January 9, 2018.

Dhillon, Jaskiran. 2017. “What Standing Rock Teaches Us About Environmental Justice.” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, December 5, 2017.

Eilpern, Juliet, Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis. 2020. “Major oil and gas pipeline projects, backed by Trump, flounder as opponents prevail in court.” The Washington Post, July 6, 2020.

Evans, Earl. 2020. “Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to fulfill its obligations to Indian Tribes in Pipeline Permitting.” National Congress of American Indians. Resolution number MOH-17–054.

Fortin, Jacey and Lisa Friedman. 2020. “Dakota Access Pipeline to Shut Down Pending Review, Federal Judge Rules.” The New York Times, July 6, 2020.

Friedman, Lisa. 2020. “E.P.A. Limits States’ Power to Oppose Pipelines and Other Energy Projects.” The New York Times, June 1, 2020.

Friedman, Lisa and Claire O’Neill. 2020. “Who Controls Trump’s Environmental Policy?” The New York Times, January 14, 2020.

Hasselman, Jan and Abigail Dillen. 2017. “In Conversation: Standing With Standing Rock.” Teleconference moderated by Minna Jung. Earthjustice, March 22, 2017.

Liptak, Adam. 2020. “Supreme Court Won’t Block Ruling to Halt Work on Keystone XL Pipeline.” The New York Times, July 6, 2020.

Native American Rights Fund. 2020. “Cases: Keystone XL Pipeline.” Updated April 16, 2020.

Ostler, Jeffrey and Nick Estes. 2017. “The Supreme Law of the Land: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Public Seminar, February 3, 2017.

Popovich, Nadja, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis. 2020. “The Trump Administration is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.” The New York Times, May 20, 2020.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Environmental Profile.” Accessed July 9, 2020.