The Black Snake

Valentina Caballero Hernández Publicado 2017-03-02 09:50:09

Standing Rock kid. Photo: outside/Sara Lafleur-Vetter


The Lakota people have an ancient prophecy about a black snake that would come and slither across the land, and in doing so it would defile sacred sites, poison the water, and eventually destroy the Earth. This snake seems to have taken its shape through the Dakota Access Pipeline. In addition to creating health hazards and demonstrating blatant disregard for Native Americans, this pipeline poses many issues concerning human rights, environmental injustice, and systematic violence. The Dakota Access Pipeline perpetuates what colonialism has established and what white America has maintained.

This country is built on the premise of the rich elites coming out on top, arguably traced back to Europeans taking Native American land. If we look at colonialism as the beginning of globalization, it absolutely contributed to the inequity still present in today’s world. The “losers” have faced centuries of “losing,” seen throughout history through the inferiority coerced upon them. Since it has been occurring for so long, their domination has become normalized, and it is true that “old habits die hard.” Unfortunately, the continued oppression of minorities has added to the difficulty of normalizing equality and justice for all, but it’s especially added to the ease of maintaining the advantages given to the upper class and the normalcy of it.

The regularity of delivering hindrances and detriments to minorities has led to the concept of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice or racism can be defined as one group, generally minorities, receiving all the environmental harm from economic development that has been instituted by people in power, who end up obtaining the benefits. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a clear example of this. The government wants to construct the pipeline, justifying it by acknowledging that it has created around 12,000 jobs, and that it will benefit state and local economies by an estimated $156 million during construction in property and income taxes, and by an additional $50 million in property taxes annually once it is built. However, it has seemingly failed to acknowledge the serious health risks it poses, among other threatening aspects.

If the pipeline were to leak, it would contaminate the people of Standing Rock’s primary source of water. Assuming it will leak does not warrant a big stretch of the imagination—in the past two decades, over 2,000 noteworthy accidents involving oil or petroleum pipelines have occurred, also causing about $3 billion in property damages. If the Black Snake were to leak or burst, the oil would be released into the Missouri River—the water relied on for everything in Standing Rock, from bathing to drinking. Drinking contaminated water is obviously a large health hazard; increased instances of cancer, pulmonary problems, and psychological problems, among other health issues were found in people who either drank polluted water directly or who ingested it indirectly (say, through livestock exposed to the polluted water). This aspect of the controversy surrounding the pipeline overlaps from an environmental injustice issue into a human rights issue. Clean water is fundamental facet of living that all human beings are entitled to. People should not subject other people to potentially life threatening conditions by having them sacrifice clean water.

But contaminated water is not the only environmental threat posed by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it won’t only affect the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock. The pumping and burning of oil, and our reliance on fossil fuels contributes to the altering of our climate, which will affect all of us. However, global warming will actually hurt Native Americans more than other groups of people. Most U.S. Native American populations already face unfavorable socioeconomic factors such as poverty, inadequate housing, a lack of health services, and more. Climate change, which would be facilitated by the Black Snake, will worsen many existing impediments to providing for these human needs, and in a lot of cases, it will make adaptive responses all the more challenging.

If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to step back and look at the impeding, big-picture-reality of climate change that the pipeline will contribute to; but more than that, we owe it to Native Americans. As aforementioned, climate change will affect them more harshly than it will others, but also, we cannot forget they had their land stolen for the sake of the white founding of this country. It is disputable how respectable casinos are as reparations when truly considering the pain and turmoil Native Americans have faced throughout history. Constructing the Black Snake which will run through some of the sacred sites that they still have, threaten their living conditions that would be further affected by climate change, and potentially contaminate their water is even more disputable. And in actuality, the Dakota Access Pipeline is not the first time indigenous tribes have fought against environmental injustice.

In 1944, Congress approved the Pick-Sloan Plan designed for flood control and navigation on the Missouri River. The plan involved the construction of four dams, which impacted twenty-three Indian reservations and forced the relocation of roughly 900 Indian families. The Pick-Sloan Plan’s primary beneficiaries were non-Native American farmers, thus demonstrating environmental injustice, as one group received the environmental harm from the development, while those in power received all the benefits. Additionally, when negotiating settlements with the Native Americans, the Army Corps of Engineers ignored tribal sovereignty, Indian law, and treaty rights. According to the Former Commissioner of Indian Affairs Philleo Nash, the Pick-Sloan Plan caused the most damage to Indian land out of all the public works projects in the United States. Indian water rights were ignored, namely the Winters Doctrine of 1908 which provides water for Native Americans who reside on federally reserved lands.

Clearly, Native Americans have been fighting to be acknowledged for centuries; these three key events (colonialism, Pick-Sloan, and now the Dakota Access Pipeline) are prime examples of their long battle towards the equality that has been withheld from them by white men. A Sicangu/Oglala Lakota of Standing Rock writes of his admiration for Crazy Horse, Standing Bull, and American Horse, and that “now I am fighting alongside their descendants, my relatives from all seven tribes, against the very same oppressors” (The Guardian, 2016).

The continued oppression of Native Americans as seen throughout these three parts of history demonstrate how structural violence is ever-prevalent in our society. Structural violence can be defined as the “systematic ways in which social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals.  Structural violence is subtle, often invisible, and often has no one specific person who can (or will) be held responsible.” The structures can be political, legal, economic, or, as they are in this case, environmental. Systematic violence tends to be ongoing, pervasive, and normalized. Moreover, it is usually backed by powerful interests who use their resources to help themselves at the expense of others. All these characteristics can be seen in the situation in Standing Rock, as well as in the history of Native Americans in general.

Furthermore, the construction of the pipeline is being shaped, not just by environmental injustice, but by race and class. In this case, they almost go hand in hand. As minorities who live significantly less prosperously than white people in North Dakota, the Native Americans of Standing Rock are not given first priority by the government and others in power who may typically be white and/or wealthier.

The Sioux tribe’s undesired Black Snake is a threat to their health. It disregards the sanctity of their land. It brings into question moral issues that concern human rights. It demonstrates systematic violence and environmental injustice. All these things have been repeated throughout America’s history too many times; building the Dakota Access Pipeline will only encourage and enable those in power who believe profit comes before people, and those who believe our country already gives every person certain, unalienable rights. If this is how our America treats Native Americans, unfortunately, it is not an America where all men are created equal.


Rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Camp of the Sacred Stones



Valentina Caballero estudia primer año en la University of Oklahoma. Estudia la licenciatura de Estudios Internacionales. Comentarios a



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