Standing Up at Standing Rock

What is happening at Standing Rock? Students learn about and discuss the growing protest by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies to stop a pipeline.   


Ask students:  Do you know what’s happening at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota? 
Elicit and explain that for the past several months, the Standing Rock Reservation has been the site of growing protests by Sioux activists and their allies from across the country (and world).

You might show students the photos above and below.  Photo above: One of the Standing Rock encampments. (photo by Tony Webster, CC license). Photo below: Standing Rock activists at a rally in NYC (photo by Joe Catron, CC license). 



The protest is over the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is supposed to link the oil fields in northern North Dakota with an existing pipeline in Illinois. To get there, an oil transport company intends to build the pipeline very close to the Standing Rock Reservation  and pass it under the Missouri River - the tribe's only source of water.

Since April 2016, members of the tribe have been protesting the pipeline. As the summer progressed, the Standing Rock protesters were joined by Native Americans from around the country. On September 9, a federal court denied their motion to halt construction. Minutes later, three federal agencies issued an order for the company to temporarily halt construction.
The protesters say they will remain at the construction site until the oil pipeline poses no danger to their water.
Ask students to read the following overview of this controversy and the protest movement it has fueled.


Student Reading:
Standing Rock

Dakota Access Pipeline

Oil in North Dakota (and neighboring states and provinces) comes from a huge rock unit known as the Bakken Formation. Geologists estimate that there are billions of gallons of oil contained in the formation. Because most of the oil is two miles underground and embedded in rock, technology was not available until around the year 2000 to extract the oil.

The technology of drilling horizontally and fracturing rocks ("fracking") has accelerated rapidly since then. Huge amounts of natural gas and oil have been extracted through the process across much of the United States (see the TeachableMoment lesson "Should Fracking Be Banned," April 3, 2016).

Fracking is an extremely controversial practice for several reasons. To extract the gas or oil, companies mix millions of gallons of fresh water with  toxic chemicals and pump it deep into the earth to break up shale rock. A vast quantity of this toxic wastewater is then brought to the surface. Much of it is injected deep underground in oil and gas waste wells, where it may cause problems, including groundwater contamination and earthquakes. Fracking also results in the release of methane and other greenhouse gases, pollution from truck traffic, chemical contamination around storage tanks, and logging and other disruption of natural areas.

The crude oil that is produced from fracking in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota is currently transported through pipelines and by rail and truck to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. From there, it is shipped around the U.S. and overseas.  
To transport the oil more efficiently and inexpensively, Energy Transfer Partners sought permission to build a large capacity (30-inch diameter) pipeline from North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Illinois. The plan is for it to carry about 500,000 barrels per day. The route originally was planned to cross the Missouri near Bismarck, but the plans changed because of the potential hazard to the city's drinking water.

The project developer Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, maintains that the pipeline would help the United States become less dependent on importing energy. It argues that a pipeline is a safer, more cost effective, and more environmentally sound way to move crude oil than either rail or truck. 

The company, along with other pipeline proponents, also argues that the $3.7 pipeline project will bring money and jobs to North Dakota, whose economy has suffered as a result of falling gas prices. Project developers say the pipeline will "bring significant economic benefits to the region that it transverses."

Native American Opposition

"When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity." - David Archambault, Tribal Chairman
The Dakota Access Pipeline is routed about a half mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota. The tribe’s website states that:
The people of Standing Rock, often called Sioux, are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations. "Dakota" and "Lakota" mean "friends" or "allies." The people of these nations are often called "Sioux," a term that dates back to the seventeenth century when the people were living in the Great Lakes area. The Ojibwa called the Lakota and Dakota "Nadouwesou" meaning "adders." This term, shortened and corrupted by French traders, resulted in retention of the last syllable as "Sioux." There are various Sioux divisions and each has important cultural, linguistic, territorial and political distinctions.
The construction area includes sites that are sacred to the Native Americans living there. Some of the area’s archeological finds may have already been destroyed by the construction company.  Perhaps more importantly, since the pipeline crosses the Missouri River and Lake Oahe just upstream from the reservation, the pipeline threatens the tribe's sole water supply.
For Native Americans, who have been living in North America for millennia longer than the European immigrants, water is inseparable from life. In fact the Lakota word for water "mni" (pronounced m'nee), translates literally to "it gives me life." They refer to themselves as "protectors" rather than "protesters" in their opposition to the pipeline.
The question of land and water rights is central to the legal battle to protect the river. Federal law mandates that tribes must be consulted before large construction projects are approved. The 1992 law specifically states that the property in question need not be on reservation land.
In addition, Native American nations are entitled to government-to-government negotiations in their interactions with federal agencies. With the Dakota Access Pipeline, there was little and late consultation with the tribe. The Army Corps of Engineers gave fast-track approval to the project, exempting it from strict environmental review. On September 20, 2016, Standing Rock leader Dave Archambault appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council to make their case that the United States has broken several treaties granting Sioux sovereignty over the land in question.
Members of the Standing Rock tribe began their demonstrations against the project in April, but little attention was paid to the opposition until summer, when large numbers of Native Americans around the country joined the camp at the construction site. By September, 4,000 protesters were camped out in hundreds of tents and tipis, making it one of North Dakota's larger towns. The site has taken on many aspects of a small town--including communal supplies and meals, a school, sanitation, wind and solar power, security, entertainment, radio station and medical clinics.
Though the camp (actually four separate camps) is largely Native American, the protests have been joined by climate activists, Black Lives Matter activists, celebrities and indigenous peoples from around the world. Donations of supplies arrive constantly and several fundraising campaigns have brought almost a million dollars to the effort.  Hundreds of demonstrations in solidarity with Standing Rock have taken place around the country and beyond.
The participants see the Standing Rock protest as significant historically. It is the first time in 140 years that the seven Sioux nations have come together. Hundreds of other tribes have sent support, both spiritual and physical. Native peoples around the world have likewise lent support. Organizations and activists committed to halting global climate change oppose all infrastructure projects aimed at extracting fossil fuels; they too are uniting against the pipeline.  

For Discussion 

The following are quotations about the Standing Rock standoff. Make a copy of the quotes and the questions that follow.  Cut them up, and ask three volunteers to read the quotes out loud, and then the questions that follow their quote.  After each quote, discuss the questions (and any additional questions that come up) in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Quote 1:

"While the U.S. produced 7.5 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2013, it still imported 7.7 million barrels per day in order to meet consumer demands. We need to close the gap between what we produce as a country and what we consume before we can be truly independent of foreign imports. Every barrel of oil produced in the United States directly displaces a barrel of foreign oil."   —Dakota  Access/Energy Transfer website


  • Is the Dakota Access pipeline necessary for the national interests of the United States?
  • What are the alternatives to building the pipeline?

Quote 2: 

"The Dakota Access pipeline would be with us decades into the future. Once built and operating the economic incentives to keep it going will be hard to overcome. Every year it will be the source of carbon emissions equivalent to nearly 30 coal plants. ... Building Dakota Access would be yet another barrier to the path to climate safety.


  • Is slowing global climate change a good reason to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline?
  • Could Standing Rock be a turning point in the fight to keep fossil fuels "in the ground?"   

Quote 3: 

"Every time we drink water, we say mni wiconi, water of life. We cannot live without water. So I don’t understand why America doesn’t understand how important water is. So we have no choice. We have to stand. No matter what happens, we have to stand to save the water." —  LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, tribal historian


  • Do Americans fail to understand how important water is? If so, why?
  • How important are the interests of the Standing Rock Sioux?