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To understand the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, you need to understand tribal sovereignty

Policy has to be paired with indigenous people’s experiences.

Sioux Tribe Rallies For Environmental Review Of Dakota Access Pipeline In DC Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tensions are rising in North Dakota as Standing Rock Sioux members, activists, and allies protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which could damage their water supply.

NBC News reported that at least 141 people were arrested on Thursday after protesters (who refer to themselves as protectors) were met with militarized police force.

In many ways, the story surrounding the 1,172-mile pipeline may seem familiar. Environmentalists have long criticized the US’s dependence on oil, and the increasing reliance on fracking to satisfy it. Dakota Access LLC, the company behind the pipeline, says the project would create 8,000 to 12,000 jobs through construction (though Mother Jones reports that Iowa State University professor David Swenson disputes this figure). However, oil spills are fairly common and companies rarely catch them, leaving local communities to fend for themselves as corporate interests are prioritized over the environment.

But there’s also another key issue at play: race, and the need to recognize indigenous tribes’ right to self-determination.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, located just South of the pipeline, has sued the federal government for failing to consult the tribe before the Army Corps of Engineers discreetly approved the pipeline in July. As the Washington Post reported, the pipeline will run under the Missouri River, the major natural water supply, and through sacred areas that aren’t considered official parts of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

"#NoDAPL has made clear that climate change isn’t up for debate for most indigenous peoples," Aura Bogado, a staff writer at Grist.org who focuses on environmental racism, told me in an email interview. "It’s a real phenomenon that can mean the difference between life and death."

And while a federal judge has affirmed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s concerns that corporate and government entities alike failed to consult them, American history shows there is a violent history of denying indigenous groups sovereignty over their own lives.

Bogado discussed what current protests can teach us about centering race in environmental journalism and the importance of amplifying indigenous people’s stories.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Victoria Massie: To begin, how did you get involved in covering environmental racism as a journalist?

Aura Bogado: I’ve covered racial justice for a while, and have always had a particular interest in climate and the environment – but it’s really tough to write about this intersection. Although nonwhite people tend to live with more contaminated air, water, and soil, there remains a fundamental disengagement about this in both the mainstream environmental movement as well as in environmental journalism.

Pair this with the fact that I’m an indigenous woman who has a particular way of thinking about climate, and you get an idea of what I’m up against. Those challenges are changing and even decreasing, but not fast enough to catch up with the way the planet is warming. Nevertheless, I’m committed to writing about environmental racism.

VM: A major component of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is the fact that the pipeline isn’t just an environmental hazard; it’s one that is being implemented with pretty much no regard for the Standing Rock Sioux. How does this fit into a broader discussion of tribal sovereignty?

AB: This is such a great question, because the issue of tribal sovereignty, which is just as important as the environmental hazard, is getting lost in the pipeline story.

Too many people tend to think of tribal sovereignty as something that’s allocated, which can be given or taken away depending on the circumstance. But it’s not. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s tribal sovereignty, which essentially precedes colonization, is permanent, and it’s recognized (as opposed to granted) by the federal government.

The nation is concerned that its waters would be contaminated and that its sacred sites will be desecrated by this pipeline project. On the surface, that claim can easily look like a specific racial group got together to lodge an environmental complaint, but there’s a lot more than that: It’s actually a tribal sovereign nation that’s making an important claim about self-determination and its ability to survive and exist in the future.

But this isn’t just lost on journalists. It extends to the highest office in the federal government. During his trip to Laos this week, President Obama was asked about the pipeline. He issued, at best, a lackluster answer. Obama gave great lip service to his culturally appropriate communication with indigenous peoples, but he added that he couldn’t even provide an answer "on this particular case."

Aside from asserting ignorance on a topic I can’t help but think he’s already been briefed on, Obama also missed an opportunity to publicly recognize the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s tribal sovereignty. That’s a real shame, as is his decision to skirt the environmental and climate hazards the pipeline presents.

VM: When we talk about environmentalism, we hear a lot about climate change, politicians, and CO2 emissions. These are all a part of the story, but as the #NoDAPL protests are showing, they’re not the full story. Race is also a critical part of the issue. How have you seen race erased from the environmentalism story as a journalist, and how does #NoDAPL demonstrate the importance of foregrounding race in the conversation?

AB: Environmental racism is woven into our society’s fabric. The very founding of this country was an environmental disaster, made possible through settler colonialism, and vice versa. The historical emissions produced by white colonists have greatly contributed to climate change, leaving indigenous peoples and people of color — that is, the very people who didn’t contribute to global warming much at all — most vulnerable. I see a lot of stories that reference climate change without much of an understanding about who’s responsible for creating it. It didn’t appear out of nowhere; it was part of a larger violent process of theft and genocide, and it’s stunning to me that most environmental journalists don’t really seem to get that.

But it wasn’t only in colonizing the land. It’s also about the way cities were constructed. Racial housing covenants often segregated people of color into areas that had the most factories, oil refineries, heavy industry, and so forth. Although explicit racial segregation for housing is illegal today, the legacies of those neighborhoods, and who’s affected by contamination and pollution, haven’t changed much.

If you live in a city, look up your closest landfill. Chances are that landfill, and all the health and environmental concerns that stem from it, is in a neighborhood of color. These neighborhoods and sacrificial zones were literally designed to be that way, and not much has changed.

You’re right that a lot of environmental and climate stories focus on science and policy — and too often, that casts people aside. As an environmental journalist, I understand and keep up with the science: We can nerd out on greenhouse gases, lead, and particulate matter for days. But I also pay attention to how much science matches up to experience.

The people I focus my stories on don’t worry about the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide allowed in the Paris climate deal; they worry about the number of asthma inhalers they can afford to buy in order to survive.

#NoDAPL has made clear that climate change isn’t up for debate for most indigenous peoples. It’s a real phenomenon that can mean the difference between life and death.

VM: What questions do you find journalists aren’t asking when it comes to covering the #NoDAPL protests?

AB: You asked a great question about tribal sovereignty — but few journalists even understand what that means. There are several Indian law scholars who’d like nothing better than to have a journalist call and ask them to explain what tribal sovereignty is. That attorney might not be quoted in a story, but that journalist will be armed with a crucial understanding moving forward with which to explain what’s happening in Standing Rock and elsewhere.

I’m also surprised that reporters aren’t pressing the two leading presidential candidates on the pipeline. I can image what Trump’s answer might be, but what about Clinton? She’s claimed she supports environmental justice — her claim could be buffered by issuing a simple statement, although it seems rather late for that now. Since she’s failed to say anything about the pipeline, reporters might want to press her campaign on it.

Aside from what’s not being asked, I also wonder who’s being asked. I think it’s great that more white folks are getting involved, and even heading to North Dakota, but I worry about the way that white voices are validating what indigenous peoples, and people of color who are in solidarity, can say for themselves. So I think it’s incumbent upon reporters to get out of their comfort zones and talk to more than just white sources for this story.

VM: The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter just recently traveled down to stand with #NoDAPL protesters. Why are these kinds of alliances important for understanding the complexity of the problem?

AB: The enslavement of black people in the Americas complicates the settler colonial matter I talked about earlier. One legacy of enslavement is that black skin continues to be an indicator that marks one’s place in a racial hierarchy. Black Lives Matter has built a worldwide movement and has also taken the time to work thoughtfully with indigenous peoples. There’s probably an amazing story waiting to be told about the meetings, especially among women and gender nonconforming people, that have taken place behind the scenes before and after BLM arrived at Standing Rock.

BLM knows it has the media’s attention, so it made a strategic decision to head to Standing Rock in order to get journalists to pay attention. It’s also brought much-needed supplies there. And it’s created some visibility for black indigenous folks to also be recognized. Every step of the fight against the pipeline has seemed historic to me. But this allegiance is toward the top of that list, and deserves more coverage.

VM: What can coverage (or lack thereof) of the #NoDAPL protests teach us about how indigenous communities stories are told?

AB: For the most part, stories about indigenous communities aren’t being told. We have a way of relegating indigenous peoples to the past, so stories that are taking place today rarely resonate with mainstream journalists. There are, of course, indigenous reporters and reporters of color that write about this — but the system that keeps journalism so white tends to keep the publishing gate closed in terms of what we can cover and when.

Then again, I do think that #NoDAPL has revitalized the argument [that] it’s important for journalists to pay attention to the fact that already marginalized communities are the ones on the front lines, fighting against environmental injustices. There’s a great opportunity here created by indigenous peoples. I hope we don’t miss it.

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