‘Black Snake’ tells the saga of Dakota Access Pipeline protests

“Black Snake: Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Environmental Justice” goes to the heart of the fight for Indigenous rights. 

The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux was one of the most important news stories of 2016 – and rightly so, as it touched on issues related to climate change, fossil fuel dependence, Indigenous rights, and environmental justice. The protest spanned nearly a year, straddled two presidential administrations, and drew thousands to the protest camp site in North Dakota. It caught the world’s attention and starkly illuminated the nation’s long, shameful history of mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples. 

In “Black Snake: Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Environmental Justice,” human rights lawyer Katherine Wiltenburg Todrys takes a deep dive into the protest against the oil pipeline, whose proposed route threatened the Standing Rock Sioux’s water source and sacred sites. Although Todrys makes extensive use of sources and documents from both sides of the dispute, there is no doubt that her sympathies lie with the protestors. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was a mammoth, $3.8 billion project that would carry up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil from the shale oil fields of the Bakken formation in northwest North Dakota to an oil terminal in south-central Illinois. Dakota Access and its parent company Energy Transfer Partners argued that a pipeline would be safer and more efficient than transporting oil by rail. (Train cars full of oil are known to derail and even explode, but pipelines are also problematic; they’re notorious for producing spills large and small, leaving behind poisoned land and water.)

Even with the environmental risks inherent in a pipeline, Dakota Access had little difficulty in securing voluntary easements from property owners along its proposed 1,170-mile route. Little difficulty, that is, until the company had to deal with the Standing Rock Sioux. Despite widespread poverty on the reservation and an unemployment rate of 70 percent, as the author puts it, “the Standing Rock Sioux would not be bought off.”

In April 2016, a small group of “water protectors,” many of them teenagers, gathered on land owned by a tribe member and established the Sacred Stone Camp to protest the DAPL, which they called the “black snake,” referring to an ancient Lakota prophecy about a snake that would one day devour the earth. The camp quickly drew Indigenous people from across the country, as well as non-native supporters. Their efforts gained attention through social media campaigns as well as acts of civil disobedience, in which protestors locked themselves to heavy machinery on the construction site and were subsequently arrested. 

In time, the camp swelled to an eclectic mix of some 10,000 protestors, including representatives of 300 federally recognized tribes, possibly the largest alliance of native tribes in U.S. history. Politicians and celebrities joined in, and the effort caught the attention of the international press and organizations like Amnesty International. The eyes of the world were focused on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

In the meantime, work on the pipeline continued. In the fall of 2016, peaceful protestors were met with violent opposition from local law enforcement, which used rubber bullets, water cannons, and attack dogs against them. Videos showing dogs with bloody mouths, similar to images of violent crackdowns during the civil rights movement, went viral and were replayed by major news networks. “The whole world also saw what had happened to the water protectors,” Todrys writes.

The protestors scored a stunning (though temporary) victory in December 2016 when, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant an easement for DAPL to cross the Missouri River upstream from Standing Rock Reservation. All that was undone a few months later as President Donald Trump entered office. Construction resumed, the main protest camp was shut down, and oil began to flow in June 2017 – though a court-ordered environmental impact review was ordered and is still in process. 

Todrys, a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, clearly knows how to gather great quantities of information from a wide variety of sources. She also knows how to tell a good story. She does so in part by unfolding the events at Standing Rock from the perspectives of four Indigenous women who were key players in the drama, weaving their individual stories into the larger narrative and giving the events human footholds. The historical context and ground-level reportage on conditions on both the reservations and the oil fields add greatly to the power of the book. 

Todrys also does an excellent job of guiding the reader through the thicket of lawsuits, countersuits, court orders, injunctions, amicus briefs, motions for summary judgments, and other legal procedures, as well as two treaties from the mid-19th century that are important to understanding the events of the 21st century. 

In “Black Snake,” Todrys blends wide-ranging research with solid on-the-ground reporting to tell a compelling and important story – one whose full impact is yet to be felt.

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