Three years ago, I sat in the Department of Interior and watched President Obama sign the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act 2013 (“VAWA”) into law. President Obama said,
Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear.
For the first time in my life, I listened as an American President recognized the inherent right of Tribal Nations to protect their women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault.
For me and many other Native women, it was one of the most meaningful moments of my life.
Three years later, it’s hard to watch this same President sit back as the Dakota Access pipeline threatens to drastically increase rates of violence against Native women in North Dakota.
On July 25, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers granted permits to a company called Energy Transfer Partners to construct the 1,100 mile “Dakota Access” pipeline (DAPL)—a pipeline the company hopes will transport over half a million barrels of Bakken crude oil a day across four states and the Missouri River, the source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and 17 million Americans downstream.
As soon as it is in operation, the Dakota Access pipeline promises to increase oil extraction in the Bakken by as much as 60%. There is no doubt that such an increase in oil extraction will increase violence in the Bakken, and in particular, violence against Native women and children.
Today, North Dakota produces more oil for export than any other State. The region is also home to some of the highest rates of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and domestic violence in the United States.
When President Obama signed VAWA 2013 into law, he stated that “Indian Country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in America.” Nowhere is this disparity more apparent than in North Dakota.
With the majority of oil extraction taking place on tribal lands, the recent spike in violence in the Bakken has fallen disproportionately on Native women and children.
Since 2009 alone, nearly 100,000 workers have entered the Bakken region to work the oil fields.
To house the sudden and drastic increase in population, corporations create temporary accommodations for those engaged in oil field work—“man camps”—where male workers often work 12-hour days, are socially isolated for weeks or months at a time, and live in trailers in parks that extend for miles.
Many men retain their humanity, but grassroots advocacy organizations in North Dakota, like the First Nations Women’s Alliance, have provided firsthand accounts of numerous “man camps” in the Bakken that have become centers for drugs, violence, and sex trafficking of women and girls.
As Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) has noted,
[sex trafficking is] an unfortunately growing problem in North Dakota, particularly in the oil patch and in Indian Country.
One month ago, my family and I traveled to Cannonball, North Dakota, to stand in solidarity with the water protectors.
We stood with Standing Rock because, as a Tribal Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has the inherent right to protect its water, its sacred sites, its burial grounds—and also its people.
The pipeline cannot commence operations until it obtains a final easement from the Army Corps of Engineers. On September 9, 2016, President Obama’s administration announced it would give the granting of this easement further consideration.
My prayer is that his consideration takes him back to his own statement on March 7, 2013: Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear.
Standing Rock has said no to the pipeline. As a Tribal Nation with the inherent right to protect its people, Standing Rock’s objection should be the foundation of President Obama’s considerations.
Lucy Rain Simpson, Navajo Nation, is the Executive Director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC). Ms. Simpson has almost 20 years experience as an Attorney for Indian country. She has substantial experience working with Indian nations to promote tribal sovereignty, tribal code development, and protecting Native women and their families. She is the mother of two children, and makes her home in Lame Deer, Montana on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
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