Intervention – “Water is Life and Life is Sovereignty: Context and Considerations for Critical Geographers”

Water is Life and Life is Sovereignty: Context and Considerations for Critical Geographers

Andrew Curley
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
[email protected]

On 4 December 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) the necessary permit to drill beneath the Missouri River and bring more oil to the international market. This is a great victory for indigenous people and should be treated as such. A small tribal government, saying mni waconi or “water is life”, took on the most powerful industry in the world in the interest of our collective sustainability and they won. It’s clearly not a total victory. But it is a sizeable achievement. The tribe had to challenge: state and local authority; thuggish police; regulators in league with oil interests; the harassment of the US Republican Party; and the indifference of the US Democratic Party. In terms of political infrastructure, the odds were stacked against the tribe.

It is a critical lesson and important source of confidence moving forward. Part of this lesson is firmly rooted in notions of tribal sovereignty; not simply as formal political power, but as an articulation of collective rights. It is the history and power of tribal sovereignty that critical geographers need to understand in order to grasp what is happening at Standing Rock.

The Context

We live in a world built on injustice, dispossession, racism, and many forms of inequality between us. There is no easy or straightforward path out of it. But for indigenous peoples in the United States, tribal sovereignty speaks to the right to self-determination (Barker 2005; Deloria Jr 1979). It is our right to control our lands and preserve our resources for future generations. This right to life and self-determination is the deeper meaning of mni waconi, “water is life”, what thousands of Native and non-Native organizers and activists are chanting in solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux community members.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,173-mile pipeline that will take crude oil from the Bakken Oil Field in the Great Plains to a refinery in Illinois and then to the international market. Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas company that owns the pipeline, is proposing to channel oil beneath the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States, despite a risk of contaminating it in the process. Originally slated to cross the Missouri River north of Bismark, North Dakota (a predominantly white town), the pipeline was rerouted to within a mile of the Standing Rock Reservation, putting at risk the only water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and any other community downstream at this point.

Since 1868 the US government has wrongfully and illegally appropriated lands belonging to the Great Sioux Nation, including where DAPL is currently being constructed, lands that are now considered disputed “private property” and Army Corps’ “easement” where conflict between unarmed “water protectors” and militarized security forces are taking place (for detailed history see Estes 2016). But these were always Sioux lands. And the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a sovereign member of the larger Sioux nation, opposed DAPL as soon as it learned of it. The tribe considers DAPL an encroachment on its 1868 treaty rights that destroys known burial sites. As DAPL inched forward, first the tribe took legal action, then it took direct action.[1]

It is important to recognize that the Sioux never gave up their fight for stolen land. In 1974 members from 97 different tribal nations met at Standing Rock to form the International Indian Treaty Conference (later Council) to remind the US that tribes are independent nations and that it is required to restore stolen lands according to international law (Dunbar-Ortiz 2013). Today they use Gandhian nonviolence learned through independence movements and civil rights struggles over the last century. Like the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the major media paid attention when police repression reached dangerous levels. As Dene scholar Glen Coulthard said in 2012 during Idle No More, “If history has shown us anything, it is this: if you want those in power to respond swiftly to Indigenous peoples’ political efforts, start by placing Native bodies (with a few logs and tires thrown in for good measure) between settlers and their money, which in colonial contexts is generated by the ongoing theft and exploitation of our land and resource base.” This is what community members at Standing Rock did and the response from those in power was tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, and water cannons.

Considerations for Geographers

A major factor of this political inequality is what Jeff Corntassel and Richard Witmer (2008) call “forced federalism”, or the fact that tribes are forcefully incorporated into US federalism with no representation and despite their will. North Dakota’s Congressional representation is publicly and strongly in support of DAPL and other energy projects, including the stalled Keystone XL pipeline. This is in direct conflict with indigenous nations throughout the country who support Standing Rock’s opposition to DAPL. Congress has the power to stop construction, declare tribal water rights (or take them away), and even “terminate” tribes.

US power over tribes is rooted in conquest, what historian Patrick Wolfe (2006) called a “structure” of colonialism that views tribal peoples as inferior to non-Native (largely White) communities and “domestic-dependent” nations (see also Dunbar-Ortiz 2014). Standing Rock and other tribes are largely powerless under federal Indian law that today serves non-Native corporate interests. In the US, indigenous people live under the dictatorship of the federal and state governments. This has led many indigenous actors to “refuse” US systems of politics (Simpson 2014), including participation in federally-recognized tribal governments. It is also important for geographers to know that colonization of indigenous peoples was accomplished through crude forms of racialization that persist today, in which “members” of tribes were ascribed blood-quantum trough lineal descent (Byrd 2011). The structure of federal-Indian relations produces “difference” between Native and non-Native and devalues Native lives within racial capitalism (Pulido 2016). We see this today with Energy Transfer Partners’ decision to route DAPL just north of a Native water supply and not the state’s capital city. Today, control over our land is critical for the future of our tribal nations – what we call sovereignty. For critical geographers it is useful for us to identify and expose the unequal social and political arrangements of power over lands and resources that limits our sovereignty and contributes to ongoing environmental racism.

Fundamentally, colonization is about the dispossession of indigenous lands and resources through makeshift and sophisticated mechanisms, from blunt racialization to the more elusive practices of transnational corporations. The nexus of actors – police, state officials, Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers – who are operating at Standing Rock comprise modern forms of colonialism and the reproduction of racial capitalism. What does this mean for radical critical geography? It means understanding and challenging the legal and political rational that disempowers tribes and contributes to conditions of environmental racism we see at Standing Rock today. As Nick Estes (2016) argues, “Treaty rights, and by default Native sovereignty, protect everyone’s rights. In this case, they protect a vital fresh water source for millions – the Missouri River”.

Today Standing Rock is articulating a new kind of sovereignty that works in partnership with large environmental organizations and thousands of Native and non-Native organizers and activists who are there to stop DAPL, protect water, and help restore the traditional land base of the Great Sioux Nation. They are gaining new grounds with the use of direct action and protest where legal strategies have failed. I would suggest that this is a new tactic for tribes. It is arguably the most direct and clear articulation of indigenous territorial rights in the US since the American Indian Movement’s standoff with tribal and federal officials at Wounded Knee in 1973. Although the outcome of this new arrangement remains uncertain and is problematic in new ways, it also demonstrates for critical geographers the importance in understanding how indigenous peoples think of territory and space.

To redress environmental racism and racial capitalism, it is important to ground our analyses in the core concerns of indigenous peoples (Coombes et al. 2011). This requires scholarly engagement and commitment beyond a focus on the violence immediately visible at Standing Rock (as important as this is). As geographers we can help by looking into the central issues of indigenous geographies that includes an appreciation for the structure of colonialism and the complex and heterogeneous expressions of indigenousness that are produced in response to capitalist expansion and energy development in Indian Country, what Osage anthropologist Jean Dennison (2012) describes as “entanglement” or what Seminole anthropologist Jessica Cattelino (2010) calls the “double bind”. In this moment of combating climate change, protecting water, and challenging a militarized police force, we shouldn’t miss that our motivations are firmly rooted in notions of sovereignty and self-determination. For Standing Rock this means a focus on treaty rights and supporting legal and political efforts to restore lands to the Great Sioux Nation. Mni waconi. Water is life. And life for indigenous peoples is about our right to control our lands and preserve our resources for future generations.


[1] Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault told reporters “…already, the Dakota Access Pipeline has led to the desecration of our sacred sites when the company bulldozed over the burials of our Lakota and Dakota ancestors”, following the US Court of Appeal’s ruling against Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who filed an injunction on further construction.


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Pulido L (2016) Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography doi: 10.1177/0309132516646495

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Additional Links

Keene A (2016) Buzzfeed’s Another Round and #NoDAPL. Native Appropriations 22 November (last accessed 13 December 2016)

NoiseCat J B (2016) The Indigenous Revolution. Jacobin 24 November (last accessed 13 December 2016)

NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective (2016) #StandingRockSyllabus. NYC Stands with Standing Rock 5 September (last accessed 13 December 2016)