Before DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux faced the Army Corps of Engineers

While the world focused on the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe quietly passed a resolution to dismantle the encampments protesters have been occupying since last April.

Winter has been been brutal at Standing Rock. Snow has fallen frequently since a blizzard in early December and temperatures hover around freezing. Occupants of the protest camps, located in the north-east corner of the Standing Rock Reservation alongside the Missouri River, have dropped from thousands to around 600.

But as the Dakotas slowly warm, those remaining at the camps face a bigger problem than freezing temperatures – melting snow will cause the Missouri to swell and flood, destroying the protest sites in the process.

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There is a great irony in the fact that the body of water the Standing Rock movement is trying to protect, not the police or the corporations responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction, will wipe out the encampments those protectors have built to sustain their movement.

And at its heart is the reason the Missouri River floods the Reservation in the first place. Flooding is a natural process in the life-cycle of a river but the intensity and regularity of the seasonal floods at Standing Rock are deliberate and man-made.

In 1944, a federal law, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act, was passed to recognize the rights of states fed by the Missouri River and its tributaries to develop hydropower and control flooding in more densely populated regions.

Four years later, the Army Corps of Engineers began building the Oahe Dam 250 miles from Standing Rock. Intended for the development of hydropower in South Dakota, securing plains downstream from the dam for the release of water from the reservoir required the seizure of Indian lands at the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Indian Reservations.

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The Missouri River. Photo by James McClain.

“The Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other public works project in America,” writes Michael L. Lawson in his book Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the MIssouri River Sioux, 1944-1980.

The problem wasn’t just the seizure of a combined 200,000 plus acres of Indian land, a clear violation of tribal sovereignty, but, at least in the case of Standing Rock’s, the value of that land. Of the 56,000 acres of land seized, the reservation lost 90% of its timber resources. Annual flooding made its most fertile farmlands unusable and the towns the tribe had built along the river unlivable.

It is widely believed among legal experts in tribal affairs that construction of the Oahe Dam was a deliberate attempt to force the Standing Rock Sioux from their land by destroying the natural resources they required to survive.

The federal courts agreed. The Standing Rock Sioux sued the Army Corps for these violations. In 1992, the tribe won $90.5 million (placed into a trust fund run by the federal government) but the stolen land, which runs in a corridor on either side of the Missouri was never returned.

It is not a coincidence that this is the same land through which the Dakota Access Pipeline will run. Water is life for the Standing Rock Sioux but in the wrong hands, it’s also a weapon of their destruction.

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