Archaeology, Native American History

Protecting Native American Cultural Resources: Part II – DAPL and Standing Rock Sioux

Those keeping up with current events are likely to have heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the controversy surrounding the construction of the pipeline on Native American sacred lands. The Standing Rock Sioux have been engaged in lengthy court battles and protests trying to stop construction of the pipeline since April 2016.

Why does this matter? Well because DAPL will be passing through land that the Sioux people hold to be sacred, this includes burials. When the case got brought to the federal court, the Standing Rock Sioux claimed that the pipeline would destroy important sacred sites. They provided evidence that state authorities had missed several important archaeological sites, including a site with a large stone that depicts the constellation Iyokaptan Tanka (the Big Dipper). This site is believed to be an indication that an important and respected leader was buried nearby. According to Standing Rock Sioux member and Native archaeologist Tim Mentz, this is one of the most significant finds in many years. Mentz reviewed the survey work conducted for the DAPL project and found that it appeared they had not done an independent survey of the land, but rather relied on a survey from 1985 (Meyer 2016).

If you read Part I of this two part article you will have been introduced to some of the U.S.’s laws regarding archaeology and Native Americans. Here’s the rundown as it pertains to this case.

In 1868 the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Sioux Nation, this treaty granted land to the Sioux and established a reservation. However, eleven years later the U.S. government incited the Great Sioux War which they won and subsequently caused the “renegotiation” of the treaty. In the new treaty the Sioux ceded much of the land granted in the Laramie treaty, which included the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota (Wikipedia 2016). The Sioux have been in a battle with the U.S. government ever since in an attempt to reclaim their land.

According to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Federal agencies are required to consult with tribes when there is potential for religious and cultural significance to be attached to a historic property or archaeological site. Any time there is going to be work in an area where there is the potential to uncover archaeological resources a consultation with local Native American tribes is required (NPS 2016). I have worked with tribes on two projects involving the construction of a solar facility on their reservations. They are extremely helpful and insightful when it comes to identifying things that are important. As an archaeologist the more I know the easier it is for me to articulate the justification to protect a site.

In the case of DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux are claiming that they were not consulted and this is something I personally don’t doubt. The reason is, especially with large projects like this where corporations stand to lose a lot of money, corners get cut and survey work is often sloppy. If DAPL relied on a survey from 1985 rather than doing a new survey it is highly likely that things were missed and overlooked. Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology until recently (last 10 years) was considered a poor man’s archaeology. Since CRM is based on contract work for private companies it is beholden to strict deadlines. CRM firms are hired on the basis of how quickly and cheaply they can get something done. However, these companies are required to uphold the Antiquities Act of 1906, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Failure to do so can lead to the revocation of permits, fines, and being black listed in the archaeological community. It is up to archaeologists and CRM firms to hold fast to these principles, but like every career field there are some that pay little mind to ethics.

The Standing Rock Sioux are fighting to protect their cultural heritage and the environment. The DAPL pipeline will cross beneath the Missouri River which is the Standing Rock Sioux’s only source of water. This unfortunately won’t be the first time that Native American’s have been snubbed by the Federal government when it comes to energy that will have a negative impact on the environment and will potentially pose harm to people living in the surrounding area (often times the tribe itself). Although the above mentioned laws are designed to protect archaeological sites and Native American cultural resources, the U.S. government has a terrible habit of avoiding the rights of tribes. This sadly is part of the continued premise of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.

Tribes across the United States have seen the destruction of their cultural lands and resources in favor of the almighty dollar that follows energy companies (coal, gas, and oil specifically). Energy plants and mines are often placed near reservations where the resulting pollution is left to flood over the residents, poisoning them.

Up until a project I worked on a year and half ago, a coal plant was in full operation next to a reservation I did work on. It was shut down in favor of incoming solar energy facilities. I remember a day in the field where we had to call it an early day because the wind was blowing crud from the plant up into the air where we were working. The Native American residents of the reservation had to deal with this every day.

I’ve heard horror stories about bulldozers uncovering burials and trampling archaeological sites. It happens to both Native American sites and archaeological sites of the post-conquest era. Sadly if loopholes can be found, companies looking to save on having to hire archaeologists and avoid delays will take them. Fines and legal consequences don’t seem to be a big enough deterrent to companies. There have been cases where archaeologists are threatened by companies and crews, told if they find anything that their very lives could be in danger. I personally have not dealt with this, but many of my colleagues have. An archaeologist’s job is very much about protecting Native American cultural resources, and often times we end up not being liked because of it.

Prior to writing this article the DAPL project was halted by executive action by the Obama Administration, but has since been given the greenlight by the Trump Administration. Today NPR reports that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted an easement, cutting its environmental impact assessment and the public comment period short (Hersher 2017).



Hersher, Rebecca

2017       Army Approves Dakota Access Pipeline Route, Paving Way for the Project’s Completion.

Meyer, Robinson

2016       The Legal Case for Blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Atlantic.

National Park Service (NPS)

2016       The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). U.S. Department of the Interior.


2016       Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868).

2016       Great Sioux War of 1876.







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