Urban Wire What community developers can learn from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests
Jasmine Simington
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The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) controversy, which has ebbed since December but not ended, sets economic interests against cultural interests with land at the center of the fight. Acknowledging land as a key form of economic and cultural capital can transform how we understand the DAPL debate and provide lessons for future development initiatives by nontribal entities in Indian Country.

DAPL was announced in 2014 and had been advertised as a win-win economic opportunity for the region. The company behind the pipeline claimed it would create between 8,000 and 12,000 construction jobs, generate $156 million in sales and income taxes, and $55 million in property taxes to North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. But members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe raised concerns that the pipeline would pass within half a mile of their reservation of 8,000 people and could threaten the land’s sanctity and the purity of drinking water and generate little economic opportunity to their tribe. Protests ensued, and in December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would explore alternate routes.

A conflict based in history

The DAPL controversy is part of a long narrative of land policies explicitly connected to tribal identity and socioeconomic opportunity.

The history of American social policy in Indian Country has long centered around land. In 1823, Johnson v. McIntosh prevented tribes from selling their land without the consent of the federal government. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the breakup of communal tribal lands on reservations into individual ownership parcels to be placed under federal trust, creating complex land and homeownership policies that continue today. Prior paternalistic policies (e.g., mandated assimilation into US culture through boarding schools or Christian mission schools on Indian lands) and other policies that reduced tribal authority were weakened when the US Supreme Court reaffirmed tribal sovereignty and legally recognized tribal self-rule (i.e., the right for tribes to exist as independent nations and govern their own affairs) in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Under the act, land, customs, and collective interests of American Indians are protected.

Understanding tribal lands as economic and cultural capital

Money, property, and other assets are economic capital, while knowledge, behaviors, and skills that illustrate a cultural affiliation are cultural capital. On tribal reservations, the two concepts converge; land is both property and an integral part of cultural identity.  

The implications of this intersection were made clear to us at Urban when we conducted a national assessment of housing conditions and needs of the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population living in Indian Country. The economic and cultural implications affected both how we did our research—qualitative and quantitative open-ended data collection required sensitivity to tribal sovereignty, including consultations with tribes and obtaining required approvals for our work—and what we found.

We learned that members of the AIAN community prioritize culture and history in building housing, especially as it relates to the land. Survey participants noted the directions doors should face and the sanctity of sacred burial ground as crucial development issues that should honor cultural practices. It was clear that even in developing much-needed housing on reservations, projects might not reap their full potential if done in a culturally incompetent manner.

This lesson is not limited to housing. Although DAPL could bring jobs and revenue to North Dakota, for residents of the Standing Rock reservation, the cultural and historical significance of the land and of Lake Oahe—where Standing Rock residents were displaced in the 1950s and 1960s because of government development—outweighed uncertain economic benefits.  

Imagining culturally affirming development policies

Some community-centered development approaches already integrate cultural affirmation, or a recognition and celebration of cultural heritage, through community benefit agreements (CBAs). These agreements require a signed contract between local real estate developers and community groups to provide specific amenities to the local residents as part of a development project.  

One challenge in implementing CBAs is addressing competing priorities within a community. Tribal governments provide a natural and centralized starting place to negotiate development projects, though they may not solve power imbalances within a community. CBAs could be created recognizing tribal sovereignty and could engage tribal governments to work in partnership with developers to advocate for their community’s cultural interests. This might require provision of cultural amenities in development projects or a demonstration of how a tangible product would promote particular cultural practices. CBAs on tribal lands could also incorporate oral agreements, rather than relying solely on signed documents, to honor tribal cultural practices of negotiation and help ease fears related to previously broken treaties.

The DAPL controversy illustrated a disconnect between proposed economic opportunity for a larger group of people and the cultural value of land for the tribal occupants. Cultural affirmation could add a level of accountability for potential economic development in historically disenfranchised communities that ensures the population directly experiences the benefits in a culturally relevant way. 

Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Infrastructure Civil rights laws and regulations Inequality and mobility Community and economic development Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development Native Populations Structural racism
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center