When Energy Transfer Partners announced plans to tunnel a pipeline under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe that would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a distribution center in Patoka, Illinois, they unwittingly ignited a movement. Environmental activists had opposed pipelines before, but this particular plan led to something much bigger and more historic. For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and their massive intertribal alliance, the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was a direct threat to not just their water supply, but to tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the very sacredness of Mother Earth herself.
Like the occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee in the early 1970s, Standing Rock will be remembered as one of the most significant events in modern American Indian history. But also like those earlier occupations, this great movement was preceded by a long line of events that crescendoed into that historic moment. Indeed, oil exploitation in Indian Country can be traced back to the 19th century, and like the struggle over the DAPL, it has involved corporate, government, and citizen actors, each operating in their own best interests—and quite often at odds with one another.
It is all too easy to vilify the oil industry, especially those faceless corporate executives sitting in offices high atop skyscrapers in Dallas or Houston who make decisions that impact us all. Moreover, we know for certain that fossil fuels like oil are directly responsible for climate change and the associated degradation of our planet. However, we all depend on oil. It heats our homes, gets us where we need to go, it’s in your computer, your clothing, your kids’ toys, and in countless other things that we never even think about. Oil and its derived petro chemicals are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine life without them. And yes, perhaps ironically, oil is literally even in the latest issue of Tribal College Journal.
In compiling this interdisciplinary guide, I sought to include a selection of resources that offer a variety of perspectives on oil and Indian Country. Most are readily accessible at libraries (or through interlibrary loan), or can be found online. Although Energy Transfer Partners has completed the DAPL, the company has also succeeded in raising our awareness, albeit unintentionally. Today, oil and Indian Country is a national story—and Standing Rock was just the first chapter.
Ambler, M. (1990). Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Tribal College Journal’s very own Marjane Ambler penned this indispensable tome on tribes and natural resources in the western United States. Before becoming TCJ’s longest serving editor, Ambler worked as an environmental journalist for publications such as High Country News. This book was the culmination of years of research and chronicles tribes’ march towards greater self-determination and control over their own resources, including oil.
Anderson, R. (Ed.). (1994). The Oil and Gas Opportunity on Indian Lands: Exploration Policies and Procedures. Washington, DC: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Division of Energy and Mineral Resources.
The U.S. Department of the Interior created this guidebook to provide information about tribes, their policies for oil and gas leasing, and the procedures for negotiating an agreement with them. Unbeknownst to some, the Bureau of Indian Affairs encourages and assists tribes to enter mineral lease agreements guided by an overarching philosophy of “maximum economic recovery and reasonable compensation for the development and disposition of their resources.” Bureau guidelines are derived from the Indian Mineral Development Act of 1982. Although all parties must agree and tribes do have the power to negotiate directly with energy companies, the BIA ultimately authorizes any and all leases while the Secretary of the Interior gives the final approval. This document also offers an overview of the hydrocarbon resources available on Indian lands, both unrecoverable and recoverable, as well as more specific overviews of eight energy tribes.
Bacher, J. (2000). Petrotyranny. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
Canadian environmental researcher John Bacher doesn’t have many nice things to report on the oil industry, as evidenced in the one-word title of his book. Environmental concerns aside, Bacher argues that oil creates inhumane dictatorships, civil strife, inequality, war, and that it guides power hungry empires in their policies of domination. Bacher maintains that there is a correlation between a country’s form of government and its dependency on oil, with the most liberal democracies seeking to reduce their oil usage and to expand their energy portfolios to renewables like wind and solar. On the other side of the spectrum are the “super oil dictatorships” like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have abysmal records on environmental protection and human rights. Far from dispassionate, Bacher asserts that we must transition to an oil-free world to prevent “a holocaust of species extinctions, military expenditures, and prolonged war.”
Chamberlain, K.P. (2000). Under Sacred Ground: A History of Navajo Oil, 1922-1982. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
This book began as Kathleen Chamberlain’s 1998 dissertation, “Diné Bikéyah Bika’h (Navajo Oil): An Ethnohistory.” She illuminates how the federal government worked on behalf of the oil industry to open Navajoland to exploration and development in the 1920s. Chamberlain shows how the BIA pressured Navajo leaders to form a new tribal council with the intention to facilitate and create oil leases. Besides forging this new form of governance, which in many ways was antithetical to traditional Diné decision making, oil brought other major cultural and social changes to the Navajos. But in her academic balancing act, Chamberlain points out that oil revenues also enabled the Navajo Nation to fund education, healthcare, and housing.
Fixico, D.L. (1998). The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: American Capitalism and Tribal Natural Resources. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Shawnee intellectual, historian, and prolific writer, Donald Fixico, penned this tour de force as a critique of capitalism and its far-reaching ill effects in Indian Country. The book is divided into two parts; he begins with a “theorized internal model of Indian society” and how capitalism is undermining tribalism, spirituality, and cultural tradition. Part two discusses the drive to exploit tribal natural resources and how Native nations have adapted by establishing organizations like the Council of Energy Resource Tribes to defend their lands and resources. Fixico pulls few punches in his condemnation of the capitalist menace in what is certainly one of his most ideological books.
McArthur, N., & Cariou, W. (2009). Land of Oil and Water: Aboriginal Voices on Life in the Oil Sands. Winnipeg, MB: Winnipeg Film Group.
Warren Cariou returned home to the Cree and Dene community of LaLoche to chronicle the exploitation of northern Alberta’s tar sands and its residual effects on the local Indigenous people. Cariou and his co-director Neil McArthur estimate that Canada’s tar sands account for 15% of the world’s oil reserves and supply the United States—one of the largest consumers—with a tenth of its petroleum. Through myriad interviews, the directors show that Native people in the region are by no means unified in their opposition to tar sands exploitation. Some maintain that it has brought tremendous economic opportunities, including a nearly 90% employment rate. But others point out the catastrophic effect on the natural environment, the social ills, and a dramatic rise in cancer-related deaths due to the contamination of local aquifers. If Standing Rock is chapter one in the recent history of oil and Indian Country, LaLoche’s struggle is the prologue.
McAuliffe Jr., D. (1994). Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation. Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books.
Haunted by the murder of his Osage grandmother, Washington Post journalist Dennis McAuliffe Jr. commenced a literary manhunt in search of her killer. A deeply personal memoir that reads like a detective novel, the author delved into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s records, interviewed family acquaintances, and uncovered local records in his search. While the history of the Osage and oil is merely the backdrop to McAuliffe’s story, his account is harrowing and gives a personal and human touch to oil and Indian Country. What’s more, is that the author’s dramatic, even shocking conclusion would make Hollywood envious.
Olien, R.M., & Olien, D.D. (2000). Oil and Ideology: The Cultural Creation of the American Petroleum Industry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Published the same year as Petrotyranny, but with a very different conclusion, this book investigates the development and evolution of mainstream America’s vilification of the oil industry. The authors conclude that our shared cultural image is deeply ideological and largely based on false perceptions rather than facts. Their study reaches back to the origins of the oil industry when tycoons like J.D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company, much to the chagrin of progressive reformers and muckrakers like Ida B. Tarbell who painted the industry as a sinister and secretive menace built upon greed and worker exploitation. While readers may take issue with the Oliens, their book is important in that it challenges us to think deeply about perception, rhetoric, and reality.
Sawyer, S. (2004). Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Like northern Alberta in Canada, Ecuador’s Amazon is also a major supplier of crude oil to the United States and home to Indigenous peoples who have been forever affected by its exploitation. But anthropologist Suzana Sawyer is much more interested in how Indigenous people reacted and organized a mass movement to challenge the oil companies and Ecuador’s then neoliberal government. Sawyer chronicles the growing sophistication of Indigenous politics, which is largely activist in nature and built on the premise of nonviolent direct confrontation. She further maintains that this Indigenous movement remains one of the strongest in Latin America and was largely responsible for the rise of Ecuador’s current, left-leaning government.
Smith, SL., & Frehner, B. (Eds.). (2010). Indians and Energy: Exploitation and Opportunity in the American Southwest. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
This collection of 10 essays from a cross-section of both Native and non-Native scholars explores the exploitation of mineral resources on Indian lands in the American Southwest. While it largely focuses on coal, oil, and uranium, it also delves into the renewables that Southwestern tribes are increasingly utilizing. One of the overarching themes in this anthology is that energy exploitation is not simply a unidirectional story of exploitive companies victimizing Native peoples. Indeed, the authors illuminate how tribes have learned the system, adapted, and used it to their own benefit.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.