A U.S. federal court refused a request by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to halt construction of an oil pipeline, but the federal government stepped into the dispute Friday, appealing for calm and ordering the pipeline construction company to suspend its work on federal land.
The Dakota Access oil pipeline, already under construction, is a $3.7 billion project crossing four U.S. states, intended to transport crude oil from North Dakota to the states of Iowa and Illinois in the central U.S.
Supporters of the project say it will help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, while critics — including many American Indian tribes — say the construction runs roughshod over territory held sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux. Protests have swelled, with nearly 200 Native American groups now supporting the Standing Rock Sioux and other opponents of the project.
The Standing Rock Sioux said the Obama administration's "stunning" intervention in the pipeline dispute raised hopes for nationwide reform on projects affecting tribal lands.
"Our hearts are full. This is an historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and for tribes across the nation," tribal chairman Dave Archambault said. "Our voices have been heard."
In Bismarck, North Dakota's capital, hundreds of protesters celebrated. "We won! We won!" shouted Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe of South Dakota.
In addition to tribal groups, environmentalists, politicians and celebrities have joined the protest movement.
Apart from concerns about construction disrupting sacred tribal sites, conservation groups have said they fear oil leaks could contaminate farmland and water resources near the pipeline.
Need for ‘serious discussion’
Washington's intervention in the case came late Friday, in a joint statement that three federal departments issued shortly after a district court rejected the local Sioux tribe's request for an injunction.
"This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects," said the statement from the U.S. Departments of the Interior, of Justice, and of the Army.
The private company building the pipeline must stop work on Army-owned land until federal officials can re-examine previous decisions about the project, the joint statement said.
"Construction ... of the pipeline will not go forward at this time" on U.S.-owned land, the federal statement said. The pipeline company, Dakota Access LLC, also was asked to halt construction in other areas adjacent to federal land.
The pipeline case is just the latest incident in which American Indian tribes say the U.S. government does not adequately consider their culture or territorial claims when making decisions. Tensions between settlers and native tribes have existed since settlers first came to the eastern shores of North America and established communities in areas occupied by indigenous people.
Many American Indian tribes were driven west and now live on reservations. Critics say education, access to medical care and access to economic opportunity on such reservations are substandard, and that the rights of indigenous people are still overlooked by the U.S. government today.