Justice  /  Explainer

The Big, Nearly 200-Year-Old Legal Issue at The Heart of the Dakota Access Pipeline Fight

Tribal sovereignty is a concept that even some of the protesters may not be familiar with. But it's important.

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The protests are rooted in a concept that was cemented in US legal doctrine by a trio of Supreme Court cases from the 1820s and ’30s: tribal sovereignty. This is a legal idea that Native American tribes aren’t formally part of the states they reside in, but rather semi-autonomous nations with rights to self-governance that stop states and, in some cases, even the federal government from interfering with tribal issues.

This is at the heart of the debate over the Standing Rock protests. While many people have rallied around the local Standing Rock Sioux for many different reasons (such as worries about what the pipeline could do to the environment and a general opposition to corporate greed), tribal sovereignty has been the primary focus of Native Americans from the area. Essentially, they argue that their sovereign rights have been violated by a federal government that allowed private companies to build a potentially dangerous pipeline through waterways that are crucial to their lives.

That battle rages on. And in a significant setback for opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline last week, a judge refused to stop the construction of the pipeline after the Sioux sued, arguing that the pipeline would hinder their religious practices — and oil could begin flowing through the pipeline as early as this week. That, legal experts say, would be yet another example of the federal government violating their rights.