Relationships are key to Indigenous Justice in South Dakota

Before making decisions, our elected officials need to communicate early and often with those who will be affected most.

For more than 12 years, Indigenous activists and water protectors have been leading the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Now that President Biden has cancelled the pipeline’s permits, the project is essentially dead. But the lack of communication between our elected officials and our Indigenous communities on KXL is a continuing problem. Before making decisions, our elected officials need to communicate early and often with those who will be affected most.

Indigenous people have long been at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice and protection. Tribal nations and communities in South Dakota are battling every day for the protection of their homelands and survival of ecosystems and ways of life. 

So it’s no surprise that Indigenous activists, organizers, and water protectors have also been at the forefront in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. First proposed in 2008, the 1,200-mile Keystone XL Pipeline would carry as much as 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands through South Dakota en route to Gulf Coast refineries. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or a spill from the project would cause irreparable and devastating impact to local communities and ecosystems – and the water protectors weren’t afraid to speak out.

The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment. That’s why the ACLU of South Dakota supported water protectors, organizers, and activists and their right to protest. It’s why we challenged South Dakota’s “riot boosting act” in court in 2019 and opposed similar legislation passed into law in 2020 – both unnecessary efforts to legislative peaceful protest sparked by a desire to suppress protests around the Keystone XL pipeline. 

It’s clear that the state of South Dakota didn’t want anything to disrupt the construction of the pipeline. Fortunately, President Biden rescinded the permits or the Keystone XL pipeline through an executive order on his first day of office, essentially killing the pipeline.

But the damage is already done – particularly when it comes to the already strained relationships between the state and the tribes.

Our elected officials are all in office for one reason: to represent us, and that starts with a simple conversation about the issues. Without meaningful discussion with our state’s Indigenous leaders and activists who opposed the pipeline, this is just another example of the continuing clash between our tribal communities and South Dakota’s elected officials. In fact, it’s an apt illustration of the longstanding fight for Indigenous justice in South Dakota and throughout the country.

The ACLU of South Dakota’s Indigenous justice priorities are informed by conversations with Indigenous leaders and community members across the state, with equity in all aspects of life as our top priority. Our state’s elected officials should be willing to do the same – on issues such as pipelines and protests and everything in between.