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Bearing Witness: North Dakota oil industry increases violence against Native women

Ed. note: This post is part of a series, “Bearing Witness,” highlighting indigenous women fighting for climate justice in the Americas. Read the rest of the series here.

Up until recently, North Dakota was an unlikely destination for most Americans. Located right along our northern border with Canada, it is one of the least populous states in the country, whose economy has depended mostly on agriculture. But since 2006, production from what’s known as the Bakken oil formation has sent the state into an enormous oil boom. Though it has meant a boost for the local economy, oil production has brought in environmental degradation and violence against local Native American women who have lived on the land for over a century.

The area near the drilling site is known as Fort Berthold and was granted to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (the Three Affiliated Tribes) in 1851. In 1947 the U.S. government built a huge dam and flooded most of the land belonging to the Three Affiliated Tribes, destroying their agricultural economy and forcing them to move. Today, the original 12 million acres they received have been reduced to 1 million acres, and the Three Affiliated Tribes are yet again being treated as collateral damage in the search for fuel and energy.

The oil in the Bakken is extracted through hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting massive amounts of water and chemicals into the ground in order to break shale rock and release the underlying natural gas. Fracking has been widely criticized for disastrously polluting the earth and water in the area, so much that North Dakota’s agricultural industry has suffered.

In addition to the environmental impacts, oil extraction projects can have devastating social consequences. The North Dakota oil boom has attracted thousands of workers ready to take advantage of some of the highest employment rates in the nation. In order to house this new and semi-transient workforce — workers often work 12 hours days for two week stretches — company housing units have sprung up. These are huge swaths of land covered with trailers, often without running water or electricity, and populated almost entirely by men. They’ve become known as “man camps.”

This enormous influx of non-Native men — who are often inexperienced workers putting in dangerously long hours at risky jobs — has lead to a horrifying increase in violence against Native women. Nationally, Native American women experience sexual violence at a rate that is 2.5 times that of any other women; eighty-six percent of the time, their assailants are non-native. But North Dakota now has the eighth highest incidence of rape in the country, and to read accounts from Fort Berthold residents, sexual violence is becoming increasingly normalized.

Native American women experience 2.5 times more sexual violence than any other women. Eighty-six percent of the time, their assailants are non-native."This is particularly problematic given that up until this year, Native Americans could not arrest or prosecute non-Natives who committed crimes on tribal land. Only a federally certified agent could arrest a non-Native person who committed a crime against a Native person, which too often meant that rapists and abusers simply went unpunished. In 2011, only 65 percent of rapes reported on reservations were prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

However, in April of this year the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act went  into effect, allowing tribal courts to investigate non-Native men who abuse Native women on reservations. This is a big step towards justice, but  rape and intimate partner violence continue to be underreported, a fact which is compounded on rural reservations with under-resourced tribal law enforcement.

With that in mind the Brave Heart Society, a Dakota women’s group lead by Faith Spotted Eagle, has thrown its efforts into fighting extractive projects and the violence that too often come with them. Lead by Dakota grandmothers, the organization invests in community healing and cultural preservation such as coming of age ceremonies for young girls. Most prominently, the Brave Heart Society was among the leaders of the fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline – which would have run right through the Dakota oil formation – that Obama rejected earlier this month. The construction of the pipeline — and the continued need for labor in the oil fields — not only would have lead to more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere but also would have added thousands more workers to the region, most likely bringing more violence against Native women.

So the Brave Heart Society participated in marches and wrote letters. In 2013, they organized the Protect the Sacred conference together with the Ihanktkownwan (Yankton Sioux) Treaty Council, in which Native American activists and allies from diverse communities voiced concerns about the rising rate of sex trafficking and violence against women tied to the oil industry.

The group calls on a narrative that many indigenous people have held for centuries: that it is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth. “To be indigenous is to be one with the land,” Spotted Eagle told me in an interview. “All of our belief systems are based on our relationship with our surroundings and our closest surrounding is, of course, Mother Earth. We call Mother Earth as a feminine entity for a reason, because she provides for everything, for all of our needs. And you don’t abuse and kill your mother.”

It’s no suprise that so many cultures speak of the earth as if it were female: women’s safety and survival has long been deeply tied to that of our planet. If you look back into the history of colonization in the Americas, you’ll see a clear pattern: in places where the earth was exploited and made to bend to the will of man, so too were women mistreated and hurt. At the conference, Lisa Brunner of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center described the link between the violence that extractive industries inflict on the land and on women: “They treat Mother Earth like they treat women… They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us.”

Knowing that, it’s clear who are our enemies and who are our allies in the fight to make this planet a safe place for women.

Header Image Credit: Faith Spotted Eagle

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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