Battling Colonization: Why the #NoDAPL is a Fight for Reproductive Justice

Emily R. Champlin,* 2016-17 Reproductive Justice Federal Fellow, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

design: N.Lampert/just photograph: Montgomery Brown

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest, #NoDAPL, by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota is the “largest Native American protest of our time.” Most of us have seen at least an article or two pass by our newsfeeds. Most of us know that the protest revolves around an oil pipeline that is being built. What many don’t know, however, is that this uprising against the DAPL is also a poignant example of the fight for reproductive justice.


How is environmental activism about reproductive justice? The reproductive justice framework posits that intersectionality is core to understanding oppression of all kinds. Reproductive oppression — the systematic regulation of bodies and people’s reproductive decision-making — is rooted in racism, sexism, and homophobia. Environmental justice is reproductive justice because the communities most affected by pollution are poor communities of color, who already struggle to create and sustain their families due to intersecting oppressions.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s stand against the DAPL is the perfect example of intersectionality, particularly of race and class. Originally, the plan for the pipeline affected white peoples’ land and water supply. When those people objected, the corporations and banks behind the pipeline switched the path to run through sacred Native burial sites and just upriver from the Standing Rock reservation. Any oil spill from the pipeline into the Missouri River would then immediately poison the entire reservation’s water supply.

When it comes to the DAPL, Kelly Hayes writes, “[i]t is crucial that people recognize that Standing Rock is part of an ongoing struggle against colonial violence” and that we must “begin by acknowledging that this pipeline was redirected from an area where it was most likely to impact white people.”

Nothing makes the racism inherent in this situation more evident than the fact that while the #WaterProtectors at the Standing Rock reservation have been met by an aggressive and militarized police force, the heavily armed, white occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were acquitted of all charges. Therefore, #NoDAPL is not just a fight against the pollution of water for generations to come, but also an example of resistance to the continued state violence and colonization of Native people in this country.

State Violence and Reproductive Oppression

The Standing Rock Sioux, and all Native people, are not fighting against anything new. The colonization that started 500 years ago continues in many ways. The DAPL is just one example. Another is the fact that Native people are more likely to be killed by police than any other group. Native men are also incarcerated at four times the rate of white men and Native women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. So it came as no surprise to Native people that the police at Standing Rock used pepper spray, rubber bullets, and attack dogs against them even though the water protectors were unarmed and exercising their right to free speech.

The most insidious tyranny against Native people is the long history of state reproductive oppression, ranging from forced sterilization to the separation of families. Native midwives have taken back the physical and spiritual space at the activist camps by creating a woman only space. This was on the heels of the first birth at the camp. The midwives said it was important to physically create this space because “Indian Health Services had a policy of forcibly sterilizing indigenous women. From 1973 to 1976, more than 3,000 women were forcibly sterilized . . . between the 1970s and 1980s, that decreased the birth rate for [the] Native population in the United States of America from 3.8 percent to 1.8 percent. So that is genocide.”

“Curanderismo, the Healing Art of Mexico” Art by Christi Belcourt

Reproductive oppression stemming from lack of resources and decision-making power continues today with forced induction of pregnant women on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Midwife Yuwita Win explained that “[r]ight now we have one doctor that comes from Pierre, and he schedules the women’s births based on his schedule and induces them. So, I would say like at least 90 percent of the women in Cheyenne River who have babies are scheduled on his schedule.”


After the arrests of over 120 water protectors in late October and the use of water cannons in freezing temperatures in late November, some good news broke, at last, a few days ago.  The Department of the Army announced it would not drill under the Missouri river and refused to grant a permit for the final portion of the pipeline. While this is a seeming victory, some argue that the water protectors should not abandon the camp because President-elect Trump, who owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners (the company building the DAPL), will likely overturn the Army’s decision. Yet others see this as an opportunity to return home to their families.

This temporary reprieve is a reason to celebrate grassroots activism, but it is not an end to the DAPL project or the greater colonization of Native people. Standing Rock camps will need our continued support with legal fees and supplies for the winter. Find out how you can help at their website.

Finally, the most important thing we as allies/co-conspirators can do is to center Native people when discussing DAPL. Carolina Reyes, one of the midwives at the Standing Rock camps, asks us to connect with the Native people in our own communities and ask them what colonization they are facing: “I want to make that connection for folks at home to look around you and to find the Native people around you and the battles that they’re fighting for. If you can’t come here, support them there.”

#MniWiconi #WaterisLife

*The author is a white woman writing from the perspective of an ally/co-conspirator in the fight for racial justice.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How. Featured image: “Standing Rock Solidarity,” photo by David Tong.