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Opinion | Mary Kathryn Nagle and Gloria Steinem

Sexual assault on the pipeline

Native Americans march to a burial ground site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to the biggest protest by Native Americans in a century, plus support from environmental activists as well as social media, the federal government has temporarily halted construction of a crucial portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is not a victory or a defeat, but it does give everyone in America time to think.

This 1,134-mile pipeline would run under the Missouri River, posing a serious threat to drinking water, especially for the native nations whose sacred sites sit in the path of the proposed structure. Native leaders are warning all of us. They have traveled from hundreds of native nations to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. At first in obscurity, and often at risk of arrest or beatings, they have succeeded in putting the country on notice that the pipeline endangers sacred lands and the environment.

It also endangers women and girls. That’s because, in this country as around the world, extractive industries create so-called “man camps,” places where male workers often work 12-hour days, are socially isolated for weeks or months at a time, and live in trailers in parks that extend for miles. Many men retain their humanity, but as advocacy organizations like First Nations Women’s Alliance have noted, these man camps become centers for drugs, violence, and the sex trafficking of women and girls. They also become launching pads for serial sexual predators who endanger females for miles around.

In North Dakota, the man camps created during the Bakken oil boom drastically increased the levels of violent crime perpetrated against women and girls — and particularly native women and girls. Studies conducted during the peak of the oil boom — from 2010 to 2013 — showed that the number of reported domestic violence incidents and sexual assaults increased by hundreds, flooding and overwhelming service providers. Victim advocates from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation — a native nation that became ground zero for the increase in violent crimes that accompanied the boom — have reported a doubling, and in some instances a tripling, in the number of calls that victim-service providers receive for domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. As Bea Hanson, principal deputy director of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, stated in 2014: “Local and tribal victim-service providers have been overwhelmed with the increase in domestic violence and sexual assault victims coming forward and needing help.”


Already, and even without the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, North Dakota produces more oil than any other state in the nation. The majority of this oil comes from tribal lands. On the Fort Berthold reservation alone, there are 35 corporations extracting oil, and countless man camps. The Bakken oil boom has brought increased rates of rape, murder, and sex trafficking to a population that already suffers from the highest rates of violence in the United States. According the National Institute of Justice, four out of five Native Americans have suffered a violent crime in their lifetime. Man camps are also a major reason why four out of five perpetrators of violence against American Indians are non-Indians themselves, yet thanks to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling eliminating tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands, tribal police have no jurisdiction over non-tribal crime. Native people, especially females, are often unprotected.


Native Americans tell us that it takes four generations to heal one act of violence. As they have learned throughout American history, an attack on a native woman’s body is a violent attack on her nation’s sovereignty. As the Standing Rock Sioux tribe chairman Dave Archambault has said, they are protesting the pipeline not just to protect their lives but to protect the lives of generations to come. They are the canaries. We are all living in the mine.


Mary Kathryn Nagle is an attorney and playwright, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Gloria Steinem is a writer, feminist organizer, and author of the current “My Life on the Road.”