Advocacy Matters: The Environment and Indigenous Women

February 28, 2015
By: 
Cohen Adkins and Melissa Chapman Skinner

With the increased pressure to alleviate America’s dependency on foreign oil, the advent of new, more environmentally dangerous methods of oil and natural gas extraction have begun to take center stage on the American frontier. In the West, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations have become the center for a new “gold rush” of this century, and camps of men hired to mine this liquid gold have popped up across North Dakota. These oil camps are large, described by some as “pop-up cities.” The inhabitants of the camps are transient, moving from oil operation to oil operation, making lots of money and enjoying themselves wherever they go. Unfortunately, the chosen recreational activities of some of the laborers reveal the real dangers of these “man camps.”

Since the advent of oil operations and the man camps that accompany them, medical workers and law enforcement have reported staggering statistics on the rising rates of HIV infection, prostitution and sexual assaults. Indian towns in close vicinity to these man camps have experienced major strains on their law enforcement infrastructures, as the number of citizens per police officer are multiplied exponentially when a man camp is set up in the local area. Due to prostitution and other criminal activities such as drug trafficking, many locals living close to these man camps no longer feel safe going out after dark. Winona La Duke’s Honor the Earth website contains a fact sheet on the dangers of these man camps and statistics to support the assertion: “North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report shows that violent crime has increased 7.2 percent, while 243 reported rapes occurred in 2012 – an increase from 207 in 2011.” Another statistic from Honor the Earth indicates the danger facing local communities from these man camps and more specifically the dangers to native women: “The Fort Berthold Reservation, home to the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations, is located in western North Dakota, and in recent years has experienced an exponentially increasing level of violence against native women.”

In January 2014 United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya made special mention of the dangers indigenous women face from these man camps: “…indigenous women have reported that the influx of workers into indigenous communities as a result of extractive projects also led to increased incidents of sexual harassment and violence, including rape and assault.” Coupled with the already staggering statistic that Native American women are 2½ times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes than another race or minority, the development of these man camps on the fringes of Native American reservations and territories only serves to further endanger an already vulnerable population. While certain Indian towns are more at risk of such victimization than other communities that are removed from the “oil boom” areas, the overall danger to both the native women and the tribal police’s infrastructure is frightening. The overall threat to indigenous women in the United States and Canada has prompted several movements across the Western Hemisphere. These movements, both grassroots and political, seek to raise awareness of the dangers indigenous women face daily and to promote law enforcement and government agencies to actively participate in investigating the more than a thousand missing native women. In Canada, the latest reports from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cite more than 1,200 indigenous women have been murdered or are listed as missing. With statistics such as these, the development of more man camps in North America will only increase the danger to native peoples, in particular indigenous women.

If you want to know what it is like in oil country, in and around the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, it is best to read Grace Her Many Horses article, “Firsthand Account of Man Camp in North Dakota from Local Tribal Cop.” The former Rosebud Sioux Tribe police chief shares her experiences from working in oil country and what others have told her about sexual assaults on men and women as well as children. She writes about sex trafficking and prostitution rings, citing how a van full of females was pulled over and they bluntly stated, “You know why we’re going up there,” as if to attend a delightful social event. She also mentions the rise in rates of crime, gambling and illegal drug use.

One could also talk with anyone who currently lives near or has visited the area in the last year. Speak with a tribal member and let them share with you how their land has changed. Once referred to by many as “God’s Country,” for its beautiful rolling green hills and beautiful landscape, with people walking freely down the block to grab a soda or meet up with friends for a bite to eat, now much has changed.  Residents were once able to walk around without worrying about whether or not an oil field worker was watching them from a distance. In the past, residents did not worry about locking their door if they left home briefly. Now, one will see broken roads, possibly dirt, where smoothly paved roads once lay. The oil derricks know no boundaries, with some so close to the well-traveled roads that you can almost reach out and touch their structure as you drive by.

Most people are advised to be careful. Women have been advised to not go out alone after a certain hour. Parents are advised to watch their children, to not allow children to run freely for fear of their being snatched up and thrown into a prostitution ring or trafficked elsewhere. Grace Her Many Horses explains how having her own daughters there with her had aged her so much and how often she had worried for their safety. It is not a place for children or women.

Between first-hand accounts and news reports, it is impossible to ignore the dangers facing the environment and the indigenous communities at the frontlines of these fracking operations. They are a strong community, holding on to their traditions and language and teaching the youth, so they do not lose their sense of self. Celebrations, honorings, powwows and feasts- all are held to strengthen the sense of community, to emphasize that nothing can knock the people down.  There are no easy answers to the questions that haunt our society, questions on environmental sustainability and foreign oil dependence. Beyond the easy solutions with their accompanying destruction, the dangers indigenous communities and people face is just as haunting and destructive. Before our knee-jerk decisions leave permanent effects, let us consider the impact on indigenous peoples and future generations.

Perspectives shared on this blog are from the personal experience of Indigenous Peoples in an effort to raise awareness.