When I decided to become a cartographer, I didn’t just want to make pretty and useful maps. I became a cartographer to make maps that change the world for the better. Right now, no situation needs this kind of map more than the current drama unfolding around the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline’s crossing of the Missouri River.

Thousands of Native Americans and their allies have gathered on former Sioux land delimited by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie to try and stand in the way of the “black snake” that could poison the Standing Rock Reservation’s water supply. Many have noted that the pipeline corridor was repositioned from its original route north of Bismarck after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected it citing its threat to drinking water in that mostly-white municipality. Yet the Corps failed its federal mandate for meaningful consultation with the Standing Rock Tribe before signing off on a route that moved the pipeline to their doorstep.

This is not to say that the good citizens of Bismarck and Mandan should be subjected to the risk of an oil spill. What’s wrong with the picture above isn’t the routing of the pipeline. What’s wrong is that the pipeline project exists to begin with. Some say it’s a good alternative to dangerous oil-by-rail shipments of Bakken crude. Those are bad too. We don’t need more fossil fuels making it to market to be burned and burn the planet up in turn (I am typing this in Wisconsin as the temperature nears 70 on the first of November). We do all need clean water. As the Sioux say, mni wiconi–water is life.

To keep to its construction schedule, the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, has met nonviolent water protectors with private security guards using attack dogs in a scene reminiscent of 1963 Birmingham. It has worked hand-in-glove with law enforcement and the National Guard to create a militarized response straight out of apartheid South Africa or occupied Ireland. It has locked up hundreds of protesters in wire cages like those used early on at Guantanamo Bay. Those on the ground fear something like another Kent State, yet they keep coming, and the worldwide solidarity has gone viral.

Water protectors approach a line of riot police and armored vehicles on October 15. Photo by the author.

Yet for all that, when I went out to camp with the water protectors at Oceti Sakowin on October 13, I had to rely on a friend’s hand-drawn sketch posted to Facebook for directions to the camp. If you Google “NoDAPL map,” you’ll find few maps available to provide visual context for the unfolding drama. The most popular seems to be the company’s own very-small-scale route map, showing a dotted line over highlighted counties on a generic road map backdrop.

Dakota Access Pipeline Route Map by Energy Transfer Partners

This kind of view erases the people affected by the pipeline–quite literally, by covering over their communities with a hot pink gradient fill. It doesn’t tell you that all of Turtle Island (North America) is Indian Country, or that the project runs headlong into international treaties signed between the U.S. and various tribes and then unilaterally violated by Congress. It doesn’t show you where the frontline communities have set up camp to fight back (and here I realize that I should also make a map of the Bold Iowa resistance camp), or where the pipeline company, spurred on by the internal pressure of their $3.8 billion investment, has bulldozed sacred ground, or where exactly a pipeline break would endanger the drinking water of millions downstream.

There was one other, better map of the project that I found and was partially inspired by–a relatively simple yet powerful map by Jordan Engle published by The Decolonial Atlas. It uses the indigenous placenames for key waterways and sites in the vicinity of the Sacred Stones Camp (translations are on the blog post linked to above). It is oriented to the south, challenging the typical viewpoint of Western maps. This map has truly not gotten the attention it deserves.

Dakota Access Pipeline Indigenous Protest Map by Jordan Engle and Dakota Wind, The Decolonial Atlas.

Maps like this are great, and there should be more of them. However, I felt strongly that there still needed to be a map of the area that would look familiar to most viewers and orient them to the important geographic facts of the struggle. I don’t claim that none of those facts are currently in dispute, but I recognize that all maps (even road maps overlaid with pink polygons) take a position and create knowledge based on the cartographer’s point of view. Maps have great power, and it’s a power anyone with pen and paper or a computer can wield.

My Wisconsin-bred geographer hero Zoltan Grossman once declared, “The side with the best maps wins.” The pipeline company has an army backed by state power to do its bidding. The water has its scrappy protectors. It’s time we put the latter on the map.

To download a large-scale printable version of the map, click here.

This post and the map have been corrected to indicate that the 1851 Treaty territory is former Sioux territory, not unceded land as originally stated. In fact, this land was ceded by the Sioux to the U.S. under the terms of Article 2 of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. While the latter treaty was signed by a plurality of Sioux chiefs, some chiefs did not sign because they refused to agree to any land cessions, and at least one of those who did sign (Red Cloud) later claimed he was misled regarding these treaty terms and believed he was merely signing a treaty of peace. See Edward Lazarus’s excellent book Black Hills, White Justice for more of this history.

The post has also been updated to remove reference to citizen protests against the original route in Bismarck, which I have not found a first-hand record of.

194 thoughts on “A #NoDAPL Map

  1. Carl – Thank you for your research and insightful commentary. You have obviously done your homework. Bravo.

    Question: Are the Unceded 1851 Treaty lands on your map included in the later 1868 Treaty agreement?

    The verbiage I keep seeing describes 1868 as an *expansion* of the 1851 boundary. Red Cloud’s War for the 2 years prior forced the US to renegotiate. They agreed to add the Black Hills plus hunting lands in other areas. So 1851 + Black Hills = 1868.

    However, that language conflicts with a visual reference. The Wikipedia map of the 1868 Treaty shows that the 1851 land is not included in the later treaty agreement. Further, when Sitting Bull dissented and refused to sign, he said, “I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of part of my country.” That would indicate a reduction in his area to the north, although he was likely speaking in a broader sense. The only way to clarify that northern boundary is to actually read the 1868 Treaty. So I did, and quickly realized I would need your skillset to make sense of it.

    Can you help us understand?

    If that answer is yes, they are part of 1868, that’s great because the 1980 Supreme Court admitted that the 1868 boundaries should still be in place. (As we know, they refused to give them the land, and the Sioux refused the payment. $120M which is now over $1 Billion with interest, still sitting there unclaimed! Powerful statement that this land is important to them.) They sued over the 1868 boundaries. If the answer is no, wouldn’t the signing of the 1868 Treaty preclude any claim to ownership of these lands by their own hand? Essentially, they would have themselves signed away their rights. (Which is its own debate, as they could not read the agreement, had sketchy translators, and the document is signed with an X.) In short, they seem to have a more arguable legal claim to the 1868 Treaty boundaries.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the insight and the great Sitting Bull quote. Please see my response to Brandon and the correction at the bottom of the post. Based on my reading of the Indian Claims Commission cases surrounding the 1851 and 1868 treaties, I now do not believe I should have labeled this “unceded” territory, and that it should be considered ceded under Article 2 of the 1868 treaty. I agree with your interpretation that there would be more of a legal claim to jurisdiction over these lands if this were not the case, but I can’t in good conscience claim that my initial interpretation was correct. The ICC case that decided on the boundaries of “unceded” lands reserved for hunting by the western bands of Sioux explicitly interpreted this territory as extending no farther east than the 104th meridian, just east of the Wyoming border. Thus, the area in question is best described as historic Sioux territory, ceded under duress and without the agreement of all the Sioux bands.

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