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Museum Officials and Archaeologists Sign Petition Against N. Dakota Pipeline

September 22, 2016

Grantee News From the Natural History Museum:


Traditional Aztec dancers, at a rally last week in San Diego in support of the protesters in North Dakota who are fighting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. CreditSandy Huffaker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

Over a thousand archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, museum officials and academics have added their names and voices to the protest against an oil pipeline being built in North Dakota.

In a letter released on Wednesday, 1,281 people have signed on to an appeal to President Obama, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, asking for further study of land involved in the pipeline project, around the Missouri River near the border of South Dakota.

Development of the area has been contested by Native American tribes like the Standing Rock Sioux, who contend that the land and water crossings are sacred space, used for burials and containing historically and culturally vital information about their origins.

“It’s smack-dab practically in the center of our ancestral homelands,” Kelly Morgan, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux and its tribal archaeologist, said. Construction of the pipeline on private land has already wiped out some stones and markers that the Standing Rock Sioux considered valuable, they say, a development that helped spur the letter campaign.

The letter states, “We join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in denouncing the recent destruction of ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people.”

David Hurst Thomas, the curator of North American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History, who signed the letter, said that in considering development projects, archaeologists and anthropologists (he is both) weigh whether a landscape’s features are distinctive, or could add to an understanding of the country’s heritage.

“In this case, it’s pretty clear that the Standing Rock area is important to our national history for a lot of reasons,” he said. He joined other prominent signers of the letter, including Richard W. Lariviere, president and chief executive of the Field Museum in Chicago, and Brenda Toineeta Pipestem, chairwoman of the board of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Dakota Access pipeline, as it’s called, built by the Dallas-based company Energy Transfer Partners, has also drawn scrutiny from the Society for American Archaeology and other professional organizations. In a letter sent to the Corps of Engineers last week, the president of the society, Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, wrote that the group, which has more than 7,800 members, had “unresolved questions” over whether the Corps had properly handled its duties under the National Historic Preservation Act. Development on the land may have also violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, she wrote, along with other laws.

A spokesman for the Corps said that his office had received the Society’s letter and “are reviewing the comments and concerns raised in it.” In a surprise move on Sept. 9, the federal government asked for a temporary halt to construction of a portion of the pipeline, acknowledging the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes and pledging to consult with them on land use. Still, in a statement released on Sept. 13, Energy Transfer Partners vowed to complete the $3.7 billion project, which runs 1,170 miles, from the Dakotas to Illinois, where it will connect with other oil pipelines. It is already nearly 60 percent finished, the company said.

Opposition from academics, curators and scientists to the way the pipeline project has unfolded has been unusually vast and swift, Dr. Thomas said. “I can’t recall anything like it,” he said.

The new letter campaign against the pipeline was originated by the Natural History Museum, a New York-based mobile organization which has in the past released similar letters advocating for science and natural history museums to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and the philanthropists who support them, an effort that many institutions undertook.

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