Pipeline of Violence: The Oil Industry and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

As discussed in previous blogs within the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (“MMIW”) series, Native women face murder rates at more than ten times the national average, and 96% of these women experienced violence from a non-Native perpetrator.[1] Under current legal precedent, the federal government is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by non-Native defendants against Native victims.[2] Historically, these cases have failed to be investigated or prosecuted to a level that provides adequate safety for Indigenous people.[3] This is in part due to jurisdictional issues that create law enforcement loopholes which do not hold perpetrators accountable for crimes they commit against Indigenous women and children.[4] Pipelines and the oil industry have exacerbated violence against Native women, as this blog will explore.

Violence Against Women and the Extraction Industry

Since the oil boom, Native communities have reported increased rates of human trafficking, sex trafficking, and missing and murdered Indigenous women in their communities.[5] Workers who come to a region for well-paid oil and gas jobs often set up “man camps.”[6] Placed in largely rural areas these camps strain infrastructures in communities that already have inadequate resources to support population booms.[7] In 2015, violent crime reports increased in the Bakken oil-producing region of Montana and North Dakota, due to the socio-economic changes brought to the area with the oil boom.[8] According to one report, sexual assaults on women on the Fort Berthold reservation increased by 75%.[9] Conversely, there was no corresponding rise of violent crimes in the counties outside of the Bakken oil region. In fact, the overall crime rate decreased during this time.[10] Overall, the potential for harm from “man camps” is exacerbated when they are on or near Indigenous peoples’ lands.[11]

The risks of oil development on Native reservations are distinct from development in other areas of the USA, as federal “Indian” law requires a jurisdictional analysis that “focuses on the identity of the perpetrator and the land status of the location where the crime occurred to determine which governmental body is responsible for arrest, detention and prosecution.”[12] Complicating issues further is the nature of colonization and the societal exploitation of Native women and children that stems from it. Such legal and historical treatment of Indigenous people has contributed to the increased risk of sex trafficking of Native women and children.[13] Studies demonstrate that generational and historical trauma along with high incidences of poverty, depression, homelessness, and substance abuse in Native communities can make Indigenous women and children vulnerable to trafficking.[14]

Further, most workers located at “man camps” are non-Native.[15] Due to federal laws, this leaves tribal members vulnerable to major crimes that cannot be prosecuted by their own tribe, including sexual assault and trafficking. Tribes’ lack of resources contributes greatly to the crisis. Pipelines are typically routed through rural areas in which local law enforcement (often already stretched thin) is tasked with jurisdiction over hundreds of miles of territory.[16] With an influx in populations of regional outsiders, law enforcement can be overwhelmed and overworked for months.[17] The federal government has occasionally worked to rectify staff deficiency in “Indian country” adding 28 assistant US attorneys in 1990, 30 FBI agents to federal crime in 1997, and 20 new positions in the FBI’s “Indian country” unit in 2004.[18] Yet the problem surrounding lack of resources has only worsened.[19] Improvement efforts are impeded by the separation of the “mostly rural Indian communities where these federal crimes occur from the urban federal courts.”[20] Paired with jurisdictional, cultural, and legal limitations, non-native perpetrators have the potential to commit heinous crimes with limited repercussions.[21]

Such experiences of Indigenous people are not unique just to the United States. The increase in violent acts that follow “man camps” of the oil industry have been documented in Canada as well.[22] Amnesty International reported that transient workers in British Columbia, Canada, are not counted in the census numbers, which leads to the overwhelming of public service.[23] Further, Canada’s federal government recently released a report on MMIW in which it identified “man camps” of the fossil fuel industry as hotbeds for violence.[24] The report ultimately called for an increase in social infrastructure for development projects and resource extraction as mitigation measures.[25] However, such measures will do little as long as the root causes of violence against Indigenous women remain unaddressed.

Both the Canadian and US governments continue to invest in large-scale extraction efforts like that of the Keystone XL pipeline. If completed, the pipeline would transport oil sands from Canada down to the Gulf Coast.[26] In South Dakota and Montana, towns around reservation communities bordering the pipeline route would play temporary host to approximately 1,000 pipeline construction workers as they complete the project.[27] Due to jurisdictional and supreme court precedent, policing these camps would shift to the county sheriffs and the FBI, agencies that are often more concerned with policing protests surrounding the pipeline (due to political interests) rather than the “man camps.”[28] For example, despite meeting and supporting the task force for missing Indigenous persons, politicians in Montana met with local and federal law enforcement to discuss how to best proactively combat future Keystone XL demonstrators rather than how to mitigate violence against Indigenous women located along the pipeline route.[29]

Actions such as these demonstrate that economics are valued over the safety of Native people within U.S. politics. In 2014 alone, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $720 million to lobby in congress.[30] Pipeline supporters argue that the pipeline will create nearly 119,000 jobs–however, the State Department reported that the pipeline would create fewer than 2,000 jobs and, after construction, create only 35 permanent positions.[31] Additionally, it is estimated that the keystone pipeline would lead to higher gas prices.[32] The risk and vulnerability to Indigenous communities far out ways any economic value of the pipeline.

Legal complications and Avenues for Change

Missing or incomplete crime data has created a lack of information surrounding the criminal and justice system in counties affected by natural resource development.[33] Overall, Tribal sovereignty to prosecute crimes and track criminal justice issues is limited by the United States government. In one of the first decisions made by the Supreme Court they held that “the federal government has a duty to protect the interest of tribes.”[34] Legal scholar Felix Cohen explains the practical application of the SCOTUS ruling: tribes possess all the powers of any sovereign state, conquest renders the tribe subject to the legislative power of the United States and terminates the external powers of the sovereignty of the tribe, these powers are subject to quantification by treaties and by express legislation of Congress.[35] Such laws ultimately give Congress power over Native affairs. The problems created from congressional legislation divesting power from tribes to prosecute major crimes of non-tribal members while simultaneously providing limited resources to investigate or enforce the law has directly led to the current MMIW crisis.

The increased presence of oil industries in and around tribal reservations corresponds with a significant increase in criminality, contributing to increased drug use and violent crime that affects nearly every tribal member and institution.[36] It is unlikely that the Supreme Court or that Congress will pass any new laws undoing previous decisions that have caused jurisdictional loopholes. So instead, advocates have created a safety plan to mitigate potential harm to communities located near the temporary “man camps.” Proposed plans include text-call-based early warning systems to alert community members to missing people as systems like the AMBER alert are child only.[37] Federal, provincial, and state governments, as well as mining and oil and gas companies, should provide additional funds for social services and enforcement resources to consider the safety of Indigenous women and children.[38] For example, the financing of drug rehabilitation and treatment center or victim resource centers. Such centers assist with issues victims of crimes face outside of the legal system and are key in supporting Indigenous communities.[39]

Additionally, companies should be charged with training employees near Indigenous areas on cultural competency and gender issues. Without compulsory education it is unlikely the behavior of employees will undergo change. Most importantly however, treaty rights with Tribes and sovereign power to decide whether or not pipelines are allowed onto their land should be respected and adhered to.


Pipelines directly expose Indigenous people to non-natives who have the potential to commit heinous crimes with limited repercussions due to federal jurisdictional law. Instead of mitigating these risks, the government has historically reclaimed rights over tribal land for the potential economic benefits pipelines hold. Indigenous peoples’ human rights as well as sovereign rights should be respected and listened to regarding pipeline construction instead. The correlation between pipelines and violence against Indigenous women is well documented and well known. Federal, provincial, state governments, and extraction companies should work together to protect Indigenous women and children and help end the MMIW crisis.

  1. André B. Rosay, Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men, National Institute of Justice (June 1, 2016), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/249822.pdf.
  2. Violence from Extractive Industry ‘Man Camps’ Endangers Indigenous Women and Children, First Peoples Worldwide, Uni. Of Colorado Boulder, (Jan. 29, 2020), https://www.colorado.edu/program/fpw/2020/01/29/violence-extractive-industry-man-camps-endangers-indigenous-women-and-children.
  3. Id.
  4. Id.
  5. New Report Finds Increase of Violence Coincides with Oil Boom, First Peoples Worldwide, Uni. Of Colorado Boulder (Jan. 29, 2020), https://www.colorado.edu/program/fpw/2019/03/14/new-report-finds-increase-violence-coincides-oil-boom.
  6. What are Man Camps?, Secwepemecul’ecw Assembly (2017) (“Man camps are temporary housing facilities constructed for predominantly male workers on resource development projects in the oil, pipeline, mining, hydroelectric, and forestry industries. “Camp culture” has been reported to exacerbate isolation, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, misogyny, and racism among the men living there. Away from family, friends, and social supports, these men face stressful, difficult, and potentially dangerous working conditions, including long hours, shift work, and ‘two-week in, two-week out’ work schedules. In this environment, and with heightened disposable incomes, increased substance abuse is well documented. Amidst a culture of “hyper-masculinity, sexism, and apathy towards self-care” direct and indirect impacts shift onto women, children, and two-spirit people.”).
  7. Id.
  8. Kathleen Finn, Erica Gajda, Thomas Perin & Carla Fredericks, Responsible Resource Development and Prevention of Sex Trafficking: Safeguarding Native Women and Children on the Fort Berthold Reservation 40.1 Harv. J.L. & Gender 2-4 (2017).
  9. Id. at 1
  10. Supra note 2.
  11. Id.
  12. Id. at 4
  13. Id.
  14. Finn, supra note 7 at 5.
  15. Supra note 2.
  16. Nick Martin, The Connection between Pipelines and Sexual Violence, TNR (Oct. 15, 2019), https://newrepublic.com/article/155367/connection-pipelines-sexual-violence.
  17. Id.
  18. Finn, supra note 7 at 17.
  19. Id.
  20. Kevin K. Washburn, Federal Criminal Law and Tribal Self-Determination, 84 CAROLINA L. REV. 779, 5 (April 2006).
  21. Finn, supra note 7 at 17.
  22. Martin, supra note 15.
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place (2020).
  26. Martin, supra note 14.
  27. Id.
  28. Hunter Pauli, Montana law enforcement gearing-up for mass anti-pipeline protests, Montana Free Press (Sept. 19, 2018), https://montanafreepress.org/2018/09/19/pipeline-protest-training/.
  29. Martin, supra note 14.
  30. Melissa Denchak, What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?, NRDC (Jan. 20, 2021), https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline.
  31. Id.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Finn, supra note 7 at 18
  35. Id.
  36. Carla Fredericks & eta all, Responsible resource development: a strategic plan to consider social and cultural impacts of tribal extractive industry development, 40 Harv. J.L. & Gender I (2017).
  37. Id.
  38. Anya Zoledziowski, Wet’suwet’en Isn’t Just About a Pipeline, but Keeping Indigenous Women Safe, Vice News (Fed. 26, 2020), https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7qp8a/wetsuweten-isnt-just-about-a-pipeline-but-keeping-indigenous-women-safe.
  39. Fredericks, supra note 36


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