Some 1,000 Native American activists from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and across the country faced off against police and security forces protecting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline project. Dozens of people have been arrested and assaulted by police while attempting to stop the project, and many more continue to risk arrest to protest the pipeline.
The Dakota Access pipeline, which is being built by Energy Transfer Partners, is planned to stretch 1,172 miles from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa, before ending in Illinois.
The $3.8-billion project was begun in 2014 and is supposed to be completed by the end of the year. Once finished, the pipeline will carry a daily load of 570,000 barrels of oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing. It will cross 209 rivers, creeks and tributaries. Unless, that is, activists have anything to say about it.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST), members of the Hunkpapa Lakota Nation, has been leading the resistance. The current stage of pipeline construction has reached a segment that runs only a half-mile away from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, located in North and South Dakota.
In response, the Nation has put together a legal and activist challenge to the pipeline. The SRST filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which quietly approved the pipeline without proper consultation with the tribe. The SRST says the route of the pipeline, through the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, will disturb tribal burial grounds and affect the Nation's drinking water. In a statement, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said:
“The Corps puts our water and the lives and livelihoods of many in jeopardy. We have laws that require federal agencies to consider environmental risks and protection of Indian historic and sacred sites. But the Army Corps has ignored all those laws and fast-tracked this massive project just to meet the pipeline's aggressive construction schedule.”
In April, protesters set up a camp, named the Sacred Stone Spiritual Camp, at the Cannonball river, which meets the Missouri River and is the border of the reservation. Jon Eagle Sr., SRST's tribal historic preservation officer, explained the historic and cultural significance of the site:
“The land between the Cannonball River and the Heart River is sacred. It's a historic place of commerce where enemy tribes camped peacefully within sight of each other because of the reverence they had for this place. In the area are sacred stones where our ancestors went to pray for good direction, strength and protection for the coming year. Those stones are still there, and our people still go there today.”
Before the protests, 31 Lakota youth from various reservations in North and South Dakota participated in a relay run more than 1,600 miles to Washington, D.C., to hand over a petition condemning the pipeline signed by over 160,000 people.
The camp has swelled to approximately 1,000 activists, both Native and non-Native, anxious to continue the fight for indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice.
The protests have been nonviolent, but that hasn't stopped Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier from making absurd claims that the protesters were about to physically destroy the pipeline. “They were preparing to throw pipe bombs at our line, M80s, fireworks, things of that nature to disrupt us,” Kirchmeier claimed.
Work on the pipeline was halted on August 19 over what officials claimed were “safety concerns” caused by protesters. A judge is currently considering whether to grant an order halting construction while various arguments can be heard in court.
Dave Archambault II invoked treaty rights in his call to halt the pipeline, stating, “We don't want this black snake within our Treaty boundaries.”
In 1851 and 1868, the Lakota (Sioux) signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with the U.S. government, creating the Great Sioux reservation, which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri river. The treaty also protected hunting rights in the surrounding area, including where the pipeline is set to go through.
While numerous violations of the treaties have displaced the Lakota, there is also a history of resistance – which we are seeing again today with the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline and the breaking of treaty rights and denial of sovereignty to the Native community.
The struggle is also a continuation of the successful fight waged by Native activists and environmentalists against the Keystone XL pipeline. Much like that fight, Native Americans are leading the way – but it has created the opportunity to build a multiracial movement against climate change.
One resounding message from Native American activists has been the power of solidarity. During the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, Natives and non-Natives formed the Cowboy-Indian Alliance. Similar coalitions are being forged in the current struggle.
Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue explained in a Facebook statement why he and his tribe were offering support:
“We will stand with you, my relatives. Whether we are Native, white, African American, etc. Our water is our most precious resource along with our children. We must all stand together in this most urgent of times. This is not about race, but about the human race! What we do today will make a difference tomorrow! If there was ever a time to stand united, that time is now!”
This sentiment is widespread in Indian Country. Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele sent supplies and buses of people from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to Cannonball to support the protesters. Currently, over 60 American Indian Nations are represented at the camp.
Farmers in Iowa are also putting up a fight against the pipeline and asking the courts for an injunction against eminent domain proceedings.
The SRST has been calling on the Obama administration to halt the pipeline. Obama is only the fourth sitting president to make an official visit to an Indian reservation, and he chose to come to the Standing Rock Reservation. But Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have been silent on the issue of the Dakota Access pipeline. The Democratic Party continues to promote an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes fracking and the new oil fields in North Dakota. The only presidential candidate who is opposing the Dakota Access pipeline – and all new pipelines – is Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
Energy Transfer's Dakota Access LLC recently filed a law suit against protesters at the site, including SRST Chairman Dave Archambault. The company claims protesters “have created and will continue to create a risk of bodily injury and harm to Dakota Access employees and contractors, as well as to law enforcement personnel and other individuals at the construction site.”
A North Dakota federal court recently granted a temporary restraining order against protestors who are interfering with pipeline construction. But activists say the real threat comes from the pipeline and the environmental damage it will cause, not from the efforts to halt it.
As Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull once stated:
“We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”
Today, those pushing for the Dakota Access pipeline are steamrolling through Indian treaty land without concern for the earth or the people whose land they are invading.
It took a strong movement to halt the Keystone XL pipeline. We will need to continue that struggle to halt other pipelines and the system Sitting Bull described and fight for a society that puts people and the planet first over profits. •
Brian Ward writes for Socialist Worker where this article first appeared.