“This gathering of tribal nations is entirely unprecedented,” exclaims Tara Houska, an Ojibwa Indian and National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth. Nothing comparable has been seen “since Wounded Knee in 1973.”
Houska is referring to the ongoing protests by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built just upstream of tribal land. Wounded Knee, for those unfamiliar with history, was a 1973 occupation by members of the American Indian Movement that ended inconclusively and the site of an 1890 massacre of the Lakota Sioux.
Today, thousands of protesters are gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, including well over 100 tribes from as far away as Canada, Mexico, and even the Maori of New Zealand, according to Houska. They have been met with armed guards from Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the pipeline.
In response to the protesters, and to a lawsuit regarding the pipeline, on September 9 the Standing Rock Sioux allies received bad news and good news. They lost a major decision when a federal judge ruled that construction of the pipeline near the river crossing could continue. Yet the crossing itself, beneath Lake Oahe, has still not been authorized by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Standing Rock Sioux received surprising news.
The day of the ruling, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior released a joint statement that “construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” awaiting further study.
The statement also requested “that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.” Because Energy Transfer partners has aggressively built on lands where the pipeline has been authorized, ignoring the fact that the water crossing has not been approved, this can be seen as a win for the Standing Rock Sioux.
Responding to the letter, Sierra Club attorney Doug Hayes states that “the Corps has finally acknowledged the need for meaningful environmental review and government-to-government consultation on the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
“The Administration has given the Tribe what it’s been asking for from the beginning—a seat at the table,” adds Jan Hasselman, an attorney for EarthJustice. He hopes that the Department of Justice letter is just the start. “The bigger picture reform is huge. Permitting massive crude oil pipelines under the Nationwide Permitting System . . . has to change.”
A leak from the Dakota Access Pipeline could devastate the key water source for the Standing Rock Sioux, while the pipeline itself threatens sacred sites, as discussed in a previous EarthTalk article. And pipeline leaks are notoriously common. Hayes points to a 2010 leak of “almost a million gallons of tar sands crude oil.”
Meanwhile, the protesters have faced fierce resistance. Energy Transfer Partner guards have even used dogs and pepper spray, as captured on video by Democracy Now. It is a “crazy thing to see something like protection of property, not even private property” defended “with deadly force against people standing against destroying a sacred site,” says Houska. Meanwhile, “the police are standing, just watching.”
It is also true, however, that Energy Transfer Partners’ guards were reportedly injured in the protests. An Energy Transfer Partners representative has not replied to my e-mails asking for comment.
The dog attacks occurred during an action meant to protect newly discovered sacred sites on the path of the pipeline while awaiting word from a federal judge. The Energy Transfer Partners workers destroyed these sites shortly before the judge ruled that Energy Transfer Partners does have access to that area.
The ruling was part of a tangled web of complications due to the Byzantium process for approving domestic pipelines. Rather than a comprehensive environmental analysis, the Army Corps of Engineers decides each piece of the process on a case-by-case basis.
“The nature of the permitting process is incredibly flawed,” says Hayes. “We’ve seen it with several other pipelines. There’s essentially no public process, no transparent environmental review of the whole pipeline.”
The review process does call for input from tribes regarding sites of historical and sacred interest as well as environmental harm. Yet critics charge that the process is insufficient. “The Army Corps of Engineers essentially leaves it up to the project applicant to hire private consultants to look for artifacts or sites,” says Hayes.
To help remedy a lack of attention to the case, earlier this year the Standing Rock Sioux put out a call for aid from other indigenous tribes, resulting in the current action. With the help of social media, they mobilized tribes in their support.
The protests build on a recent history of native opposition to environmentally harmful projects near reservations. “Tribes have been fighting environmental destruction across the country,” says Houska.
Most famously, tribes worked together with environmental groups in stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have transported dirty tar sands oil from Canada and threatened water supplies.
“The Sioux nations were very involved,” says Hayes. “They actually partnered with a lot of ranchers,” who saw their land and water as threatened—“the cowboys and Indians alliance.”
Native peoples have also played a crucial role in the fight to stop the Sandpiper and Alberta Clipper pipelines and expansion of the Minncan pipeline, among other issues. The Lumi Nation also rallied to stop a coal export terminal in Washington State.
Indeed, native participation is increasingly important to environmental protection. Native peoples are “seeing this encroachment on their lands throughout the country,” says Hayes, and have regularly partnered with environmental groups.
Compared to native tribes, environmental groups “have a lot more financial resources,” says Houska. However, “Again and again indigenous people are doing with shoestring budgets. We bring firsthand knowledge. These are our people.”
Houska sees the current action as part of a continuum of environmental justice issues. “Native Americans through-out the country are often impacted first and worst,” she says. “All these nations know how it feels to watch as drinking water and homelands are threatened.” She further compares issues facing native Americans and African Americans, notably in Flint, Michigan, where government officials allowed lead to poison the water of a poor, largely minority community.
Houska also sees a special native role in fighting climate change, referring to the “huge delegation that went” to the recent climate talks in Paris. “Indigenous peoples from all over the world were there with the exact same thoughts we have in the U.S., African Americans, Latinos, any community faced with poverty and other social justice issues.”
The ongoing action to protect the Standing Rock Sioux may be part of a larger social revolution, a global awakening. It is also part of an ongoing American narrative. As the Department of Justice statement puts it, “In recent days, we have seen thousands of demonstrators come together peacefully, with support from scores of sovereign tribal governments, to exercise their First Amendment rights and to voice heartfelt concerns about the environment and historic, sacred sites.”