The Standing Rock Sioux have won! Unless they haven’t. On Sunday, December 4, the North Dakota tribe received word that their long fight to block the Dakota Access Pipeline had succeeded. The Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the river crossing that traverses land the tribe deem sacred. A pipeline also risked poisoning their water should a leak occur.
The historically unprecedented gathering of over 100 tribes from around North America, and around the world, has completed its mission.
At least for now. Under a Donald Trump administration, this ruling may be reversed. I interviewed Jan Hasselman, the EarthJustice staff attorney who has represented the Standing Rock Sioux throughout the long fight. My first question was whether he thought Energy Transfer Partners, which has been building the pipeline, might simply wait for the new administration.
“Who knows,” he answered, “but we’re going to enter into this process,” of finding an alternative route for the pipeline, “in good faith and if the next administration tries to reverse it we’ll deal with that.”
Still, the gathering of tribes represents new hope for America’s original peoples, who have a long history of losing battles over land and rights. In the last week of the fight against the pipeline, having faced attacks by dogs, pepper spray, and freezing water in sub-zero temperatures, the tribes were joined by some 2000 of America’s veterans, who acted as human shields. Hasselman describes the commitment of veterans as “a process that was deeply empowering, through a set of people that get lot of lip service but don’t get much meaningful attention.”
Indeed, native peoples have recently found themselves on the front lines of numerous environmental battles and at times have even won. In May of 2015, the Lummi Nation blocked what would have been America’s largest coal port in Washington State when the Army Corps of Engineers agreed that it would violate fishing rights secured by treaty. And in 2015, Native Americans in the United States and Canada were instrumental in stopping the Keystone XL, which would have allowed Canada to ship dirty tar sands oil with a high carbon footprint.
Yet the Trump administration, with its renewed commitment to coal and oil, threatens to reverse such moves. If it does, it will likely face itself confronting a similar coalition of tribes, supported by environmentalists and perhaps veterans, in new and varied situations. The question for Hasselman is, “how does the movement leverage this incredible energy and attention into a broader movement for native sovereignty and environmental justice”?
While the environmental movement has worked in alliance with various tribes, their priorities can be different. Such groups as EarthJustice, the Sierra Club, and 350.org may no longer find themselves at the center of decision making. “This is an indigenous led movement,” explains Hassleman. “It’s not for the big environmental groups to try to direct.”
Native groups bring a different perspective, including historic and sacred rights, while for environmental groups, stopping pollution, especially climate change, is central. Of course, these are important to tribes, but they bring other concerns. Environmental Justice—the idea that the poorest and least politically powerful should not suffer the most from high-polluting projects—is also key. And treaty rights, often ignored in the past, provide a powerful tool in the quest to stop such projects.
Environmentalists oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline as part of a campaign against the production and transportation of fossil fuels. Hasselman points out that groups such as 350.org “approach it in that framework, and that was the framework that drove Keystone.” He adds that, “along with native people fighting for justice and tribal property, there were some environmentalists with Keep It in the Ground signs” at the Standing Rock protests.
Nevertheless, climate change is an important issues for many native peoples, some of whom are finding their homes at risk of sea level rise. “We are seeing Alaska native communities actually being uprooted due to sea level rise,” says Hasselman. In Washington State, the Quinault Indian Nation, facing rising waters, is planning on leaving their historic homeland. Meanwhile, in Louisiana the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is the first North American community to actually be relocated, their coastal homeland submerged.
While living on the frontlines of the climate crisis, Native Americans are hard at work on the solution, the move to a clean energy economy. Dave Archambault II, Chair of the Standing Rock Sioux, “wants to pivot and start thinking about tribes being leaders in developing our clean energy future,” says Hasselman.
Such work has begun elsewhere. In 2005, the Just Transition Coalition started work to bring renewable energy to the Navajo and Hopi nations. As more indigenous people get involved, increasingly they take part in the solution. Those who are “among our nation’s most economically challenged are blessed with some of the nation’s most abundant renewable resources,” explains Hasselman, with copious wind and sun.
Still, with climate change denier Scott Pruitt nominated to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal agencies will no longer be as open to environmental arguments and to historic tribal concerns. Fossil fuel interests will have the president’s ear and will become more influential throughout the bureaucracy. It will be that much harder to shut down a pipeline or a coal terminal, and some decisions already made will likely be reconsidered. Among these is the Dakota Access Pipeline, in which president-elect Trump has a financial interest.
“Everybody understands the fight is not over,” says Hasselman. “We’re entering an era in which the foxes are in charge of the henhouse. But Trump can’t overturn this decision without a major political, social and legal fight and we’re prepared for that fight.”