On Friday, federal agencies halted work on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project where it cuts close to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The decision came after a long court battle and a wave of nonviolent direct actions led by indigenous organizations. While it remains to be seen whether the Army Corps of Engineers will ultimately allow construction to continue, Friday’s news marks an important milestone for a movement years in the making.
Four years ago, Elrae Mazakahomni made a commitment to come to traditional Sioux territory in the Dakotas and help stop the oil industry’s “black snake,” when and if local leaders put out a call for help. This summer, when direct action against the Dakota Access Pipeline began, she knew the moment had arrived.
“It was a no brainer,” Mazakahomni said of her decision to drive from her home in Sioux City, Iowa to the Standing Rock Reservation, where protests partially stopped construction of Dakota Access beginning in August. “I joined in taking a vow at a Moccasins on the Ground [nonviolent direct action training] camp in South Dakota that if our leaders needed us, we would be there.”
Mazakahomni is an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Nation, with descendants from the Standing Rock Tribe. She is one of thousands of people, including members of over 120 Native American tribes, who have converged at what is known as Oceti Sakowin, a protest camp in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline just outside the Standing Rock Reservation.
For many climate activists the mass protests against Dakota Access, which is partly owned by oil infrastructure giant Enbridge Energy Partners, immediately bring to mind earlier nationwide efforts to oppose the Keystone XL tar sands project. In the wake of Keystone XL’s rejection last November, Dakota Access has replaced Keystone XL as perhaps the most high-profile pipeline fight in the United States. How it plays out will say much about the U.S. government’s attitude toward climate change and indigenous rights. The stakes could hardly be higher.
A wave of indigenous opposition
Dakota Access, which would connect fracked oil fields in North Dakota’s Bakken region to an existing pipeline in Illinois, may once have seemed to oil companies like an easier-to-build alternative to other pipelines in the Midwest. Unlike Keystone XL, Dakota Access would not cross the Canadian border or connect with the internationally notorious tar sands. Nor would it cut through ecologically fragile waterways in Minnesota, like the proposed Sandpiper Pipeline that Enbridge recently abandoned in the face of environmentalist opposition.
Still, Dakota Access was controversial enough from the start that its proposed route has been changed once already. The northern part of the pipeline was originally slated to pass through the Bismark area, where residents became concerned about the effects of a potential oil spill on local water supplies. Subsequently, the pipeline route was shifted away from predominantly white Bismark to a new path that threatens the Standing Rock Reservation’s water and cuts through culturally important lands.
This spring, protesters began gathering at the site of the new pipeline route just outside Standing Rock. In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit for the pipeline, after controversially deciding not to require a full Environmental Impact Statement and to rely instead on a less comprehensive Environmental Assessment. Construction began in Illinois, Iowa, and South Dakota, where large sections of the pipeline are now in the ground. As construction activity crept closer to Standing Rock, more people arrived at the protests.
In late July, youth from the Standing Rock Reservation launched a 2,000-mile run from the reservation to Washington, D.C. to present decision makers with 160,000 petition signatures opposing the pipeline. When construction near Standing Rock began in August, nonviolent protesters led by members of the Standing Rock Tribe chained themselves to pieces of equipment, managing to temporarily halt work on the pipeline. Images from the youth run, direct actions, and other protests exploded across social media with the hashtag #NoDAPL, getting the attention of climate organizers all over the world.
Meanwhile, the Standing Rock Tribe was fighting in court to challenge the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the project. Yet, even as litigation made its way through the court system and people on the frontlines halted construction with their bodies, the pipeline company destroyed sacred burial sites in the pipeline’s path. Some protesters believe the company purposefully rushed to destroy sites before a court injunction might have had time to stop them.
The pipeline builders’ acts of aggression have not been limited to destroying sacred ground. Many people today remember the use of attack dogs by police during the 1960s civil rights movement as a low point in U.S. history, never to be repeated again. Yet, during an interaction with the pipeline company last Saturday, protesters say they were attacked by dogs belonging to a private security company hired by the construction company. Six people including a child were reportedly bitten by dogs, and many others attacked with pepper spray. The company denies these allegations, but photographs and video of people with bite wounds and dogs with blood on their mouths seem to corroborate the protesters’ story.
Law enforcement officials have repeatedly made claims about protesters behaving violently and carrying weapons like knives and hatchets. Officials have offered little in the way of evidence to support these claims, but this has not stopped their allegations from being picked up in sensationalist news stories that ignore or barely mention the dog attacks.
“Articles from North Dakota media are lying” about the violence, said Cheryl Eagle from Montana, a member of Indian People’s Action, who attended the protests in late August. “Their whole attitude is that we are a bunch of crazy Indians who want to hurt somebody, which is not accurate at all.”
Eagle arrived at Oceti Sakowin at 3:00 a.m. on August 23, and stayed for a week before returning to Montana. “I got on a bus and traveled there myself since nobody else would take me,” Eagle said. “Someone from the camp came and picked me up at the bus station.” Like Mazakahomni, Eagle attended multiple Moccasins on the Ground nonviolent direct action training camps over the last few years, and says she pledged to come to the aid of tribes in the Dakotas when necessary. “They’ve been preparing for these oil pipelines for years,” Eagle said. “I made a commitment to the other people present at Moccasins on the Ground, and to their land and water, that if they called us we would come.”
Accounts from Eagle and others who have attended the No Dakota Access protests paint a very different image from the violent picture drawn by mainstream media outlets. “Being in the camp feels so good,” said Eagle. “Everybody is so happy, with nations represented from all over the place. It’s indigenous people and white people too, from places like Massachusetts, Mississippi and North Carolina.” Eagle described the protest as a place where you hear Native tongues spoken that have been all but eradicated in most parts of the continent, and where people of diverse backgrounds come together to sing prayer songs and pray that the pipeline will not go through.
“It’s indescribable really,” Mazakahomni said, regarding her time at Oceti Sakowin. “There’s a powerful feeling that I’ve never experienced before — the only word I can think of is unity. People have come from all walks of life, from everywhere. Everyone at the camp is so grateful to everyone who comes, so grateful for food and supplies.”
Keeping the encampments running has been an incredible organizing effort, involving people all over the continent. In the last few weeks, supporters have sent donated supplies from as far away as Oregon and New York. Mazakahomni has been traveling back and forth between the protest site and Sioux City, helping to transport people and supplies. During lulls between nonviolent direct actions, speakers talk to the crowd about the importance of the fight against oil industry depredations. Some organizers are trying to start up a school for children at the protest. “Most people there have a talent of some sort, or some strength they can offer — all the way down from cooks to speakers,” Mazakahomni said.
A history of oppression
The languages, songs, and stories at Oceti Sakowin call to mind a time when not just the area around Standing Rock, but the whole North American continent belonged solely to indigenous peoples. In fact, it is difficult to think about the recent protests without putting them in the context of the long history of Native American opposition to colonialism and resource extraction on their lands.
“Every major pipeline project in North America must cross indigenous lands, Indian Country,” wrote the nationally recognized indigenous rights organizer Winona LaDuke in a recent piece for LA Progressive. “That is a problem.”
Of course, indigenous people are not a monolith, and it cannot be assumed that all tribes and indigenous organizations support the Oceti Sakowin protests — though many certainly do. At the same time, few moments in recent history have brought tensions between the federal government (in this case represented by the Army Corps of Engineers) and indigenous peoples to a head in such a dramatic way. The resistance to Dakota Access has been compared to the 1973 American Indian Movement uprising at Wounded Knee. “There are a lot of people at Standing Rock today who remember their history and the long standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973,” wrote LaDuke. “In fact, some of those in Standing Rock today were there in 1973 at Wounded Knee, a similar battle for dignity and the future of a nation.”
The United States now has an administration that claims to care about respecting tribal rights and taking action on climate change. Yet, allowing Dakota Access to move forward would compromise both of those goals. In June, U.S. gasoline consumption skyrocketed to its highest level ever, partly because of depressed oil prices, resulting from a market flooded by the vast network of new pipelines permitted under the Obama administration. Dakota Access would add to this network while violating the rights of people who have endured centuries of oppression and genocide.
In late August, federal Judge James E. Boasberg announced he would wait until September to rule on the Standing Rock Tribe’s legal challenge to the pipeline permit, which argues that the Army Corps of Engineers did not sufficiently consult the tribe before making a decision. On Friday, the judge ruled against the tribe, but three federal agencies stepped in to stop the project temporarily. In a joint statement the Army, Justice Department and Department of Interior announced that the Corps of Engineers would pause construction near Standing Rock “until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions” about the pipeline.
Elrae Mazakahomni says that the nonviolent direct actions that put Dakota Access in the national spotlight have also united a movement. Furthermore, halting construction even temporarily has struck a blow to the company’s bottom line. “They have a timeline,” Mazakahomni said, “and they have already lost out on a lot of money. This has effects that reach all the way to people on Wall Street. If investors don’t see progress on the pipeline, they will divest from the company. It hits them where it hurts, in their pocket book.”
Mazakahomni encourages movement supporters, both indigenous and non-indigenous, to come to the ongoing protests at Oceti Sakowin. Those who cannot do so can help in other ways. “People should educate themselves about what’s going on,” she said, “and do what they can to make a difference in stopping the pipeline, or black snake. Share images from the protests on social media, call elected leaders and representatives, call the pipeline company itself and tell them to stop construction.”
National climate groups are urging people to call the White House and ask President Obama to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to permanently revoke the permit. On Tuesday, people will gather for rallies and other actions in solidarity with the #NoDAPL movement in communities from coast to coast.
As for those who do travel to Oceti Sakowin, they may find they are drawn into the struggle for the rights of marginalized communities just as much as the fight against the pipeline. “Anybody who loves the land, air and this world and who really believes in equality should go there,” Cheryl Eagle said, “just to experience unity.”