The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous tribes, which fought for months to halt construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on indigenous land, celebrated a major victory, as the United States Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement that would allow construction under Lake Oahe in North Dakota.
In denying the easement, the Army Corps also agreed to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) with “full public input and analysis” to consider “alternative routes” for the pipeline, a key demand of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
“We wholeheartedly support the decision of the [President Barack Obama’s] administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II stated.
Archambault added, “We want to thank everyone who played a role in advocating for this cause. We thank the tribal youth, who initiated this movement. We thank the millions of people who came to the camps to support us, and the tens of thousands of people, who came to the camps to support us, and the tens of thousands, who donated time, talent, and money to our efforts to stand against this pipeline in the name of protecting our water.”
“We especially thank all of the other tribal nations and jurisdictions, who stood in solidarity with us, and we stand ready to stand with you when your people are in need,” Archambault declared.
After the Army Corps issued an evacuation order against the Sacred Stone Camp, a coalition of indigenous groups demanded a “full environmental impact statement in formal consultation with impacted tribal governments” be ordered.
EIS’s are critical because they are supposed to outline the “predicted environmental effects of a particular action or project in which the federal government is involved.” They also highlight the “environmental ramification of a project” and recommend alternative actions. The Army Corps is not required to do an EIS for every project seeking approval.
In other words, this is significant because the Army Corps essentially is validating the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that the pipeline could potentially have devastating impacts on their land. They will review the pipeline to figure out what the Army Corps is willing to authorize so Dakota Access can complete the project. Nevertheless, the Standing Rock Sioux should have the upper hand when pressuring Dakota Access to avoid their land.
The announcement came the same weekend around 2,000 veterans traveled to the Sacred Stone camp to show support and help defend the water protectors if they faced military tactics from police forces again. It is estimated the Sacred Stone Camp has grown to nearly 20,000 people.
Amidst the celebration, as Ruth Hopkins, an indigenous writer for Indian Country Today noted, water protectors at the camp were “encouraged to stick around because it’s expected that Dakota Access will drill anyway, without permit.” (At the time, there were no confirmed reports that Dakota Access planned to wholly disregard the Army Corps’s decision.)
There was immediate concern expressed among water protectors that President-elect Donald Trump would undo this victory after he is inaugurated in January, especially since he has a personal stake in Energy Access Partners—the corporation behind the pipeline.
Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network proclaimed, “We cannot stop until this pipeline is completely and utterly defeated, and our water and climate are safe.”
While acknowledging political realities is critical to the next phase of organizing, it is important to not let acknowledgment balloon into the kind of debilitating cynicism that may undermine recognition of what indigenous people and those who stand in solidarity are capable of achieving.
This is a major defeat for Big Oil. As oil companies and their lobbying groups continue to propagandize Americans with ideas of fossil fuel independence and show indifference toward threats of climate change, there will be citizens who mobilize to stop them, no matter who is in the White House.
Back in April, the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes joined together to launch a “spirit” camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp or Sacred Stone Camp. It warned against building a pipeline that crossed the Cannonball River as well as the Missouri River. It protested against the likely desecration of burial sites and other sacred areas that are significant to the Arikara, Cheyenne, Dakota, Lakota, and Mandan tribes of the Northern Plains.
“Of the many atrocities we as Native Americans have faced and overcame, this is one, which will affect not only us but all of mankind. Earth is our mother. We have to protect her,” Virgil Taken Alive of the Standing Rock Sioux said when the camp was erected.
In July, Oceti Sakowin Youth and Allies ran nearly 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to boost the campaign to stop the pipeline. A Rezpect Our Water campaign around this same period garnered support from 140,000 people.
The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the 1,300-mile pipeline to traverse North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois on July 25. This included authorization for construction underneath Lake Oahe about a half-mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation. However, the water protectors and their allies did not stop fighting.
Immediately, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe requested an injunction to stop construction [PDF]. They contended the Army Corps shirked statutory obligations under the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. They also maintained the Army Corps failed to recognize it had to follow requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act, which is intended to “protect sites of historic and cultural significance to the tribes.”
The struggle intensified in August, as the first water protectors were arrested. Archambault was one of the water protectors arrested.
Morton County and its police department effectively adopted a war footing against the water protectors, when on August 15, an executive order was issued that said the Morton County Board of Commissioners recognized “civil unrest could threaten the health, well-being, and safety of responders and the public.” It declared an emergency and implemented plans that enabled police forces to deploy with military vehicles and Pentagon gear.
Before the month was over, the state of North Dakota confiscated water trailers the water protectors were using to supply the Sacred Stone Camp. And right before September, there was an escalation in resistance, as multiple water protectors put their bodies on the line and engaged in nonviolent direct action that disrupted construction. For example, two Lakota water protectors locked themselves to construction machinery.
The presidential election was in full-swing, but neither Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton nor Trump had any interest in standing with the water protectors. Standing Rock youth traveled to a Clinton campaign office in New York in October to demand Clinton support them. In response, Clinton released a vapid statement that ignored key issues, and her campaign staff refused to accept a letter from the youth.
Police forces from 76 different departments from ten states deployed against the water protectors. Some of the water protectors arrested were charged with felonies and faced bonds of $1,500 that they were required to pay in order to be bailed out of jail.
The end of October and November marked a significant escalation in the use of force and military tactics against the water protectors. Police arrested 141 people and pepper sprayed water protectors after four water protectors locked themselves to equipment on October 23. When a “Treaty Camp” was setup directly in the path of the pipeline to defend Lakota land on October 28, 117 water protectors were arrested as police cleared the camp.
Particularly, on November 20, over 300 water protectors sustained injuries on Back Water Bridge near Highway 1806, when police surrounded them and fired a water cannon at them in the freezing cold. Police also targeted water protectors with tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and threatened them with a sound cannon. (A class action lawsuit has since been filed against Morton County and other police departments for their role in the violence.)
Dakota Access intensified its commitment to building the pipeline and announced on November 8 it would drill underneath the Missouri River in the next weeks. That is possibly what pushed the Army Corps to issue a delay of its decision to deny an easement on November 14. Regardless, November was fairly bleak for the water protectors, except for a warm gathering of hundreds on Thanksgiving to appreciate the strength of those in the camp. The Army Corps even issued an evacuation order against the camp.
The success of the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline is not a result of cable news networks and other mainstream news media informing the public of the issue but rather a result of indigenous and independent media taking initiative on the ground to push the struggle into the consciousness of the public. Outlets like Indian Country Today, Unicorn Riot, and The Young Turks led the way in producing reports and spreading images and video of what unfolded.
With the victory, the water protectors now go on the offensive to educate people on the risks of oil pipelines in order to grow resistance ahead of a Trump administration that will be extremely friendly to oil corporations. They press on with organizing to build power by continuing divestment actions against banks, which are helping Energy Access Partners finance the Dakota Access pipeline. Everyone remains vigilant in their action while at the same time recognizing the power they hold when people join together in solidarity.