The Clean Water Blog

Water protectors at the No DAPL Protest. Credit - Joe Brusky - Creative Commons

“Water Is Life”: Standing Up For Standing Rock

Clean Water Action staff, deeply involved in fights against fracked gas pipeline projects across Massachusetts, have joined many other environmental justice advocates in watching, transfixed, as representatives from hundreds of Native American tribal nations in recent weeks have streamed into an informal camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas. The visitors support the host tribe’s stance opposing a major fracked oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois being built by Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline’s route, approved in 2014 by the US Army Corps of Engineers based on exemptions to full Clean Water Act review using a technicality that construes the pipeline as a series of small projects rather than one continuous project, crosses the Missouri River about a half-mile outside the Standing Rock reservation.

Becky Smith - NoDAPL. Credit Clean Water ActionThe Dakota Access (or Bakken) Pipeline, at over 1100 miles in length, is similar to the much better known Keystone XL pipeline defeated last year. But what’s unique here is the opposition being led by Native folks, who insist on being referred to as ‘protectors’ rather than protesters. This is because their opposition to the ‘Black Snake’, as many of them call the pipeline, is based on concern about a spill on the mighty Missouri, the continent’s longest river, and the source of drinking and irrigation water for the reservation’s residents and millions of others. They assert encroachment by private interests on their ancestral lands.

This encampment of thousands of people, including some non-Native allies, is the largest gathering of Native nations in over a century, and is firmly rooted in Native spiritual traditions and a deep respect for Mother Earth.  As Pawnee Chief Morgan LittleSun says, “This ground is the holiest place on earth right now.”  Young people have taken on a strong leadership role, eloquently articulating the urgency and injustice of the situation, and undertaking successful actions to raise awareness (including a 2000 mile run to Washington DC organized by the group ReZpect Our Water, where they met with Army Corps of Engineers senior staff), and to block pipeline construction. The stark power dynamics at play here have helped news of the campaign (#NoDAPL) go viral on social media, to the point that President Obama was asked about it on the other side of the planet, by a Malaysian youth activist on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Laos.

There has been some discussion about whether environmental activists opposed to fossil fuels in general are taking advantage of this action to advance a selfish agenda.  However, while missteps in the past do make this question legitimate, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe itself has framed the fight as one for environmental justice, with lack of full environmental reviews at the center of an injunction petition they filed to stop construction, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice. The Indigenous Environmental Network also has played a prominent role.

In Massachusetts, Clean Water staff have begun building connections with organizers from the Wampanoag tribe and other indigenous peoples, who have organized solidarity standouts in their community. Next week, some of us will participate in solidarity actions against TD Bank, one of the banks laying out a combined $3.75 billion to finance the pipeline project. Making these connections, and exposing facts like the measly 40 permanent jobs projected to be created, is essential to building strong support for alternatives to our current destructive energy systems. 

Pipeline security guards attacked protectors with pepper spray and dogs days before the federal judge hearing the tribe’s injunction request denied it, but the Obama administration ordered a pause in construction on federal land within 20 miles of the camp until the situation is re-examined and next steps determined.  This was claimed as a victory by camp organizers, but construction continues apace in other areas. 

So, while the gathering in North Dakota engenders historic reconciliations among Native nations and could lead to a newly respectful attitude by the federal government, it remains to be seen whether the government allows construction after all, or the route will simply be amended (as was proposed in Massachusetts), or if the struggle can gather the momentum that will be needed to kill the ‘Black Snake’ altogether, and protect the anxious millions who do indeed live downstream.