2016: How Dakota Pipeline Protest Became a Native American Cry for Justice

Keystone XL may have been a prelude, but the success of the Standing Rock 'water protectors' was more about environmental justice than just another pipeline.

Native American and other activists celebrate after learning the easement they had been fighting had been denied for the Dakota Access pipeline on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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The year 2016 may become a turning point for Native American leadership in environmental activism, as a once-small protest over a little-known pipeline in rural North Dakota captured the imaginations of people worldwide and erupted into a global protest action.

The fight against Dakota Access, a nearly 1,200-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Illinois, became this year’s Keystone XL, a celebrated fossil fuel project ultimately rejected by the Obama administration in the face of unrelenting opposition from environmentalists and landowners.

Dakota Access is halted but its fate is by no means settled. It is not the first major pipeline being constructed since Keystone XL perished. And Native Americans were not the first to oppose it, with Iowa landowners having raised their voices more than a year earlier. Yet when thousands of American Indians set up camp on the open prairie demanding their drinking water be protected, the world took notice.  

Pipeline protesters, who call themselves water protectors, found a sympathetic audience for their plight, particularly after news reports revealed that the pipeline was initially intended to cross the Missouri River at a different point, 10 miles upstream of Bismarck, the state capital. The pipeline was later rerouted to a half-mile upstream of the Standing Rock reservation, an area of 3,572 square miles and home to 8,200 people, 41 percent of whom live below the poverty level. The people of Standing Rock rely on the Missouri River for drinking water, irrigation and fish.

The old route had been rejected for a number of factors, including the potential for a leak to contaminate Bismarck’s drinking water supply. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipeline in July, it did so despite the urgent recommendation of the Environmental Protection Agency and two other federal agencies to undertake a new environmental assessment, including a more thorough analysis of environmental justice issues.

Dakota Access opponents first made headlines in late August, when video posted on social media showed demonstrators on horseback shouting ‘war whoops’ and mock charging a police line. The demonstration sent law enforcement officials scurrying up an embankment to safety.

The stunt—demonstrators said it was a traditional ceremony—evoked something of a 21st century version of the Battle of Little Big Horn where warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes routed General Custer’s 7th cavalry. Fourteen years later, Lakota men, women and children were slaughtered by the same cavalry in what has become known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Those watching the horseback demonstration with any knowledge of Native American history couldn’t help wonder what price the Lakota would pay for their actions.  

Several weeks later, video captured the horrifying scene of private security officers turning attack dogs on the demonstrators.

In late November, as temperatures dropped below freezing, law enforcement officials led by the local sheriff’s department sprayed protesters with fire hoses late into the night.

Following the heavy-handed responses by company security and local law enforcement, the Obama administration delayed and then denied granting a final easement for the pipeline to pass beneath the Missouri River. The Army Corps will now conduct a more comprehensive environmental review including consideration of alternative routes.

Although no one was paying much attention, opponents from Standing Rock and other reservations began demonstrating in April. Word continued to spread in early August when a delegation of the tribe’s youth ran 1,800 miles from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C., to deliver 140,000 signatures of pipeline opponents to the Army Corps.

After pipeline construction began near Standing Rock in mid-August, thousands of opponents, mostly Native Americans, uprooted their lives indefinitely and began to arrive at Oceti Sakowin, the main protest camp just north of the reservation. They established a community: living in tents, tepees and trailers, feeding everyone in camp from a common kitchen, developing their own school, maintaining their own security and lighting a fire that they consider sacred and have kept burning ever since.  

As the movement grew, it drew on lessons learned from Black Lives Matter, including its use of social media and decentralized leadership that favors a more democratic and grassroots movement. The Standing Rock tribe is closely aligned with the camp, helping to maintain food, sanitation and other services, however, the camp itself is led by a group of elders selected by members of the camp. Black Lives Matter has sent delegations to Oceti Sakowin and pledged support to pipeline opponents.

It has also inspired a growing Native Lives Matter movement, which started before the Dakota Access protest and focuses on police brutality against indigenous people, a group that is killed by police at a higher rate than any other population, including African Americans.

One of the group’s founders is Chase Iron Eyes, a Native rights attorney from Standing Rock who garnered nearly one-quarter of the vote for U.S. Congress this year against an incumbent Republican challenger in North Dakota.  

The opposition also drew strong support from veterans, a seemingly unlikely alliance given past history, yet not surprising when considering that Native Americans enlist in the armed forces at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. Earlier this month, an estimated 4,000 veterans, twice the number that was expected, “deployed” to Standing Rock for four days to lend support to pipeline opponents.  

Opposition to Dakota Access also comes as Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada push for greater environmental protection of their ancestral homelands. Examples include the Lummi Nation of Washington State successfully fighting a proposed coal terminal and a coalition of tribes in southern Utah who have been urging President Obama to declare a wide swath of their ancestral homeland a national monument.

In Canada, First Nations have led fights against major oil sands pipeline projects that industry needs to move its landlocked oil to foreign markets, including the rejected Northern Gateway pipeline.   

Standing Rock continues to provide inspiration to the indigenous environmental movement. A tribe in Michigan pursued legal arguments in September to block a pipeline settlement similar to objections filed by the Standing Rock tribe to block the Dakota Access pipeline.

Earlier this month, fliers posted by Native Solidarity, a group born out of the Dakota Access opposition could be found on porta-potty doors at the Oceti Sakowin camp. They called on viewers to support the Navajo, the Klamath Basin tribes and other Native Americans in their ongoing battles against other fossil fuel projects.

When visiting veterans pushed the number of pipeline opponents at Oceti Sakowin and surrounding camps to an estimated 10,000 individuals on Dec. 4, the Army Corps announced its decision not to grant an easement for drilling under the Missouri river. The decision may, however, be short-lived. The river crossing is the only section of the $3.8 billion pipeline that has yet to be completed. President-elect Donald Trump said he will ensure that pipeline gets built when he takes office in January.

The fear of what a Trump administration may do, as well as long simmering historical grievances, has a group of roughly 1,000 protesters vowing to stay at the camp through the winter.   

Michael Her Many Horses, a Lakota historian and former executive director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota whose ancestors survived the Wounded Knee Massacre, said his people will stay until the pipeline is rerouted.   

“We do not trust the government, period,” Her Many Horses said.