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Standing Rock Protests: This Is Only The Beginning

Above Photo: Protesters demonstrate against the Dakota crude oil access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photograph: Andrew Cullen/Reuters

The world has been electrified by protests against the Dakota access pipeline. Is this a new civil rights movement where environmental and human rights meet?

A pioneer monument and a lot of state troopers with batons and riot helmets stood between the mostly young native activists and the North Dakota state capitol on Friday afternoon. Many of the activists arriving at the capitol’s vast green lawn hadn’t heard that the Washington DC judge had decided against the Standing Rock reservation Sioux lawsuit. That was the lawsuit asserting that the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) had gone forward without adequate tribal consultation. There was a sign of anguish when the news was delivered by megaphone, and then, a few minutes later, shouts of joy as a young woman with a long black braid standing in the pouring rain announced the victory chasing the heels of that defeat.

In a joint statement on Friday by the US army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior (which oversees Native American affairs), two major decisions were announced. One was a decision by the US army corps of engineers, the permitting body for the pipeline, to hold off on issuing permits to dig on federal land near or under the Missouri river above the Standing Rock reservation. The other was a landmark announcement that this fall, the government would discuss with tribes how “to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights” and whether new legislation should be put in place to pursue those goals. It’s at least an implicit and maybe an explicit acknowledgment that the permitting process for the DAPL fell short of meeting the Standing Rock Sioux’s rights. It may become a landmark decision for all native rights in the United States, and it appears to be the result of tremendous international public pressure that probably changed the outcome of what could have been another quiet defeat.

What’s happening at Standing Rock is extraordinary and possibly transformative for native rights, Sioux history, and the intersection of the climate movement with indigenous communities. I spent two days in the Red Warrior camp, the big camp with dozens of teepees, hundreds of tents, and at least 1,000 people. It’s across the small Cannonball river from the Sacred Stone camp founded this spring to catalyze resistance against the DAPL intended to bring dirty crude from the Bakken oil shale in the northwest of North Dakota to Illinois, then down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico for export. Resistance has been catalyzed, and the world electrified by the gathering of participants from tribes across North America and non-native supporters.

Friday morning in the camp, I asked Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network what were the precedents for this. Sitting in the back of his minivan, as his small children milled about and the boy across the road came to shake his hand, he told me: “There’s nothing, honestly. There’s nothing that can compare. One-hundred and eighty different tribal nations have sent letters of solidarity.” Goldtooth, who is Dakota and Dene, went on to describe the unprecedented support of tribes from all over the United States and Canada for this resistance, along with climate and environmental groups – a coalition with tremendous possibility for the future of both indigenous rights and the climate movement.

The joy is widespread. The first person I met was a young Hoopa/Yurok woman from far-northern California, who told me this is the most amazing thing she’s ever been part of. The next morning, a small man came up and greeted me, introduced himself as Frank, “from right here”, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux. Somewhere in the conversation he said : “I wake up happy every day about this.” I asked him how this changed the past, thinking of the losses the Lakota/Sioux faced over the past 150 years, but he heard the question differently. He mentioned that their old enemies the Crow and the Cheyenne came to stand with them, and that the old divisions are over.

When I asked that question, I was thinking about what I heard from climate activist and environmental lawyer Carolyn Raffensperger, who had spent time at the camp earlier and has a long history in the area. “There are moments in history that can heal the past and the future,” she said. “This is a healing moment. It’s extraordinary. I’m hoping that it heals the river, which has suffered assaults that are unspeakable.” Though climate activists oppose the pipeline, because it’s part of the machinery to keep fossil fuel flowing and temperatures rising, the Standing Rock oppose it because it would tunnel underneath the Missouri river and threaten their water supply if it ever ruptures.

The river is their only source of water. And as Raffensberger mentioned, it has been violated in many ways, including by the Oahe Dam in South Dakota, which turned a free-flowing river into a long unnatural lake. The Cannonball river used to meet the Missouri in such a way that their their turbulent waters turned out big round stones – which white people saw as cannonballs, thus the name – but now the smaller river sinks quietly into the lake, and the stones are gone and so are the forces that made them.

As Standing Rock tribal chairman David Archambault said in an editorial last month: “When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.” It will again, if the corporations and banks behind the DAPL have their way, but this may be a turning point in history; they could lose.

That’s what members of Native American nations from the California Yurok to the Michigan Chippewa and the other activists and supporters are hoping, and it’s a tremendous hope against the odds or at least against the record of the past. Victors like to forget how they got their spoils, but the despoiled have long memories. In the central circle of the camp, some words and ideas recurred: that peace and prayer were the means here, that being humble mattered, that ancestors mattered, that this was nonviolent.

I met an older woman from the Pine Ridge reservation, one of the poorest places in the United States and the site of some of the fiercest Native American resistance in the 1970s. She told me she had come when the camp was just beginning, when she saw seven teepees there. The next morning there were hundreds of people, and the occupation had stepped up a level. It kept growing, and there are plans to continue, though a Dakota winter may winnow out all but the toughest. When I arrived, the camp spread in all directions from the main entrance on the road. A long avenue of flagpoles lined the main road down what had been grasslands before, with nearly 200 flags from native nations around the country. Near the entrance was a sprawling camp kitchen, with mountains of supplies, indoor and outdoor facilities and open fires on which some of the cooking was done, and all of the gigantic vats of coffee seemed to be boiled. The grass was flattened and dried in some places, worn through in others, and after Wednesday’s rain some of the bare places became mud wallows. People made camp on both sides, some in tall white or painted teepees, most in tents, a few in recreational vehicles.

Horses were staked in the grass or kept in small corrals. People flew flags, covered their car in graffiti – “Water is life” or its equivalent in Lakota, “Mni wiconi”, and “No DAPL” were the most common slogans. There was a remarkable absence of brochures, leaflets and petitions, along with meetings and perceptible organizational structure. There was a classroom, a table where volunteers lawyers were available (they were also there to witness and represent anyone who might be arrested), sweatlodges. It was a village, though one without commerce of any kind or alcohol, drugs, or weapons. People chopped wood, fed horses, made coffee, visited with their neighbors, told their stories, came to ceremonies and talks, and waited to see how they could make history.

Which left time on some days for cultural celebration by a thousand people from dozens of cultures. Thursday, the people of the Pacific north-west paddled down the Missouri river in magnificent boats they had brought with them. They were scheduled to come up the Cannonball about 3pm, and people were beginning to line the shore when runners came to call people to the central circle where ceremonies were held and information distributed. There, Archambault spoke about the governor’s calling out the national guard, seeking to calm fears by saying they would be used for traffic management and would never be allowed to come to the camp.

In fact, men in uniform from the sheriff’s department and state troopers were already being used to turn people back on Highway 1806, which goes south from the Bismarck area to the reservation. I ran into them Wednesday afternoon, looking like they were combat-ready for Afghanistan, and they appeared to be turning all cars back not far down the highway from Bismarck. I took a huge detour through the rolling green countryside and got back without a mishap, but the goal seemed to be discouragement. On Friday, I saw more uniformed men turning people back about a dozen miles above the camp and then, again, further north, another blockade sending people back. There seems to be a concerted effort to prevent people from reaching the camp or to at least inconvenience them.

Meanwhile, Archambault spoke, and then everyone wandered back to shore where the huge Tlingit boat and other crafts were arriving. Goldtooth had noted that the river tribes had who responded most strongly, groups who had fought or were fighting their own battles over water. The ceremonies were unhurried, with the boats passing by and then pointing their prows to shore and asking, with speeches of gratitude, songs in native languages, and jokes, permission to land.

The fight is about water and rights. The Missouri is the longest river in the United States, joining the Mississippi at St Louis; any pollution caused by a spill from the DAPL on its current route would impact the reservation first but would continue downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It would impact a huge swathe of the agriculture and residents at the center of the continent. You could also note that the Missouri and Mississippi meet close to where a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, the event that prompted the formation of Black Lives Matter (members of which were also at the camp showing solidarity). The river goes onward to flow past New Orleans, where the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina turned into the unnatural disaster of a city blockaded and its citizens shot down and stranded by the authorities. Histories flow together.

What’s happening at Standing Rock feels like a new civil rights movement that takes place at the confluence of environmental and human rights and grows from the last 60 years of lived experience in popular power and changing the world. This is already a movement with national solidarity – there were support demonstrations in San Francisco and Tulsa, Oklahoma, among other places – and a national day of action is scheduled for Tuesday.

Many involved in the climate movement see it as a human rights movement or a movement inseparable from human rights. Indigenous people have played a huge role, as the people in many of the places where extracting and transporting fossil fuel take place, as protectors of particular places and ecosystems from rivers to forests, from the Amazon to the Arctic, as people with a strong sense of the past and the future, of the deep time in which short-term profit turns into longterm damage, and of the rights of the collective over individual profit. All these forces are antithetical to capitalism, and it to them.

There is nothing guaranteed about the outcome for the DAPL, the larger movement that the uprising at Standing Rock has begun, and the connections it strengthens. It’s only a beginning but it’s a spectacular beginning and a reminder that sometimes the future is made by dreamers and warriors who come together unexpectedly.

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