Tribe sparks a movement with Dakota Access pipeline protest
Celebrities and Native Americans from around the nation show solidarity
CANNON BALL, N.D. — The showdown between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the company building the Dakota Access oil pipeline began as a legal battle. It became a movement.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country have traveled to this central North Dakota reservation to camp in a nearby meadow and show solidarity with a tribe they think is again receiving a raw deal at the hands of commercial interests and the U.S. government.
Frank White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, was overcome with emotion as he looked out over the tepees and tents that have popped up in this impromptu camp.
“You think no one is going to help,” said White Bull, 48. “But the people have shown us they’re here to help us. We made our stance, and the Indian Nation heard us. It’s making us whole. It’s making us wanyi oyate — one nation. We’re not alone.”
At issue for the tribes is the Dakota Access pipeline, which runs underground through North and South Dakota, 18 counties in Iowa and ends at a hub in Illinois.
The $3.8 billion pipeline now under construction was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers to cross under the Missouri River a mile north of the reservation.
That river is the source of water for the reservation’s 8,000 residents. Any leak, tribal leaders argue, would cause irreparable harm.
And tribal leaders note what they consider a double standard, saying the pipeline was originally going to cross the Missouri north of Bismarck, the state capital, but was rerouted out of powerful opposition.
“It would be like constructing a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery or under St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” said Dean DePountis, the tribe’s attorney.
The reservation sued the Corps in July, saying the agency had not entered into any meaningful consultation with the tribe as required by law and that it had ignored regulations on environmental standards and historic preservation.
On Friday, the tribe lost its legal challenge when a federal judge refused to grant an order stopping the project.
But in a surprise twist, the tribe gained the support of the U.S. government — the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior — which said it would seek to halt the project, at least temporarily.
“This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects,” the departments said in joint statement released minutes after the federal court ruling.
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Tensions flared over the Labor Day weekend when workers for Dakota Access plowed under two locations adjacent to the pipeline path that just a day earlier the tribe had identified in a court filing as sacred and historic.
Then tribe members and others tried to prevent the action, they were stopped by private security workers who used guard dogs and pepper spray. Photos of the encounter shared online showed snarling German shepherds lunging at protesters.
A spokesman for the tribe said six protesters were bitten. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said four security guards and two dogs were injured.
In a separate, earlier protest in Iowa, organized by a former Iowa state legislator Ed Fallon near the pipeline’s path in Boone, 30 people were arrested after protesters blockaded a staging area.
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Attorneys for the Corps of Engineers have argued in court that there was a standard review process for the pipeline and that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was consulted on the project.
Representatives of Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, declined to comment for this article and directed a reporter to the company’s website instead.
Dakota Access says the pipeline allows oil to be moved in a “cost-effective, safer and environmentally safer manner” and will deliver nearly $1 billion in direct spending to the U.S. economy.
Large labor unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America, have supported the pipeline and in a statement characterized protesters as “extremists.”
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As the battle played out in court, support for the tribe poured in.
More than 200 Native American tribes have declared support and many sent food and supplies.
On social media, activists have used the #NoDAPL hashtag to spread information about the protest and provide live video feeds
Actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson and Susan Sarandon have offered support.
Environmentalists also have joined the fray, hoping to halt construction and make it go the way of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which was killed by an order from President Barack Obama last year.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited the Standing Rock reservation in 2014. The tribes and environmental groups appealed to the president to use his authority to halt the Dakota Access project, but have received no response.
Obama did send an Aug. 31 letter to Fallon in Iowa, saying his administration has “made great strides” in confronting climate change and noted the federal government has strengthened so-called fracking regulations to protect public and Native American lands.
Obama went on to say “of course, we cannot complete the transition to a clean-energy economy overnight. We will continue to rely partly on fossil fuels — and while we do, safety must be our first priority.” He made no specific mention of the Dakota Access pipeline or taking any steps to intervene.
Obama, traveling last week in Laos, was asked about the protest but did not specifically address the case in his answer.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein met with protesters Tuesday. Speaking at a campfire meeting, she called on Obama to “take back this illegitimate permit given by the Army Corps of Engineers.” On Wednesday, a warrant was issued for her arrest after she was seen spray-painting a message on a bulldozer.
Neither Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton nor GOP nominee Donald Trump has stated a position.
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For Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, the questions about what happens now are existential.
He recited a list of treaties his people made with the government that were broken.
“How do you eliminate a race?” he asked, letting the question hang in the air. “That’s what the government has been trying to do for 200 years. But we’re still here. We have maintained our culture. We’ve maintained our way of life. We’ve maintained our dignity. We’re still here.”