The Dakota Access Pipeline Protests: A Fight For Native American Survival, Autonomy, and a Habitable Planet

The Bakken pipeline also called the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion, 1,134-mile-long underground pipeline that is supposed to carry over ½ million barrels of oil per day across North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, and Iowa largely through Native American treaty land and underneath the Missouri River when construction is complete faces mounting, peaceful protests but has yet to be defeated.

Originally, the pipeline was to be laid through Bismark, the capital of North Dakota, but due to objections from the wealthier community that is 90 percent white (who are apparently heard by the state when they speak unlike Natives) stemming from concerns about risks the pipeline posed to their drinking water, it was rerouted through Native land. Over 300 Native American tribes have gathered in protest, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years, along with many other concerned parties, to which Energy Transfer Partners and the state have responded by hiring security firms like Frost Kennels to sic dogs on protesters, calling in police from six states (Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Indiana, and Nebraskai) the National Guard, other private security firms, and more thugs to intimidate, humiliate, beat, and incarcerate activists. 126 arrests were made on October 22nd alone and 141 more on October 27th. The LA Times also reported on Friday some arrested have even been held in dog cages.ii 

North Dakota Governor, Jack Dalrymple, was able to bring in police from six states by declaring a ‘state of emergency’ and then using the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which was originally intended to assist disaster relief efforts by utilizing emergency responders across state lines. Multiple MRAPs (mine resistant armored vehicles) have invaded the territory along with other armored vehicles with sound cannons, helicopters, drones, and 300 militarized police with flash grenades, concussion grenades, tear gas, bean bag launchers, pepper spray, rifles with silencers, shotguns, and live ammunition. Medical personnel have also been intentionally targeted by police. According to Dallas Goldtooth, a spokesman for the Indigenous Environmental Network, one protester went into cardiac arrest and died but was revived by the Oceti Sakowin medical team. One woman, Sophia Wilansky, may lose her arm due to severe injuries sustained by a police concussion grenade.

The day before dogs were sicced on the Native American protesters (including a pregnant woman and a child who were both bitten) on March 3, protesters had submitted a supplemental brief, illustrating the locations of sacred burial sites that cannot be disturbed by digging. Tara Houska, Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation and national campaign director for Honor the Earth told Democracy Now that the next day Dakota Access maliciously and egregiously “skipped over 20 miles ahead to bulldoze those sites. The National Historic Preservation Act, Section 110(k) states…if the company intentionally destroys or disrupts sacred places…that the Army Corps cannot issue these permits…that this project cannot be approved. And that’s exactly what happened here.”

Construction of the pipeline is also in violation of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laremie signed by US treaty commissioners and representatives of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations, which recognizes the Black Hills (present day South Dakota) as property of Native Americans. Construction is also in violation of the Sioux Treaty of 1868 between the US government and the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brulé bands of Lakota people, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Nation that also guaranteed Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, (which was illegally seized in 1877 and broken into small reservations by the US government; in 1980 the Sioux Nation fought to get the land back in the Supreme Court, which ruled the US did steal the land but merely offered money as compensation, which was refused, instead of returning the land) and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Powder River Country. The pipeline is also in violation of the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as stated.

It is not only climate change and the destruction of Native treaty lands protesters are concerned about. Directing a pipeline under a river is beyond foolish; it is ecocidal. Pipelines leak. North Dakota alone had 292 pipeline leaks from January 2012 to September 2013 alone, of which only one leak was disclosed to the public.iii If the Dakota pipeline is directed under the Missouri river when (not if) it leaks, everyone dependent on that river downstream (about 21 million people) for drinking water, crops, and cleaning will be affected. Certainly, this would only be a boon for private water companies who would be happy to truck in water stolen from depleting aquifers for top dollar to fill the void of clean water creating by the polluted river.

Mainstream, corporate news continues to avoid covering the story and the scant coverage they have broadcast is unsurprisingly extremely biased and supportive of the pipeline and the police. Many independent journalists who have covered the protests like Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman have been issued warrants for their arrests. Goodman was charged with “inciting a riot” for reporting on the dog attacks on the protesters but fortunately these ridiculous charges were thrown out. Free speech is clearly under attack as it always has been in America.

The four main constructors of the pipeline are Sunoco Logistics, Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Transfer Equity, and Dakota Access who have received loans from a litany of banks including Barclays, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, HSBC, Wells Fargo, Citibank, TD Securities, ING, Bank of Tokyo, Mizuho Bank, and many others. dakotaaccessShell and Phillips 66 are also heavily invested. Despite issuing federal permits for the pipeline, Obama actually visited the Dakota and Lakota Nations at Standing Rock on June 13, 2014 and said “I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved. So I promised when I ran to be a President who’d change that — a President who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty, and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership, in mutual respect, to give our children the future that they deserve… Let’s put our minds together to advance justice — because like every American, you deserve to be safe in your communities and treated equally under the law.”iv Like so many other promises Obama has made, this has proven to be another lie told for good press. In May of 2016 the Federal government also approved the construction of two other massive pipelines: the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail—also owned by the same company as the Bakken pipeline: Energy Transfer Partners. This will ensure that fracked gas from the US will continue flooding Mexico.

The future of Standing Rock doesn’t look bright. 90% of the pipeline is complete and the corporate-state is as brazen as ever in their abuses against protesters and sacred lands. While the protesters efforts are very laudable and incontrovertibly important, the effectiveness of their methods are questionable. The writings of Indian author and political activist, Arundhati Roy, are seeming more and more relevant. She wrote “Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?” This is the problem with the standing Rock protests. There is no audience, except for the few who care. The mainstream, corporate news isn’t covering the story, (and when it does it is highly biased against the protesters as mentioned) the state is doing everything it can to crush the protests, and average Americans just don’t care. Nonviolent protest assumes the people you’re appealing to actually care about right and wrong and they often don’t. The oil companies, the banks funding them, the cops, and private security firms they hire to hunt down protesters don’t care if what they’re doing is wrong. They want the profits their actions afford them and will stop at nothing to get them. But they can’t watch every inch of that pipeline 24 hours a day and it can be destroyed secretly in the dead of night. This must be done so long as the law won’t halt construction. 

What is also needed are armed defenders of the nonviolent protesters at Standing Rock. Much like the Deacons for Defense and Justice provided armed protection from the KKK and racist police for nonviolent Civil Rights groups like CORE and the SNCC in the 50s and 60s and prevented many deaths and other abuses, armed protectors could stop further abuses of nonviolent protesters. All most police respect is violence and capital, and the threat of violence (in defense) is the only thing that will get them to stop. They’re cowards and we need to push back in ways they understand. This country was built on the genocide of 100 million Native Americans and slavery of Africans kidnapped from their homeland. This legacy of genocide and slavery continues and will continue unless enough people push back and not just in ways the criminal state deems are “legal.” Last week Amnesty International sent a team of human rights observers to monitor police and their human rights abuses of protesters. As the situation unfolds, hopefully they will be able to shed light on this issue and bring the international pressure needed to stop construction and return the lands to their rightful owners. We must do all we can to stop this pipeline and all environmentally destructive projects if we wish to continue living on this increasingly fragile and polluted planet, not just for humans but for every form of life on Earth, the only known habitable planet in the observable universe. 

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