Protectors vs pipelines

Indigenous Peoples
United States
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Rallying round: in September, demonstrators against the Dakota Access oil pipeline marched on the State Capitol in Denver. © David Zalubowski/AP/Press Association Images

They call themselves protectors, not protesters.

In North Dakota, a Midwestern state known for windswept cattle ranches and wheat fields, indigenous resistance to an oil pipeline has produced a historic convergence.

In April, 200 Native Americans set up camp at the site where the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the Missouri River, the primary source of water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. By August, the camp swelled to 700, with residents charging that construction risked contaminating water supplies and disturbing the tribe’s sacred burial grounds.

Momentum only grew from there. By September, the flags of some 200 tribal nations from across the country lined the entrance to the camp, with participants calling it the largest gathering of American indigenous groups in a century. Non-native supporters also joined in solidarity, from groups as varied as #BlackLivesMatter and 350.org. All told, upwards of 4,000 people have made the pilgrimage to the camp, rallying under the slogan ‘Water is Life’.

Responding to the demonstrations, the local sheriff has arrested more than 60 people. On 3 September, private security guards used attack dogs and pepper spray on tribal members attempting to prevent bulldozers from unearthing a burial site. When prominent journalist Amy Goodman released footage of the incident, she was promptly served an arrest warrant, ostensibly on charges of trespassing.

The camp, nonetheless, achieved a major victory – if not a final one. Even as courts wavered on whether to recognize the tribe’s request to stay construction, on 9 September the Obama administration at least temporarily halted further digging on public land surrounding the contested site.

The native-led resistance at Standing Rock has emphasized environmentalism of a different complexion than is typically associated with ecological activism in the United States, which is often seen as the domain of middle-class white liberals.

Of course, indigenous resistance isn’t new. First Nations have long been leaders in the fight against extractivism in North America. As author Naomi Klein argues in her book, This Changes Everything, ‘Indigenous land and treaty rights have proved... some of the most robust tools available’ to prevent catastrophic climate change. Indeed, opposition to fossil-fuel corporations from native groups is especially significant ‘because many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims’.

Klein views the array of disparate and sometimes isolated campaigns against oil and gas extraction that have taken place globally in the past decade as part of an overarching rebellion, which she dubs ‘Blockadia’. However, it’s not always clear whether these struggles actually see themselves as part of a unified effort, or if such a vision represents aspirational thinking by those of us who would like to see a more robust movement against climate change.

On the ground in North Dakota, the fight has been primarily framed around water, not climate. In claiming their status as protectors, members of the Standing Rock resistance have focused on defence of natural resources and tribal sovereignty.

Yet water flows downstream. A polluted river in North Dakota not only affects local residents, but contaminates a water system extending south to the Gulf of Mexico. Likewise, the insistence of one community that the natural systems sustaining life should not be sacrificed for oil profits can feed streams and springs of revolt that are vital to the climate movement.

‘It’s just so much bigger, though, than just one pipeline. It’s the fossil-fuel industry as a whole,’ says Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network. ‘When we desecrate the water, we desecrate ourselves.’

For now, the fate of the encampment on the Dakota plains remains uncertain. But what is clear is that the protectors have infused US environmentalism with a renewed sense of resilience and daring, and that they have moved us a step closer to making the hopeful vision of Blockadia a reality.

Mark Engler’s new book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.