Native American Leaders: Fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline

It’s a big story, one that’s been mostly underreported in the mainstream press, but it’s news — indigenous people are fighting with their lives to prevent the Bakken oil pipeline on sacred land/reservation territory.



Red Warrior Camp in southern North Dakota was set up to back the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s fight against an oil pipeline, and has swelled as thousands show up in support. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The encampment continues to grow daily, with acts of civil disobedience and community ritual and education combining to make it a protest of powerful resistance to corporate demands they allow a pipeline through their land.

To understand the protest you need to understand Native American sovereignty.

“The issue of tribal sovereignty, which is just as important as the environmental hazard, is getting lost in the pipeline story.

Too many people tend to think of tribal sovereignty as something that’s allocated, which can be given or taken away depending on the circumstance. But it’s not. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s tribal sovereignty, which essentially precedes colonization, is permanent, and it’s recognized (as opposed to granted) by the federal government.

The nation is concerned that its waters would be contaminated and that its sacred sites will be desecrated by this pipeline project. On the surface, that claim can easily look like a specific racial group got together to lodge an environmental complaint, but there’s a lot more than that: It’s actually a tribal sovereign nation that’s making an important claim about self-determination and its ability to survive and exist in the future.” (Auro Bogado, quoted in Vox)

John Eagle Sr, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal historic preservation officer, summed up the case for Indian Country Today:

We have worked for two years to block this access based on Section 106 of the Federal Historical Preservation Act that states tribes can attach cultural and religious significance to a site. Army Corps of Engineers is in direct violation of this law. ACOE did not conduct public hearings. They did not include any Tribes that may have cultural ties to the area to join the consultation.

Indigenous leaders are using these important strategies:

  1. Symbolic/sacred strategies to build community, encourage persistence, and demonstrate cultural sovereignty. (Read the CBC article about the ritual presenting a totem pole after a particularly violent police assault.)
  2. Organizational strength within indigenous groups and progressives. (Learn about the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Common Dreams.
  3. Shared leadership practices, with many speaking, and a call to speak for larger issues, not ego-based celebrity roles.

“This is a fight for saving Mother Earth and protecting it for all who live here. It’s huge,” one organizer said. (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

This is hopeful leadership in a cause we might once have called hopeless. In a time when climate change has driven us to denial, fear and urgency, these leaders matter more than ever before.

One comment

  1. I heard an interesting analysis of the effects of this action, which is to raise the costs (financial and reputation) of the pipeline, and thus the product.


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