The Sioux have won. On Sunday December the United States Army Corps of Engineers announced they would not give permission to Dakota Access to complete construction of an oil pipeline that would have passed underneath the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, threatening the Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s only water supply. Alternate routes will now be explored.
According to the original project plan, the pipeline route, over 1800 kilometres long, would run from the oil wells in Bakken, North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa to a resevoir in Pakota, Illinois (where it would join a larger network of pipelines to supply the whole nation), having to cross the Missouri River close to the wells that supply Standing Rock with freshwater. Over 64 million liters of oil would have passed through the pipeline every day, with the activation of the pipeline scheduled to begin on January 1st, 2017. The indigenous tribes didn’t simply look on as their land was desecrated, but immediately organized to make their voices heard, highlight the negative impacts that the pipeline would have for the community and threat to the most sacred resource of all: water. They protested against the lack of consultation in the planning of the pipeline, and the fact that any potential spill from it would have caused irreparable damage to their land, and the agriculture of an entire region.
The protest grew over time, gaining numerous allies, and not only from other Native American tribes. In recent months there have been marches and demonstrations in Denver and Seattle, where citizens joined together to defend the rights of the tribes at Standing Rock. Many other cities have given their support to the Standing Rock movement through written resolutions opposing the pipeline’s construction, from coast to coast. In September 2016 the indigenous leader Dave Archambault II spoke in Geneva, during the United Nations Human Rights Council hearing on indigenous rights to raise international opposition to the Dakota Access project, demonstrating that the sovereign rights of the tribe—as recognized by the Treaty of Traverse des Siox (1851) and the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868)—were not being respected or taken into consideration. What’s more, beyond water resources, they threaten both cemeteries and archeological sites, which may matter little for an oil company, but are of great importance for the local community. Hundreds of thousands of signatures have been collected in an open letter to Barack Obama asking for the permanent suspension of the project.
In September 2016 the Obama administration denied permission for the completion of the pipeline according to the original plan, and this decision has been ratified by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been consulted on public engineering works of national importance for almost 200 years. Sunday was a historic moment. Finally, Sioux rights have been recognized, after being ignored and trampled upon for years. And that contains within it another, more profound form of recogintion: the importance of protecting one’s land, one’s water, and one’s future.
Prairie Rose Seminole of Slow Food Turtle Island told us: “The energy company isn’t moving, the barricades are still up. But we’re impressed by the efforts people have gone to, to make sure people were fed. The whole community came out with pre-colonization food like wild rice, squash, beans and corn local to the region. Access to good, local food is extremely important here, where 96% of the population is Native American and life expectancy is shockingly low, below 50 years old, while if you drive just a few miles out of the community, it goes up to 70. The pipe was originally going to go through a 92% white town called Bismarck, but they re-routed it through Standing Rock when the people of Bismarck complained it would poison their water. It’s environmental racism. My hope is to obtain a true reform on how we utilize energy in the country. we have to ask ourselves questions on our energy dependency in order to move forward to a more sustainable use of resources. When our earth suffers, we suffer.” Nicole Yanes, also of Slow Food Turtle Island: “Land and water grabbing is a violation of Indigenous Peoples’ Food Sovereignty. If the land and water grab is for development it alters the ecology and therefore diminishes the Indigenous Foods and plants’ ability to persist and thrive in that landscape.”
Sunday’s decision is the first step towards recognizing these right, and though of course there’s still a lot of work to do, this small victory demonstrates that in the most sacred and important struggles, there is still hope. But we must remain vigilant. This is far from over. The company behind the Dakota Access pipeline has already announced that it doesn’t intend to abandon this “vital” project, and in 44 days, Donald Trump will become President of the United States, and as has already been widely noted, he is a shareholder in the company building the pipeline and naturally, one of its greatest supporters.