We must listen to the Dakota Access pipeline protesters, not punish them
State authorities keep arresting native peoples who oppose the intrusion on their sacred land. But their message of defiance must be heard, for all our sakes
‘It seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production.’ Photograph: Camille Seaman/Camille Seaman Photography
Last week, I was privileged to spend two days at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Thousands of Native Americans have been camping along the Missouri river for months in an effort to defend clean water and sacred land from the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
I had my heart broken listening to the testimony of Chase Iron Eyes and Bobbi Jean Three Legs in a town-hall-style meeting. I had my hope renewed standing under grey prairie skies beside the Rev Jesse Jackson, bearing witness to the largest gathering of Native Americans in modern history. Representing hundreds of tribes, these courageous water protectors support the Standing Rock Sioux, defending their water and their way of life.
Plans call for the Dakota Access pipeline to carry highly toxic fracked oil across four states, 200 waterways, and land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux. The protesters know that pipelines leak, explode, pollute and poison land and water, and they don’t want that happening to any of the millions of people who depend on the Missouri river. So they protest – peacefully. Inspired by a band of young Lakota runners crisscrossing the country on foot, they spend their days praying and chanting, and saying “no” to violations of their land, their health and their freedom.
But their peaceful efforts are being met with force. I heard first-hand accounts of violent encounters with armed private security guards, police bearing assault rifles, and aggressive arrests by the hundreds. I see the faces of the people I met on my Facebook feed, now marred by rubber bullets, eyes watering from teargas. Against these unarmed protesters, North Dakota’s governor has spent millions of dollars on additional security forces and even sent in the national guard.
This makes no sense. North Dakota is not in a state of emergency; it is in a state of grace. The protesters threaten nothing except an outdated system of dirty, dangerous energy.
What if, instead of brutalizing these protesters, we took a moment to listen to them? Not only are these men and women putting their bodies on the line to protect precious resources – they are charting the way to a better future for all of us.
I went to North Dakota at the invitation of Wahleah Johns, founder of Native Renewables. She grew up in a traditional Navajo community poisoned by a giant strip-mining operation and now works to create low-cost clean energy solutions for Native American families. Together, we delivered Navajo-made portable solar panels to provide clean energy to power medical tents and other camp facilities as winter approaches. The solar trailers symbolize a healthy, equitable, prosperous energy future made possible by clean renewable energy.
Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network is working ceaselessly to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. She grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota and witnessed the terrible toll oil drilling and fracking took on the health of native people who lived nearby. She came to Standing Rock with her toddler on her hip and a powerful sense of justice.
David Archambault II is the Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman. As I arrived in North Dakota, he was in my home state of New York sharing what’s happening at Standing Rock with a room full of philanthropists, inviting them to stand on the right side of history and support those working to stop the pipeline.
These indigenous leaders are just a few of the thousands of water protectors who know first-hand the toxic legacy of fossil fuel extraction and exploitation. They are forging a new path that integrates the latest in clean energy innovation with indigenous wisdom that cares for community, protects the land and looks toward the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.
This clean-energy path is supported, too, by science and economics. Research from Stanford University shows it would be technologically feasible and economically beneficial for the US to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy. In fact, the shift is already happening. North Dakota already gets almost a quarter of its electricity from wind and water. Worldwide, renewables have now overtaken coal as the largest source of installed electric-generating capacity, according to the International Energy Agency. Every day of 2015 saw half a million solar panels installed around the planet.
Given this ongoing shift to clean energy – and the fact that renewables offer a more sustainable, more prosperous, and healthier future – it seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production. This is not a conflict that can be resolved with brutality and ridicule. Rather, it must be faced with common humanity – with prayer, love and community, and first of all, with listening.
Like so many others who have heard the water defenders, I am standing 100% with Standing Rock – standing on the side of clean water, renewable energy and a just and healthy future for us all.