Time to Move the Standing Rock Pipeline
President Obama has pointed a way out of a dangerous standoff over an oil pipeline being built in North Dakota. He told an interviewer on Tuesday that the Army Corps of Engineers was looking for a new pipeline route, presumably away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, whose members and allies have been protesting the project for months, saying it threatens the tribe’s sacred lands and water supply.
It was a welcome hint of good news in an intensely bitter confrontation that came wrapped in historic injustice and seemed destined to end in grief. The $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline is meant to carry crude oil from the Bakken fields of western North Dakota to Illinois, 1,170 miles to the east. It would not enter tribal land but it would pass close enough for the Sioux to fear grave damage from a leak or spill. Its current proposed route runs less than half a mile north of the reservation and under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water. Though the pipeline would mostly cross private property, the tribe also argues that these have been the Sioux’s ancestral lands since antiquity, and construction would damage sites of deep cultural and historic significance, including burial grounds.
A federal judge in September denied the tribe’s request for an injunction to block construction, but the tribe has continued to press the Army corps to withhold permits, which the builders need because the pipeline would cross a navigable waterway. The Sioux accuse the corps of being a rubber stamp for the oil industry, of ignoring its objections and of illegally issuing permits in violation of the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and other federal laws — charges that the corps denies.
The tribe’s sense of grievance is understandable, given that the pipeline was shifted in its direction, away from Bismarck, N.D., because federal regulators saw it as a potential threat to that city’s water supply.
The Dakota and Lakota of the Standing Rock tribe would hardly be the first American Indians to pay the price for white people who want to move environmental hazards out of sight, out of mind and out of their water faucets. If the federal government shifts the pipeline route again — perhaps closer to Bismarck — maybe that will prompt a full, meaningful discussion of the pipeline’s merits, with a fairer assessment of its true costs.
A pipeline may well be the most profitable and efficient way to move a half-million barrels of crude oil a day across the Plains. But in a time of oil gluts and plummeting oil prices, is it worth it? Is it worth the degradation of the environment, the danger to the water, the insult to the heritage of the Sioux?
The law-enforcement response to the largely peaceful Standing Rock impasse has led to grim clashes at protest camps between hundreds of civilians and officers in riot gear. The confrontation cannot help summoning a wretched history. Not far from Standing Rock, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred land was stolen from the Sioux, plundered for gold and other minerals, and then carved into four monumental presidential heads: an American shrine built from a brazen act of defacement.
The Sioux know as well as any of America’s native peoples that justice is a shifting concept, that treaties, laws and promises can wilt under the implacable pressure for mineral extraction. But without relitigating the history of the North American conquest, perhaps the protesters can achieve their aim to stop or reroute the pipeline.
“We are monitoring this closely,” Mr. Obama said. “I think as a general rule, my view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans.” Of course there is. There has to be.
At Standing Rock, women lead fight in face of Mace, arrests and strip searches
Native American women are leading the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline, but say they face cruel and inhumane treatment from police
Prairie McLaughlin said she has daily flashbacks – “daymares” – about the police.
“I’m beyond traumatized,” the 33-year-old Native American woman said through tears.
But, when asked if she was prepared to keep defending the Standing Rock tribe’s water, McLaughlin’s face hardened. “Everyone needs to stand up,” she said.
McLaughlin, the daughter of LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Standing Rock Sioux tribe member and founder of the Sacred Stone camp, is one of hundreds of women who have led the growing movement to stop the $3.7bn project threatening their land and culture. Her friends have been arrested and subjected to what they describe as cruel and inhumane treatment.
Many say that female “water protectors”, in some cases drawing on matriarchal tribal structures, are the core spiritual leaders strategizing how to block the “black snake” pipeline and planning actions to stand up to a police force that has gone to great lengths to defend an oil corporation.
Prairie McLaughlin, who says she was forced to strip in front of male and female guards. Photograph: Sara Lafleur-Vetter for the Guardian
“Women are the backbone of every tribe and every indigenous community,” said Caro Gonzales, a 26-year-old member of the Chemehuevi tribe.
Gonzales, who also goes by the name Guarding Red Tarantula Woman, identifies as “two spirit”, a term for indigenous queer people.
“Whether feeding people or being on the frontlines … it’s all indigenous women and two spirits.”
Native women say they are protecting the basic human right to clean water. But for some indigenous activists, the internationally recognized movement has become a larger fight against a history of misogyny, racism and abuse by law enforcement.
‘Native lives matter’
Indigenous women have long had a fraught relationship with American police – whether in the form of questionable fatal shootings or law enforcement inaction in the face of human trafficking crises and sexual assault epidemics.
“It’s always been happening,” McLaughlin said, but “people in the world see it now.”
Although indigenous rights are often ignored in the discussion of police brutality, studies have shown that Native Americans are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by law enforcement, prompting some to adopt the rallying cry, “Native lives matter”, a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When speaking out against the Keystone XL pipeline, native leaders argued that indigenous women were sexually assaulted by non-native men at alarmingly high rates and that police have failed to prevent and prosecute these crimes when they accelerate amid an oil boom.
For native women leading at Standing Rock, police disrespect of indigenous culture and women is unsurprising.
“North Dakota law enforcement have no qualms about grabbing people and throwing them to the ground,” said Cheryl Angel, a Sicangu Lakota tribe member.
“I just felt kind of violated all because of being Native American,” said Johanna Holy Elk Face, a 63-year-old woman who was recently arrested.
It’s unclear how many many women have been apprehended in the more than 400 arrests police have made of Dakota Access pipeline activists. But some women said they felt targeted.
“They picked out people who they thought were leaders,” said Xhopakelxhit, a Native American woman who was recently arrested during a protest. “It was outright brutal force.”
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone camp. Photograph: Sara Lafleur-Vetter for the Guardian
‘Brutalized and dehumanized’
Angel, 56, recounted the birth of the Sacred Stone camp when “the pipeline was just a drawing in a piece of paper”.
She and a few others were chatting in a group message and knew they had to find a way to stop the project on the ground. In April, members of the Standing Rock Lakota and other indigenous nations rode on horseback and established the first spiritual camp.
“It was women on the frontlines praying,” she said. “One of our traits that is very strong is to protect. There was no fear.”
Several women who were arrested said they were crowded into vans and cells. Behind bars they encountered mostly native women, many who were incarcerated for what appeared to be low-level offenses.
Gonzales said the jail was packed with native women incarcerated for reasons other than the pipeline actions, including one who was pregnant and feared she was having a miscarriage and another who appeared to be severely ill.
“They were brutalized and dehumanized the same way I was,” said Gonzales, adding that it seemed clear many were locked up for nonviolent offenses or because they were too poor to immediately pay bail. “Brown and black people and native people get put away for really doing nothing.”
Caro Gonzales, a member of the Chemehuevi tribe: ‘Women are the backbone of every tribe.’ Photograph: Sara Lafleur-Vetter for the Guardian
McLaughlin, who was charged with resisting arrest, became most distraught recounting police violence against young women at the center of demonstrations where law enforcement have repeatedly fired rubber bullets.
“You know what it’s like to watch a little girl get pushed down and shot point blank in the face while we’re trying to save her?”
Asked about McLaughlin’s arrest, a spokeswoman for the Morton County sheriff’s office said she “refused to cooperate during the intake and assessment” and was escorted into an “isolation cell” where she was instructed to lay on a jail mattress and change. McLaughlin was eventually “undressed by female jail staff”, the spokeswoman said.
Lauren Howland, a 21-year-old youth council leader and member of the San Carlos and Jicarilla Apache tribes and Navajo Nation, said she felt that police were discriminating against indigenous people.
“I think they want to say you’re under arrest for being not white and praying not to Jesus or not to God,” said Howland, who said an officer broke her wrist during one incident.
The experience has shaken her faith in law enforcement, she added.
“Are they really there to protect and serve me? Or if someone gives them a few hundred bucks are they going to come over here and beat me again?”
The Guardian is the leader in the mainstream press in coverage of Standing Rock. Please Support their fearless, independent journalism with a contribution or by becoming a member
And please donate HERE to help the Standing Rock Protesters.