Some 1,500 people gathered in downtown Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). The protest was one of 302 around the United States, staged as part of a national day of action against the controversial oil pipeline.
The group was led by a delegation from Standing Rock, North Dakota, where predominantly indigenous activists have been protesting the $3.8-billion pipeline’s construction for months.
Around 250 protesters in front of a downtown museum before marching several blocks to the Army Corps of Engineers building, where the crowd swelled to over 1,500 before marching along the city streets to the White House. As they made their way through the streets, they chanted “Water is life, mni wiconi.”
“If you are standing on this street, if you woke up this morning and had a cup of coffee, if you took a shower, if you brushed your teeth, this is your fight too. We are here to protect your water. We are water protectors, not protesters,” chanted Eryn Wise of the Indigenous Youth Council.
In front of the Army Corps building, the protesters gathered in a prayer circle before sitting in front of and blocking the building doors. Leaders and activists, including Allard and Wise, as well as Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), Keystone XL activist Jane Kleeb, and leading environmentalist Bill McKibben, spoke about the need for solidarity against the pipeline.
“Everyone needs to stand up for the water, they need to put the water first,” Ladonna Allard, of the Sacred Stone camp, told ThinkProgress.
Allard said she was the first one notified about construction of the pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, as she is the closest landowner. She’s been part of the movement against the pipeline since the beginning (by her count, 7 months and 12 days); the first protest camps were on her land.
But she stressed that this was about more than just the one pipeline.
“We are asking for a basic human right. Protect the water, wherever you are. Stand up for the water, because water is life. And we have a right to live,” Allard said. “And so today we ask Army Corps to stand by that…Protecting the United States. Protecting the people. To protect the environment, we ask them to stand against the Dakota Access pipeline.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline
If completed as planned, DAPL would be 1,170 miles long and would transport 470,000 barrels of oil daily across four states. It would cross the Missouri River, the tribe’s sole water source, a mile and a half upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The tribe says a spill would be disastrous to their water supply — and they say that the construction has already taken its toll on cultural history and sacred land.
“I’ve seen all the women standing along the line crying, because they are digging up our relatives,” Allard said.
The pipeline’s owners are reportedly under investigation for failing to promptly notify the state about Native artifacts found during construction.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says they weren’t adequately consulted by the government even before permits were issued, and that the full potential environmental impacts were never fully explored. The tribe is currently suing the Corps in an attempt to halt the pipeline, which is more than half constructed.
That legal battle is complicated: In September, a federal judge denied the tribe’s request to halt the project. In a surprise move, however, the Obama administration called for a pause in construction on federal land, refusing to authorize permits to cross Lake Oahe.
The administration reiterated that position Monday. In a statement, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would withhold the construction permit until it had a chance to discuss the pipeline further with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
“The Army invites the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to engage in discussion regarding potential conditions on an easement for the pipeline crossing that would reduce the risk of a spill or rupture, hasten detection and response to any possible spill, or otherwise enhance the protection of Lake Oahe and the tribe’s water supplies,” it said.
One reason for the continued delay by the Corps was “the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossession of lands,” the Hill reported.
History has been a central theme of the protests. Indigenous protesters have pointed out the land the pipeline is being built land that was given to their tribe in an 1800s treaty.
“Then they built a dam above and a dam below, and we became the damn Indians”
And for many, this protest is personal.
“We have a long history with the Army Corps of Engineers. I have a long history with the Army Corps of Engineers,” Allard said while talking about the beauty of North Dakota when she was a child. Federal building projects, she said, destroyed their local economy and forced them to move.
“Then they built a dam above and a dam below, and we became the damn Indians,” said Allard. “We can no longer grow gardens and food. So we have a long history with the Army Corps. My life with the Army Corps is always hearing as we go into discussions, ‘I don’t recall that.’ They promise us many things, and they say ‘I don’t recall.’”
As to the Army’s latest overture for talks, spokespeople for the protesters say that while it’s a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough.
“We cannot negotiate the safety of the water, and we will not negotiate,” said Allard in response to the stay. “We will stand, and continue to stand until every pipe is out of the ground. As our leaders come together, they need to understand that the people’s voice comes first.”
An Ongoing Battle
In addition to the legal battle against the pipeline, activists have been camping on federal land and protesting against the pipeline for months. Private security for the energy company, police, and the National Guard have at times cleared the protests with tear gas, bean bag rounds, and dogs. Even on Tuesday, reports surfaced of protesters being tear-gassed at the Standing Rock protest camps.
“My kids get maced every single day…I’m sick and tired of having to use the water that we’re fighting for to wash the pain off of them.”
“My kids get maced every single day,” Wise said. “They tease me and say that the mace doesn’t hurt as bad anymore. I wash it out of their hair, and I’m sick and tired of having to use the water that we’re fighting for to wash the pain off of them.”
Hundreds of people have been arrested in the conflict in North Dakota, most in the past few weeks.
In early November, police officers pepper-sprayed dozens of people and shot two with rubber bullets, as protesters stood waist-deep in water. They were trying to reach federal land where the DAPL developers proposed to run the pipeline under Missouri River.
The Trump Effect
Given the results of the recent presidential election, protesters also fear that the Obama administration’s repeated delays will push the final decision into January, and thus into the hands of President-elect Donald Trump.
“President-elect Trump has no regard for the environment and cares even less about those of us trying to protect it. The Obama administration, now more than ever, has to step up and either rescind the permits…call for a full Environmental Impact Statement or flat out reject the Dakota Access Pipeline project from moving forward,” Kandi Mossett, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said Monday.
Trump has financial investments in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline — investments that total between $500,000 and $1,000,000. He also has investments in Phillips 66, which has a stake in the completed pipeline, according to the Guardian. During his campaign, he also expressed his support for the similar Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“This is not the first time a president has stood against indigenous people.”
On Friday, Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren said that he was “100 percent sure” that the pipeline would be approved by the Trump administration. Warren denied having ever met the president-elect or having prior contact with him, though in June he donated $103,000 to Trump’s campaign, in part to a joint fundraising committee and in part to Trump’s individual campaign fund.
But on Tuesday, the protesters said that their main target was the current administration — which has yet to definitively halt the pipeline.
“We are standing out in front of the current administration. I am standing out against those folks who are in power right now. So I am not speaking to Donald Trump. I am speaking to President Barack Obama,” said Rev. Yearwood.
Others pointed out that for indigenous populations, the Trump election signals the continuation of a long line of government oppression.
“This is not the first time a president has stood against indigenous people. This is not the first time we have suffered at the hands of white men. And this will not be the last time,” said Wise. “Everyone who is surprised by our president-elect should really open up their eyes and look around. This is not a surprise. America has never stood on behalf of communities of color.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Allard.
“For us, the United States has always had presidents that are not our friends. That has not changed. We still stand. We’re still indigenous people. And so no matter who you guys put in office, we will still fight.”