By David Bedford & Andrew Joung
In April 2016, when the Dakota Access pipeline project crossed through the Standing Rock Sioux’s territory, a native elder named LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, along with many youth from her tribe and the surrounding area, set up a small encampment near the pipeline’s construction site. Allard and other members of the Standing Rock Sioux established the campsite as a space for resistance, spiritual healing, and cultural preservation. This struck a chord with native justice and environmental activists, and is eventually what led to the international movement known as #NODAPL.
The 1,172 mile-long Dakota Access pipeline was designed by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of the Dallas-based corporation Energy Transfers Partners. The pipeline was designed to carry oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to Pakota, Illinois. Initially plotted to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, north of native territory, it was decided that it would be too close to the city’s municipal water sources, residential areas, and natural wetlands. The pipeline was rerouted south instead, through native Sioux land.
Over the course of the Summer, thousands of people from across the United States, and the world gathered at Standing Rock and the nearby resistance sites to obstruct the construction of the pipeline. Solidarity organizations arose in cities across the globe, including here in Philadelphia with the organization Philly with Standing Rock. Under the guidance of Native leadership, many of the organizations rallied against the major banks funding the pipeline, such as Wells Fargo and TD Bank. US protesters also took the fight to their local Army Corps of Engineers offices, demanding that they rescind the permits to the pipeline.
On September 7, 2016, the #NODAPL movement hit the international spotlight when footage surfaced of six protesters and a horse being attacked by security dogs. When police from across the country were deployed to Standing Rock, the native territory was essentially under a military occupation. By October, clashes with police became more frequent as they attacked protesters and utilized tear gas. On November 20th, police officers turned water cannons on crowds of protesters, tearing skin and soaking them to the bone. Almost two dozen people were sent to the hospital that night, most suffering from hypothermia. In below-freezing weather, it was nearly a death sentence.
As news spread of these acts of police brutality, the international movement grew even more passionate. People fought for divestment across the globe. In Norway, the indigenous Sami people of Northern Europe successfully pressured Odin Management to divest from the project. Tribal leaders from outside of the US converged on Standing Rock. On December 4, a massive contingent of 2,000 US veterans marched into the campsite to show solidarity for native people. On that same day, the Army Corps rescinded the permits to the pipeline.
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The severity of police repression is not the only reason why the #NODAPL movement is so significant; rather, the severity of the repression reminded us of the deep history of the conflict unfolding before us. The ghosts of Natives murdered by colonialism and Westward expansion, and the echoes of their demands, haunted the story.
These have always fundamentally been demands for power.
As we navigate the environmental justice movement, our demands must be rooted in demands for power. Environmental justice movements that are solely focused on climate change because of its threat to all of humanity should be criticized; rather we should center environmental justice on a critique of those who have power and the structures that keep them in power.
The #NODAPL struggle makes this clear: environmental justice is impossible without fulfilling the demands for power being made by those facing grievous environmental injustices. It is unjust for a company to risk polluting the public water of millions in order to secure a private profit. It is unjust to deny people the right to govern their own land, especially a people that never chose American governance. Environmental justice cannot be just the survival of the human species; it must be primarily about establishing a just relationship between people and the environment. Public resources like clean air and water cannot be for sale to the highest bidder, but instead must be under the democratic control of the people.
On February 7th, 2017 Donald Trump signed an executive order to continue construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, thus ending the EPA’s environmental impact study. This however has not deterred groups fighting for #NODAPL. From Standing Rock to Philadelphia, the movement for indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice continues, as it always has, but with much greater strength and fervor. Not in recent memory has America’s domination of indigenous people been brought to the national spotlight. Nor has there been a mainstream environmental movement in the US that explicitly challenges colonialism in such a bold manner. Despite the distractions of some misguided activists, for the most part, the actions and decisions of the movement have been conducted under the guidance of native leadership who consistently address the need to respect the land and the treaties involved. The Dakota Access pipeline may be back in development, but the movement is here to stay. Carrying forward, it may be the spark that lit the national flame to address our complex legacy of settler-colonialism.