Tribes band together to fight an oil pipeline

The Standing Sioux protest in North Dakota reverberates around the world.


When you cross the Cannonball River south of Mandan, North Dakota, and enter the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, you see signs that read “We Are Water” and “Water Is Life.” This is a place where people are willing to fight when the health of the land is threatened.

Five months ago, members of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation founded a “Spirit Camp” to protest the proposed route of a 1,172-mile-long pipeline — the Dakota Access Pipeline. If allowed to go forward, it will carry nearly 24 million gallons of Bakken oil each day through North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, before connecting to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois. 

The Standing Rock tribal chairman, David Archambault II, has said, “This pipeline is making its way through our territory even though there was an alternative route north of Bismarck. (When) someone claimed that they are concerned with safe drinking water for that community, (it was) rerouted north of Standing Rock. We complain, too, because we’re concerned for our future generations and their drinking water. They don’t listen.”

Tribes stand in solidarity against the oil pipeline.

The Standing Rock Tribe has filed an injunction in federal court to stop the pipeline. The case will be heard Sept. 9.

I drive to the Dakota Access construction site, where chocolate-colored soil is turned upside down, the early stage of building a roadway for the pipeline. Tribal flags drape a fence, and prayer flags snap in the wind. Near the locked entrance gate, the American flag flies upside down, in an officially recognized signal of distress.

Over 1,500 people have gathered here to demonstrate against the pipeline, some of them arriving on horseback, to erect tents and teepees along the river. A barricade across the road is guarded by a half-dozen police officers. On Aug. 17, Kyle Kirchmeier, the sheriff of Morton County, held a press conference to denounce “unlawful protests” against the pipeline. Kirchmeier said, “There has been talk about a pipe bomb on the line down there. …They were preparing to throw pipe bombs, M-80s and fireworks at us.”

I saw no one preparing bombs or fireworks. In my time visiting some of the many camps along the muddy Cannonball River, I saw only pocketknives and hatchets — tools to help build sweat lodges and cut kindling for firewood. For two days I was met with warmth and generosity, given food and loaned a tent. A woman named Donna hugged me, thanking me for traveling from Iowa back to my home in North Dakota to join the group and gather my own impressions of their struggle. I was one of only a handful of white people there, perhaps because some newspapers played up how “dangerous” the place was. But at Spirit Camp, spirits were high, and the feeling was one of shared excitement, not hostility toward anyone.

This fight of tribal people and their allies is not a fight against “progress.” If the pipeline gets built upriver of the reservation, and, inevitably, springs a leak, the people of Standing Rock will be affected, and the water they need from the Missouri River may be polluted. It seems to me that when a pipeline is constructed near tribal ground against the will of the people, and when private corporations profit from the loss of the common good, that tribe is impoverished as a people and as a culture.

Right now, more supporters are traveling to North Dakota to join the representatives of more than 25 tribes united against the Dakota Access Pipeline; by Aug. 29, the number reported was 4,000. And in a historic first, the seven Lakota tribes that last fought together in the Battle of Greasy Grass — also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn — have pledged their commitment to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In fact, this protest, which has enlisted so many Native Americans in common cause, has also made news around the world. It seems that a revolution has overtaken my home state, a place that has benefitted so richly from the Bakken oil boom. At a time when we now know so much about how fossil fuels threaten the habitability of the planet, the Standing Rock Nation and the other gathered tribes might be sounding the wake-up call the rest of the world needs to hear.

Taylor Brorby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Ames, Iowa, and is the editor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America.

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