Dakota pipeline struggle: Native Americans versus fossil fuels

Thousands of Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota are protesting a destructive pipeline project.

“Thousands of Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota are protesting a pipeline project that puts their water supply at risk, threatens to plow up their sacred sites, and would worsen climate change,” Chuck Collins wrote at Common Dreams on September 14.

On September 13, people across world took to the streets in an outpouring of solidarity for the indigenous tribes fighting against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), Common Dreams said that day.

More than 100 events were scheduled for the #NoDAPL Day of Action from Kyoto to London. Common Dreams said that “tribal members, environmentalists, and supporters worldwide are joining together to call on US President Barack Obama to cancel the pipeline's permits once and for all”.

“Meanwhile, on the ground, tribal members and their allies continued to put their bodies on the line to halt construction of the 1172-mile conduit. On Tuesday, activists once again locked themselves to machinery to make clear that construction ‘has never really stopped.’”

Common Dreams said that despite the Obama administration’s motion in the days before the global protests to suspend construction on land controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and request for ETP to follow suit, the pipeline parent company said on September 13 it would continue to “move forward with the project”.

Collins said of the anti-pipeline resistance: “Their rallying echoes hundreds of local struggles across the US that question the prudence, safety, and necessity of thousands of new gas pipeline projects ...

Big gas

“Big gas is desperate to get their cheap shale gas to global export terminals — and they’ve dug up millions of backyards to do it. Fortunately for the industry, they have a subservient federal agency that grants them the power of eminent domain to take those backyards.

“The anti-pipeline movement brings together mayors, state officials, and engaged neighbours concerned about health and safety, unnecessary rate increases, and the environmental irresponsibility of constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure.

“They’re fed up with a system that allows the profits of private energy corporations to override local concerns and dictate our future ... [G]rowing scientific evidence shows that methane from gas extraction and transportation poses a greater short-term climate change risk than burning carbon fuels like coal and oil.”

Collins added: “The anti-pipeline movement is gathering steam. Residents have mobilized to stop pipeline projects in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and have stalled others in Kentucky.

“But not all anti-pipeline efforts have been successful. In the Boston neighbourhood of West Roxbury, residents have vigorously opposed a high-pressure pipeline that arcs into the heart of a densely populated neighbourhood and terminates across from an active blasting quarry. All of Boston’s elected officials unanimously oppose this project — but big business is still winning.”

Given the stakes, the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline has gathered significant attention. The state of North Dakota has mobilised its forces to attack the protesters at Standing Rock.

After independent news program Democracy Now! filmed pipeline guards at Standing Rock using attack dogs and pepper spray on Native American protesters, North Dakota authorities issued an arrest warrant for Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. The charge was for “criminal trespass”, but Goodman insists her “actual crime” was “journalism”.

Democracy Now! has been undeterred, continuing to cover the resistance of Native Americans and others to the pipeline that threatens native American traditional lands as well as the future of humanity.

On September 12, Democracy Now! posted an interview by Goodman with Winona LaDuke long-time Native American activist and executive director of the group Honour the Earth.


LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She spent years successfully fighting a pipeline similar to Dakota Access, the Sandpiper pipeline. Democracy Now! spoke to her right outside the Red Warrior Camp in North Dakota, where she has set up her tipi.

Red Warrior is one of the encampments where thousands of Native Americans, representing hundreds of tribes from across the US and Canada, are resisting the pipeline’s construction. Her tipi is painted with animals that are threatened by climate change.

Asked why communities were now protesting the pipeline, LaDuke said: “It’s time to end the fossil fuel infrastructure.

“I mean, these people on this reservation, they don’t have adequate infrastructure for their houses. They don’t have adequate energy infrastructure. They don’t have adequate highway infrastructure. And yet they’re looking at a [US]$3.9 billion pipeline that will not help them. It will only help oil companies."

LaDuke explained the successful campaign she helped lead against the Sandpiper pipeline: “For four years, the Enbridge company said that they absolutely needed a pipeline that would go from Clearbrook, Minnesota, to Superior, Wisconsin. That was the critical and only possible route.

“They proposed a brand-new route that would go through the heart of our best wild rice lakes and territory, skirting the reservations, but within our treaty territory. They did not consult with us, and they made some serious errors in their process. They underestimated what was going to happen there.

“And so, for four years, we battled them in the Minnesota regulatory process, which is a process which is more advanced and slightly more functional than North Dakota’s regulatory process, which, from what I can see, is largely nonexistent.

“And in that process, we attended every hearing. We intervened legally. We rode our horses against the current of the oil. We had ceremonies. And they cancelled the pipeline. That’s what they did, after four years’ very, very ardent opposition by Minnesota citizens, tribal governments, tribal people, you know, on that line.”

LaDuke noted that despite the victory, “we still have six pipelines in northern Minnesota to go to Superior, the furthest-inland port. But their new proposals are not going to happen there…

“The beginning of a whole new set of problems in North America, the abandoning of 50-year-old pipelines, with no regulatory clarity as to who is responsible. And so we are opposing them on that, that they cannot abandon, and they cannot — they still cannot get a new route.

LaDuke said that with the Dakota Access pipeline, “I could have said, ‘Hey, good luck, y’all. We beat it here. Good luck.’ You know?

“But, no, we said we’re going to follow them out here, too, because we believe that — you know, we could spend our lives fighting one pipeline after another after another, but someone needs to challenge the problem and say, ‘This is not the way to go, America. This is not the way to go for any of us.'

“So, we came out here to support these people ... a lot of people are coming here, united.”

LaDuke said the protest camp included veteran activists from the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973. She told Democracy Now! that, “I’ve seen people I worked with in opposing uranium mining in the Black Hills in the 1970s and ’80s, you know, out here…

“You know, it’s like Old Home Week out here. I’ve seen people from Oklahoma that opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, and Nebraska. And I’ve seen people from, you know, out in our territory that are opposing the pipelines here. The tribal chairman of Fond du Lac is here, and, you know, a whole host of Native and non-Native people.

“And there are a lot of people that just do not believe that this should happen anymore in this country, that are very willing to put themselves on the line, non-Indian people, you know, as well as tribal members, and they are here. And it is a beautiful place to defend.

Asked by Goodman why the struggle matters to people around the world, LaDuke said: “This matters because it’s time to move on from fossil fuels. You know, this is the same battle that they have everywhere else.

“Each day or each week, there’s some new leak, there’s some new catastrophe in the fossil fuel industry, as well as the ongoing and growing catastrophe of climate change. The fact that there is no rain in Syria has directly to do with these fossil fuel companies.

“You know, all of the catastrophes that are happening elsewhere in the world has to do with the fact that North America is retooling its infrastructure and going after the dirtiest oil in the world — the tar sands oil and the oil out of North Dakota, the fracked oil…

“It also has to do with crushing Venezuela, because Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. And rather than do business with Venezuela, they were bound and determined to take oil from places that did not want to give it up, and create this filthy infrastructure.

“So, this carbon — this oil is very heavy in carbon and will add hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 to the environment, if these pipelines are allowed through. So, it affects everybody.”


Some Native American tribes have expressed support for the pipeline. Asked to comment on this division, LaDuke said: “I don’t know that I would say some tribes are for it. I would say some interests in Indian country have been for the pipeline.

“I mean, historically, the Three Affiliated Tribes is an oil-producing tribe, but they came down here to support the opposition to the pipeline … Their whole tribal council came down here a couple of days ago.

“The fact is that some tribes have been forced into production of fossil fuels. Eighty-five percent of the Navajo economy, for instance, is fossil fuel-based. About the same percentage of the Fort Berthold economy is fossil fuel-based.

“So, you know, just to give a little historic picture: You come out here with your smallpox, and you wipe out 95% of the people, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, in the early 1800s. They live along these villages, you know, just trying to hang in there.

“Then you come out here, and you flood their lands. And the agricultural crops that they produced are now owned by Monsanto and Syngenta as trademarked varieties that they created. Right?

“And then you’re out here in North Dakota, and everybody in the country flies over North Dakota and looks down and says, ‘Well, that’s North Dakota.’ Nobody comes out here.

“And so stuff continues out here for a hundred years, where these people are treated like third-class citizens. Where they have no running water in their houses, and they have oil companies coming out here. And you have high rates of abuse and violence against women and children, and it accelerates and increases in the oil fields, until you have an epidemic of drugs, which now hits this community.

“This community doesn’t get any benefit from oil, but the meth and heroin that came out of those fields is here, you know? Because those dealers came up here, and then they saw these Indian people, and they said, ‘Well, we’ll just go there.’ And so these reservations are full of it.

“And then you say, you know, to that tribe up there, the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] cuts some backyard deals and starts oil extraction. And then you end up with oil — you end up with haves and have-nots in the oil fields. And you end up with a tribe that now has oil revenues that are coming in.

“And they look out there, frankly, and they say, ‘Things haven’t been going too well for us, so we’re going to sign a few more of these leases, because, after all, you know, nothing has ever worked out well for us. And so, we’re going to get a little bit of money.’

“And that’s how you force people into that, with a gun to their head, and then they end up destroying their land, you know, which is what is happening up there on that reservation. And they’ve had huge investigations into corruption at the leadership… You force people into that situation, and that’s a perfect storm.”

Trauma and independence

LaDuke has also written and spoken about the extent of native Americans suffering from  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the violence and oppression they have suffered. She told Democracy Now!: “I still have it. You know, you say ‘Enbridge,’ and I get this little like quirk, you know, and because the Indian wars are far from over out here.

“But, you know, what you get is intergenerational trauma, is what it is known as, historic trauma … you look out there, and every day you wake up and you see that your land was flooded. And that big power line that runs through this land, that doesn’t benefit you.

“Everything that is out here was done at your expense, but you still have to pay for it … And every day you go out there, and you look at your houses, and you see that you’ve got crumbling infrastructure, and nobody cares about it.

“And you’ve got a meth epidemic, and you’ve got the highest suicide rates in the country, but nobody pays attention. You know, and so you just try to survive. That’s what you’re trying to do. Like 90% of my community, generally, I would say, is just trying to survive.

“I mean, in my community, we have rice. We still have our wild rice. And we can go, and we can harvest wild rice. And we can be Anishinaabe people … we can still live off of our land. The people [in North Dakota] have a much tougher time living off of their land. The buffalo were wiped out, you know?

“But this year is their stand. This is their stand. They’ve got a chance to stop one more bad thing happening to them.

“And my perspective is that these guys don’t need a pipeline. What they need is solar. What they need is wind. They need housing that works for people. They need energy justice. This is this chance, America, to say, ‘Look, this community does not need a pipeline. What this community needs is real energy independence.’

“They call this energy independence, you know, shoving a pipeline down people’s throats, so that Canadian oil companies can benefit, and the world can worsen. That is not energy independence. Energy independence is when you have solar. Energy independence is when you have wind.

“Energy independence is when you have some control over your future. That’s what these people want.”

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