United States: Victory at Standing Rock

December 6, 2016
Celebrations at Standing Rock, December 4.

On December 4, celebrations erupted at Standing Rock after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it had denied the Dakota Access Pipeline Company a permit to build the final segment of the $3.8 billion project and would study a possible reroute of the pipeline. The announcement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it would deny a permit to Energy Party Transfers to drill under the Missouri River came as thousands of Native and non-Native military veterans descended on Standing Rock, vowing to form a human shield around the water protectors, who have faced an increasingly violent police crackdown.

But what alternative routes will be considered? What will the process of an environmental impact statement look like? Can this decision be reversed once President-elect Donald Trump takes office? And what’s next for the resistance movement? To answer some of those questions, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman spoke with Tara Houska, national campaigns director for Honour the Earth. She is Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation.

Tara Houska: I was actually — I got a call inaudible] that this call with the White House had taken place. And I immediately got into my vehicle and went out to camp. I happened to be in service. I was actually driving down Highway 6, instead of 1806, which remains blockaded. Yeah, I mean, it’s an incredible, incredible moment of grassroots organizing reaching the highest levels of government and effectuating change. We saw that with the entire, like, review of this permitting process. That was a huge win. But specific to this project, now we’re seeing this, you know, decision not to grant an easement under Lake Oahe and to look into an environmental impact statement, which is what the tribe has asked for all along.

Amy Goodman: Now, the — Energy Transfer Partners says they’re moving ahead, they actually don’t need this permit to build. What’s your response to them? And are you concerned — though the chairman says there’s no way they can build right now — that they will move forward?

Tara Houska: You know, it’s really not surprising to hear Energy Transfer Partners say those things, seeing as they openly stated in federal court — Dakota Access’s attorney stated that the permit was a formality, and the judge said, you know, "Well, it’s clearly not of formality now, is it?" So they kind of have this very arrogant attitude of what they believe to be a rubber-stamping process to their incredibly destructive project. You know, if Energy Transfer Partners is planning to proceed without a permit and be in total flagrant violation of the law, then I would want to know, you know, what’s the administration’s response to protecting — protecting the lands, you know, protecting the public interest. That’s what an environmental impact statement is about. If someone is violating the law, they’re tasked with enforcing it. So, I wonder if federal marshals are going to be sent out or how the Army Corps intends to address a violator of that nature.

Amy Goodman: So what about this rerouting idea, the rerouting of the pipeline, and the environmental impact statement process?

Tara Houska: Yeah, you know, one part of this process that’s been very difficult for me is I actually worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality as an intern, which is tasked with NEPA, administrating NEPA. So, an EIS considers, you know, different — it will consider alternate routes, it’ll consider a no-build option — all of these different things that should have been done in the first place for a 1,200 — almost 1,200 mile pipeline. So, you know, I’m really hopeful that this impact statement is done, it’s done very effectively, and it’s done very all-encompassing, which is what they’re supposed to do, you know, cumulative impacts considered. It sounds like they’re just going to use — do an impact statement on just that one little piece and that one little crossing, instead of doing a cumulative impact statement. And that’s very unfortunate that they continue to use Nationwide Permit 12. But I hope it opens the door to more litigation, to, you know, taking that part out of the process.

Amy Goodman: What happens with a Donald Trump administration when he becomes president, who has said he supports the pipeline? Can he just reverse all of this?

Tara Houska: Yeah, you know, that’s a — that’s a reality of — you know, this victory is, I think, a momentous occasion of feeling the power of the people, but at the same time we are very aware that the next president coming in is in support of Dakota Access and will probably, you know, just cancel whatever environmental impact statement is in progress and attempt to push this pipeline through. And that’s where I think, you know, it’s really incumbent upon us to remain vigilant, to recognize the power that’s within us of organizing and coming together. You know, this wasn’t just indigenous people; this was people from all nations that came together in support of the water, in support of future generations, because this is an issue that affects us all. So —

Amy Goodman: Does the Energy Transfer Partners lose something by not building by January 1st?

Tara Houska: They do. You know, as this — they recently just brought a suit in court saying that, you know, so far we’ve cost them $100 million, that the demonstrations against their project has cost them dearly. And, you know, it’s a reality that this will eventually become a stranded asset. So, you know, if they can’t reach their January 1st build deadlines and are forced to push this project back, I hope that many of their funding partners, which we have, you know, looked at and we know — there’s a full list of them, and people have gone and done direct action, nonviolent direct action, at those places — don’t support a project that impacts negatively so many people. There’s 17 million people that live along the Missouri River. This is indigenous lands. This is sacred sites being destroyed. No investor should want to be part of a project like that. Move to renewable energy.

Amy Goodman: Finally, what are you saying about the resistance camps? There are thousands of people who are there. The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Dave Archambault, says now you can go home and enjoy your winters at home, because this pipeline, at this point, cannot move forward. Do you feel the same way?

Tara Houska: You know, I feel like I think it’s — you know, the response of the administration, from President Obama, was due to a lot of pressure. You know, they put out this Army Corps letter saying that they were going to treat indigenous people as trespassers on treaty lands. More people came. They said they were going to subject us to local law enforcement. More people came. The veterans all showed up, you know, thousands and thousands of people, to effectuate this change. And so, knowing that the Trump administration is coming in, this fight is not over. And so, you know, I think maybe people might need a break. Some folks probably need to go home and like, you know, regroup, after such violations have happened, you know, really violent altercations on behalf of the police. And, you know, I think that we need to remain vigilant at the same time and know that this could happen in just a few short months.

Amy Goodman: Tara Houska, I want to thank you for being with us, national campaigns director for Honor the Earth. She’s Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation, has been living in North Dakota now for many months. You’re not actually at the resistance camp now; you’re in Mandan at the Honor the Earth jail support house. Very quickly, in 20 seconds, are there anyone — is there anyone else in jail now who was arrested for protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, the jail being in Mandan, where you are?

Tara Houska: Red Fawn remains in incarceration. She was the woman that was originally charged with attempted murder. The prosecutor had to drop that charge, and now they’re charging her with felony possession of a weapon. So, her case remains ongoing. But there have been over 500 charges brought, so we have a long road in front of us to actually defend these folks.

*   *   *

The historic win for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota followed months of resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, members of more than 200 indigenous nations from across the Americas and thousands of their non-Native allies  —  all concerned the pipeline’s construction will destroy sacred Sioux sites and that a pipeline leak could contaminate the Missouri River, which serves as a water supply for millions. Standing Rock Sioux Chairperson Dave Archambault II was also interviewed by Goodman for Democracy Now.

Dave Archambault II: Yeah, I think it’s something that’s historic, like you had said, and it’s something that it takes a lot of courage for decision makers to come up and make the right decision, to make the right choice in this matter. And we’ve been talking about this with the Corps of Engineers for almost two years now, and we’ve been letting them know that we had problems with this pipeline, because it not only threatens our water, it threatens our heritage, it threatens our culture, it threatens our environment. We, as a people, have a right to stand up for this. And so, we expressed those feelings from the very beginning. We expressed those feelings with the company. We expressed those feelings with the senators of the state, the congressmen of the state. You know, everybody knew that Standing Rock was opposed to this pipeline because of the threats that it has on our people. And we had a lot of support. So when this decision came down by the Corps of Engineers, it feels like, finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us. And in order to listen to us, they have to make the right decision. And it takes a lot of courage to do that when you’re up against an oil company who tries to dictate to the federal government what has to be done and when it has to be done and where it has to be done.

Amy Goodman: Were you surprised?

Dave Archambault II: Yes, I was — I was very surprised. Something like this has never rolled in our favor ever. And so, I’m just thankful for all the people who gave support, all the people who contributed in one way or another and believed in this and stayed with the peaceful protest all along. And I think that was what helped us over the edge, is — so, we maintained our position. We were peaceful and prayerful, and we tried to do the best that we can to build awareness for everyone. And I want to thank you, Amy, for all the work that you have done, as well, to build awareness.

Amy Goodman: Well, Chairman, the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the permit to build the pipeline under the Missouri, which it needs, but Energy Transfer Partners says now it doesn’t need this and that they are moving full steam ahead, they’re going to continue building. Is this possible?

Dave Archambault II: No, it’s not possible. And if they continue to press the government, they’re going to shut the whole program down. They’re going to shut the whole project down, and there will be no pipeline. So, that’s not possible. And they — the company knows that they need the easement in order to move forward. And so, this is just another example of corporate world forcing its hand on a people and on the government. And this has to stop. They have to realize that the laws are there, and if they can start to break laws to force their hand on everybody, they’re putting their investors at risk, and nothing will happen.

Amy Goodman: The Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, said in a statement, "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline’s crossing." What would that mean, Chairman?

Dave Archambault II: I would say just let it — get it off of our treaty lands. You know, we know, within our treaty boundaries, what sites are sacred and what is meaningful, what places are sacred to us. And if they just reroute it and — I had a discussion with the CEO, Kelcy Warren, and he felt that if I had — if we had the discussion early on, this wouldn’t be the final route. But because they put the investors’ money at risk by continuing to build without a permit, he has nowhere else to go, so he’s going to try to force this project through at this site. But sometime we’re going to have to put people before money.

Amy Goodman: Do you now expect the government to undertake a full environmental impact statement? And what would that mean?

Dave Archambault II: The difference between an environmental impact statement and an environmental assessment is environmental assessment only looks at the least impactful route for the environment, but with the EIS, environmental impact statement, you take into consideration people. And what we have here is a people, the first people that occupied this nation’s lands. We are — we were always here, before anybody else. And that’s something special. That’s meaningful. And because we are here, we have every right to oppose this pipeline, because we feel that this pipeline will threaten not only our water, but our heritage, our culture, our environment. And we have to say, "Don’t do that to us anymore. You did it to us all too long, for 200 years, and for the interests of energy independence, economic development, national security, we paid for that. We continue to pay for it. So, today, we are asking you to stop, don’t do that anymore." And somebody is listening, finally.

Amy Goodman: Last week, President-elect Donald Trump expressed his support for the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. In a communications briefing, Trump’s transition team said his support for the pipeline, quote, "has nothing to do with his personal investments," unquote. As of 2015, Trump had between $500,000 and a million dollars invested in the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners — although the Trump spokesperson, Hope Hicks, recently claimed Trump has sold off his shares in the company — also invested in Phillips 66, which would be involved with the pipeline if it’s built. What about this? And what does this transition of power mean for the pipeline? Could this just be reversed when Donald Trump becomes president?

Dave Archambault II: You know, I see it as an opportunity for indigenous peoples, for tribes, to start a relationship with the president-elect and help him understand what is important to the first occupants of this nation and what we have paid for. His wealth is built off of our backs, and he doesn’t realize that, so we have to help him understand — and this is a huge opportunity for us — and help him understand that this decision that was made by the Corps of Engineers is the right decision. And you have to, at one time, put money aside and say, "What is it that the people want? What is it that we can do to make lives better for this country? Let’s look at the years that are yet to come, the 50 years ahead, and find out what we can do to make sure that there still is life here." And so, we have a huge opportunity in front of us to help president-elect understand our issues.

And I look forward to a conversation, and just like I had with Kelcy Warren. You know, it’s — I have nothing personal against the president, nothing personal against Kelcy Warren. I have nothing personal against the senators and the congressmen of this state of North Dakota or the government. They have to realize that we are here, and we’ve always been here, and we’re not going anywhere. And there are some things that are just precious and important to us, and everybody has to understand that. And we’re not opposed to pipeline construction. We’re not opposed to economic development, energy independence. Just don’t continue to do it and expect us to pay for it. So, when this pipeline breaks, who’s going to pay for it? We will be the first ones to pay for it. And we’ve been paying for this nation’s wealth, safety and security from day one.

Amy Goodman: Chairman Archambault, what happens now at the resistance camps? They have swelled to thousands. You have the Dakota Access pipeline saying they’re moving ahead. What’s next?

Dave Archambault II: The pipeline is not going to move ahead. The campers that are there can now enjoy the winter with their families at home. It is — the winters are going to get harsh here. And it’s time. You know, they had a purpose, and that purpose is served. That was to help us build awareness and show the support and stand with us. And so, today, it’s a beautiful day. And every day is a good day. And they have to realize that, that we’re no longer needing the purpose that they set out to do, so — and it’s OK. The company will not build beyond the easement that isn’t given to them. So, they can go home.

Amy Goodman: Chairman Archambault, you’re among the hundreds of people who have been arrested since the resistance grew. What happens now with the sheriff, with the police actions, that have become increasingly violent, from the water cannons to the sound cannons to the military equipment? Ten million dollars, we understand, has been spent, at least, on police activities.

Dave Archambault II: Yeah. What we have to do is we have to try to rebuild relationships that were harmed. You have to understand that I live here in this community. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not going anywhere, when this all disperses, the water protectors leave, the Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access pipelines leave, and we’re left with the residual effects. So it’s important for us to try to continue to establish relationships with the state and with the surrounding communities. And that includes Morton County and the Sheriff’s Department. Now, I do believe that there was an opportunity for the sheriff to better handle this situation, and there was a better — there was an opportunity for this governor of the state to better handle the situation. But the path they chose harmed relationships. So we have to try to re-establish and rebuild those relationships.

Amy Goodman: Well, Chairman Archambault, I want to thank you very much for joining us, joining us from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. We thank you for this update. And, of course, we’ll continue to follow what takes place here. What do you say to those who say they’re not moving, they don’t have faith that the pipeline won’t go forward, they’re staying at the camps?

Dave Archambault II: They have to pray. They have to continue to pray. And they have to start taking the lessons that were given at this camp. What did we learn at this camp? That prayer and peace is what’s going to help us be successful. It’s not the violent acts by people that build awareness. It’s the moral high ground that everybody needs to take. And if they want to stay, it’s going to be at their own risk. And there’s really no need for them to stay. They can go home and enjoy this winter, enjoy the holidays, if they celebrate them, with their families. And I’m sure their families are yearning for them. So, it’s OK now. And I understand their mistrust for the government and for this company, because, from the beginning, nothing was held to. You know, we asked the company to voluntarily stop, but they wouldn’t stop. So, I understand how they feel, but it’s OK. And the company did not get the easement, and so that’s going to be a process, a long, drawn-out process. Even if the company tries to reverse this and even if the president tries to reverse it, it’s not going to happen this winter, so it’s OK for them to go home.

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