Surprise Victory at Standing Rock

Students read about and discuss the movement by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies to stop a pipeline - and the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to reverse its approval for the pipeline section, for now.   


Student Reading

For many months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux have been protesting plans to run a stretch of oil pipeline underneath North Dakota's Lake Oahe - a reservoir on the Missouri River that is the only source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Reservation.  The tribe has opposed the pipeline because they believe it threatens their water, contributes to climate change, and violates their land rights. (For more background, see our previous lesson.) The pipeline operator, Sunoco Logistics, has the worst record of oil spills of any pipeline company, according to Reuters. Since 2010, they have had over 200 leaks.
Since the spring of 2016, members of the tribe -- and thousands of allies, including members of 280 other tribes -- have camped out near the point where the pipe is scheduled to go under the lake. During the weekend of December 3-4, 2016, protesters were joined by over 2,000 veterans from around the country who had pledged to stand in support of the "water protectors."
On December 4, protesters won a surprise victory: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was reversing its approval for the pipeline section, would require further consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux, and would consider alternative routes. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is supposed to link the oil fields in northern North Dakota with an existing pipeline in Illinois.
The decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to seek an alternate route was denounced in a defiant statement by Energy Transfer Partners, which sees the directive as originating with President Obama: "The White House's directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency." The statement says ETP "fully expect(s) to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way."
In their fight against the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux have had support from around the U.S. and the world—support of historic proportions. But the forces arrayed against the people of the Standing Rock Reservation are many. They include:

  • Energy Transfer Partners, an oil storage and transportation company, and their banks, which are financing the pipeline. President-elect Trump is a shareholder of the company.
  • The State of North Dakota, whose governor Jack Dalrymple has blamed the protest on "out-of-state agitators," declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of the protest camps.
  • Federal courts, which have ruled that construction of the pipeline can continue despite the destruction of Native American sacred sites.
  • Bitter cold weather.
  • Local law enforcement, aided by a private security company and police from surrounding areas, armed with military and riot control weaponry.
  • Some local residents are opposed; some are upset with how the occupation has interrupted their daily lives. The Washington Post interviewed several local opponents, including a Laborers Union official who feels that the out-of-state demonstrators have been abusive and threatening, and an excavation company foreman who sees the protests hurting local businesses.

Violence against the unarmed water protectors had escalated since September, when private security guards used dogs to attack them. The occupiers have been hit with rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, water cannons, sound cannons and concussion grenades. The police and security guards were outfitted as if for war, armed with automatic weapons, armored vehicles and a variety of riot control weapons.
On November 20, 2016, over 200 people were injured when police attacked demonstrators who were trying to remove two burnt out trucks from Backwater Bridge. First responder Vanessa Dundon was hit in the face with a tear gas canister and may lose vision in her right eye. Sophia Wilansky, 21, received a direct hit from a concussion grenade which blew up her left arm. She faces dozens of surgeries to attempt reconstruction of the arm. Dozens more were treated for hypothermia after being doused by water cannons in the sub-freezing temperature.
For their part, the police deny all claims of violence by officers or guards. They say that the water was aimed at a burning vehicle, that dogs did not attack and that they do not use concussion grenades.
Despite all this, support for the Standing Rock Sioux has been massive. Perhaps most importantly, they've gotten unprecedented support from hundreds of other tribes around the country. A mass show of camaraderie on December 4 by veterans and clergy culminated in an outpouring of support from all sorts of people. Tens of thousands participate individually and in groups. Here is a sampling of some of those actions:

  • The union National Nurses United has sent teams of medical volunteers to the Standing Rock camps as well as $50,000 for the veterans contingent.
  • A group of friends in Madison, Wisconsin, held a knitting party to make warm hats for the cold weather in North Dakota.
  • Students and faculty at many colleges found ways to make a contribution:
    • Fort Lewis College sent 50 people to spend "Thanksgiving" at the encampment. Other schools that sent delegations include the University of Montana and Grinnell College.
    • 70 students at the University of Rochester held a "human oil spill" demonstration.
    • Members of Antioch College (with Children's Montessori cooperative) collected equipment during the month of October, to send to the camps.
    • Earlham College hosted a prayer witness and teach-in in support.
    • Several clubs at Goshen College got together to hold a musical event to raise money for Standing Rock.
  • The  NoDAPL Builders Delegation and Supply Caravan began in Vermont picking up construction workers and supplies along the way for delivery in Standing Rock.
  • Thousands of fundraisers on GoFundMe raised money for specific projects in support of the water protectors. They ranged from funds for yurts and heaters, to medical supplies to firewood and solar trailers to tipis. Some of the appeals were to fund individuals or groups' travel to North Dakota. Over $400,000 was raised for Sophia Wilansky and over 25,000 people donated $1 million for Veterans for Standing Rock.
  • Religious denominations including the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, the Mennonites, Quakers, and United Church of Christ, officially support the water protectors. On November 3, an interfaith group of 500, encompassing many religions, joined the Oceti Sakowin prayer camp at Standing Rock.

While celebrating a battle won, the water protectors are well aware that the victory may be temporary. Nothing in the statement by the Corps signifies a final decision. The next president is a strong supporter of fossil fuels and very friendly to corporations generally. The blog of the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock poses a range of questions about the Army Corps decision, including:

  • Will the Army Corps actually conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)? If so, on what portion of the project - just the river crossing, or the whole pipeline? 
  • What issues will the EIS take into account? (For example, will it include an analysis of spill risk? how about sacred sites? will it reassess the economic need for the pipeline now that the Bakken [oil field] is busting?)
  • Which alternative routes will be considered? Will a "no-build" option also be considered?
  • What input will the tribe have? What will the public participation process look like?
  • How easily will these decisions be reversed by a Trump administration?
  • How will these decisions be affected by the outcomes of DAPL's lawsuit against the Army Corps, scheduled to be heard on Friday?
  • Is the US government prepared to use force to stop the company from drilling under the river without a permit, if necessary?

The answers to these questions will determine much about this historic conflict in the months to come.

For Discussion:

1. How important in the Standing Rock standoff is the U.S.'s historical treatment of Native American peoples, including invasion and settlement, relocation, forced treaties and broken treaties? Does that history warrant special consideration for the views of the Sioux in North Dakota and Native Americans in other struggles with energy companies - or extra protections?
2. Many energy projects are destructive to the land, water and air. But the projects may provide good jobs for hundreds of construction workers. How do you think we might address these competing needs?
3. Why do you think so many people have come to stand in solidarity with those in Standing Rock?
4. Do you think that actions taken in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock contributed to this latest victory (even if it is not final)?  
5. Do you think that even small actions of solidarity (like a local protest or knitting caps) matters?  Why or why not?

6. "We know DAPL can appeal. This battle is won but the war isn't over. We're not done yet. This is just the beginning of something extraordinary."
-- Danny Grassrope (of the Lower Bruce Sioux)
Discuss each of his four sentences. What do you think Danny Grassrope means by "the beginning of something extraordinary"?