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Why Native American Water Protests Matter

For eleven months in 2016-2017 indigenous people from all over the country converged on the frozen plains of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to support the local tribes in protest to the installation of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (also known as the Keystone Pipeline). The 1,123 mile long pipeline was projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The Missouri River is the primary drinking water source for people living on the the Standing Rock Reservation, a tribe of around 10,000 with a reservation in the central part of North and South Dakota. (The protest took place on the North Dakota side.) The Tribe saw the pipeline as a threat to the region's drinking water, as well as to the water supply used to irrigate surrounding farmlands. They also feared that construction would impact ancient burial grounds and cultural sites.

For these First Americans, this was not just a protest, but a spiritual resistance. They were fighting for the preservation of their culture, and defense of Indigenous sovereignty, so egregiously and persistently trampled since the arrival of Europeans four hundred years ago.

For those eleven months, the protesters were prominently featured on the nightly news. Law enforcement from various states, federal and local agencies finally broke up the camp on February 23, 2017. All in all, there were 300 injuries and 487 arrests - on their own land! Lawsuits against the protesters and by the tribes against the government and pipeline’s owners (TC Energy), dating from the very first discussions of the pipeline, are still wending their way through the courts.

Construction on the pipeline began in June of 2016 (while the protests were still going on) and became operational on June 1, 2017. Since then there have been at least ten leaks. The largest, in November of 2019, totaled an estimated 383,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota. Another in South Dakota just days later, leaked 200,000.* (Just for the record, there are a lot of white people impacted by these spills, as well.)

There’s more - tons more.

But there are lessons abounding here in the actions of Natives protesting to save their own people. Among the many signs displayed at the protest campsite, and around the country, this one stands out: Water is Life

Here is my own take on it:

Non-Indians think that water comes from a faucet. Native Americans know that it comes from Mother Earth, and therefore must be protected.

There is another proposed pipeline (the Keystone KXL) to connect the Alberta oilfields with the current pipeline. Predictably, the tribes have sued to stop it, and in late December 2019, the Court ruled in favor of the tribes. (“federal court denied the United States federal government’s and the TransCanada’s (TC Energy) efforts to dismiss the Tribes’ case against the KXL Pipeline”).

And there the issue sat, until now. On January 20th, our new president’s inauguration day, Mr. Biden found time to slip away from the proceedings to his office to sign the first 17 of dozens of Executive Orders to be executed immediately - among them the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline.

Even the most casual observer of Native American issues knows how rare such a triumph this represents in the long and tragic fight to regain sovereignty over their own land. It is a new milestone worthy of celebration far beyond Indian Country.

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