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Vol. 80/No. 36      September 26, 2016

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Standing Rock Sioux lead protests for rights, dignity

Fight against building pipeline on reservation

Reuters/Andrew Cullen
Standing Rock tribe members lead protest Sept. 9 in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to stop desecration of tribal land, protect drinking water. Thousands have joined protest camp.
STANDING ROCK SIOUX INDIAN RESERVATION — Members of more than 200 Native American tribes and supporters have come from every corner of North America to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight to stop the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near their reservation. Thousands have made their way here to join the fight to defend sovereign treaty rights and against potential fouling of the area’s water supplies, gathering at this remote protest camp on the banks of the Cannonball River.

We joined them as a Socialist Workers Party solidarity and fact-finding delegation.

“Our tribe has opposed the Dakota Access pipeline since we first learned about it in 2014,” wrote David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in the New York Times Aug. 24. “Although federal law requires the Corps of Engineers to consult with the tribe about its sovereign interests, permits for the project were approved and construction began without meaningful consultation.”

On Sept. 9 the Sioux won an important victory. The U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Army and Department of the Interior announced they would put a halt to any construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe.

“Important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain,” the joint statement said. “It is now incumbent on all of us to develop a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.” But the decision is only temporary.

The tribe had filed court papers in district court on Sept. 2 seeking to halt construction on sacred and historic sites in the path of the pipeline. The next day, Energy Transfer Partners, the builder of the pipeline, sent bulldozers to begin removing topsoil from the area.

Protesters who tried to stop the earth-moving machines from desecrating the sites were met with company security guards, attack dogs and pepper spray. Six people were bitten and at least 30 pepper-sprayed. Since then protesters have camped along the county road, in sight of the area, to make sure the company doesn’t try to return.

Knowing a court decision was imminent, thousands of protesters, known as protectors, marched Sept. 9 from the main encampment to the site of the confrontation. Many then caravaned to protest at the state Capitol in Bismarck where the court is located.

When District Court Judge James Boasberg rejected the tribe’s request to halt construction, the three federal agencies put out the Sept. 9 joint statement barring further work on the pipeline pending more consultation. The agencies said they would invite tribes to government-to-government discussions.

These same government agencies had given Energy Transfer Partners a green light for the $3.8 billion, four-state project that would start oil flowing from North Dakota to southern Illinois by the end of the year. The Sept. 9 government statement noted, “[We] have seen thousands of demonstrators come together peacefully, with support of sovereign tribal governments … to voice heartfelt concerns about the environment and historic, sacred sites.”

‘We are going to beat this’

“This is the beginning of unifying indigenous people,” said Andrew Hěska White Mountain of the Hunkpapa Lakota Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Stopping the pipeline is for the future of our people. If it goes through, it will destroy our land and water. They desecrate our burial sites. They will not respect our elders. We are going to beat this.”

There are deeper historical reasons for the size and breadth of the response to the assault on the reservation here. In its relentless march west, Washington and its capitalist social relations brutalized the native people, slaughtering tens of thousands and driving those who survived onto the reservations, where they face oppressive conditions and few opportunities.

The Standing Rock reservation, home to some 8,000 members of the Standing Rock Sioux, occupies over 2 million acres in North and South Dakota. The unemployment rate on the reservation was a staggering 60 percent in 2014 reports the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While Native Americans were promised sovereignty on the reservations by Washington, they face invasive attacks wherever the bosses smell profit.

This assault on dignity and sovereignty led to the size and breadth of the mobilization here.

More than 200 flags line the dirt road leading into the main camp, each presented by delegations from other tribes arriving at the camp over recent months. The population of the camp rises and falls, but often numbers in the thousands.

Tents and tepees fill the land here near the banks of the Cannonball River. The slogans “Water is Life” and “No DAPL [Dakota Access pipeline]” are written on cars, posters and banners throughout the camp.

At the heart of the camp lies a constantly burning fire pit, surrounded by a kitchen and dining area, a place for meetings and for donations. Before each meal, a tribal elder says a traditional prayer. The camp is abuzz with conversations between members of different tribes and generations.

After the government agencies announced the pause in construction of the pipeline, Mike McFeely, a columnist for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, tried to nudge Native American protesters to leave. “They won,” he wrote. “There is nothing to protest.”

That sentiment found no echo in the camp. Supporters continue to arrive. Donations of clothing and camping gear are coming too, anticipating the arrival of the cold North Dakota winter. “We need to keep the camp up to keep pressure on the federal government,” many people told us.  
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