The fight between Native Americans and the financial interests dead set on pushing an environmentally hazardous oil pipeline through sacred Native lands in the Midwest intensified on Thursday, ahead of what is expected to be a climactic court decision Friday on whether work on the pipeline can proceed.
This confrontation over the Dakota Access Pipeline challenges President Obama, the Democratic candidate who is seeking to succeed him, Hillary Clinton, and Congress to be clear whose side they are on – Native and non-Native Americans seeking to protect vital waterways and land from the risks of oil spills (and to stop global warming by leaving oil in the ground and using renewables instead) or the fossil fuel industry and its pursuit of profits at the expense of people and the planet.
So far, neither Obama, Clinton nor congressional leaders – with the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – have taken a firm stand with the activists seeking to block the pipeline, which would deliver oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana through Iowa and Illinois. However, Oliver Semans of the Native Organizers Alliance told OurFuture.org on Thursday that it will soon become a lot more difficult for leading politicians to dodge the question.
That's because when a group of tribal leaders delivered letters Thursday in opposition to the pipeline to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Neb., which is the agency granting permits for pipeline construction, the leaders were told that they would soon notify Congress that the Corps was granting an easement for continued construction of the pipeline, Semans said. Congress would then have 14 days to call for hearings that would suspend the easements and pause construction.
"We now need our congressional delegations involved in calling for hearings," Semans said.
The possibility that Congress could stand in the way is a ray of hope for the tribes and citizens who have filed suit in federal court to block the pipeline and are anticipating a ruling Friday on an injunction to block construction.
Whatever the court rules, Semans said, once the Corps of Engineers sends its easement approval to Congress, "Congress owns it."
The letters sent to the Corps by the Winnebago, Ponca, Santee Sioux, and Omaha tribes and by the People's Action Institute and Native Organizers Alliance said that the current route of the pipeline through Great Sioux territory threatens water used by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
"DAPL [the Dakota Access Pipeline] crosses land and water of great historical and cultural significance to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe," said the People's Action Institute letter. "We oppose the route selected by DAPL and the Corps, which will cross Lake Oahe [in North and South Dakota] and the Missouri River, contaminating the water and disturbing protected sacred sites and burial grounds."
The delivery of the letters follows protests in Morton County, N.D., where opponents have stood in the way of construction crews working on the pipeline. Over the Labor Day weekend, pipeline workers bulldozed sacred grounds, and private security forces used attack dogs and pepper spray against residents and protestors who sought to intervene.
“We are shocked by the brutality – and the loss to future generations,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance and member of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma. “This is an especially horrifying example of disdain for the history of the Oceti Sakowin people and of the disrespect Native people encounter on a daily basis."
On Thursday North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple called out the National Guard against the protestors, while native leaders underscored their calls for peaceful resistance.
President Obama was asked about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests Wednesday during a news conference in Laos. "I can’t give you details on this particular case," he said, "but what I can tell you is that we have restored more rights among native Americans to their ancestral lands, sacred sites, water, hunting grounds, we have done a lot more work on that in the last eight years than had in the previous 20 or 30 years, and it is something that I hope will continue as we go forward."
"I am hoping that what he meant by that is that all of the work I've done for the past eight years will mean nothing if they let this pipeline go through," Semans said when asked about Obama's comment.
Hillary Clinton as of Thursday had not responded to a challenge by Bill McKibben, who wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that the Democratic presidential candidate "can speak out, and if she did so perhaps the Obama administration and the Army Corps would wake up and realize that it’s 2016, not 1840."
He called the pipeline protest "a big damned thing. It’s a Flint-in-the-making, and it’s also a chance to for once do right by the continent’s oldest inhabitants. Surely Hillary Clinton can rise to the occasion."
Similarly, Semans said that Congress could step up to the plate and show principled leadership. "For once, Congress can be on the right side of history," he said.
This post has been updated.