Until recently, most of the voices raised in protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline have been those of adults and elders. That’s starting to change, as Native American youth make their voices heard in opposition to the pipeline. That’s no coincidence, according to Layha Spoonhunter, a youth leader and representative of the International Indigenous Youth Council. “Native youth are very proactive in the movement,” Spoonhunter says. “This is something that has been foretold through prophesies and prayed for by our elders; that our nations would come together as one, and you’re seeing people from all over the world coming and standing in solidarity.”
There may be something to those prophesies, too. The movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline has unified Native people from across the continent.
Aboriginal tribes from Canada have joined tribes in the northern US in the fight against the pipeline. Some Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans are showing support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its fight against the pipeline.
The International Indigenous Youth Council and Oceti Sakowin Youth currently have a MoveOn petition demanding that the Senate Indian Affairs convene hearings to investigate the construction of the pipeline. The petition launched after youth leaders traveled to Washington, DC, to try and get a hearing with the Senate Committee, before the window of opportunity closed with the end of the 114th Congressional session. The youth were brusquely dismissed by committee chair Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) legislative staff, and told that Sen. Barrasso “has other priorities than Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Native youth organizations are demanding that the Senate committee make the cultural environmental impact of the Dakota pipeline a priority. “What we want to see,” Spoonhunter says, "is for the Senate committee to convene a hearing, and for representatives from Standing Rock to be invited to testify about what is truly happening here, and how the pipeline could hurt our environment, and especially our drinking water.
The $3.8 billion, 1,127-mile pipeline would carry half a million gallons of crude per day to the refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, and is slated to be built within half a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It would travel across treaty-protected lands, through sacred sites, and under the tribe’s main source of drinking water. Activists opposed to the pipeline claim the pipeline threatens the safety of drinking water. Lawyers for the tribe have argued that the pipeline poses an “existential threats to the Tribes culture and way of life,” in the event of an oil spill.
Oils spills are a very real threat. “You can tell from the spill in Yellowstone how a pipeline can have a negative impact on drinking water,” Spoonhunter says, in reference to the pipeline leak that spilled as much as 50,400 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendale, Montana. Residents were warned not to drink their tap water, which some people said smelled like diesel fuel. Sunoco, the company behind the Dakota pipeline, spills more crude oil than any of its competitors, with more than 200 leaks since 2010, according to a Reuters analysis of government data.
Three oil pipeline spills polluted US rivers in just one week, during the protest against the Dakota pipeline. The Shell Pipeline in West Columbia, Texas spilled almost 30,000 gallons of crude oil which followed a waterway into the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, in Arkansas, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured, spilling more than 19,000 barrels, and causing more than 20 homes to be evacuated in Mayflower, about 25 miles outside of Little Rock. In Canada, nearly 16,800 gallons of oil were out when a Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. train derailed. These spills underscore the danger posed by the Dakota pipeline. “Water is life,” Spoonhunter says. “If there ever was a spill, 18 million people could be affected along the Missouri river.”
Native American activists and allies have matched the magnitude of that threat with their numbers and commitment. Thousands have joined the protest, gathering in camps along the Missouri River and near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. They have stood against violence, repelled bulldozers, faced attack dogs, and endured pepper spray. The bulldozers showed up and destroyed a sacred site, just days after the tribe released a statement listing the locations of sacred cultural sites that would be impacted by the pipeline’s construction. The federal government stepped in to halt construction of the pipeline, but that measure is temporary and covers only a limited area. According to Spoonhunter, construction has continued outside that limited area.
The protesters, who have rejected that term in favor of calling themselves protectors of the drinking water and sacred land threatened by the pipeline, are settling in for a long fight. “People are planning to stay here through the winter. People are preparing and winterizing,” Spoonhunter says. “At one point we reached over 7000 here, and that’s bigger than some cities in North Dakota. People are still here, and we need all the help we can get, to have enough stuff for the winter.” One thing the thousands of protectors standing against the Dakota Pipeline aren’t lacking is commitment to their cause. “This is a movement that is based on peace and prayer, and that’s what we want to emphasize to the country,” Spoonhunter says. “We are protectors of water, and we will stand strong and protect the water for future generations.”