Sunday’s announcement that the federal government will not approve a permit for a segment of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock territory in North Dakota was a landmark environmental justice and Native tribal sovereignty victory.
That victory, though, also laid bare the workings of systemic racism and its impact in Indian Country, reflected in militarized policing, racist agitation and the systematic denial of civil rights. It clarifies the struggle ahead for Native peoples as they perform their historic role as protectors of Mother Earth.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ denial of a permit for the pipeline is a victory for the recognition of tribal sovereignty generated by an unprecedented, Native-led grassroots movement. The Standing Rock protests interrupted and disrupted the narrative on how and why American Indians deserve the respect of being treated by the federal government as sovereign nations, including when profit-hungry extractive industries threaten the well-being of our land, water and air. Few movements have had from its outset the participation of local elected officials alongside grassroots activists using every tool in the movement-building toolbox: prayer, direct action, advocacy, lobbying, divestment strategies, social media and public education for an action sustained for months.
The strategy and tactics of the Standing Rock movement were framed by the power of Native traditional beliefs and our special relationship with Mother Earth. In one example after another, powerful, peaceful protection of the water was the basis of unity across tribes, movements, generations and non-Native allies.
The Native Organizers Alliance, a training and organizing network, worked to support the Standing Rock tribe as well as the everyday grassroots Natives who built a 21st-century prayer village populated by thousands for months. Our goal was to begin to build an infrastructure of close working relationships to organize training sessions for Native community organizers to strengthen the relationships of between Native nonprofits and tribes to respond to the new dangers to land, air, and water that the GOP-controlled White House and Congress will present.
We greatly expanded our relationships to make that organizing possible. The NOA provided networking opportunities, trainings and relationship-building in the Oceti Sakowin Camp set up at the pipeline protest site and beyond. Thousands of new grassroots Native activists participated in the camp as well as in solidarity activities around the country.
Never has there been such close collaboration between more than 300 tribes alongside Native nonprofits and social movement activists. Standing Rock has changed everything.
Now we – the Standing Rock movement led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Oceti Sakowin elders and the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps – must celebrate and claim the victory that few thought we could win. Then we must mobilize for the considerable work ahead.
Our hope is to create a project to protect the Missouri River from top to bottom by empowering tribal governments with scientific backup. We also need to expand the capacity of tribal governments to engage their communities in water protection and in advocacy for the resources to generate green-energy opportunities and sustainable economic development. That would counter the cynical approaches by the oil, coal and other extractive industries to bribe tribes desperate for revenue to agree to short-term deals that endanger Mother Earth in the long term.
We also must continue the pressure on the banks invested in Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the pipeline. There are 500 peaceful water protectors who have cases pending. And we have the looming danger that the Trump administration could reverse the denial of the permit.
The victory no one can take back is the unprecedented unity of action of over 300 tribes, 22 municipalities, tens of thousands who have come to Standing Rock and the millions who have signed petitions, donated money, took divestment action or marched in their own towns and cities. Native-led direct action and solidarity are the foundation stones as we continue to protect our water and Mother Earth.