The challenge at Standing Rock

February 7, 2017

Where is the Standing Rock struggle headed after Trump promised to fast-track pipeline construction? Rene Rougeau, Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward explain.

WATER PROTECTORS and supporters of the #NoDAPL movement have been rocked by a series of orders and press releases from the Trump administration and the state of North Dakota in recent weeks. The pronouncements appear to set the stage for the resumption of construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

While some politicians backed by various oil and gas corporations overstated the implications of these announcements, water protectors are also debating what the pronouncements mean and the best way to continue the fight against the pipeline.

Some movement leaders are calling for continuing the struggle by rebuilding the protest camps, but others, including Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault II, have called on protesters to stand down and limit the struggle to a legal battle in the federal courts.

Already on February 1, law enforcement carried out 74 arrests of water protectors establishing a new camp on land belonging to Energy Transfer Partners--and on February 3, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced it would send additional agents to assist local police in clearing the camps, according to the Washington Post.

A militarized police unit prepares to arrest dozens of water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota
A militarized police unit prepares to arrest dozens of water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota

THE ARRESTS and other enforcement efforts were triggered by Trump's January 24 presidential memorandum calling on the Secretary of the Army and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite building authorizations for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

Trump's memorandum stated that the Secretary of the Army should "review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements...and whether to withdraw the Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in Connection with Dakota Access."

DAPL had been blocked after water protectors, led by Indigenous people, mobilized against them over many months, culminating in a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to order an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before the project could proceed. The EIS didn't kill the project, but put in question whether Energy Transfer Partners, the firm building the pipeline, could secure the necessary permits to finalize construction.

The "easement" referred to in the administration document was rejected because of the inspiring mobilization of water protectors in early December in defiance of a deadline issued by the government to clear out the protest camps. As a result, Energy Transfer Partners was unable to route the pipeline under Lake Oahe, less than a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and on disputed treaty land.

On January 31, one week after Trump's memorandum was issued, North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer announced that "the Department of Defense is granting the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline and Congressional notification is imminent."

THE FIGHT, however, isn't over. For one thing, Cramer's announcement is misleading because the easement has not been granted--yet. While Trump's memorandum calls for expediting the process of granting the easement, Cramer's press release was intentionally misleading, claiming a victory where there wasn't one.

Major Gen. Malcolm Frost, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers, issued a February 1 statement clarifying the matter:

The Army has initiated the steps outlined in the January 24 Presidential Directive which directs the Acting Secretary of the Army to expeditiously review requests for approvals to construct and operate the Dakota Access Pipeline in compliance with the law. These initial steps do not mean the easement has been approved. The Assistant Secretary for the Army Civil Works will make a decision on the pipeline once a full review and analysis is completed in accordance with the directive.

After an initial flurry of emergency planning by water protectors in response to Cramer's overeager statement, the Standing Rock Tribal Council issued a pledge to pursue legal action to stop the pipeline:

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will vigorously pursue legal action to ensure the environmental impact statement order issued late last year is followed so the pipeline process is legal, fair and accurate...

The Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the EIS and issue the easement. The Corps must review the Presidential Memorandum, notify Congress and actually grant the easement. We have not received formal notice that the EIS has been suspended or withdrawn. To abandon the EIS would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the President's personal views and, potentially, personal investments. We stand ready to fight this battle against corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans.

There has also been a call to divest from banks financing the pipeline, which has prompted action across the country. On February 1, the Seattle City Council Finance Committee voted unanimously to divest from Wells Fargo for its support of DAPL, forwarding the bill to the full City Council for a vote that could result in the city pulling $3 billion from the bank.

BUT THE pledge by the Standing Rock Tribal Council to wage a legal battle is unfortunately understood as a substitute for the mass mobilization that was essential to stopping the pipeline during the fall and winter.

In fact, on January 20, the day that Trump was inaugurated, the Standing Rock Tribal Council voted to move water protectors from the camps, citing the need to open up a highway to allow the flow of goods and services to the Prairie Knights Casino that funds crucial social programs on the reservation.

The camps along the Cannonball River face the prospect of spring floods, so it was widely expected that they would eventually be cleared.

But there is also a debate over strategy between water protectors and tribal members who want to continue the grassroots mobilizations and expressions of solidarity that were international news in December--and those who want to stop with the EIS.

Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II and the rest of the Tribal Council suggested that the pipeline just needs to be rerouted. In a letter to Trump, Archambault wrote:

As we have stated previously, we are not opposed to energy independence, national security, job creation or economic development. The problem with the Dakota Access pipeline is not that it involves development, but rather that it was deliberately and precariously placed without proper consultation with tribal governments. This memo takes further action to disregard tribal interests, and the impacts of yesterday's memorandums are not limited to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This disregard for tribal diplomatic relations and the potential for national repercussions is utterly alarming.

This is a forceful statement in defense of Indigenous sovereignty, but it doesn't address the threat to the climate posed by the continuing extraction of fossil fuels.

Furthermore, Archambault's strategy is based on what many consider to be a naive hope that the federal courts will uphold the land and treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux in the absence of the mass resistance and solidarity movement. As Archambault said in a February 1 statement that condemned protesters for attempting to build a new protest camp:

Those who planned to occupy the new camp are putting all of our work at risk. They also put peoples' lives at risk. We have seen what brutality law enforcement can inflict with little provocation. There could be sacred sites on that property. These continuing actions in the face of the tribes' plea to stand down only harm the cause that everyone came here to support.

Yesterday, some took advantage of the impending easement and used it as a call back to camp. Please, once again, we ask that people do not return to camp. The fight is no longer here, but in the halls and courts of the federal government.

OTHER INDIGENOUS water protectors argue that the EIS victory should not be used as a justification for clearing the camps and dismantling the movement. Two leading voices in the #NoDAPL movement--Ladonna Bravebull Allard, founder of Sacred Stones camp, and Chase Iron Eyes--along with several Indigenous groups are calling on water protectors to continue the fight at Standing Rock.

While they consider the Army Corps decision to order an EIS a victory for Indigenous sovereignty over fossil fuel extraction, they also see it as just one step forward among many such decisions that need to be fought for in the battles ahead.

Time will tell if the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council decides to reverse its decision and ask water protectors to come back to the area to continue the struggle. Short of that, there will be continuing pressure against the project from solidarity efforts such as Seattle's possible divestment from Wells Fargo for supporting DAPL.

As the Trump administration continues its attack on all fronts, we must build on the solidarity and mass mobilization that made the struggle at Standing Rock a beacon for people fighting injustice and corporate power all over the world.

Solidarity and grassroots action pushed the Obama administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the easement in December. In the midst of the demoralizing impact of the Trump election, tens of thousands of people flocked to Standing Rock to not only resist, but dare to win.

Standing Rock has been at the forefront of the climate justice movement. We must demand that Indigenous sovereignty be recognized in order to strengthen all our movements. Sovereignty calls into question U.S. borders and the racism they foster. Sovereignty cuts to the core of the dying fossil fuel economy and has the power to halt oil trains and pipelines in their tracks.

We must continue to connect the struggle between Indigenous sovereignty and the fight for climate justice. Sovereignty has the potential to strike at capitalism's endless hunger for land and profits.

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