Obama’s cowardly silence on Standing Rock

December 1, 2016

Why hasn't Barack Obama, who claims to defend the environment and Native rights, intervened to stop the violence against pipeline protesters, asks Nicole Colson.

"IN A spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, we've made a lot of progress for Indian Country over the past eight years. And this moment highlights why it's so important that we redouble our efforts to make sure that every federal agency truly consults and listens and works with you, sovereign to sovereign."

At the Eighth White House Tribal Nations Conference in late September, Barack Obama made some big claims about what his administration has done for Native Americans.

Yet even as he spoke about his time supposedly championing Native rights and the sovereignty of Native people over what is supposed to be their own lands, protesters at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota had been facing off for weeks against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on sacred tribal lands.

Today, despite weeks of increasing repression from authorities, Obama's near-silence about both whether Native Americans should have the right to decide what happens on their own tribal lands, as well as on the increasing brutality designed to quell the protests, isn't an accident. It's an indication of where his administration's priorities truly lie--with business, not with protecting the environment or the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans.

Native activists call on President Obama to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline
Native activists call on President Obama to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (Aime Lopez | SoCal 350 Climate Action)

THE $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would cross Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands under the Missouri River, poses a serious threat to the tribe's water resources--an issue of "sovereignty" if there ever was one.

In an increasingly tense standoff, thousands of water protectors and their supporters have traveled to Standing Rock to take a stand not only against Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline project, but against local and federal officials attempting to ram the DAPL project through, no matter the cost to the Indigenous community.

As protesters' determination has become clear, officials have turned to increasingly more brutal methods to attempt to crush the protests, including turning water cannons on activists in freezing temperatures and using concussion grenades and other "non-lethal" weapons that have left at least one protester fighting to keep her arm.

As part of the latest strategy, following a recent "emergency evacuation" order from North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, state officials are now attempting to block supplies from reaching the protesters, "threatening to use hefty fines to keep demonstrators from receiving food, building materials and even portable bathrooms," according to Reuters.

Coming as winter has set in and snow blankets the ground, such tactics pose a serious threat to the health and safety of the thousands of protesters who are vowing to remain at the camp as long as it takes to safeguard tribal lands.

In this context, Obama's ongoing silence about whether protesters have the right to defend their lands--and the right not to be attacked with violence or starved into submission--stand in stark contrast to his September remarks, in which he talked about himself as a champion of Native rights.

In that speech, Obama told the audience of Native Americans:

My trips to your nations and communities are days that I will never forget. Michelle and I still talk about hosting those remarkable young people from Standing Rock Sioux Nation in the White House and taking them out for pizza...I pledged to all of you when I first ran for president that I'd be a partner with all of you in the spirit of a true nation-to-nation relationship, to give all our children the future they deserve.

One of those young people from Standing Rock whom Obama met when he toured the reservation in 2014 and later took out for pizza, is Kendrick Eagle. For Eagle and other young people taking a stand at Standing Rock, it's precisely the future they're worried about--the future of the tribe's access to clean water, the future right of Native people to control their own lands and the future of the environment.

In a video message to Obama, Eagle commented on meeting the president, "It's like you cared about me and you cared about my story...You said, 'Let's not make this just a dream,' and right now it kind of feels like it was a dream, because you said you had our back, and here we are."

"Help us stop this pipeline," Eagle implored.

SHAMEFULLY, OBAMA has taken a "wait and see" approach to the pipeline, telling Now This in early November, "[W]e're going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans."

But the calls from activists for Obama to take action in support of Native rights and the environment at Standing Rock are growing louder.

In a statement released after authorities unleashed a torrent of violence on protesters in mid-November that injured dozens and severely wounded protester Sophia Wilansky--potentially costing her arm--Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chair Dave Archambault II said:

Our culture, our children and our homelands have repeatedly been stolen from us. We are deeply saddened that despite the millions of Americans and allies around the world who are standing with us at Standing Rock, a single corporate bully--backed by U.S. government taxpayer dollars through a militarized law enforcement--continue[s] to be sanctioned by aggressive, unlawful acts. President Obama, this cannot be your legacy.

One thing that Obama could do that would bring a permanent and immediate halt to the pipeline, according activists, would be to designate the area a national monument. "If you declare Standing Rock a national monument," Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska said, addressing Obama during a sit-in at the General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C., in November, "that means that no oil and gas development can happen on that land."

In early November, Archambault pointed outon Democracy Now! that the Obama administration could halt the Dakota Access project tomorrow if it really wanted to, by hitting Energy Transfer Partners where it hurts the most--their bottom line:

Wayne Wilansky, the father of injured protester Sophia Wilansky, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Democracy Now!. He detailed how, even as Sophia was being prepared to go into surgery, FBI agents visited her in her hospital room and demanded her clothes be turned over.

He also pointed to the fact that the Obama administration could insist that the Army Corp of Engineers deny permission for the drilling of that section of pipeline, and that the Obama administration could also bring pressure to bear on local and state authorities over the use of militarized weapons to send a clear message about the right of protesters to exercise their First Amendment right to protest.

"President Obama has to step in there and stop this," Wayne Wilansky pleaded.

THERE'S ONLY one inescapable conclusion: Obama--whose record on protecting the environment is lackluster at best, despite the many promises he made when he took office--is failing to act on behalf of the water protectors at Standing Rock because his administration remains beholden to maintaining the system and the power of corporations like Energy Transfer Partners.

The leader of the "free world" and the "world's greatest democracy" could halt the attacks on protesters and stop the environmentally devastating Dakota Access pipeline in its tracks--but he won't, because he is committed to maintaining the status quo and to maintaining the power and profits of corporations like Energy Transfer Partners.

Consider the different responses to the Standing Rock protesters versus the armed right-wing militia members who illegally occupied Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Those protesters (who, it should be noted, wanted to illegally seize public lands for themselves, among other things) were treated with kid gloves for weeks by local authorities as well as the federal government. Their supplies were never cut off.

As Obama's last weeks in office unfold, it's understandable why so many people are feeling pangs of loss about as he prepares to leave office. But those feelings are less about any actual policies that Obama has championed for working people and left-wing causes than the fears about how horrible the next four years under his successor could shape up to be.

Many expect that "President Trump"--a "drill, baby, drill" advocate who will undoubtedly stand squarely in defense of the rights of corporate polluters--will attempt to suppress the protests at Standing Rock and clear the way once and for all for the pipeline, if Obama continues to punt on the issue.

If that happens, the Democrats will likely express sorrow for the outcome and blame Trump and the Republicans--but that would be letting Obama and the Democrats off the hook. We have to keep pointing out that it's his administration that has allowed the DAPL to proceed to this point--and his administration that is refusing to stand in defense of Native rights and the environment.

Ironically, in his September speech at the Tribal Nations conference, Obama told the crowd:

Even after my time in this office comes to an end, I'm going to be standing alongside you because I believe that, yes, our progress depends in part on who sits in the Oval Office, and whether they're setting the right priorities, but lasting progress depends on all of us, not just who the president is. It depends on making the decisions that are good and right and just, and our willingness to organize and mobilize and keep pushing for opportunity.

A new generation of activists is drawing those lessons for themselves at Standing Rock--and promising to continue the fight. And if Obama's not ready or willing to stand with them, as he once promised, then he needs to stand aside as we keep organizing, mobilizing and pushing.

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