STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, North Dakota—Citizens, tribal leaders, and environmental activists from communities spanning the Great Sioux Nation in North and South Dakota are banding together to discourage federal entities from approving the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project they consider to be a dire threat to the health of their people, water, and the environment.
On top of running a 500-mile relay to draw attention to the issue, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has launched a social media campaign and petition called “Rezpect Our Water” in hopes of garnering support from concerned citizens across the country.
“Rezpect” is a term that blends the slang term “rez,” a word commonly used to describe Native lands, and the word “respect.” In the newly released video series, children from the tribe speak up in opposition to the pipeline.
“It’s messed up because we get all our water from the Missouri river,” said Winona Gayton, 14, a member of the tribe and resident of the Standing Rock Reservation. “We’re going to push back."
“It’s like they don’t care about us,” said Tokata Iron Eyes, 12, of Fort Yates, North Dakota, in reference to proponents of the pipeline. “They’re not the ones being affected, so why should they be the ones to make the decision?”
The campaign to fight the pipeline is at its peak now, but the battle began two years ago when representatives from the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company first arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota to pitch the project at a public forum. Ladonna Brave Bull Allard showed up to the meeting and sat quietly in the back of the room. She listened without engaging, making a point to not eat any of the food they provided.
After the meeting, as the room emptied and everybody finished speaking, Brave Bull Allard made her way to the front and introduced herself to the oil representatives.
“Look at my face,” she pleaded with a firm voice. “I am from the Standing Rock Reservation. I am the closest landowner to your pipeline. Your pipeline will go right across from my home. Your pipeline will be at my son’s grave, my father’s grave, my uncles' graves. I have been on the Cannonball River all my life, so I want you to know me.”
Ever since that meeting, Brave Bull Allard has continued to fight the pipeline on a personal level as a landowner, on a community level as a citizen of the Great Sioux Nation, and on a professional level as the Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
For an outsider, the quickest route to the Brave Bull Allard residence, where the Standing Rock Reservation’s northern boundary begins, is a 47-mile drive south from Bismarck on Highway 1806, which runs along the Missouri River—the same route Lewis and Clark took two centuries ago. If you happen to miss the bold green highway sign welcoming you to the reservation, you’ll know you’re there when you lose cellphone reception.
The remote and rural reservation is the sixth largest in the country at about 5.3 million acres. Towns are few and far between. Tall grasses, lonely trees, and scattered homes comprise the landscape. But to call it “empty” would be an injustice; describing Native lands as “empty” is a colonial tactic that has been used to justify land theft for centuries.
Standing next to the grave sites of her relatives, Brave Bull Allard pointed to the proposed pipeline site. It is within a few hundred feet of her home. Though a map would show clear boundaries, the naked eye has trouble distinguishing between her yard and the reservation’s border. The Cannonball River, a tributary of the Missouri River, is very much a part of her family’s place, and likewise a part of the community of Cannon Ball. Following the river south, most of Standing Rock’s other towns and homes are also along its shores, as many homes and ranches depend on the water source.
“This was a major trade metropolis here,” explained Brave Bull Allard as she scanned the landscape with her hands. “I can tell you where the first Okipa ceremony was held so that the Mandan people could pray. I can tell you where the 1938 Sun Dance was held to stop the war…”
Brave Bull Allard described about a dozen other historically significant sites. As a young girl growing up in the community, she heard these stories from her elders. As Historic Preservation Officer, she has done her research and worked with cartographers to create maps for the tribe to use in times like this.
Brave Bull Allard has not stopped working, but the Dakota Access LLC (a subsidiary of the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, who owns the project) has not backed down. In fact, they have made great strides toward garnering approval for the pipeline.
If approved, the project would be completed and fully functional by the end of the year. The 30-inch diameter pipeline would transfer about a half million barrels of domestically produced crude oil per day from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois 1,168 miles away.
So far, Dakota Access has managed to procure voluntary easements on 90% of the private land along the route. They have also received approval from all four states along the path.
But they have not received approval from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe or other tribal governments who say that the health and well being of tribal lands and reservation residents are at stake.
“The initial environmental assessment didn’t even mention Standing Rock. They completely ignored our interests,” said Steve Sitting Bear, External Affairs Coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
According to Sitting Bear, Dakota Access did not deem consideration of tribal interests necessary because the pipeline would not run directly under tribal lands.
But the tribe argues that because it would cross directly under the south-flowing Missouri River mere feet away from Standing Rock’s northern border next to the community of Cannon Ball (the same town the Obamas visited two years ago for an historic and rare trip to reservation lands), the tribe is directly at risk of facing consequences should the pipeline break.
Joye Braun, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from Eagle Butte, South Dakota, is an environmental activist who has been instrumental in garnering grassroots support to stop the pipeline. Braun anticipates that a break in the pipeline north of Cannon Ball would immediately impact at least three out of seven tribes in the Great Sioux Nation.
“Without our sacred water, we have nothing” Braun explained. “If that pipeline breaks, all of Standing Rock’s potable water will be in danger. Then it’s going to come down toward Cheyenne River where half of our reservation will be contaminated, and don’t forget that the Oglala Nation gets their drinking water from the Missouri River too.”
Because of the disregard for Standing Rock and the rest of the Great Sioux Nation in the initial draft of the project’s environmental impact assessment, Standing Rock’s chairman, Dave Archambault, traveled to Washington to seek support from other federal agencies who may influence the decision.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Historic Preservation have both since issued statements calling for a reassessment of environmental impact, arguing that Standing Rock land and water should be taken into account, just as they have taken the livelihood of other populations into account.
Archambault explained that one of the proposed pipeline routes in an earlier draft of the project had the pipeline running under the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital city.
“They chose not to build there because of the population,” Archambault said. “Well, we have a population too.”
Unlike the Keystone XL pipeline, which was considered a federal project due to its crossing of international borders, the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline is a private project which does not require presidential approval. Approval for the DAPL now lies in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers. Sioux officials are planning to meet with a corps official Friday in South Dakota. The Corps has stated that they will issue a decision in regards to the pipeline sometime during the first week of May.
Until then, people of all ages from the Great Sioux Nation will continue to fight the pipeline, urging others to “rezpect” their water. Youth involvement in the initiative is a testament the the intergenerational mentality of Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people. Consideration for future generations has always been a staple value in Sioux culture.
“This pipeline threatens the sacred waters of the Missouri and is attempting to lock our country into more fossil fuel dependency when we are seeing a just transition toward renewable energy,” said Dallas Goldtooth, organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, “We must keep this oil in the ground for the benefit of all future generations.”
Chelsey Luger writes about indigenous people and the things that matter to them. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a lifelong Ninja Turtle fanatic, and hopes to raise a pet turtle one day.