Nations Rising

Across North America Indigenous people are pushing for a renewable energy future.


| Spring 2017



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The Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in November 2016.

Photo by Flickr/Paul and Cathy

Under the big North Dakota sky, in a sparsely populated slice of Indian country, a dramatic uprising has been underway that some say could change the conversation around fossil fuels and quite possibly spark the climate resistance movement of the future.

It started small — with two people setting up the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in April to express opposition to the $3.8 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline project. The 1,172-mile pipeline, which is supposed to deliver fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale to markets in the US Midwest and Gulf Coast, is to pass half a mile north of the reservation border, cross several sacred sites, and burrow under Lake Oahe, the reservoir where the Cannonball and Missouri rivers meet. The Standing Rock Sioux say the project desecrates sacred burial grounds. They also fear that if the pipeline — which is designed to transport as many as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily, equivalent to roughly 50 percent of North Dakota’s current oil production — breaks or leaks, as pipelines tend to do, it would contaminate the reservation’s water supply as well as that of some 10 million people who rely on the region’s watershed.

As word about the “spirit camp” spread via various native news networks, a few dozen more people joined in. Then, in August, when the company behind the project, Energy Transfer Partners, fired up heavy machinery and started moving earth, the Standing Rock Sioux called on their indigenous brothers and sisters and non-native allies for support. The camp swelled from a few teepees and campers to hundreds. Members of more than two hundred tribes made their way from all corners of Turtle Island to the Morton County campsite. Representatives of environmental groups and other allies, too, drove in from all over the United States and Canada. Many more flew in from across the oceans, from places like Hawaiʻi, Ecuador, Japan, Russia, and Germany. By late September, the riverside gathering grew so large that multiple camps had to be set up to house everyone, and by early October, Standing Rock had become the largest mass-gathering of Native Americans and their allies in more than a century.

It seems clear that at Standing Rock, a line has been drawn for indigenous peoples. “So many of us got into our cars and just drove to North Dakota because we all knew what it feels to like to see this massive oil industry and what they can do to our communities,” says Tara Houska (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa). Houska is national campaigns director with Honor the Earth, an indigenous women-led organization that works on building zero-carbon native economies and food security. “No matter where you are in the world, indigenous people talk about the same problems. They talk about fossil fuel projects coming in and destroying their homelands, threatening their drinking water, threatening their future, again, and again, and again … Standing Rock has become for indigenous people this moment where they are all standing together because they all know what happens when something like this is allowed to happen to them.”

Nearly every day until the harsh North Dakota winter set in, people from the camps have trudged with purpose to the pipeline’s work site to put their bodies and their potential criminal records on the line to fight the so-called “Black Snake,” which in a clear act of environmental racism was redirected from Bismarck, the nearby city that has a largely white population.

Daily acts of nonviolent civil disobedience have included prayer ceremonies, road blockades, and people locking themselves to active machinery in an attempt to stop work on the pipeline, which by some calculations would facilitate emissions equivalent to those of nearly 30 coal plants. The synergy and organization of this mobilization has been incredibly inspiring to watch. The response to their peaceful, prayerful demonstrations, unsurprisingly, quite the opposite.