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“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

—Sitting Bull

A pipeline protest started by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota in the United States has turned into the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in over 100 years. While the media has only recently taken notice, protesters have been on the front lines trying to stop the pipeline’s progress since April. The North Dakota governor has called out National Guard troops because of the growing organized resistance. Private security guards maced a pregnant woman and have allowed dogs to bite some of the protestors, including at least one child. A federal judge ruled against halting construction late last week, but in a last-minute stay on Friday, 9 September, the Obama administration ordered a temporary work stoppage.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, if constructed, would move extremely dirty Bakken tar sands oil 1,172 miles from its origin to a port in Illinois. The $3.7 billion project would move over 400,000 barrels of oil a day through sensitive wildlands and cultural sites. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe claims the pipeline will cross and damage many cultural and religious sites in the area, including one that was once the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, sacred to the Sioux and now hidden behind a dam. The tribe further argues that North Dakota state authorities also missed major cultural and archeological sites in their plan review, including the burial site of a major leader signified by a stone with Iyokapta Tanka (the Big Dipper) nearby. According to The Atlantic, Dakota Access has already built across many of these sites, most likely destroying them in the process.

The pipeline’s proposed route goes under Lake Oahe, an area noted for its fish and wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently revoked a permit through the Big Sioux River Wildlife Management Area over environmental concerns. Sensitive wildlife in the area includes deer, turkey, buffalo, antelope, bobcats, and a wide variety of fish. A major spill could be catastrophic to these fragile populations, as well as the Standing Rock tribe and the 17 million people downstream who rely on a clean water supply.

While the protest has drawn more exposure to indigenous political issues, it has also provided an opportunity for climate activists to argue against continued use of fossil fuels. Like the Keystone XL protests over the last few years, Dakota Access showcases the need for a conversion to cleaner, greener sources of energy that do not threaten entire ecosystems. Many environmental groups have expressed support for the Standing Rock tribe’s efforts, Idle No More launched a social media campaign, and even Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein made an appearance and currently has an arrest warrant for spray-painting symbols on the pipeline. The support from indigenous people around the world and major environmental and political organizations made this an international story.

The twin issues of indigenous rights and environmental protection dovetail perfectly here. Indigenous peoples around the world have been at the forefront of protecting all aspects of our shared environment for hundreds of years—the Standing Rock protest only highlights this fact. We would do well to consider what our economic and personal actions do that lead to situations like this and convert to energy systems that do not violate anyone’s rights, devastate cultures that predate so-called Western civilization, or threaten anyone’s health, human or nonhuman alike.


Photo by Overpass Light Brigade

William Huggins

William Huggins

William Huggins is an avid hiker, reader, husband, father, and dedicated rescue-dog maniac--though not necessarily in that order. Educated in a series of remote places because of his father's work for the United States Air Force, he was born an advocate of wild places and grew into that green skin. Bill writes for Texas Books in Review and has a series of six essays for Conservation Lands Foundation appearing at and a new short story, "Watercharmer," coming this fall 2017 in the anthology Visions VII: Universe."