Water sustainability isn’t a glamorous issue. It doesn’t incite the emotions of challenging people’s patriotism or categorizing Americans based on their identity politics. Yet, it’s perhaps one of the most pressing issues faced by our country today – although from watching this year’s election coverage, or news broadcasts in general, you wouldn’t be able to glean that reality. Too many gatekeepers and power players have prioritized racial disharmony and ecological neglect over Americans’ safety and health.
For months on end, the Sioux tribe has been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) – a 1,100-mile conduit that would transport crude oil from the North Dakota plains across four states into southwestern Illinois. The company that’s presently constructing the pipeline, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, claims that it’s “safe” and “environmentally-friendly”…especially in comparison to transporting oil via trucks or railways.
In response, the Sioux have drawn attention to an imminent risk that too many people appear to want to avoid: how a potential leak would have a grave impact on the environment, the ecosystem, and their tribe’s cultural landmarks. Lake Oahe, spread across a south-central North Dakotan portion of DAPL’s southeastward route, is a major water source for the Missouri River. Other portions of the proposed route for DAPL also cross private land, including the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
On September 3, Energy Transfer Partners began bulldozing on Sioux burial grounds – in the face of hundreds upon hundreds of protesters. This was made all the more egregious by the fact that ETP began this land violation before U.S. District Judge James Boasberg had even rendered his decision regarding the injunction filed by the Sioux tribe. Plus, it was a holiday weekend – which indicated that the government hoped to sneak in the genesis of this activity at a time when the general public’s attention would be distracted by vacations and special events.
Members from more than ninety other Tribal Nations across the U.S. have joined the Sioux in these protests; part of the DAPL will rip through an ancient trading site that was also used by the Arikara, Mandan, and Northern Cheyenne tribes – so the cultural solidarity here is palpable.
ReZpect Our Water is a campaign aimed at shutting down DAPL routes through sacred tribal lands and across major water sources. It isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Indigenous rights have been slowly working their way into the public consciousness ever since the rise of the Canadian-based “Idle No More” movement, four years ago. It’s occurred at a snail’s pace…but at least it’s happening.
In the past few weeks, thousands of protesters from additional racial groups have joined the tribe members. Actor Leonard DiCaprio has heavily promoted the cause through social media via the hashtag #KeepItInTheGround – and increased visibility of this campaign itself has brought an array of new players into the fray.
Ultimately, Judge Boasberg denied the Sioux tribe’s request for an injunction; however, by the time he rendered that decision, a lot more bad stuff had transpired. Standing Rock protesters had been gathering around the planned construction site for months in anticipation of when the pillaging would commence. In turn, Dakota Access, LLC has sued the tribe for protesting on the sacred grounds that ETP considers to be a mere work site. Governor Jack Dalrymple (R-ND) dispatched the National Guard in response to the protestors’ modus of chaining themselves to the construction equipment.
An arrest warrant has been issued as a Class B misdemeanor against Democracy Now journalist Amy Goodman for filming footage of security personnel wreaking guard dogs on the protestors. The previous week, an arrest warrant had been issued against Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein for trespassing and vandalism after she spray-painted “I Approve This Message” onto one of the bulldozers while camping out on the grounds with the protestors. Red Warrior Camp activist Cody Charles Hall was also charged, after being stopped in his vehicle with expired tabs – he was hit with two misdemeanors, Classes A and B.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier alleges that the protestors presented themselves in a threatening manner, armed with masks, goggles, hatchets, and knives (and many of them on horseback!). Local authorities have characterized the protestors as an “angry mob” and a “riot scene” in regard to the days for which arrest warrants were issued and the crowds were quelled. But by the time Boasberg got around to issuing his denial for an injunction, the PR damage had already been done.
President Barack Obama finally stepped in, halting construction underneath – and adjacent to – Lake Oahe within a twenty-mile radius. Obama’s Interior, Energy, and Army Departments have suspended the issuance of permits to drill underneath the Missouri River. Okay, great…but what took his administration so long? More than forty civilian arrests occurred in the meantime. All the while, Energy Transfer Partners whines that the delays will cost them upwards of $1.4 billion in lost revenue for the first year.
For now, construction will cease on those stretches of the DAPL route that are owned by the Sioux. But the double standard here only highlights the hypocrisy of political conservatives. People on the Right are the ones who generally rail against eminent domain abuses…yet, they seem perfectly willing to “make an exception” when it involves Big Oil making a profit by ravaging tribal lands without consent.
Aside from that, it’s distressing how the Obama Administration even allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to sign on to these violations of tribal sovereignty, in the first place. And it isn’t exclusively about cultural preservation. Enbridge (which has partnered with ETP) intends to drill through the riverbeds and lake shores on Sioux land. A major DAPL leak could pollute Lake Oahe in close proximity to the Standing Rock Reservation. In turn, that would carry residual pollutants into the Missouri River – which has already been polluted with agricultural runoff and contaminants from fracking. And the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River…which directly meanders through ten different states.
There’s also a point along the DAPL route itself where the pipeline would cross the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois. So now – in addition to the threat to Lake Oahe, other parts of the Ogalalla Aquifer, and the already-polluted Missouri River – we see a tangible threat posed to the nation’s longest river that bisects the middle of the continent.
Didn’t we already go through all of this with the Keystone XL Pipeline, ten months ago? Apparently, Big Oil didn’t get the message that first time.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has been one of the few journalists to prominently cover this travesty. He rightfully points out how the Dakota Access Pipeline is a violation of treaties, and that Tribal Nations have traditionally been America’s first environmentalists who’ve stood up for the preservation of rivers, lakes, and mountains. But even O’Donnell has gotten carried away with the hyperbole of white guilt – sanctimoniously invoking blanket phrases such as “we invaders” (us honkies, of course!) and genocide.
Yes, the federal government has a commitment to honor tribal sovereignty when it comes to reservations and private lands. But even more pointedly: these pipelines crossing major sources of water pose a reckless threat to overall public safety. The Sioux people – and their tribal allies – are simply fighting to make sure the U.S. government fulfills its responsibility to uphold those basic necessities.
Have the actions of the Standing Rock protesters been garish and extreme? By definition, sure. But they’re completely warranted. The government has shown its unwillingness to listen, or take public health into account, with its salacious approval of these drilling permits. And had it not been for the participation of higher-profile figures such as Stein, DiCaprio, and Goodman, it’s dubious as to whether our beloved mainstream media would have given this sham project even a blip of coverage.
This is the TRUE flagrant manifestation of white privilege: the fact that white people with marquee names have to get involved in order to force our media and federal government to act with good judgment on behalf of safe drinking water.
But no one’s framing it in that pointed context of common sense to which all Americans can relate.
Instead, on one end of the spectrum, we have the PC-bluster of O’Donnell and his ilk. On the other end are the right-wingers and corporatists who wish to sacrifice purer water quality in exchange for short-term gluttony. And, in-between, is an equally-corporatist “mainstream media” that only seems to want to talk about identity politics in terms of Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia, Colin Kaepernick’s alleged lack of character, and Ryan Lochte’s so-called “white male privilege” (even though Lochte is half-Cuban).
Standing Rock doesn’t register on the national radar until news anchors decide to talk up how “dramatic” these arrests, macings, and dog attacks have been – or when the white establishment of the Democratic Party wants to use it as an excuse to bash Jill Stein.
Now, prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben has called upon Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to take a stand on behalf of Standing Rock Reservation and the Sioux people. Will she? It would sure be nice to hear it from her mouth. I’d also love to hear it brought up during the presidential debates…but I’m not holding my breath.
The chant of “I AM Water” is echoed by earth-based activists as a meditative exercise to bring attention to the sanctity of sacred water sources all over the world…not just in North Dakota and the United States. This should be a wake-up call for ALL sitting politicians to finally begin taking the issue of national water sustainability seriously. That means tangible solutions…not just lip service.
What’s so painful is that we’re seeing history repeat itself all over again. Except, this time, it’s not just indigenous tribes being forcibly removed from land to expand a new government. This time around, it’s Tribal Nations being kicked off of their own reservations in the name of expediency on behalf of fossil fuel industries. On top of that, it’s exacerbating pollution and contaminants of both water and air. It’s being done, once again, without the consent of indigenous peoples or the general public.
There should be two overlying priorities here. First, quality-of-life on tribal reservations must be preserved – it also needs to be improved. The federal government doesn’t arbitrarily tear up generic cemeteries throughout the U.S.; yet, it’s somehow okay for them to do so to the burial grounds of Tribal Nations?
And, secondly, overall public safety when it comes to drinking water must take precedence over the convenience of lightning-fast oil transportation through corrosive metal tubes. Despite what happened centuries ago, this land is all of ours, now. Americans everywhere should have access to water that’s undisturbed by hazardous substances.
If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she should be considering Chase Iron Eyes (Lakota) or Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe) for U.S. Secretary of the Interior. If Donald Trump becomes president, he should be considering Tom Cole (Chickasaw) for that same cabinet post.
We don’t need Flint-like levels of water crises arising up-and-down the entire Mississippi and Missouri River basins – nor do we need water shortages expanding eastward (from the Western United States) into the Great Plains…or beyond. We can’t tolerate microscopic toxins and chunks of sludge creeping their way into our municipalities’ water supplies. In fact, we should be replenishing water sources west of the Rocky Mountains too!
The Standing Rock protesters are true patriots. Their approach is unorthodox…but it has to be. Otherwise, our government and media will allow the rape of the land – and the damnation of our water sources – to prevail.
Enough about identity politics. Enough about spirituality. Enough about carbon emissions. Let’s frame it in a way that everyone should be able to understand…
Public safety. In the absence of clean drinking water, there will be plenty of genocide to go around.
All photos by Fibonacci Blue — via Flickr