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.
The water protectors — as many gatherers prefer to be called — have been met with violence. They have been pepper-sprayed by private guards and state security personnel, attacked by dogs, shot at with rubber bullets, manhandled, arrested, threatened with lawsuits, and at least one camp has been destroyed by police. Despite on-the-ground resistance and legal efforts to halt work, construction work on the pipeline has continued at a rapid clip. By Election Day in November, which saw Donald Trump come to power in an upset election victory, construction on the pipeline on both sides of Lake Oahe had been completed and Energy Transfer announced that it was “mobilizing horizontal drilling equipment” in preparation for tunneling under the lake.
The Sioux and their allies won a victory of sorts on December 4, when the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant Dakota Access the permit to drill under the Missouri river, saying that it would instead conduct an environmental impact review of the project and “explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” That win, as many expected, was short-lived. In his “First 100 Days” manifesto, Trump had already vowed to push through the completion of the Dakota Access project, as well as the Keystone oil pipeline — which Obama had been cancelled in 2015 — in order to spark a domestic “energy revolution.” (Trump is known to have had investments in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, and has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the company’s CEO. His team says the president has divested from the company, but has not offered evidence of that.)
And as expected, on January 24, President Trump signed executive orders paving the way for Dakota Access and Keystone XL to move forward. Trump’s order asks the Army Corps to consider “whether to withdraw” the environmental review that is already underway. Public comment on the project closes on 20 February.
But the water protectors, have in turn, vowed to hunker down and fight this battle to the bitter end — through legal action, civil disobedience and a repopulating of the encampments at Standing Rock, which had thinned out over the winter months.
"President Turmp is legally required to honor our treaty rights and provide a fair and reasonable pipeline process," Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said in a statement, adding that the executive order puts the tribe's water supply at risk. "Creating a second Flint does not make America great again."
Way back in October, at the Bioneers conference in California, Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota and Dińe), an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, had this to say about the resistance movement at Standing Rock: “It is a decisive moment for us to send a clear message to elected leaders, to industry, and to each other that we are done with this fossil fuel regime and we are ready for a sustainable, renewable energy future.”
Today, as the Trump-led Republican government work at breakneck speed to dismantle and disempower laws, agencies and programs that protect our environment and civil rights, Goldtooth’s words seem more urgent than ever.
In many ways, the movement at Standing Rock represents the growing strength and visibility of indigenous people climate justice movements across all of North America. In the larger context, it is the latest manifestation of native resistance against settler colonialism.
In Canada, for instance, struggles are underway to oppose tar sands oil extraction from Alberta’s Athabasca region as well as against proposed oil pipeline, tanker, and rail projects — including TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, and Enbridge’s Line 3 and Northern Gateway pipeline projects — all of which would affect First Nations’ land and water. Farther up north, in the Canadian Arctic, the Inuit of Clyde River, Nunavut, are in the midst of a legal battle against oil exploration in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait that they say would harm marine life and their own right to eat.
In the US, in Minnesota’s Great Lakes region, the most important hub for tar sands projects outside of Alberta, the White Earth Nation too, is fighting a series of tar sands pipeline projects; the Lummi Nation and the Cowlitz Tribe of the Pacific Northwest are opposing two coal-export terminals near their lands in Washington State; and the Northern Cheyenne Nation up in the Powder River Basin is fighting a massive coal mine proposal near their reservation in Montana.
This is but a short list of the many battles being fought across the continent where native resistance is playing a key role. Some of these battles have resulted in victories, such as President Obama’s 2015 decision to deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit and a Canadian court’s decision in June to overturn the Harper government’s approval of the Northern Gateway project (though the latter project has stuck around for another round of National Energy Board consultations).
Others have managed to delay projects long enough for it to take a financial toll on the companies involved. In the past, tribes mostly duked out these battles in isolation or at most in association with a handful of local allies. But now, increased communication and visibility provided by technology and social media are helping broader alliances — between indigenous communities throughout North America and beyond — coalesce.
Movement leaders talk about the growing indigenous opposition to extractive industries as old prophecies coming to fruition. Some refer to an ancient Lakota prophecy that speaks of a black snake (zuzeca sape) crossing the land, bringing with it destruction and devastation, that people would rise up to fight against. Dakota Access, they say, is a manifestation of that snake, as was Keystone XL. Others refer to the “Seventh Generation” prophecy, common to many Indian nations, which refers to a turning point in society when indigenous people take back their rightful role as stewards of the land. “It talks about a time when a generation of young people would be born free from the shackles of the colonial mindset and they would guide us to a better future,” explains Clayton Thomas-Muller (Colomb Cree First Nation), Stop it at the Source campaigner with 350.org.
The recent upsurge in this kind of collaborative indigenous activism can be traced back to Idle No More — the grassroots movement that started in December 2012 as a response to a bill in Canada that undermined First Nations’ treaty rights and endangered forests and waterways on native lands.
Idle No More rallies and protests, which included flash mobs and round dances in public spaces and blockades of rail lines, quickly spread across Canada. Though the bill — the Navigation Protection Act — eventually passed, undermining 40 years of environmental and social policy, but the movement against it sparked numerous solidarity protests among indigenous groups in the US and around the world. It helped put the concerns of indigenous peoples on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, says Idle No More spokesperson Pam Palmater, a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick and chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto. Idle No More made recognition of indigenous peoples an election issue and resulted in Prime Minister Trudeau following through on his pledge to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as one of his first official acts. The movement — which now has a strong and growing base among tribes across the continent that network with each other on a regular basis — helped fuse indigenous sovereignty and environmental issues in the public imagination.
Palmater is quick to point out that “indigenous peoples have always been in the lead [when it comes to protecting the environment]; it’s just that mainstream media didn’t cover it unless there was a dramatic blockade or protest.” She also notes that most of these networks and alliances are founded upon years of hard work and negotiation.
Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, a coordinator of the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of six First Nations opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, can vouch for that.
Thomas-Flurer’s grandmother was a medicine woman and a chief for the Saik’uz First Nation, who live in the mountainous interior of British Columbia, a region where the land and the water are everything. “[My grandmother] would travel door to door and talk to people, and that’s how decisions were made,” she recalls. When Thomas-Flurer was contemplating accepting her current role at the Yinka Dene Alliance, her late grandmother visited her in a dream. “She came to my house and led me to the front door. She opened the door and it was the ocean and there was all this black oil floating on top of the water.”
The dream prompted Thomas-Flurer to personally visit First Nations across Canada, including those living along the route of the proposed Energy East Pipeline, to help build an alliance between tribes. “How do you create unity? With knowledge,” she says. “You let people know that we can do this. We can unify and we can beat this. We can protect Mother Earth.”
In September, as the Standing Rock demonstrations were gathering strength in North Dakota, Thomas-Flurer and the leaders of more than 50 First Nations and tribes from Canada and the US came together in Vancouver and signed a treaty to jointly fight all proposals to expand tar sands mining and infrastructure in their territories. The ultimate goal of The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion is to push governments to transition to alternative energy. Signatories to the treaty, which has now been signed by more than 84 First Nations and Native American tribes, include the Standing Rock Sioux.
Serge Simon, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, who helped create the treaty, says the alliance began to take shape well before Standing Rock became big news. But, he says, “Standing Rock brought the whole matter into focus for a lot of people,” and helped get US-based tribes to sign onto the treaty.
“I think if all goes well, we might be able to get a better dialogue [with the government and energy companies],” says Simon, whose community is opposed to the 2,858-mile Energy East Pipeline that’s slated to cross the river about 7.5 miles upstream from their territory on the shore of the Lake of Two Mountains in southwestern Quebec. (Construction on this pipeline, too, has been delayed by opposition from First Nations and environmental activists.) If dialogue fails, Simon foresees a “strong possibility” of “not just one Standing Rock[-like movement], but potentially 20, 30, maybe 50 all at once, all coordinated,” across Turtle Island (an indigenous term for North America). “There is too much at stake to back down.”
With broader alliances have come newer, more expansive strategies. Indigenous movements are no longer about armed opposition, as was the case in historical battles against European settlers. Nor are they about blending into the North American diaspora and accepting the rule of the State. The strategy now is to organize, fundraise, and use nonviolent civil disobedience to slow down projects on the ground a move that also helps stoke social media fires and garner attention — while simultaneously mounting legal challenges in court based on treaty rights.
These campaigns are being led, in large part, by a generation of indigenous youth that is moving beyond the shadow of colonial oppression. It’s a generation that has learned from the battles fought by their elders, that is well versed in social-movement change theory, and that is adept at organizing civil disobedience actions.
“Most of us have aunties and uncles or even parents who have been in social movements even before we were born,” says Thomas-Muller, explaining the value of relationship-based, intergenerational organizing.
Thomas-Muller, who spent part of the US election week at Scared Stone Camp, grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was the first of his family not impacted by colonialism through government interventions such as residential schools. But the scars of oppression run deep in his community. He left home when he was 14 and many of his uncles and brothers, like other indigenous youth in the city, were involved in street gangs. “A lot of my youth was spent trying to understand why native people represented every negative statistic in Canadian discourse, why we were so marginalized in our own homeland. And all the pathways led to the same story: The economy is fundamentally based on the subjugation and dispossession of indigenous people,” he says. When he was 18, Thomas-Muller got involved in a radical community development training program and was exposed to traditional Cree ceremonies and his culture, and everything changed.
“I very quickly re-prioritized what I wanted to do with my life … and I made a choice to get educated and try and do something about the gang epidemic in our community.” Back then, Thomas-Muller, who’s now nearing 40, realized that most of his peers had stories similar to his. “Maybe their hunting grounds were destroyed by a super mine, or through clearcut forestry, or hydro dams were flooding their lands.” That’s what prompted him to start working on environmental justice. “We have the moral authority and the legal regime to change things,” he says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve lost battles but we’ve won even more.”
It helps that this new crop of leaders can speak the language of the dominant culture and work social media like maestros. They know how to bypass the firewall of corporate-controlled media that is generally blind to their stories.
“We are winning on social media,” says Houska of Honor the Earth. “This fight has, even without mainstream coverage, resonated all the way around the world, to the very highest levels of office.” Houska says US land-management officials have now said they are going to review the tribal consultation process itself. “They are now looking at things like: How do we issue these permits [for pipelines and other similar projects]? What does tribal consultations mean? … That is a massive victory, from the ground, from the bottom up, which is how real change is achieved.”
Treaty rights and claims to the land are additional tools that separate native tribes in North America from everyone else in the climate resistance movement. “I think the most important thing [Canada has] is our constitutionally protected aboriginal treaty rights that can literally stop everything and give us time to consider what’s happening,” Palmater says. “That’s huge.”
However, asserting treaty rights can be complicated because both Canada and the United States have made it very difficult for tribes to veto industries that they feel compromise their safety or way of life, says climate justice scholar and activist Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi). “In an ideal world, treaty rights should trump other rights by other entities over the land, but that depends on the willingness of the courts to fully engage and honor treaty obligations,” he says.
Indigenous leaders are also keenly aware that this is a fight they can’t win alone. Part of what powered the Idle No More demonstrations and the Keystone XL fight is their embrace by non-natives, especially unlikely coalitions like the Cowboys and Indians alliance against Keystone XL, which united natives with farmers and landowners, groups traditionally at odds with each other.
Similarly, the Inuit of Clyde River have buried a long-standing grudge against Greenpeace for its past opposition to their traditional seal hunts and are working with the environmental group to oppose seismic testing for oil in the Arctic.“They gave us the ability to voice our concerns [by] reaching out to other parts of the world to let as many people know about our case as possible,” says former Clyde River mayor Jerry Natanine. Greenpeace also helped the small community of 934 people raise funds for a 27-panel mini-solar power plant that began running a few months ago.
The more that indigenous leaders partner with allies in the environmental movement, such as Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, and Naomi Klein, and big green groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace, the more powerful an argument they can make, says Palmater. But she’s clear that indigenous peoples have to lead the charge.
“The only people in this world who are going to save us are indigenous people and the reason why is because we have not just legal connections but spiritual and ceremonial connection to things we don’t see as commodities,” she says. “Even the Pope now is saying environmental destruction is a sin. Wow! I mean, imagine, we’ve been saying that for hundreds of years.”
For many tribal leaders and activists, the struggle for climate justice is also about trying to build sustainable economies that are not dependent on extractive industries. This is especially important because several tribes own and operate their own oil or coal extraction and processing plants in regions where there is no other industry, and many others depend on jobs in these industries. The debate over jobs versus the environment often divides communities.
Eriel Deranger (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations) experienced this first hand when she began to speak out against tar sands expansion in her community more than a decade ago. Deranger was about 22 then, and living in Edmonton, when she received a desperate call from a cousin back home in Fort Chipewyan. “[My cousin] was crying. She said, ‘We need your help. They are destroying everything.’ So I went,” Deranger recounted at a panel on indigenous solutions to the climate crisis at the Bioneers conference.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations is a small community of about 1,200 members situated by Lake Athabasca amid the diverse boreal forest of northern Alberta that, to this day, relies on traditional foods like moose, caribou, fish, and waterfowl. Their settlement also happens to be about 150 miles downstream from the Alberta tar sands mines. Many community members work at the mines or in related businesses.
When Deranger reached home, she was devastated by what she found. “I saw the land. It had turned into a wasteland,” she says. “Those river systems and forests and those ecosystems I knew as a child, the places where my Dad taught me how to track animals, and places where I would collect water to drink straight from the river, were gone. And immediately I felt like, My daughter will never see those things. And I was like, I’m going to do whatever is necessary to stop it.”
But her efforts to organize against tar sands mining were met with resistance and mistrust by her tribe. “A lot of people didn’t like me. They felt I was a threat to their jobs because they felt that they didn’t have any other choice. They were stuck in the tar sands economy. They hadn’t had an economy since the fur trade collapsed in the ‘60s and if I threatened that then they would lose everything they had. They thought we were the bad guys.”
Things have changed since then. Her community has experienced first-hand how the destruction of the environment is affecting their health. Cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan have risen by 30 percent in recent years. It is suspected this is linked to exposure to hydrocarbons released into the air and water by mining activities. “Fast forward to this year, and at memberships meetings everyone is like: We’ve got to stop the tar sands expansion. We need renewable energy!” says Deranger, who is now her tribe’s communications coordinator.
In the past decade the tribe has filed several lawsuits against the oil industry, including challenging the approvals for the Grand Rapids pipeline, a 285-mile, 900,000-barrel-a-day line that would run from northern Alberta to southeast of Edmonton.
Earlier this year, Deranger helped found Indigenous Climate Action, a new initiative that looks into how to help First Nation communities make just energy transitions to small scale, community-based solar and wind projects. Recognizing that indigenous communities are among those most impacted by global warming and yet have been largely left out of climate change policy-making, the initiative also explores ways to include indigenous values, knowledge, and perspectives in the climate change discourse.
Deranger believes native perspectives can offer key solutions to the climate crisis. Here’s why, she explains: Indigenous people make up only 4 percent of the world’s population but occupy more than 20 percent of the land, whereas the rest of humanity lives on only 4 percent of Earth’s landmass. “In addition to that space, we occupy 80 percent of biodiverse regions that are left on the planet, and we are also on top of, or adjacent to, 85 percent of the world’s conservation or protection zones,” Deranger says. “None of this is a coincidence. This has to do with the fact that our very existence, our values and cosmology as indigenous people, is intrinsically linked to the land, to the water, to the air, to the biodiversity, to the flora and the fauna. It’s our connections to those things that allow us to have solutions to how not only to protect them and preserve them, but also to ensure the future will always have them. And those things are critical and essential for climate stabilization.”
Not only that, she says, native people today are also modern people. “We walk in two worlds.”
Indeed, the validity and value of indigenous ecological knowledge has been receiving growing recognition by both the wider public and the scientific community. A significant measure of that is the recent acceptance of indigenous organizations into the Members’ Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature — the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
“Native people are catalyzing a very critical examination of the mechanized industrialized worldview,” says Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi), a plant ecologist and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York, Syracuse. “This is a long time coming. People are starting to pay attention, because they are starting to understand that these questions about how to live sustainably or deal with climate change are bigger than what policy and technology can solve.”
The indigenous worldview, which perceives the world as animate and as kin, is based on guiding principles of kinship, respect, reciprocity, reverence, and restoration, she says. “Instead of talking of natural resources we talk about gifts and how we can pay back for those gifts.” In that context, what is really at stake at Standing Rock [and other similar movements] is the meaning of land, Kimmerer says. “Is land really a source of materials, of property and natural resources? Or is there another way of looking at it, in which land is understood as a living entity, as the place where we enact our moral responsibility? I think many people are asking similar questions now.”
Some among us might hope that indigenous people will eventually save this planet from, and for, the rest of us. But native people push back against that notion. “It’s not just upon us,” says Goldtooth. “Climate change is a call to action to all allies to support indigenous peoples and frontline communities’ struggles and efforts, but also to reconnect and renew your own relationship with the Earth and your relationship to each other. We need to do it together and rise together.”
The need to rise together is more imperative than ever given the precarious road that lies ahead for the environmental movement, as well as all other interconnected movements for social and economic justice.
Back at Standing Rock, where the water protectors are keenly aware of the steep challenges their effort now faces. A few hundred of them have remained at the camps through the heavy winter and there have been multiple clashes with law enforcement in first few weeks of 2017. The Sioux tribe, which had asked supporters to go home for the winter following the Army Corps decision in December, reiterated the call on 21 January. But that was before Trump green-lighted the pipeline. Already, solidarity protests have begun popping up across the country and many who had left the camps in December are planning on making their way back. “The Trump administration is sparking a revolution that makes us stronger than we ever were before,” says Kandi Mossett, lead organizer of the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Extreme Energy and Just Transition campaign.
So far, the people at Standing Rock have been peaceful in their opposition to the pipeline, opting for prayer and ceremony instead of anger. But, for how long? If things go south and options begin to run out, there is the risk that peaceful protection may transform into a more violent form of protest.
“We know the government always goes there,” says Palmater. “They try to paint us as terrorists, vigilantes, warriors, and everything else. But the people who always bring the guns to the fight are the government and the corporations. We don’t want to turn people off with violence, but at the same time, what happens when you’re left with nothing and the choice is a pipeline goes through this waterway and we all know every day there are hundreds of spills. What does that mean? What kind of violence is that to the people who need to drink that water to live? It means there is death, and that’s violence.”
In early February, as this story went to press, the water protectors hadn’t reached that hard place. At the time, with the approval of the Standing Rock tribal council, they were still working on plans to build a small, solar and wind-powered eco-village on the reservation. “We are not only fighting a pipeline,” Mossett said, “we are showing just transition is possible.”
Ron Johnson, a Toronto-based journalist, is an editor for Post City magazines. Maureen Nandini Mitra and Sara Lafleur-Vetter provided additional reporting. A version of this article originally appeared in Earth Island Journal.