Many Reasons, One Cause In Pipeline Protest

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Opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to grow beyond its North Dakota roots, with solidarity protests Tuesday in dozens of cities across the country and the world.


The protests began in April with a few members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation is downstream of where the 1,200-mile pipeline is slated to cross the Missouri River. The tribe is concerned a leak could contaminate its drinking water and that construction is already harming sacred sites near the reservation. But as the protests have spread, the motivations have also become more diverse.

Protesters gathered at the Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver on Tuesday, September 13, 2016.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Protesters gathered at the Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver on Tuesday, September 13, 2016.

In Denver, more than a hundred people packed into the Four Winds American Indian Council, a cozy church with big stained glass windows on a leafy street south of downtown Denver. Some held signs with slogans like “Break free from fossil fuels.”

Derek Brown was not one of them.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for fossil fuels,” he said. “I drove here.”

Brown is Navajo and for him, the pipeline protest is not an environmental fight. It is about tribal sovereignty and making sure Native Americans have a voice.

“We don’t have a seat at the table of negotiations,” he said. “I feel like we have to make a stand that we are still here, that we still exist. American Indians are not dead.”

Sky Roosevelt-Morris lives in Denver, but was just at the protest camps in North Dakota.

“What’s going on over there [in North Dakota] is a revolutionary movement,” she said. “It’s starting a wildfire across the world. Not even just the country anymore, it’s going across the world. So it’s just a really big blessing.”

The protests have indeed spread. In addition to events in dozens of U.S. cities, activists planned to protest in London and Tokyo as well. But for many of those protesters, the fight is very much an environmental one—Keystone 2.0.

Outside the church in Denver, Mark Hefflinger held a sign that read “Keep Our Water Blue.” Hefflinger works for a political advocacy group called Bold Alliance and he explained the sign is recycled—on the other side, it read “Stop the Transcanada Pipeline.”

“People come at [these pipeline fights] from so many different angles,” he said.

In fact, that’s why Hefflinger thinks the anti-pipeline movement has been so successful—whether people are concerned about climate change, fracking, water issues or tribal sovereignty, they can unite behind a single goal—in this case, stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built. When Bernie Sanders addressed a crowd in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, he came at the pipeline from his usual angle, talking about corporate greed.

“We cannot allow our drinking water to be poisoned so that a handful of fossil fuel companies can make even more in profits,” Sander said to cheers.

On the ground in North Dakota, the various reasons for people’s protests have coalesced around a common goal: perseverance.

On Friday, the Obama administration halted construction of the pipeline on federal land near the Missouri river while the Army Corps of Engineers reviews its permitting decisions. The administration also asked Energy Transfer Partners, the company developing the project, to voluntarily stop building 20 miles east and west of the Missouri. The company has not said whether it will fully halt construction in that area, but it did remove some equipment from sites near the protest camps.

But the administration’s call for a pause seems to have done little to quell the fervor among protesters. Police arrested 22 demonstrators Tuesday who had entered the pipeline construction site about 80 miles west of the main protest. Some of those protesters had chained themselves to construction equipment and were charged with criminal trespass.

Nicholas Wagner of the Yaqui tribe says demonstrators need to fight until they’ve won.

“It’s so important for people to be here, not to leave,” he said.

There is already a chill in the North Dakota air, but many protesters, including Wagner, say they are undeterred—they are planning to stay through the winter.

Kai Knott, 9, flips through a book in the literacy room of the school at camp. The makeshift school is contained in several large tents for now, but those in charge of the facility plan to build a more permanent structure to endure the winter.

Kai Knott, 9, flips through a book in the literacy room of the school at camp. The makeshift school is contained in several large tents for now, but those in charge of the facility plan to build a more permanent structure to endure the winter.

The makeshift school at the protest camp consists of several thin-walled tents for now, but teacher Lee Knott says they may winterize tepees or build a traditional earth lodge for insulation.

“People have lived here traditionally enduring the winter for a long time, so we want to orient toward that,” she said.

But the decision to stay isn’t a simple one for many. Cyrus Norcross of the Navajo Nation has been helping out at the camp’s medical tent.

“I’d rather stay here the whole time until it ends,” he said. “The vibe here is extraordinary.”

But Norcross is in college and has a pressing obligation he can’t ignore—a history test.

Like most protesters at the camps and around the world, he’s hoping the momentum that’s built in recent weeks as the protest has spilled beyond North Dakota will allow this fight to end sooner rather than later, and on their side.

But a fast resolution is unlikely. In a memo sent to Energy Transfer Partners’ staff and forwarded to journalists, the company said it hopes to meet with federal officials to “reiterate our commitment” to the project.

What’s Next:

  • Are you at the protests? Does this situation affect your life? Text “pipeline” to 701-354-4414 to share your story with us (anonymously). 
  • Our reporter Amy Sisk is on the ground in North Dakota. Stay tuned in for her latest reports on the protests.
  • Get even more from our partner Prairie Public in North Dakota.