The message has been simple, but powerful: “We’re protectors. We’re not protestors.”
It’s the message that Native American people opposed to the building of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would stretch from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota to Illinois, have made very clear over the past several months. The proposed pipeline would run within a half mile of the Standing Rock Reservation and the tribe initially voiced concerns that not only would it disrupt sacred sites, it would also threaten the lifeblood of their comunity, the Missouri River. The pipeline, which is 60-percent complete, will be buried under the river bed, but that’s no guarantee it will be safe. In 2015, for example, the Exxon Silvertip Pipeline broke under the Yellowstone River, dumping 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the longest free-flowing river left in the lower 48 states.
The tribe’s concerns were ignored. Which has been standard operating procedure for the way the U.S. government and realted business interests have dealt with native people ever since Europeans landed on the East Coast and began a process that wiped the tribes who lived there out of existence. Throughout the history of the West, the pattern has been to move indigenous people away from their sacred homelands whenever valuable resources have been found on them. Take South Dakota’s Black Hills, one of the most important spiritual sites to the Lakota people. The place was guaranteed to them in treaties that were summarily ignored when gold prospectors headed there in 1874.
The people of the Standing Rock reservation decided that they are not going to let this history continue. They have stood up against the bulldozers tearing through the land. The response against them has been brutal: arrests, private security releasing dogs on them, courts ignoring their requests. But that has only emboldened more Native Americans from across North America to come and join them. They have protested peacefully as a wide gathering of united tribes never before seen in history, speaking out for their deepest spiritual and sovereign beliefs. They have also made one thing very clear. They are united in a belief that the land and water have rights. Their cause runs deeper than the usual protests.
“We’re protectors. We’re not protestors,” said Daniel T’seleie, who was arrested for handcuffing himself to a fence. “It’s not a protest camp, it’s a camp and it’s a gathering for protectors, for people who are here to protect the land, protect the water, protect the sacred.”
Their efforts have slowed the construction of the pipeline, for now. But can they stop it with so much money and oil involved? Native concerns in general have been trampled for far too long, not to mention the continued health of the land they want to protect. But this is different. This is a united voice. And it’s time we all start to listen and speak up as protectors of the land and water that is central to everything we are.