There’s something big and really important happening in North Dakota. You might have heard that members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who have lived on a 2.3-million-acre reservation in the area since the late 1800s, are protesting the route of a natural gas pipeline, but that’s just part of the story. At its heart, this is a fight for tribal sovereignty, environmental justice, and the future of our fossil fuel infrastructure—and what happens here affects all of us.
We believe that everyone in this country has a right to have their voice heard. And we believe that everyone has a right to clean drinking water and a safe environment for themselves, their families, and their community. We also believe that locking ourselves in to further fossil-fuel infrastructure, as climate change kicks into high gear, is reckless and wasteful.
We hope that this quick guide will help provide a better understanding of what’s at stake in North Dakota.
What is this pipeline and why is it a problem?
The 1,170-mile-long, $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline would carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the North Dakota oil fields to Illinois. This project shows the world, in no uncertain terms, that our country is fundamentally unserious when it comes to combating climate change.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe claims that they were not properly consulted about its route, which runs just north of their reservation boundary through important ancestral lands (including a burial ground). The pipeline, worryingly, will also be routed beneath the Missouri River, something, the tribe says, that could lead to the poisoning of their drinking water and a huge environmental mess generally if it were to break.
Who is protesting?
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is leading the protests. But they are not alone. Some are saying that there hasn’t been a gathering of tribes like this in a hundred years. Understanding that they all share similar concerns and are part of the same fight, members of hundreds of other tribes, environmentalists, and Black Lives Matter activists have come to show solidarity. "The spirit out there is incredible," said Ruth Hopkins, a reporter for Indian Country Today.
What are the latest developments?
As the number of protesters grew, tensions ran high. There was violence, including an episode where security guards attacked people with dogs. The Sioux had filed a lawsuit attempting to halt construction on the pipeline, but a federal judge rejected it last week, saying that the pipeline project could proceed. Then, minutes after the judge’s ruling, something unexpected happened: The federal government announced a temporary halt to the project, stunning tribal leaders and pretty much everyone else. The government’s statement regarding its decision includes some language that gives us hope that future infrastructure planning will include tribes as full partners:
“Furthermore, this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
What will happen next?
The government’s halt on construction is temporary, and it’s hard to say where things will go from here. But the short-term result is that everyone has been able to take a breath. Tensions appear to have eased at the protest sites. Sioux leaders have declared the decision a victory and are planning the next stage in the fight.
What’s clear above all else is that when people come together, when they join hands and raise their voices in unison, change can happen. A relatively small group of people from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota began to cry out about injustice. At first they were alone, but other voices joined them, and soon more, and their cry grew louder, loud enough to echo in the corridors of Washington. And they were heard.
Stop the Pipeline!