A “historic” victory for indigenous people, says Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
In the Dakota language, “Oahe” means “A Place to Stand.”
On Sunday, Lake Oahe — the spot where the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River — became just that for indigenous people around the world and their allies.
Following months of review and protests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not provide the last easement needed by Energy Transfer Partners, of Houston, Texas, to cross under the Missouri River and complete the pipeline through four states.
A protest camp near the proposed crossing, which over the months had grown to include thousands, exploded with fireworks and celebration at the announcement. “I feel overjoyed,” Marshall Lee, a Yakama tribal member at the camp, said in a phone interview. “There is laughter, people celebrating everywhere. There are fireworks going off, kids are sledding, it’s very powerful.”
Jim Peterson, of Bellingham, leader of a delegation of more than 120 veterans from across Washington who had just pulled into camp to join more than 2,000 veterans converging at the camp through Wednesday, was astounded at the happy chaos and sheer bedlam he encountered.
He estimated some 10,000 people were in camp, with more arriving continually to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its fight against the pipeline — and now, celebrating victory.
“There is a lot of praying, singing, dancing, fireworks; the camp right now is kind of a madhouse,” Peterson said. “There are so many people showing up, busloads, it’s mass confusion. But there is so much love.”
Peterson said he would sleep on a bed of straw in a tent and muster as planned in the morning. The veterans came to serve as human shields between opponents trying to block pipeline construction and law-enforcement officers, who over the course of the protest had used pepper spray, rubber bullets and freezing water against the protesters.
“I don’t feel less needed,” said Peterson, who, like others, said he was concerned the victory could melt away if the company drilled anyway. There is also concern that President-elect Trump — an investor in the project — could seek to push the pipeline through once he takes office.
Many opponents — who have been dubbed “water protectors” — said they still don’t want to leave the camp as long as the company has equipment at its drill pad and police continue to block the highway that accesses the construction site.
But starting up the project now is not so easy, said Jan Hasselman of EarthJustice in Seattle, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux.
“I hope everyone can just go home; it’s real,” he said of the victory. “It’s not a hoax. Of course what is on everyone’s mind is what happens in seven weeks (when Trump takes office), and that is a legitimate question.”
Indeed, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., the state’s only congressman and a longtime Trump supporter — and someone Trump is said to be considering for Energy Secretary — issued a statement Sunday promising a turnaround.
“I’m encouraged we will restore law and order next month,” Kramer said.
But Hasselman, the tribal attorney, said it is not that simple.
“If they try to reverse this decision and jam the pipeline, we will be prepared to challenge that in court,” Hasselman said.
“The question is whether Dakota Access continues to fight in the face of unrelenting global scrutiny, or whether it acknowledges it made a mistake, and looks on its own for a different route,”
David Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, thanked the Obama administration for having “the courage it took … to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing.”
Archambault also thanked the thousands of people from all walks of life who had supported the tribe by traveling to the protest camp, sending money, lobbying to stop the project, and taking a stand for indigenous rights.
More than 300 tribal nations from around the world had voiced support for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its stand against the pipeline.
Many believe Sunday’s decision was historic, building on momentum begun last May in which tribes, beginning with the Lummi Nation and its allies, stood up to a $625 million coal port at Cherry Point, near Bellingham, and beat it on the strength of the tribe’s reserved treaty fishing rights.
Both victories were significant, tribal members said.
“It speaks so much in terms of getting our people back on the map, that we are still here, that we are a population that must be acknowledged when decisions are made,” said Rachel Heaton of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, who made three trips to the camp to support the Standing Rock Sioux. “It is an emotional day and it is hard to not cry. I am so happy for us all.”
In its announcement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would begin a full environmental-impact statement and review alternative routes for the pipeline — a process that could take at least a year, perhaps two.
Energy Transfer Partners of Houston, Texas, which had pressed ahead with its construction assuming it would get the final easement, ultimately completed construction all the way to the river. The pipeline is already laid, covered, tested, and the ground reclaimed. Only this last bit of work — drilling under the river to connect the two sides of the pipe — was to be completed.
However, in the end, the Corps deferred to the tribe and its arguments against the pipeline.
“Tribal officials have expressed repeated concerns over the risk that a pipeline rupture or spill could pose to its water supply and treaty rights,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army, wrote in a prepared statement announcing the decision Sunday. “It’s clear that there is more work do. The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternative routes for the pipeline crossing.”
Energy Transfer Partners had no immediate comment on the decision. The company has sued in federal court insisting the access it needs had already been approved and the easement is superfluous. That suit is pending, as is a suit by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to stop the project for a full environmental review.
The pipeline is intended to carry oil from the Bakken shale formation in western North Dakota all the way to Patoka, Ill., where it was to connect with other pipelines serving refineries. Energy Transfer Partners sent its people to Standing Rock to inform the tribe of its plans — not negotiate them — back in 2014.
In the meeting Archambault and tribal council members informed the company that the tribe opposes all pipelines through its treaty lands and would not give its assent to this one. Yet the company proceeded anyway, and even rerouted the pipeline to within a half mile of the reservation boundary, and 10 miles from the tribe’s drinking-water intake.
The pipeline was originally routed north of Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, but the company rerouted it because of concern about protecting municipal wellheads.
The company continued construction even as a protest camp to help the tribe grew to thousands of people, from all over the world. When demonstrators protested construction, the company turned out private security forces with leashed attack dogs.
The state of North Dakota defended construction with a police force from eight states, pushing back the self-described water protectors with rubber bullets, batons, tear gas, pepper spray, sound cannons, and even fire hoses in freezing weather. In one confrontation Nov. 20, 26 people were sent to the hospital.
To some, the uprising against the pipeline, and the decision Sunday, mark a turning point.
“This is historic,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in La Conner. “For 100-plus years, tribes have been basically pushed around and pushed aside and every tribe in the nation has lost land and had infrastructure projects go through their land without them being consulted. We have in the past year seen tribes standing up and pushing back. And letting people know our voices need to be heard.
“Cherry Point was a great victory for the tribes in the Northwest, and now Standing Rock is a great victory for tribes across the nation. We can only hope that the Trump administration sees the necessity of abiding by this decision.”