Northwest tribes and their victory over fossil-fuel projects in their own territory encourage the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters in the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Share story

In a historic tribal gathering in North Dakota, members from more than 300 native nations have joined the effort to block construction of a $3.8 billion oil pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux’s ancestral lands.

Among those protesters is Bill James, the traditional tribal chief of the Lummi Tribe in northwest Washington, who traveled to the camp in North Dakota recently with more than a dozen fellow tribal members and a trailer full of salmon caught in their traditional waters.

The Lummi also provided something else: an example of tribal success in battling fossil-fuel energy projects.

The Lummi are still savoring their victory last May, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blocked plans for a $665 million coal-export port proposed by SSA Marine at Cherry Point near Bellingham. The Corps ruled that the project would infringe on treaty-protected Lummi fishing rights.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The Lummi’s blockbuster victory is encouraging to the Standing Rock Sioux and others fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

“They are going through the same thing we did,” said James.

At the encampment in North Dakota, Lummi tribal members shoveled out a barbecue pit and roasted the salmon on sticks in their traditional manner to feed the Water Protectors, as opponents gathered in the camp call themselves. The Lummi fed hundreds and hundreds of people, hour after hour, late into the night, until the last bite was gone, James said.

Lummi carvers had already taken a totem pole to the camp last August. But James and others said the Lummi Nation wanted to bring another show of support.

“When Lummi comes, they are coming with a victory already in hand, showing it can be done,” said Nickolaus Lewis, a member of the tribal council. “The Lummi went through this challenge and they prevailed.”


The Standing Rock Sioux sued to stop construction of the 1,168-mile pipeline that would transport more than 570,000 barrels a day of Baaken crude oil through their ancestral lands. The tribe seeks to protect its burial and cultural sites, and water quality in the Missouri River, under which the pipeline would flow. A lawsuit is still pending.

Thousands have been gathering since last spring at the remote camp south of Bismarck, N.D., to protest the pipeline, including many people from Washington tribes.

David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, expressed his thanks for the support of Washington tribes — and their inspiration.

“It’s important because of their direct connection with water,” he said of Washington tribes. “This is what we are fighting for, and they know intimately how important this is. It is always a moral shot in the arm when indigenous rights are protected.”

The Standing Rock Sioux had a setback Oct. 9, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a request for an emergency injunction while the tribe’s litigation against the project is before the courts. Work on the pipeline is continuing, and the project is about 60 percent complete.

But the Corps is not allowing access for construction on lands it controls bordering or under Lake Oahe — the final segment needed to complete the pipeline — while it decides whether to reconsider permits it has already issued, and evaluates one more it has yet to release.

The clock is ticking on the project. The company expected to begin moving oil by the fourth quarter of this year.

In its ruling, the court also called on the Corps of Engineers to heed federal regulations requiring consultation with tribes and protection of cultural resources, including artifacts and burials.

“That shows they know something went wrong with the approval process,” Archambault said, adding that he actually took heart in the ruling.

Pipeline construction began under a piecemeal, fast-track process; no environmental-impact process was ever conducted evaluating the effects of the whole project. The tribe also still needs to participate in a survey of lands affected by the pipeline to document cultural materials, including burials, Archambault said.

Tribal leaders have filed documents in court attesting that the tribe was never adequately consulted before construction and that precious cultural sites, including burials, have been destroyed. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation last spring each warned the Corps it had overlooked risks to water quality, public safety and the tribe’s cultural resources.

The company, Energy Transfer Partners of Texas, denies that, and the dispute is far from over. A company spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.

The developer has argued pipelines are the safest way to transport oil. Construction has created more than 8,000 jobs, and construction unions appealed to President Obama on Oct. 3 to restart work on the project.

A shared cause

The Lummi’s experience at Cherry Point and ongoing fossil-fuel fights around the Northwest have inspired Washington tribal members to travel to North Dakota to show their support.

The Quinault Tribe is fighting two oil-by-rail transfer hubs proposed at Grays Harbor on ancestral lands and in waters with treaty-protected fishing rights. More than a dozen Quinault tribal members trailered the tribe’s 35-foot-long Grandfather Canoe to the Missouri River for a 30-mile ceremonial paddle last month in support of the Standing Rock Sioux.

“It was a mixture of coastal and plains tribes, and their songs and our songs. The English language is incredibly limited in describing the experience,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

The Quinaults’ canoe was particularly moving to the Sioux people, Archambault said: “That is not something we see every day. To share their ceremonies and canoe with us, that was pretty powerful.”

Brian Cladoosby is president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, which opposes coal trains through its territory near La Conner. He listed the lessons from the Cherry Point fight: stick together, don’t give up, and push federal trustees to do their duty.

If the Cherry Point proposal had come 50 years ago, the Corps, which cited protection of Lummi fishing rights as the basis for blocking the project, would probably have just allowed it, said Cladoosby, who so far has traveled twice to Standing Rock to lend support.

“But it’s a new day, and our voice is being heard,” Cladoosby said.

He noted the tribes now have the resources, including money and lawyers, and public support to fight these projects. Nontribal communities expressed gratitude during the Cherry Point controversy to tribes bringing their unique standing and clout to the fight, he said.

“We have the … ability to have a presence and be heard at the table, and not just be on the menu,” he said.

Standing together

Meanwhile, support for the Standing Rock Sioux keeps coming from Northwest tribes.

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, in northeastern Washington, smoked 500 pounds of sockeye and drove it east earlier this month to the camp. The Colville already had brought a truckload of tamarack timber for sweat lodges, cook shacks and campfires, and plans are in the works to join up with the Kalispel to take over even more.

At harvest time, 40 Yakama tribal members traveled to the camp with fresh apples, nectarines, potatoes and more from tribal lands, said Chairman JoDe Goudy.

The Yakama Tribe defeated a proposal for a coal-export terminal near the Port of Morrow on the Oregon side of the Columbia River in 2014. Nontribal organizations and communities also opposed the coal port. But it was the tribe’s defense of its treaty fishing rights that moved the Oregon Department of State Lands to block the project.

At stake is the future of the lands and waters and a way of life, Goudy said.

“Northwest tribes have taken leadership positions in shooting down these proposals,” Goudy said. “Yakama has been at the forefront, and Lummi supported us, and we supported them. And the fight continues.”