Protectors against the pipelines

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Protectors against the pipelines

Fighting to protect the environment is different here – Native Americans are leading the fight at Standing Rock writes Mark Engler.


Demonstrators against the Dakota Access oil pipeline marching in Denver in September. © David Zalubowski/AP/Press Association Images

They say they are protectors, not protesters.

North Dakota is famous for big cattle ranches and wheat fields. But now indigenous groups are fighting to stop an oil pipeline.

In April (2016), 200 Native Americans camped at the place where the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the Missouri River. This river is where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe get most of their water. In August, there were 700 people in the camp. They said that the pipeline could poison their water and destroy their burial grounds.

The movement grew. In September, it was the biggest group of American indigenous groups in a hundred years. There were people from about 200 tribal nations from across the country. Other groups joined them, eg. #BlackLivesMatter and More than 4,000 people have gone to the camp. Their slogan is ‘Water is Life’.

After the demonstrations, the local sheriff arrested more than 60 people. On 3 September, private security guards used attack dogs and pepper spray on tribal members. They were trying to stop the machines digging up a burial site. Journalist Amy Goodman was arrested when she tried to show a video of this.

But the camp has had a big victory. On 9 September, Obama’s government stopped the digging temporarily around the area.

Ecological activism in the US is usually by middle class white liberals. But this is by indigenous groups.

Indigenous resistance isn’t new. First Nations have been leading the fight against mining and oil in North America. Naomi Klein said in her book, This Changes Everything, that the land rights of indigenous people are the best things we have to stop too much climate change. There is a lot of oil under land and water that indigenous groups have legal claims to. So native groups often fight to protect it.

There have been many different campaigns against oil and gas extraction around the world in the past decade. She calls this ‘Blockadia’. But it is not clear if groups are working together.

The fight in North Dakota is more about water than climate. The Standing Rock resistance are protecting natural resources and the power of their tribe.

But water moves. If a river is polluted in North Dakota, it affects local people, but the pollution also affects the water system, south to the Gulf of Mexico. And in the same way, if one community insists that the natural systems that support life are more important than making money from oil, this can bring other groups together, like rivers, to help the climate movement.

‘It’s much bigger than just one pipeline. It’s the whole fossil-fuel industry,’ says Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network. ‘When we don’t respect the water, we don’t respect ourselves.’

We do not know what will happen to the camp in Dakota. But the protestors have given more energy to environmentalism in the US environmentalism. We are getting closer to the vision of ‘Blockadia’.

Mark Engler’s new book is This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century. See his website:


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).