Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 4, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Indigenous Protests Are Blazing a New Trail for How to Beat Big Oil

Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 4, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP (Getty Images)

Joye Braun was among the first to camp in the plains of North Dakota in defiance of the Dakota Access pipeline back in 2016. She was there to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Indigenous people from around the world eventually arrived to gather in ceremony. Four years later, their prayers have finally been heard.

Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled on the lawsuit that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched in 2016 alongside the peaceful protest, ordering the pipeline must cease operations and be emptied of all crude oil by August 5. This is unprecedented; the courts have never shut down an oil pipeline like this.

More importantly, however, the ruling highlights how Indigenous people have changed the conversation—and action—around the climate crisis. Through a two-pronged formula of on-the-ground action and lawsuits, they’ve been able to show the public how the climate crisis is a human rights issue. The public and the courts have heard their calls for justice, and the environmental movement needs to take note and center those voices.

And I repeat: People are listening.

“To me, [the court ruling] means that we as tribal nations are finally being heard,” Braun, who is organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline for the Indigenous Environmental Network, told Earther. “This win is huge.”

Indigenous groups have put in work in the court of public opinion by relying on a strategy of taking direct action, remaining nonviolent, and coming together in prayer. That has helped bolster public support for their opposition to fossil fuel projects. This strategy has appeared to change public perception around these projects and the effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Polling in the past year from Data for Progress shows a majority of Democrats and independents favor not drilling for more oil and gas while older polling from Pew shows a majority of Americans disapprove of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

But they’ve also used the court of law to take on energy companies and the federal agencies that wrongly side with them. Litigation has become an important avenue for Indigenous people to defend their treaty rights and sovereignty. Indeed, this week was a historical one for pipeline opponents across the U.S. Every pipeline that suffered defeat this week—including the Atlantic Coast and Keystone XL pipelines, as well as Dakota Access—featured Indigenous-led opposition.

“The legal teams are certainly a big part of what we do,” Braun said. “It’s a part of how we’ve had to learn to navigate the non-Native world … Our legal teams have always helped us in every single fight that we’ve had to bring basic rights that most Americans have taken for granted.”

The spate of legal victories and opposition show times are changing for the fossil fuel industry. Its projects don’t carry the same allure they once did. In 2019, a Gallup poll found six in 10 U.S. adults favored policies to reduce fossil fuel consumption over the next two decades. The market is trending in that direction too, especially with the coronavirus driving their value into the dirt.

The efforts to stop the Dakota Access pipeline had plenty to do with that. The public saw the pipeline’s private developer, Energy Transfer, turn water hoses, tear gas, violent dogs, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters, as well as what those protesters were willing to endure to stop the pipeline.

“[Standing Rock] has been particularly transformative in the way that we think about and talk about these issues,” Jan Hasselman, the lead attorney on the Dakota Access case from Earthjustice, told Earther. “In the DAPL fight, it feels like we reoriented toward more of a framework around justice and a reckoning of the ways in which Indigenous people have been mistreated. Nothing in the DAPL litigation—and very little in the broader conversation—has been focused on climate exactly. It’s really been about the impacts on communities.”

Indigenous organizers showed the world how Energy Transfer was fine placing these impacts on their communities over others. The Dakota Access pipeline was initially planned to run near Bismarck, North Dakota, a city that’s 90% white. Concerns over water contamination there killed that proposal. Despite similar concerns at Standing Rock, the outcry wasn’t enough to convince the company to reroute the pipeline. That’s a textbook example of environmental racism.

The impacts of Dakota Access extend far beyond the tribal nations in the region, though. Advocates were sure to make that clear: Water is life, and the pipeline harms all who rely on the 200 bodies of water it cuts through. Plus, Dakota Access threatens the entire planet by transporting oil that releases greenhouse gases when burned. Oil Change International estimated in 2016 that the pipeline would emit an additional 101 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. The threat was always clear.

For Indigenous leaders, the fight is about more than that, though. It’s about addressing the historical wrongs Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of the U.S. government using the power of environmental laws and treaties. The Dakota Access pipeline fight is about human rights, something the federal government has long denied Indigenous people.

“The failure of the federal government and, in particular, the Corps of Engineers to consider the rights of Indian tribes in the course of infrastructure development is not a new thing, and that has been an ongoing problem that really started with the earliest exploitation of natural resources on the continent and the development of the West,” Joel West Williams, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, which has worked on the Dakota Access case, told Earther. “It’s not new, but it’s also not ancient history.”

Energy Transfer, the company behind the pipeline, has already filed an appeal and requested the district court allow the pipeline to operate while the process plays out. The court said nah, but the company is, instead, choosing to disobey the original court ruling to shut down the pipeline outright. Clearly, the battle wages on, but these private companies are going to have a tougher time succeeding with the growing public awareness and legal prowess of tribes.

“The old strategy of jamming these projects in without going through the process correctly and assuming it’s all going to work out is no longer a good strategy,” Hasselman said.

Eryn Wise, the digital director of Seeding Sovereignty, an indigenous-led organization, was at Standing Rock in 2016. This victory has her feeling “apprehensive,” she told Earther since she remembers the joy she felt when the Army Corps of Engineers halted the pipeline’s construction in 2016 only to have Donald Trump reverse that a month later. She remembers the trauma of helicopters flying over camp, bright lights blasting through the night, and the criminalization of peaceful protestors. The closer Indigenous people come to securing their freedom, the harder the powers that be will fight to maintain the status quo.

“In the age of the Anthropocene right now, I don’t think it’s only our Earth that’s dying but also other systems and ways of knowing, these systemic systems of justice, these colonial structures,” Wise told Earther. “When I say the age of the Anthropocene, I’m not only talking about the living Earth dying. I’m talking about all of these other systems decaying and dying, too.”

Indigenous people are fearless, Wise said, and that’s why they’re on the frontlines fighting against polluting invasive fossil fuel infrastructure. Their fearlessness is behind their success and changing how the world sees these projects. If the environmental movement wants to win, it needs to listen to the expertise of the world’s first peoples. When they step out on the street or into court, the world must stand with them.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

Indigenous organizers showed the world how Energy Transfer was fine placing these impacts on their communities over others. The Dakota Access pipeline was initially planned to run near Bismarck, North Dakota, a city that’s 90% white. Concerns over water contamination there killed that proposal. Despite similar concerns at Standing Rock, the outcry wasn’t enough to convince the company to reroute the pipeline. That’s a textbook example of environmental racism.”

That’s a point to repeatedly bring up.  If the pipeline is too problematic for white communities, then it certainly isn’t less problematic for non-white communities.