Written by Conner Corbridge
Opposition to the Standing Rock pipeline is much more than protest. It is more than a parsing of the intricate details of consultation issues, treaty issues, and environmental issues. The movement is emblematic of something much further engrained in the history of indigenous peoples—namely, a stand against colonialism. Only by taking into account this broader lens can we evaluate the issue in a fair way. By nitpicking the legal grounds of the opposition, we are avoiding the context, namely the threat that white imperialists have been imposing on native bodies for centuries.
To all who are quick to tell me I have an obvious bias when it comes to the issues related to this movement, I reply: “Good.” This directionality is intentional. Even if a careful evaluation of the situation doesn’t seem to prove obvious error on the behalf of Dakota Access, I would feel wholly comfortable giving the benefit of the doubt, for once, to peoples who have been systematically oppressed for hundreds of years. In some small way, that would be a step towards evaluating them as fairly as we seem to evaluate big oil and corporate entities that are now trying to treat them as expendable. It isn’t that they should be above careful evaluation, but because the critiques of big oil and the forces that have been dominant for so long are currently in short supply and would be more equitable. Of course, the better formatted, more legally adept, ‘solid’ evidence and arguments seem to be coming from the multi-billion dollar oil company trying to build a pipeline. They have the money and power to do as they please at the expense of the indigenous and the environment, hire the best legal teams, and lobby for legal changes that give them an advantage. It is not they who have had resources and opportunities denied and taken from them year after year since the very first colonial forces infected their way of life. The context for this discrepancy is hundreds of years in the making, and over this same period of time the minority opposition has continuously received less land, less consideration, and heightened disempowerment.
Even if we assume that Dakota Access properly consulted the Native people whose main source of water would be jeopardized by a leak, did not destroy sacred sites and unique archaeological relics instead of waiting for court decisions, and respected law related to environmental and water issues, there would still be plenty that legitimizes this opposition. Corporate and especially government forces have trampled indigenous rights for too long by violating promises ‘guaranteed’ in treaties, slowly reclaiming land given to the indigenous, and systematically neglecting the health and needs of Natives in the name of profit.
The Standing Rock movement is not only a pivotal starting point in the fight against corporate greed and colonialism; it is an important event for environmental protection. The world is finally realizing the dire need for a transition away from its paralyzing dependence on oil. No matter how much hotter the climate has gotten, no matter how damaged ecosystems around the world have become, our government and businesses seem dead set on ignoring the consequences until it is far too late. The election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress represents the worst-case scenario, and leaves us few options other than the kind of direct opposition that is occurring at Standing Rock. As NPR reports, in Trump’s first 100 days in office he has promised to make over 50 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel reserves accessible, allow construction of the Keystone Pipeline, and cancel all funding for existing climate change programs with the UN. He himself is a climate change skeptic, and is appointing notorious deniers and energy lobbyists to lead the EPA transition and head his DOE team. If we want change, we are going to have to fight fiercely for it.
The Standing Rock opposition is a representational movement that has arisen out of necessity, and demonstrates the shifts that are occurring in the way people demand and facilitate change. It represents members from indigenous groups and environmental groups, among others, putting their foot down and demanding a voice. It represents the empowerment of individuals to step up and, even in the face of our nation’s most powerful forces that have ignored them for so long, act in a way that allows them to be heard. Victory on this issue, however slight, legitimizes the efforts of all those who have dedicated their time and emotion. It would show that the environment and Native peoples are not expendable, but rather factors that need to be fully and fairly considered by corporations and governments alike.
This opposition is necessary because it is instigating a level of resistance that has been long overdue. It is the movement that is helping to shape and empower the people that will fuel change going forward. We need this movement to continue to draw people, especially youth, into action. To realize that on some issues it is too late to rely on slow, incremental change. To realize that it isn’t comfortable or convenient to be fully effective in these movements, but that there must be some sacrifice. Any great change has and will require struggle. This period of mass apathy must end and people must be fiercely participatory for radical change to occur.
If the Standing Rock movement is successful, the benefits will be much more than the physical act of stopping the pipeline and preventing its associated risks. It will further prove that people can and will change what needs to be changed, no matter how prolific and established the problem may be. Mni Wiconi. Water is life.