On Friday, a judge ruled that the controversial 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline could go forward. Soon after, the Obama administration reversed that decision, at least temporarily.
Activists from the Sioux and other tribes, as well as their supporters, have been fighting the pipeline using three main strategies: legal, grassroots action, and political.
Where the tribe’s legal approach failed, the other two helped lead to what many claim as a victory against the pipeline.
In the mornings on the western edge of Camp of the Sacred Stones, the makeshift settlement of tribal and allied protesters trying to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, you can see people climbing a low hillock that stands above the cook tents and meeting spaces. They stand in place, swaying in the morning light.
“It looks like they’re praying,” Sioux activist Dallas Goldtooth told Mongabay.
But a closer glance reveals the flash of smartphone screens. The hill — which activists facetiously call Facebook Hill — is the only place in camp where people can get even spotty reception for their phones’ data plans.
As such it has become the thin thread connecting the camp’s 1,200 or so residents to the wider civilization. News from home, news of victories, news of defeats, news of violence: it all comes down off Facebook Hill. And it was this hill that Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and one of the principal leaders of the pipeline protests, trudged up on Friday to check the results of the crucial hearing going on in Washington.
In late July, the Standing Rock Sioux, all of whose water comes from the Missouri River, had filed for an injunction against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They argued that the Army Corps of Engineers, in permitting the project, hadn’t properly consulted them about the impacts the 1,172-mile pipeline would have on their traditional sites and water supply, considering that it is planned to cross the Missouri just a half mile upriver from their reservation’s water intake.
The previous weeks had seen an escalating face-off between the protesters and the pipeline company, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, featuring mass acts of civil disobedience followed by mass arrests and culminating in a scrum September 3. On that day, construction crews moved to bulldoze lands on which the Sioux said they had found sacred ceremonial sites, according to the New York Times. Protesters broke down a fence and rushed the construction site, where company security met them with pepper spray and guard dogs. (A video of the clash published by the independent news show Democracy Now! received nearly a million views.)
Now, as construction continued on the rest of the line, an uneasy truce had settled over the prairie as both sides waited for Judge James Boasberg to rule. Goldtooth turned on his phone. “And it was like, ‘Aww, snap, it’s on.’”
A flurry of emails told the story: in his decision Judge Boasberg had referred to “dozens” of attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to contact the tribe and sort out effects of the pipeline on tribal properties around Lake Oahe, the dammed portion of the Missouri River that waters the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. “Aware of the indignities visited upon the Tribe over the last centuries, the Court scrutinizes the permitting process here with particular care,” he wrote. But he nonetheless concluded that the Army Corps of Engineers had complied with its legal obligation. Construction could proceed.
To Goldtooth the implication was clear, both for the protesters as a whole and for themselves as leaders: after a weeks-long truce, the confrontation they had prepared for was coming. “We were expecting Dakota Access is gonna start digging right through this area as soon as possible,” he said. That meant Dakota Access security, police, even the National Guard. “We immediately went into reaction mode.”
The ruling meant two tough challenges. First: they would have to use their bodies to keep Energy Transfer Partners’ construction contractors from drilling under Lake Oahe, without any protesters resorting to violence — something they had been training protesters to do for weeks. Second: they would have to figure out how to break the news to the rest of the camp that the legal case upon which so many had pinned their hopes had failed, and prepare them to meet the bulldozers.
On the second, the organizers punted. That day the protesters had planned a rally in front of the state capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota. “We decided to hold off on the announcement [of the judge’s decision] until the rally,” Goldtooth said. En route to the rally, he and other organizers brainstormed a message. They would explain the larger strategy to the gathered protesters. “In this fight against the Dakota Access, you have a legal, political, and social action strategy. And they work in conjunction and sometimes independently,” he said.
Recalling his preparations for the rally, Goldtooth ticked off the strategies, which he had learned in the midwestern resistance against the now-blocked Keystone XL pipeline. There is the grassroots strategy of civil disobedience, with which Sioux protesters and their allies had successfully blocked construction weeks earlier. This is distinct from the legal strategy, pursued by the Standing Rock leadership, of challenging permits and requesting injunctions. “In no way does the loss of one mean the loss of the others. So we say, ‘Okay, the legal route may have not worked at this moment, but we’ll have to step up to the plate on the ground,’” and meet the construction crews with nonviolent resistance, Goldtooth said.
But last, perhaps, was the most important strategy: what he called “the media strategy” or “political strategy,” aimed at increasing pressure on the Obama administration to block the pipeline. Such personal appeals to the president had been a core part of the anti-Keystone XL campaign. Goldtooth himself had demonstrated on the National Mall in 2014 as part of a weeks-long demonstration by the so-called Cowboy and Indian Alliance lobbying Obama to intervene in the construction of that pipeline.
Like the protests near the Missouri River, that occupation had harnessed the power of spectacle, using cantering horseback riders and brightly painted Indians in traditional dress to imply that the primordial West of America’s popular fantasies was rising against the pipeline.
To Jane Kleeb, founder of the progressive group Bold Nebraska and one of the most influential grassroots organizers in America’s pipeline battles, spectacle had been key in winning over Obama, working in conjunction with more traditional lobbying on Capitol Hill. And in the early days of the North Dakota protests, as the media began to publish colorful photos of Indians facing private pipeline security, Kleeb hinted that they would follow a similar strategy, using colorful public actions to build popular support that could then be used to influence policymakers — particularly in the Obama administration.
In mid-August Kleeb told Mongabay that “we’ve received word from contacts in the White House that they are following what’s going on” in North Dakota. Over the subsequent weeks that interest seems to have grown. The pipeline opponents’ efforts bore sudden fruit Friday bare hours after Judge Boasberg’s decision to allow construction to continue.
Goldtooth was sitting in a van on the way to the rally when he saw the email: a press release by the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, and Department of the Army announcing that construction must halt on the area around Lake Oahe and requesting that Energy Transfer Partners pause construction for 20 miles on each side. While not mandatory, since the Army Corps of Engineers only has jurisdiction over the river crossing itself, the pause would allow the agencies to “determine whether [the Army Corps of Engineers] will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws,” the statement said.
And in what reporter John Schwartz at the New York Times called “perhaps more significant,” the statement also said the Obama administration was considering rethinking the role of tribal land rights in planning infrastructure — a decision that could have far-reaching impacts.
Energy Transfer Partners continues to maintain radio silence. Most stories on the occupation bear some version of the phrase “Energy Transfer Partners could not be reached for comment.” The company maintains that it complied with all existing laws.
Yet the company’s silence is set against a backdrop of its security personnel turning pepper spray and dogs on nonviolent protesters — images rarely seen in America since the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, the violence led the Morton County Sheriff’s Department to jump into action by requesting National Guard support and issuing an arrest warrant for Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, for trespassing to record video of clashes between protesters and company security. It also issued a “criminal mischief” warrant for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who had tweeted a picture of herself spray painting a pipeline-construction bulldozer along with the caption “The Dakota Access Pipeline is vandalism on steroids.”
It was visible, strong-arm reactions like these, Goldtooth said, as well as Energy Transfer Partners’ “bold and outrageous disregard for federal Indian policy,” that had helped shift public opinion, and therefore government opinion, in the Sioux’s favor. The Obama intervention was, in other words, a poignant example of the principle that Goldtooth himself had been planning to speak on: the protest strategy as a rope of interdependent strands. One strand had broken, the legal. But two others — the grassroots, the political — had held strong and blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline’s transit across Lake Oahe and the Missouri River.
In the hours and days that have followed Friday’s whiplash developments, triumphant stories and messages have filled the social networks as activists claim victory. To Goldtooth, this is premature: there is a long way yet to go.
“The primary talking point of the day is that this wasn’t a win — yet,” he said. “But it’s a clear demonstration that we are winning.”