“We as a country have so much work to do,” said Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in response to the recent election of Donald Trump. Together with their supporters, the tribe have been working to block construction of a 1,172 mile oil route, known as the Dakota Access pipeline. And far from backing down in the face of political change, the movement appears stronger than ever.
Thousands have now visited the array of teepees and tents that have sprung up near the site of the pipeline’s proposed passage under the Missouri River. Over 1.6 million users have “checked-in” to the reservation’s page on Facebook. Others have taken to the streets, urged banks to halt loan payments to the pipeline, or appealed to their local police departments not to respond to North Dakota law enforcement’s call for reinforcements. Neil Young has even written a protest song.
Such efforts have not gone un-noticed — a statement from the US Army Corps of Engineers, released on Monday, announced that further talks with the local tribe are now required.
The delay is welcome news to the Standing Rock Sioux, who argue the pipeline threatens the security of the local water supply, the integrity of sacred land, and the wider health of the planet. “Not all our prayers were answered”, said Archambault in a statement posted to Facebook, “but this time, they were heard”.
There is still much to fight for. The incoming president, Donald Trump, has not declared a specific position on the issue, but he has close financial ties to Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, and has vowed to speed up government approval of energy infrastructure in general.
Here’s five reasons why the protest’s message matters more than ever:
1. A far-reaching symbol of unity
The indigenous-led, anti-pipeline movement has united groups which once stood at odds. From tribes who have set aside long-held differences, to new alliances between “Cowboys and Indians”, and urban and rural activists, the protest has brought together a coalition that defies old divisions. Looking back just 18 months to when the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline still hung in the balance, it is inspiring to see how far the movement has already come.
2. An emphasis on peaceful protest
Protestors and authorities have blamed each other for recent outbreaks of conflict at the site. But while police efforts to manage the civil disobediences have tested demonstrators’ non-violent resolve, they have also revealed the movement’s strength.
“It’s hard to stand by and not want to go in there and rule the day – which I know we could. But we’re doing this through prayer instead,” says Gary Dorr, a US army veteran and Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe General Council . “We have to walk a finer line and we have to walk with our head held high, knowing that we are morally in the right for what we’re doing.”
3. A social justice movement for all
Participants have also taken care to ensure that the protest’s protective ambitions are as inclusive as can be – hence the emphasis on tackling climate change and protecting the wider Missouri River from pollution.
Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, hopes that the interests of the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation will be treated with the same concern as those of the people of Bismark (who have already had the pipeline re-routed, away from their city over concerns about water). “If the reservation was to lose their drinking water people can’t just run to Walmartand buy a case of bottled water, not without driving hours and hours,” Baker says.
4. A voice for the environment
At a time when the President elect has threatened to “cancel” American support of the Paris Agreement, support for action on climate change could not be more urgent.
Back in 2015, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline on the grounds of its potential to undermine American leadership on combating rising carbon emmissions.
And while that decision looks likely to be overturned by the incoming government, the current struggle will help his words echo through the political battles to come: “The old rules said we couldn’t transition to clean energy without squeezing businesses and consumers. But this is America, and we have come up with new ways and new technologies to break down the old rules,” he said in statement issued in November 2015.
5. A reminder of government accountability
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming consultation, the protestor’s success in securing further talks underlines the importance of proper consulation and review.
In the words of Gary Dorr: “This doesn’t just stop with Standing Rock. It doesn’t stop at Chipman, Alberta. It doesn’t stop in Columbia, Peru, Brazil, India – it’s everywhere,” says Dorr. “This is a reawakening – a spiritual reawakening – that the non-native population needs to get on board with, because it’s your land that we’re fighting for too.”