The Dakota Access Pipeline Shows What Happens When Indigenous Communities Unite Across Borders

Lead Photo: Photo by Robyn Beck / Getty Images
Photo by Robyn Beck / Getty Images
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When the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project was first announced in 2014, it immediately garnered protests from a group of indigenous and climate activists concerned that the project would not only run through lands sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but also threaten the community’s sole water source. Nearly two years later, the battle has the grabbed the nation’s attention – largely due to Democracy Now!‘s work documenting the mushrooming group of Native communities who have traveled from all over the country and world to demonstrate solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Organizers estimate that 280 tribes have arrived on the plains of Dakota to show their support, and are calling it “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.”

On Friday, their efforts were met with success; minutes after a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s legal request to stop construction, the Obama administration intervened and announced it would temporarily halt work on the pipeline to pursue a “serious discussion” with tribal leaders. It’s a step in the right direction, but activists are still seeking a permanent halt to the project, and supporters have continued to flood into the Sacred Stone Camp. Actions have also begun popping up across the country – from Brown Berets demonstrating in solidarity in Dallas, to Aztec dancers raising awareness about DAPL outside the Alamo in San Antonio and on the streets of Chicago.

The implications of this coalition of indigenous protesters go beyond DAPL. For Native activists all over the Americas, DAPL is just the latest in a decades-long battle against large infrastructure projects that displace Native communities, create environmental damage, and threaten lives. In fact, as the demand for natural resources like timber, minerals, and fossil fuels steadily increases, indigenous groups are at the forefront of the climate change battle, facing off against goliath corporations that vastly outstrip them in money and power. As public intellectual and philosopher Noam Chomsky recently acknowledged in an interview with the University of Rochester, “all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to disaster are the indigenous communities. I mean, anyone who’s not living under a rock, knows that we’re facing a potential environmental catastrophe, and not in the distant future. All over the world it’s the indigenous communities that are trying to hold it back.”

“Indigenous people—we seem to have a solid sense of what sustainable stewardship looks like,” Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network told Time Magazine after a rally in Bismarck, N.D. “The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is just the natural evolution of the climate justice movement.”

The stakes of this movement are literally life or death – not just for future generations, but for many of the activists on the front lines. On September 3rd, Democracy Now! captured the Dakota Access pipeline company attacking Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray, and violence against land defenders is all too common. Around the world, at least three environmental activists die every week protecting their land, and according to a recent Global Witness report, On Dangerous Ground, Latin America accounted for the most land defender murders of any region in 2015.

The gathering at North Dakota’s Sacred Stone Camp has brought a spotlight to this fight, and it represents an opportunity to bring more attention to the issues facing indigenous communities all over the Americas, as well as a case study on what can happen when Native communities unite for a common cause.

Despite cultural differences, Native tribes see themselves as protectors of the land, says Ruth Hopkins, a reporter for Indian Country Today, in an interview with NPR. “This is part of a larger issue we face as Native people,” she said. “It’s something we’ve always faced…fighting for our lands and our survival.”