Thousands of people continue to descend on Standing Rock, North Dakota to bring attention to what they claim is a fight for water and land rights. The “water protectors” argue that the North Dakota Access Pipeline could potentially bring devastating consequences to the region by contaminating their drinking water and polluting the land, in the event of an oil spill.
Environmental activist Dallas Goldtooth, speaking with Public Radio International, contends that the term “water protector,” as opposed to protestor, is a conscious decision.
“The word ‘protester’ is negative,” Goldtooth says. “It makes Native people seem angry and violent for protecting their resources.”
This terminology is a way to highlight the peacefulness of the protests, a stark contrast to the armed protests at Wounded Knee in 1973.
Their protest is an effort to not just protect the Standing Rock Reservation. They view the pipeline as detrimental for towns along the Missouri River.
Roots of the North Dakota Access Pipeline
The contested pipeline is a project that would transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil underground through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.
Energy Transfer, the company building the pipeline, settled on Standing Rock after other towns rejected having the pipeline run through their communities.
Some claim that this is because non-Natives view First Americans prejudicially, believing them to be too poor, uneducated, and marginalized to successfully campaign against the proposed route through Standing Rock.
Police clash with Water Protectors
Despite the peacefulness of the protests 141 people have been arrested, and eyewitnesses claim that police tactics to break the protest have become more forceful with the use of teargas and rubber bullets.
Erin Schrode, a Californian journalist covering the protests, was one of those targeted by the police. She wrote about the incident on Facebook:
“I was shot at pointblank range, dozens were maced and pepper sprayed in the face, hundreds faced freezing waters,” Schode wrote. “There were no arrests or deaths and I will be okay physically, but the safety and wellbeing of many peoples and lands remain in danger, for present and future generations.”
Amnesty International USA has recently sent observers due to the increasing use of strong-armed police tactics.
Eric Ferrero, AIUSA communications director, claims an urgent need for impartial observers.
“Our observers are here to ensure that everyone’s human rights are protected. We’re deeply concerned about what we heard during our previous visits to Standing Rock and what has been reported to us since.”
The escalation of force has called into question who is, and who isn’t, allowed to protest.
Peniel Joseph, professor of history at University of Texas at Austin, contrasts the Standing Rock protest with what happened in Oregon with the Bundy militia.
Joseph sees in the Bundy militia a group of “armed whites illegally occupying federal land are still accorded citizenship rights, not labeled as terrorists, and negotiated with to achieve a peaceful resolution.”
“The Standing Rock Sioux people who are organizing to defend indigenous land, cultural and water rights are met with military vehicles, riot-clad police and mass arrests.”
#NoDAPL protest goes global
What began as a local protest among the Standing Rock Reservation population has seen a huge outpouring of support, both nationally and globally.
What started as a small rally against oil, and for water rights, has grown in recent months.
Today over 200 First Nations’ flags fly above the reservation to show that the Standing Rock protest highlights the continued marginalization of native communities throughout the U.S.
Many New Zealand Māori have posted traditional haka war dances to social media as a sign of solidarity for indigenous rights.
Solidarity, whether on social media or active in North Dakota, is seen by many as a means to bring greater attention to a growing concern over climate change and environmental degradation.
Conservation of the environment is a key issue for environmentalists, as governments and corporate interests are seen as willingly disregarding the impact their actions have across communities worldwide.
Environmental Economist Helen Ding argues “securing land rights for indigenous communities in the Amazon truly would have a global impact.”
States that acknowledge and recognize land rights often see better environmental outcomes.
Whether it is the Amazon, a coal plant in Australia, land-grabbing in Mozambique, insecure property rights in Colombia, or pipeline protests in North Dakota, governments typically favor privatized industry often at the expense of indigenous peoples’ rights.
The effect is to silence those communities who are the most marginalized.
As President Obama considers rerouting the North Dakota Access Pipeline, one thing remains clear.
The contestation over land and water will continue.
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