Rock and a Hard Place

Recent events at Standing Rock spark new questions about sacredness, environment, tribal nation sovereignty

Dec 13, 2016 | Article by: Rob Enslin

When Brian Patterson heard the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was being delayed and possibly rerouted, he let out a whoop of joy. For him and thousands of others, particularly those at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the snow-covered Dakotas, it was a victory more than two years in the making. “There’s a sense of relief I cannot fully express,” says Patterson, a Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s governing body. “I believe it’s linked to generational, historical trauma.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Central New York, Patterson says the Dec. 4 announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to legally block construction of the DAPL, denying an easement it needs to drill under the Missouri River, is the latest, most substantial blow to the 1,172-mile pipeline, first proposed in 2014. Currently, more than 90 percent of the project is done. If the remaining section is ever built, a leak, rupture or spill could spell disaster for the reservation and approximately 17 million other people who depend on the river for clean water.

Patterson also is guarded. “In many ways, our struggles are just beginning,” he says, referencing an incoming oil-friendly president and Canada’s recent approval of two controversial pipelines, one of which would link Alberta to the United States. “It’s time to build and leverage our many ‘water protectors’ [what Standing Rock protesters are called] and alliances. For now, we sing and dance our victory song.”

Phil Arnold, director of the Skä•noñh-Great Law of Peace Center in Syracuse, says the Army Corps’ decision to look for alternate routes for the $3.8 billion pipeline, presaged by an environmental impact statement (EIS), could delay construction for months, maybe years. “It’s a significant victory, but it’s temporary,” cautions Arnold, who also serves as associate professor and chair of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences. “When an EIS was done for a proposed expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the project was shelved because the environmental risks outweighed the economic benefits. An EIS hasn’t been done yet for the DAPL. Drillers may wait for President-elect Donald Trump, whose interests are aligned with fossil fuel development, to take office in January and reverse the decision.”

News of the Army Corps’ decision spread like wildfire through the Sioux’s Oceti Sakowin camp, situated on a sprawling grassland, south of Bismarck, North Dakota. (“Oceti Sakowin” is the proper name for members of the Sioux people and means “Seven Council Fires.” They are part of the Dakota and Lakota nations.) Native members celebrated by parading around on horseback and singing and dancing into the wee hours of the morning.

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