Perhaps only in competition with the reactions to the 2016 presidential election, the Dakota Access Pipeline project has arguably been the source of the most substantial protests this past season, and many people of different creeds have joined in the opposition.
Representatives of American Indian tribes from throughout the country have joined with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest against the destruction of their ceremonial sites, burial grounds and environment. Citizens from western Pennsylvania are amongst these protestors and supporters.
On Nov. 25, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to officially close the campsite protestors in the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were using.
On Dec. 4, the Department of the Army decided to cease construction of the pipeline beneath Lake Oahe in North Dakota in order to conduct an environmental impact study to explore other possible routes for the pipeline.
Resident of Warren, Pa. and member of the Ojibwe Warrior Society in Wisconsin Alex Watkins reacted to the Dakota Access Pipeline news cycle. As a Caucasian man who has participated in American Indian life and activities including those in Seneca and Tuscarora tribes, Watkins offered his perspective on the situation.
“I’m pleased by the ruling,” said Watkins after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to evaluate other paths for the pipeline although he is worried the new political administration will work to reverse the decision.
Since the pipeline is still pending, “no one actually won,” said Watkins, who has mixed feelings on current affairs for the pipeline since other places for its location may end up creating more environmental issues.
What upset Watkins the most throughout the news cycle was how the protests and media attention intensified native stereotypes.
“We don’t seem to see Native American people as people,” he said.
He noted that many see them as either a present-day drunken waste or the romanticized icon from recent history.
Watkins mentions that not every society or tribe is in favor of Standing Rock’s position on the matter, specifically mentioning a local reservation pro-oil and in favor of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Many natives find it a challenge to weigh costs and benefits from creating jobs with the pipeline’s placement versus fears of eventual leakage that could devastate the environment.
“Native Americans have a history of being on different sides of issues,” said Watkins.
Watkins also mentions that many citizens from around the country who used the site to protest used it as an outlet instead of representing Standing Rock or the environment.
Watkins is friends with Ojibwe people on the frontlines of the protest. The Ojibwe wanted to make sure Standing Rock had a voice in the matter of the pipeline.
“Their prime concern is the people,” said Watkins of the Ojibwe. “[It was] to make sure Standing Rock was not the doormat.”
Other American Indian peoples like the Mohawk are historically anti-government and have also been protesting the pipeline heavily before the Army Corps’ decision to reevaluate.
“I don’t think it’s over,” said Watkins, seeing future protests as inevitable as the nation waits for the environmental impact study to finish to prepare the Army Corps’ further work on the pipeline.
Watkins believes it ideal if the native tribes, engineers and government could all sit down and talk out a compromise in the next couple years.
Member of the Bay Area North Guard and Midewiwin North Guard Bill DeVlieger is also concerned for the rights of American Indians.
Also acquainted with the Ojibwe, DeVlieger shares the concern with the tribe that Standing Rock and others will no longer be able to drink and fish from a healthy water source.
American Indians are still legally allowed to use Lake Oahe and other water sources in ceded territory, and many are worried how the construction of the pipeline, whether it stays in development on the initial route or moves after the study, will affect clean water local American Indians need for survival.
According to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, some of the land, part of which was set aside for Standing Rock, was eventually taken for pipeline construction. Even so, the taken land is considered the ceded territory American Indians are allowed to use for drinking and fishing.
“Either way you look at it,” said DeVlieger, “they have a legal claim to sovereignty.”
The Army Corps worked under Nationwide 12 permits (NWP) that federally authorized construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline before an environmental impact study.
“I feel [Standing Rock] should have been specifically consulted,” said DeVlieger.
Once a Standing Rock burial site was destroyed in the first days of bulldozing the tribe’s land, more than 100 Native American tribes along with indigenous delegations from numerous other countries joined with Standing Rock in protest.
While many have been praying for the protection of threatened lands, some American Indians have participated in blessing ceremonies for police officers operating at the site.
DeVlieger wishes people were more informed and references how it was Energy Transfer XLT who set dogs on protestors through their private security, not police.
“There’s an anti-police mentality that is spreading across the country right now, and that’s not good,” said DeVlieger.
He has issues still with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and hoses under some circumstances including below freezing temperatures.
DeVlieger mentions a particular ceremony involving smoking sage and sweet grass that removes negativity and introduces positivity respectively. Traditions like this are used to combat politically and socially rooted fears that the pipeline situation could get uglier.
“If this goes bad, there are people saying they will not leave that land,” said DeVlieger, who worries about how the future administration will handle the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Army veteran Misty Jackson made two trips herself to the protest sites, the first as part of a moon dancers group and again with the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
As a pipe-carrier, member of the Bad River Reservation of the Ojibwe and an army veteran, Jackson feels torn that the American people are pitted against each other.
“It was mind-boggling that our own people would be against our people,” said Jackson.
More veterans joined Jackson in supporting Standing Rock, and many of them helped out with the transition of accommodating more protestors.
“Personally, it was very conflicting for me,” said Jackson of being members of both groups. “It was a short-lived victory.”
Jackson shares worries with Watkins and DeVlieger and is certain that more peaceful protests will be in her future. Being at the site is not something she regrets.
“This is where I need to be,” she said.
Able to relate their perspective on the situation with an ABC affiliate who followed Bad River’s protests, Jackson was glad to fight the pipeline and those who subdued protests.
“It was too much on their part,” said Jackson of the police presence. “We were very, very peaceful.”
Jackson does not think of her reservation’s efforts along with those of many American Indians as protests but rather as protecting water.
“We look at the next seven generations and make sure they’re taken care of,” said Jackson.
Millions of Americans will be waiting for the results of the impact study in order to see a clearer future of what is in store for Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.