Standing Rock Victory May Be Short-Lived as Trump Presidency Looms

A Lakota Sioux woman waits for her sisters on Dec. 4 near the rope stretched across State Highway 1806 near the Standing Rock Camp. The rope was a few hundred yards from the barricade erected by law enforcement on the Blackwater Bridge where several demonstrations had taken place. (Laura Lundquist)

CANNONBALL, N.D. (CN) – Standing Rock Tribe supporters celebrated the Dec. 4 news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an oil company’s permit to run a pipeline below their water source. But events that have followed show the elation could be short-lived.

The day after the corps’ denial had all the signs of a day of reckoning for those opposed to the Energy Transfer Partners pipeline running between North Dakota oil fields and refineries in Illinois. But the 11th-hour decision averted that. Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault told the thousands camped at Oceti Sakowin that they had achieved their goals of getting the corps to deny the permit to drill under the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River and to require an environmental impact study, which takes months to complete.

“These are things that we’ve been asking for. Today is a moment in time that we will all remember,” Archambault said. “It’s wonderful that we don’t have to stand and endure this hard winter. It’s time now that we move forward, and we don’t forget, but we forgive.”

Archambault urged supporters to go home but remain vigilant.

But another elder who spoke after Archambault said the pipeline company might continue drilling without a permit so people shouldn’t leave. Energy Transfer Partners had already ignored the Obama administration’s Sept. 8 request to halt construction while the Army Corps reconsidered. The elder feared the company would pay the $50,000-a-day fine with the expectation that President-elect Donald Trump would reverse the corps’ decision when he takes office in January.

While Energy Transfer Partners issued a statement calling the Army Corps decision “political” and saying they remain committed to the pipeline route, it does not appear they are continuing to dig.

A woman in the crowd of Standing Rock supporters reacts on Dec. 4 to the verification of the news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit that would have allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to run beneath the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River. (Laura Lundquist)

But some Sioux don’t trust the company or the Army Corps and are condemning Archambault for telling people to leave. As a result, the movement is beginning to splinter between those calling for patience and those who demand action. Chase Iron Eyes, who leads a group called Last Real Indians on social media, said 1,000 people remain ensconced in the Oceti camp and asked people to join them.

“Who are we to abandon our struggle? Who are we to forsake the 550 people who have been arrested? Those who have been shot by rubber bullets, who had their lives put at risk by the water cannons in freezing temperatures?” Iron Eyes said.

In the meantime, some protesters who were injured by crowd-control tactics on Nov. 20 are suing the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and others for use of excessive force.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard at the Sacred Stone Camp said the Obama decision to deny the permit is not a win.

“They made it sound like a done deal but it is not true.”

But on Friday, the Sioux got some more good news. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg of the District of Columbia denied Energy Transfer Partners’ request for an expedited hearing on their lawsuit challenging the permit denial. The company said it is losing $20 million every day that the pipeline is delayed. The company is also worried about investors pulling their money out of the pipeline. Their contract allowed partners to back out if oil wasn’t flowing by Jan. 1.

But Boasberg set the hearing date for early February, saying everyone must be heard because “these are complex issues.”

He added, “None of us have any idea whether the incoming administration will make any or all of this moot.”

Archambault said the next step would be reaching out to Trump, who owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners. However, a Trump aide said in a Dec. 2 memo that the president-elect backs the pipeline.

Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this past week doesn’t bode well either. In court, Pruitt has defended the fossil fuel industry, denies the facts of climate change and opposes tribal sovereignty. Finally, Reuters reported on Dec. 5 that a group of Trump advisers wants to privatize Indian reservations to allow unfettered natural resource extraction.

So Iron Eyes may get his wish and the camp may resurge after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. The veterans, who received part of the credit for the Army Corps’ decision, have vowed to return.

A Standing Rock Sioux military veteran leads other tribal veterans on Dec. 4 to the Sacred Fire – the main gathering area at the Standing Rock camp – following the announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit that would have allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to run beneath the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River. (Laura Lundquist)

In mid-November, Wes Clark Jr., son of 2004 presidential candidate General Wesley Clark, promised the Sioux that hundreds of veterans, dubbed Veterans For Standing Rock, would arrive on Dec. 5. But after the Army Corps threatened to move the protesters’ camp off its land on Dec. 5, Clark moved the veterans’ deployment date to Dec. 4.

Two thousand veterans signed on with Clark. But hundreds more flooded into the camp on their own starting on Dec. 2, swelling the ranks to an estimated 4,000.

Veterans weren’t the only ones who rallied in advance of Dec. 5. Thousands streamed through the camp gate all weekend, causing the line of waiting cars to extend a mile beyond the entrance for most of Saturday and Sunday.

Bill LaCroix of Montana arrived in camp on Nov. 29 and watched the camp swell over the week from about 3,000 – many had sought shelter after North Dakota’s first storm – to an estimated 10,000 by Dec. 4.

“It was pretty easy to find a place to camp when I got here, but now I’m surrounded,” LaCroix said.

On Dec. 4, about 300 veterans assembled in a nearby field where dozens of journalists waited for a photo op. There, veterans stood in formation while cameras clicked and Clark instructed that all actions were to be peaceful.

They also learned that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, intended to introduce a bill requiring the federal government to gain tribes’ permission before approving projects that would affect tribal water supplies.

The bill is unlikely to go far. This Congress is almost ended, and Boxer won’t return next year since she’s retiring. Most members of Congress intend to leave as soon as possible if they can pass a continuing resolution to fund the government.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, addresses military veterans at a field near the Standing Rock camp on Dec. 4 a few hours before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its decision to deny a permit that would have allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to run beneath the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River. Gabbard is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. (Laura Lundquist)

Then Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a member of the Army National Guard, thanked the veterans for rallying to protect water.

“The awareness that has been awakened in people, what is happening at Standing Rock, is the beginning of a powerful movement, of which each of you are playing an important role,” Gabbard said. “It’s very simple: You protect water that supports the life of the people and the life of our planet.”

Michigan veteran Arthur Woodson nodded.

“Flint, Michigan, says ‘Amen,’” Woodson said, referring to the crisis where defective lead pipes have contaminated Flint’s water since September 2015.

Two hours later, the veterans learned of the Army Corps’ decision. The next day, they were dismissed. They’ve now turned their focus toward Flint.

“We don’t know when we are going to be there but we will be heading to Flint,” Clark said.