Water is Life: #NoDAPL and the Coming Wave of Environmental Activism
They aren’t protesters, they kept saying; they’re water protectors. Mni wiconi, water is life, was the call-to-arms for the movement against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a contentious pipeline project that was rerouted from the almost entirely white population in Bismarck through the sacred and treaty-endowed lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Look north and east now, toward the construction sites where they plan to drill under the Missouri River any day now, and you can see the old Sundance grounds, burial grounds, and Arikara village sites that the pipeline would destroy,” said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone Camp, the main camp standing in the pipeline’s path. “This river holds the story of my entire life.”
After two years of legal opposition and eight months of encampments marked by brutal confrontations with armed riot police from ten states, the U.S. Army (not the Army Corps of Engineers, as it was widely reported) suspended the easement permit for the pipeline’s river crossing, a victory for the water protectors and the millions around the world who stood in solidarity with them. In a blog post, the coalition of organizations and Native nations spearheading the No DAPL movement reflected on its achievements up to this point:
“We have traveled far, given up much, and taken extraordinary risks. We have endured serious hardships and physical violence, and shown courage, passion, and determination in the face of impossible odds. We have come together across the lines that divide us, and gathered in solidarity to demand an end to 500 years of oppression of Indigenous peoples — to demand respect for Mother Earth and clean water for all our relatives and future generations.”
There is an intersectionality, a “coming together across the lines that divide us,” to the No DAPL movement that has aligned all of the relevant actors together under a new and rejuvenated wave of social activism against the continued threat of destruction of the environment and of civil rights.
Major indigenous groups from around the world (e.g. Indigenous Environmental Network/Indigenous Rising, the International Indigenous Youth Council, etc.) have united to mobilize what Julian Brave Noisecat calls the Fourth Way, which will “harness the power and strategic location of indigenous people, exploiting pressure points beyond the workplace to oppose and transform unjust, unequal, and undemocratic systems.” Indigenous mobilization against pipelines is nothing new (see the Cowboy Indian Alliance and the Unis’tot’en Camp as recent examples), and tribal sovereignty-motivated activism is even older (see the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation and the Great Sioux War of 1876 as examples). Yet, No DAPL has seemed to break through the cultural consciousness of our time to broaden its message of indigenous rights beyond what many of its predecessors had achieved.
No DAPL also expanded over time to include major environmental activist groups (e.g. 350.org, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, the Waterkeeper Alliance, etc.), motivated by the environmental and climate change implications of building a pipeline to carry 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude a day across a river that provides drinking water for 17 million people. The pipeline itself has become a symbol of the fight between the vested corporate interests behind the continued extraction of fossil fuels and the “ordinary people” who will pay the price.
The water protectors’ camps also swelled with members of major civil rights movements of our day, as there are clear connections between this movement and that for women’s rights, against police brutality, for the rights of marginalized communities. Black Lives Matter proclaimed that:
“In the state of North Dakota, there is a movement for all of us. A movement for the recognition that water is life. A movement led by warriors, women, elders, and youth. A movement made possible by the actions taken by those who came before us, steeped in the wisdom of elders. A movement anchored by Indigenous women who put their bodies on the line for our liberation.”
This confluence of causes (albeit imperfectly), of different camps that had previously been cast across diffuse corners of the social landscape, has brought additional weight unto Lady Justice’s scales and built a growing swell of momentum behind bending “the arc of the moral universe.”
And there are still many rivers to cross ahead of this coalition movement.
“This fight is not over, not even close. In fact, this fight is escalating. The incoming Trump administration promises to be a friend to the oil industry and an enemy to Indigenous people. It is unclear what will happen with the river crossing. Now more than ever, we [the Sacred Stone Camp coalition] ask that you stand with us as we continue to demand justice.”
The next immediate roadblock that the movement is facing is that, as of the end of November, 87 percent of the pipeline is already completed. And, if the project is going to be completed, it will have to cross the Missouri River somewhere, as the U.S. Army said in December that “the consideration of alternative routes would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis.” This leaves the window open for the pipeline (and future pipelines) to be built, just maybe with more sensitivity to Native treaty lands and tribal input.
This, however, cannot be classified as a complete victory for the coalition, as the completion of the pipeline would still threaten the waters of the Missouri, just somewhere else other than the Standing Rock reservation, and would still lock-in exorbitant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of the Bakken oil. The December 4th victory is a step along the movement’s trajectory but is not the end-all-be-all moment that some are heralding it as.
Now that the fight has moved from face-to-face confrontation along the Missouri to a new focus on the legal and political fronts, the tactics of the movement are also shifting. Many of the organizations that have been involved up to this point are now pushing for their members and followers to direct their activism against the 17 banks directly funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, occupying their corporate headquarters and branches. Taking notes from the climate change movement, divestment circumvents the legal and political roadblocks and obstacles that have historically faced Native challenges through these avenues and puts pressure upon the continued progress of the pipeline’s construction.
There may also be an impending legal and/or political battle instigated by the incoming Trump Administration, as the President-elect has come out in support of the project’s completion and has tapped a current director of Energy Transfer Partners in Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy and a climate change-denier to head the EPA. Even if the Dakota Access Pipeline gets bogged down or ultimately stalled, it’s almost guaranteed that more pipelines or similar projects will be brought forward over the next four years.
In order to sustain that fight over the coming months and years, across the legal, political, and on-the-ground battlefields, the No DAPL movement will need to hold onto the national attention that it has achieved thus far and further engage and mobilize new water protectors to engage in these different arenas. The movement’s widespread deployment of Facebook Live to show, first-hand and in real time, the brutality the (mostly) peaceful water protectors faced at Standing Rock helped to illuminate the reality on-the-ground, because it was hardly being reported in the mainstream media or was being grossly misrepresented, as well as broaden the number of people who saw and embraced their cause as their own.
While the spiritually-motivated and nonviolently-oriented protest tactic is not unique to the No DAPL movement, the use of new media was an innovative approach that reached audiences where they are in the 21st century: on their devices. This unfiltered communication between the movement and its intended and potential audiences could prove essential to maintaining and growing the movement’s reach, impact, and success as it combats the trampling of civil rights and environmental degradation that looms over our nation.
The No DAPL movement and its broad coalition face a challenging future, fraught with bold affronts to its message by the status quo and vested interests which they threaten. Even though they know it will be difficult, they are mindful of the task that lies ahead of them and are unwaveringly devoted to the cause. As one water protector put it:
“Even if somehow, someway, they build this pipeline, they’ve inadvertently sparked a whole generation of us indigenous folks and everyone who wants to stand with us to fight for Mother Earth. We’re going to inherit this planet, bro, and everyone’s welcome to inherit it with us if they want.”