Hundreds gathered at Lafayette Square Park Tuesday evening to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline set to be built through North Dakota and three other states. The pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., is the center of a nationwide controversy as the proposed pipeline route would cross through sacred ancestral sites and burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. It would also cross the Missouri River at a point half a mile away from the Standing Rock reservation, and poses threats of a detrimental oil spill that could poison the reservation’s sole water source.
Since March, over 250 Native American tribes have flocked to Cannon Ball, North Dakota to camp out and join the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the disruptive project, in what has become the largest gathering of tribes in at least a century. Because the completion of the pipeline would have the same impact on the planet as adding 21 million new cars to the road, the cause has also attracted the support of climate activists around the world.
In July, the tribe, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). They argued that they were not adequately consulted before the project was approved by USACE, prompting a national discussion about the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. “Real human beings have had their true democracy hijacked from them by big money. We’re here to take it back,” said Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and activist for the Standing Rock tribe, as he addressed the sea of protesters on Tuesday.
The tribe had requested a preliminary injunction, which would require that construction be halted until their case could be heard. However, a federal judge denied their request last Friday. Later that day, the Obama Administration issued a statement declaring that they would not allow the pipeline to cross federal lands pending further review, an action which temporarily halted construction. But this only temporary: Tuesday’s protest was a “solidarity action calling on President Obama to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for good,” said one of the organizers in an email.
The protest in Lafayette Square was lead by several speakers, including former Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders. “It is vitally important that we show solidarity with the Native American people of this country,” said the Vermont senator, after walking onstage to an outburst of wild applause. Sanders described the harmful impact that the pipeline would have on the planet and articulated the importance of a clean-energy future. “Our species as human beings will not survive if we continue to destroy nature. So today we stand united in saying ‘stop the pipeline, respect Native American rights, and let us move forward to transform our energy system.’”
Before Sanders’ speech, the crowd listened breathlessly to the words of Jasilyn Charger, a 20-year-old youth activist from the Cheyenne River Reservation, which lies directly downstream of where the pipeline is slated to cross the Missouri River. “When the water’s gone, what will we do? Where will we go?” she asked as she wiped away tears. “This is our land. This is our future. This is not something they can do whatever they want with,” she said. “We are tired of people making decisions for us…so we are taking it into our own hands. We’re standing up. We’re organizing.”
When the speakers had finished, the protesters marched across the grass in the bright glare of the late-afternoon sun, chanting, “We are the people! You can’t ignore us! We will not let you build this pipeline!” in unison. Hundreds of bobbing signs could be seen floating above the procession, with slogans ranging from “Keep it in the Ground,” (in reference to fossil fuels) to, “Water is life.” The march came to a halt on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House fence; fists rose into the air as the chant, “Water Not Oil,” began, loud enough to block out all the sounds of the surrounding city streets. The noise was interrupted only by a moment of silent solidarity for the Standing Rock tribe. Darcy Jeffery, who travelled to the protest from Connecticut, said that she, “felt an incredible energy in that moment, and knew that we were all standing up for the right thing.”
Marissa Osceola from the Seminole tribe in Florida called the protest a, “momentous occasion”, and said that the pipeline has become, “more than just an issue for the [Standing Rock] tribe. It’s about basic human rights for all indigenous people.”
PHOTO BY ELLIDA PARKER