Penguins Against Pipeline

By: Lily Dubuc, additional information by Dominican Beat reporters Zia Shiras, Chloe Becker, Madeleine Sabin.

     The saying goes that history repeats itself. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the events surrounding it justify such a statement. It was 185 years ago when Native Americans endured the notorious Trail of Tears. Today, instead of Andrew Jackson forcing tribes off of their land, oil companies are attempting to traverse a pipeline through an indigenous nation, including the sacred burial grounds, that straddle North and South Dakota.

     The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion project. The project involves transferring 470,000 barrels of domestic crude oil through four states. While the construction of the pipeline is a financial gold mine for Energy Transfer Partners, the Standing Rock Sioux, the native tribe who call this land home, feel it threatens their land, their water, and their sacred sites.         

     Thousands are now joining the Standing Rock Sioux to protest the pipeline. One of those individuals is Keiko Ehret, the Director of Operations for the School of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at Dominican University of California near San Francisco. In addition to her role at the university, she is a member of the Marin Women’s Commission, the Charter for Compassion (a TED Talk Prize) and other non-profits. She was a participant in building environmentally sustainable schools in Chimaltenango, Guatemala alongside the village community, her daughter, and other family members.

     On November 3rd, Keiko spoke with the multimedia digital journalism class Dominican explaining her reasons for joining the Sioux community. While Keiko has no direct connection to the tribe, she does have some “indigenous roots” in her history. She was inspired to journey to the Dakotas as she was seeing stories every day that made her cry, and felt she had to do something. By being there Keiko is adding her voice, believing that, “Sometimes just one more voice can tip the scales.”

     For those who have yet to see or hear the stories of the Standing Rock Sioux, it is a heartbreaking tale. The Standing Rock Sioux are part of the original Great Sioux Nation. Sadly, the Great Sioux are no strangers to white americans devastating their lands. They have had their reservations greatly reduced by the United States Government not once, or twice, but three times. Now, instead of taking away their land, Energy Transfer Partners plan to go straight through it, with no apparent regard for the environmental or cultural impacts on the people who live there.           

      Originally, the construction of the pipeline was of little concern to the Standing Rock Sioux as it was not planned on being built through their land. The pipeline was initially planned to cross the Mississippi River near Bismarck, however, it was moved due to concerns that an oil spill at that location would wreck the state capitol’s drinking water. This resulted in shifting the pipeline to a crossing just half a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.            

     The Standing Rock Sioux are currently protesting such a shift in plans. If constructed, the pipeline would pass under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, just upstream from the Reservation. If a spill occurred it would be culturally and economically catastrophic. In addition to water contamination, the pipeline would pass through land with great cultural significance to the tribe.

     One of the major issues the Standing Rock Sioux face in their protest is the amount of government interference they face. Keiko informed the students at Dominican that she herself could see 30-40 police vehicles from where she is, whichis not the “front line.”  There are helicopters going all day and all night and flying low, she thinks, to identify people there. She hasn’t witnessed any police attacks and is trying to keep herself safe.

      Last week, police bulldozed a part of the camp, and many people lost their tents and possessions. Lately, the tribe is ”mum” about details of their actions because there have been “infiltrators” to the camp. Only those trained to go to the front line know what is happening.  Keiko is not part of the front line direct action, but instead is volunteering in the mental health tent. She had to get permission to take images, and is not allowed to take images of children or the elderly;  one has to ask permission first.

      There is confrontation between tribe members and the hundreds of police officers who are arresting and at times utilizing brutal methods of force upon the protesters. Legally speaking, it is the Sioux tribe that has jurisdiction over the land. When it comes to government interference, they must be treated as a sovereign nation. The tribe stands by this right granted to them and asserts that their jurisdiction (over all reservation lands, waterways and streams) is just as applicable today as when they were granted self-government centuries ago.

      As the protests continue, they gain more and more attention.  It is clear to see that the Sioux are not standing alone. Keiko and others are amongst them. Keiko has mentioned that along with Americans, there are protesters from other countries, including New Guinea, many Polynesian countries, Ecuador, and indigenous people from Africa. Many indigenous people have shown up from other countries who are also threatened by oil pipelines.

      What began as a small protest on the reservation has transformed to thousands gathered to stand by the Sioux as they fight for what is their right as a nation. Yet it has not been smooth sailing for the protesters to arrive. To join the tribe, Keiko had to take back roads into the area as police have closed down the main road. She had to pass through a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)  checkpoint, where last week, the BIA ran someone off the road who tried to enter the camp with arifle. The man turned out to be a private security person for the oil company. Infiltrators have come and gotten to the front line and pushed people into the police to try and provoke a fight. Keiko told the students that the risk for coming to Standing Rock is overstated to discourage people from coming.

     Keiko told the students that she spent the first night sleeping in her car for heat and also for concerns about the weather. There are thousands of people there and many are sleeping in tents.  The outpouring of support has been so great that there is plenty of food, clothing, and wood - which is necessary for fires for warmth at night when it gets cold, but also for ceremonial prayer fires.

      The support also paints a warm picture of the community of the Sioux. Keiko told the students that a local minister invited other religious leaders to come and have a prayer ceremony, he thought a couple of dozen would come, and as of yesterday there were over 400.  The indigenous people are appreciating the prayers from all the different religious leaders. There is a deep prayer ceremony and Foregivnesswalk with religious leaders on Sunday to the Morton County Sheriff's office to forgive the sheriffs forthe work they are doing against the people there.

     There are so many people of different cultures and races, buttherehasn’t been any friction. The camp is operated by the local indigenous rules with a“gift economy.” No one uses money or takes money. If someone needs something, the rest try to make sure they get it as everyone there is refereed to as a “relative”.

     Even with the overwhelming support for the Standing Rock Sioux, it is unclear whether the pipeline project will continue. For Keiko it is important to share her voice because, she says, , “There is so little fresh water on earth, it is so limited, that for us to poisonthe few resources that we have is criminal.”

     Keiko left the Dominican students with one final message: “First and foremost, this is about the struggle for indigenous people for decisions that get made about them without their voice. It’s also about clean water, and militarized police. What is really at stake here is about indigenous existence.”

     With individuals like Keiko traveling cross country to join the Standing Rock Sioux, it is inevitable that the protests will continue to grow in size and visibility. Now it becomes a question of what action will decide the continuation or abandonment of the Dakota Pipeline.