Standing Rock Pipeline Protests Bring New Life to Old Struggles
“It’s about all of us”
The teeth marks of attack dogs and the pepper-sprayed faces of indigenous land defenders in North Dakota are fresh on the minds of dozens of dancers gathered on the stone plaza in front of the Alamo. Tying on rattling ayoyote-seed leg bands and colorful feathers, members of two San Antonio Mexican dance troupes recognize their own concerns for clean air and fresh water across Texas and Mexico in the now months-long struggle far to the north. "A lot of people don't recognize Mexicans as native people, but we're original peoples of this continent too," says Laura Rios Ramirez, of Kalpulli Ameyaltonal Tejaztlan, an organization dedicated to preserving traditional ways of dance, song, and medicine.
Tourists begin to linger, curious, as sage smoke blows and a woman kneels to beat a rhythm on a standing drum. But if they are expecting costumed entertainment similar to the history lessons two musketed men in period Western garb are giving, they are soon disappointed. "Which side are you on?" the group sings out a standard protest song. "Which side are you on?"
Signs are lifted decrying a planned $3 billion-plus, 1,168-mile crude oil pipeline seeking to squeeze fracking-derived crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale to a distribution hub in Patoka, Ill. The ultimate destination is Sunoco Logistics' refinery in Nederland, Texas, the company a majority pipeline partner with Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners.
Just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, members of the Lakota and Dakota nations have been joined by more than 200 other tribes and a variety of non-Native allies in what is considered the largest gathering of native peoples in this country in a century. The object: Stop the completion of the pipeline now thought to be over half finished.
The groups object to the project's planned pass beneath Lake Oahe along the Missouri River half a mile upstream from the Sioux reservation as a threat to the tribe's primary source of drinking water. They warn of the destruction of graves and other sacred sites they claim have been occurring, a loss which represents an "irreparable injury," according to an August request for a preliminary injunction against construction filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the tribe.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation all shared very similar concerns with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before that agency signed off on the project, according to a records review by InsideClimate News. However, not only were requests ignored for a halt to construction across an area of high archaeological, cultural, and spiritual value, less than 24 hours after the tribe submitted details of a stretch of known grave sites, construction leapfrogged to that exact site over Labor Day weekend and bulldozers were fired up.
A stream of self-described "water protectors" rushed over the fence, some on horseback, in an attempt to force the crews to shut down again. That's when the dogs were brought out.
Blood on the Tongue
In an event that fixed Standing Rock after months of direct action in the national gaze, pipeline employees led lunging German shepherds into the crowds in an attempt to regain control of the site. For viewers of Democracy Now!, which captured the assault on video, the evidence of blood on the tongue of one dog, and the torn skin on one of the demonstrators, bore an unsettling similarity to the Civil Rights struggles of Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s.
"As soon as I saw the dogs involved, that's what really hit it off," said Daryn Ocean-Sun Rinterra, the student organizer of a protest action in front of Energy Transfer's offices in north San Antonio last week. "I'm of Navajo descent and Squamish descent, and the fact we've been oppressed peoples since colonization began, I was like, 'That's enough. That's it.' They cannot keep doing this to these people."
David Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, assessed the damage: "The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. ... In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground."
This was the event that finally brought out the sympathies and outrage of many of Rinterra's friends; friends he'd been trying to motivate into resistance for weeks finally started to join him with placards outside the company offices.
Attendees of the Texas Tribune Festival at UT-Austin last weekend were also met by a small chanting band. The group, mostly women, carried signs and shouted into the street as the cars passed. One woman with a megaphone paced the sidewalk. But local documentarian Fox RedSky said expressing anger wasn't the point of the action.
"Water is life. The women, we are the water carriers," she said. "Those are the prophesies the Mayans and the Aztecs had. They said the women will be the ones to heal the world. That's what it's about.
"I'm angry too. I want this to stop, but we need to come to the table like grownups ... and come up with solutions," she said. "We can be grownups and recognize when someone's being greedy and not fair."
"Greedy and not fair," in this case, meaning Energy Transfer.
Public demonstrations in support of Standing Rock, in defense of the water, in opposition to the extractive economy, and in demand for climate action have been held all around the state in recent weeks. Increasingly, signs opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline Project have begun to mingle with references to a Trans-Pecos natural-gas pipeline in West Texas.
Tying in the Trans-Pecos
Standing Rock is not only a Texas story because its headquarters is here. Or because the northern shale oil's destination lies outside Houston. It is also a Texas story because Energy Transfer has another pipeline in play, one that has been buffeted by the concerted opposition of Big Bend residents for more than a year.
At an event attended by hundreds last month outside the company's Dallas HQ, a bridge was built between Big Benders fighting the Trans-Pecos Pipeline and members of the American Indian Movement.
"That's when we realized it'd be pretty hypocritical of us to be going up to Standing Rock and not be involved [with the Trans-Pecos Pipeline]," said Frankie Orona, AIM, Central Texas chapter. "It just doesn't make sense. It doesn't look right."
In fact, folks in Big Bend had a bead on "shale tycoon" Kelcy Warren long before the multi-billionaire CEO of Energy Transfer inspired all these convoys north. Ever since the company filed its paperwork with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in May of 2015, a broad coalition of Big Bend residents have been raising their voices, warning about spills and explosions, worrying aloud about the pipeline's potential to encourage more fracking-related development closer to home, and insisting the 148-mile pipeline is incongruous with the nature of a scenic high-desert landscape still nearly untainted by industry.
The Trans-Pecos Pipeline, cleared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in May of this year, is expected to move 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from Pecos County and the Permian Basin to a border-crossing facility near the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos. The partnership between Warren and the fourth-richest man in the world, Mexican telecom giant Carlos Slim Helú, has been promoted as serving Mexico's newly deregulated energy market and would help that country reduce its reliance on coal.
That's the line the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board took while calling protests against the pipeline an "overreaction." However, pointing out the heavy investment by Japanese interests like the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in both the Trans-Pecos and a related line running from west of Odessa and into Mexico near El Paso, journalist Dahr Jamail has suggested the bulk of that gas may actually be headed for export to Japan, now struggling to meet its energy needs after idling dozens of nuclear reactors post-Fukushima.
In an internal memo dated Sept. 13, Warren urged his staff to start lobbying their elected representatives and "to tell them how important [the Dakota pipeline] is to your livelihood." After insisting the company had sought to include the Standing Rock Sioux in the pipeline scoping and permitting process (even though it doesn't cross their reservation, he adds), Warren writes that the company, "like all Americans – value[s] and respect[s] cultural diversity and the significant role that Native American culture plays in our nation's history and its future."
Carbon Stains in the Soil
Although there are estimated to have been hundreds of tribes prior to Spanish settlement in the area that became Texas, today there are only three federally recognized tribes and two state-recognized tribes in the state, many of which came here well after Spanish and European settlement. The gap reflects well-known histories of federal and state extermination campaigns, forced relocation, and assimilation. There was also a strong cultural shaming that took place within families that discouraged children from claiming indigenous blood, choosing instead "Mexican" or "Hispanic" categorization.
Applications for official recognition, however, are mounting as more people begin to recognize and value their native descent. Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, said he's currently aware of 13 tribes seeking state recognition. As testament to this shift in self-identification, the Texas Almanac reports that only 470 Native Americans were recorded in the state in 1900, but by 1990 that number was 65,877. Just 20 years later, it more than doubled to 170,972.
"We need to be there to make sure people understand there are original people of Texas and we're concerned about what's happening to our ancestors," Mancias said. "When they start digging it up, not only are they digging up the bones of our ancestors, they're digging up the ancestors of those ancestors who have already turned to dust.
"People say this is not about tribes, it's about all of us," he continued. "It's true in a sense, but it's always about the tribe, because the tribe has that relationship with the land – especially when they are desecrating ... archaeological sites like they're doing with the TPP."
Last week, archaeologist David Keller, co-founder of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, broadcast on Periscope from a well-documented archaeological site in northern Brewster County that showed evidence of 5,000 years of use as a gathering and cooking site. "It's really not recognizable," Keller said of the caliche scar that now replaced the Trap Springs archaeological site. "The only things we can actually tell, that give some indication that something was there, are carbon stains in the soil."
In other words, all the archaeological evidence that this spot was once a well-used kitchen has been turned to dust. In its place are a perfectly graded 125-foot-wide slash and newly installed porta-potty.
Standing Up with Standing Rock
For established climate organizers used to fighting all things petroleum, the Standing Rock fight has provided a critical charge. Dave Cortez, senior organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, called the emergence of indigenous voices speaking out on extraction projects and the need to protect the water "the wind at our backs."
"We'd been trying to figure out ways to connect our community. We'll throw a conference. We'll put a summit together. You know, what is it? Maybe come to our demonstration? But this is so much deeper than that. That prayer is very strong," Cortez said. "We're trying to be real clear and leverage the presence of the Energy Transfer Partners in Texas and make that a jumping point not just to West Texas but to ask, 'What's happening in Texas? Why is there so much corruption? Where is this struggle happening with native peoples in Texas?'"
The fight over the bi-national Dos Republicas coal mine outside Eagle Pass represents a beginning of that dialogue. In what one AIM member called a "historic event," about 200 mostly indigenous demonstrators marched from the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras International Bridge to the mine site 8.5 miles away in April, speaking against the company's expansion plans and insisting its mine is located on ancestral burial grounds.
In both Eagle Pass and Standing Rock, tribes with longstanding animosities dating back hundreds of years came together. "There was a time we were known as enemies of one another," said Mancias. "And here we are working together. You see it at the coal mine, people who had been enemies at one time working together to try to make sense of what has been taken out of the land and taken away from the tribal people."
Sam Coffman, a former Army Special Forces medic and founder/director of the Texas-based survival-skills school, the Human Path, was selected by the Standing Rock Sioux to organize medical operations at the encampment. Along with members of his school's Herbal Medics program, Coffman has been working to prepare the site for the coming cold weather.
His school, which draws folks from across the country to train in wilderness skills, was born of a vision quest 25 years ago, he said. "The message then as it is now is we have to have some sort of a means to be able to reconnect people to the planet. That's the bottom line. We're not going to make it as a species without connecting to the planet that gives us food and water and air and medicine and all of this we need."
Since the Obama administration has placed the most contested section of the Dakota pipeline on hold, it could be that the standoff continues into the winter. Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners recently sold a $2 billion share in the pipeline to Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Enbridge Energy Partners, adding significant investor pressure to push through.
By next month, the daily high will have settled into the 30s. After that, it's not long before negative-30 weather becomes possible. In preparation, tribal members have begun creating a more accessible site for a clinic, one that may be reached easily by ambulance. "They want it integrative, of course, but they're saying that they want us in charge of the herbal medicine and herbal first aid," Coffman said. "And they want herbal medicine to be the primary modality of any treatment when it is possible."
In his travels to and from Standing Rock, Coffman sees a fuller message that has not yet been told by those following from afar.
"People feel solidarity with this cause of not fucking up the water, but nobody's really seeing the big picture," he said. That picture, as he sees it, is the general failure of industrial capitalism.
"We have this addiction to energy, and every time we think we can do whatever the fuck we want, we let people pipe this stuff through. We let people destroy economies and build mono-economies and say they are creating jobs; that destroys the area while they rape the earth. So now in one generation, in two generations, the air's no good, the water's no good, the food's no good, the soil's no good, and the economy collapses, and the only ones laughing their way to the bank are these billionaires."
That national energy "addiction," perhaps most popularized by then-candidate George W. Bush's unexpected 2006 campaign trail confession, has been picking apart the planet's life-support systems for decades. But the realization that human-caused climate change poses an existential threat to human society and much of the rest of life on the planet has only recently begun to gain international commitments to carbon reduction under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, to keep the world from hitting an additional two degrees Celsius (a somewhat arbitrary number, but one generally agreed as ushering in the most extreme forms of climate disruption), new drilling for coal, oil, and gas must stop now, according to a new report released by Oil Change International in partnership with 350.org, Christian Aid, Amazon Watch, and others.
A Spiritual Engagement
What Standing Rock offers us – and what may be developing around Dos Republicas and Trans-Pecos – is a spiritual engagement with questions of connectedness and extraction that could profoundly change the politics of energy in Texas. Walter Echo-Hawk, a longtime attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, has suggested that mainstream environmental activism has failed to create a land ethic capable of transforming American culture because of its inability to move beyond "settler state" outlooks, in which land and water are regarded as "resources." The crisis is as much a failure of "scientism," he writes in In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America, as the traditional forms of Christianity, or "dominionism," which guided settlers along their possession of the continent.
It is the mindset of colonialism, he writes, that stands in the way of a land ethic promoted by the likes of Aldo Leopold.
At its core, the movement flowing into and out of Standing Rock is a deeply spiritual one. Perhaps of the sort capable of ushering in that new land ethic.
When she traveled to the camp, Farina King, a Navajo post-doc fellow at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, encountered a sense of "revivalism" in the constant drumming and prayers, ceremonies that seemed to go on every night, through the night. "The media focuses on the sweat, blood, whatever, of captive peoples. Something to disgust [viewers] or shock them or something," she said. "But what was amazing about going up there is how much prayer and spirituality is tied to it. People are literally going to the camp from all over the world at great cost, great sacrifice. ... It's sort of become a mecca of its own kind because it resonates with so many people.
"There's a renewal for people to remember what it means to be indigenous, to be connected to the land and the earth, and to stand up for something," she said. "To actually do something about it. The Lakota leaders there are really putting everything on the line for this." Many others say they are willing to do likewise.
Over the last couple weeks, Austin volunteers have been busy collecting donated supplies to help those encamped at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., prepare for the onset of winter. Last week, volunteers from AIM-CTX sorted piles of tents, cots, sleeping bags, cook stoves, and flashlights, eventually strapping all that material onto two trailers and a truck.
Minutes before a send-off prayer and burning of sage, Houston-based Shauna Prieto nodded her head to a green patch of lawn on the side of the suburban street. "This is our DNA in the ground," she said. "Any one of us would put our lives on the line for this cause. If you gotta go, better to go fighting for the people."
Big Bend Stands with Standing Rock
There will be a gathering and march to a Trans-Pecos Pipeline construction site – Friday, Sept. 30, 10am-1pm in Alpine, Texas. Free primitive camping will be provided Thursday and Friday, with musical guests, including Charlie Pierce's Choctaw Wildfire band. Sponsoring organizations include: American Indian Movement of Central Texas (AIMCTX), Defend Big Bend, Big Bend Conservation Alliance, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and others.
For More Information or to Donate:
Standing Rock Spirit Camp: www.sacredstonecamp.org
Standing Rock Legal Defense Fund: www.fnd.us/d19fAf
AIM-Central Texas: www.aimctx.org
Herbal Medics: www.herbalmedics.org
Relief Mission to Standing Rock: www.gofundme.com/hmstandingrock
Big Bend Conservation Alliance: www.bigbendconservationalliance.org
Big Bend Stands With Standing Rock: www.gofundme.com/2pfktek
Greg Harman is an independent journalist based in San Antonio.