Water is life. That’s what we said to the Tribal Council of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in 2011. Carol Davis, a Turtle Mountain elder, had asked a group of us women from the tribe to help protect the water from fracking on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, around 200 miles northeast of Bismarck, North Dakota. She called on us because in Chippewa society, women are keepers of the water. Fracking of North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil had begun just 40 miles away from Turtle Mountain; and fracking in North Dakota had already made a destructive, violent impact 180 miles away on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. We wanted to prevent Turtle Mountain from having the same fate.
The tribal council listened. Twenty days after this first meeting with Davis, it amended our tribal resolution not only to ban fracking, but also to cancel oil and gas bids on 45,000 acres. This day changed my life—it solidified my role as a water protector.
Hundreds of spills have already taken place in North Dakota since fracking took off around 2010. The Dakota Access pipeline is poised to carry Bakken oil from North Dakota to Illinois, crossing the Missouri River—the water source for Standing Rock and 27 other tribes as well as 10 states. The people of Standing Rock understand what we at Turtle Mountain understood in 2011: Tribes have treaty rights, and reservations are held in trust with the federal government. These rights and lands would be diminished with permanent water contamination from fracking chemicals like benzene. This is why water truly is life.
I am a North Dakota Native on both sides of my family. I was born on Turtle Mountain, my mother’s home; I also grew up on Fort Berthold—the home of my father’s family—which sits at the heart of the Bakken shale boom.
After working to ban fracking on one homeland, in 2012 I began working to help Native American women being directly impacted by fracking on my other homeland, as a tribal domestic violence victim advocate. Thousands of industry workers had infiltrated our reservation and had no place to live, so they populated undocumented, temporary living areas, known as “man camps.” On my second day on the job, I relocated two victims who escaped a man camp that oil workers had prevented them from leaving. They had jumped out a window and walked miles to a police station.
As I continued this work, the unprecedented levels of violence against Native American women only increased. These man camps are also spawned by the Dakota Access pipeline construction.
I had seen how fracking creates environmental devastation, with permanent water contamination; I had also witnessed industry violence against Native American women. So I decided to go to school to become an environmental lawyer, to mitigate the harm at its source. Every fracking-impacted community faces these dangers.
And now, as at Standing Rock, pipelines are bringing these problems to nonfracking communities.
I, along with millions of people, had watched the live streams in horror as excessive force was used by the North Dakota National Guard, regional sheriffs’ departments, and Dakota Access private security on the water protectors at Standing Rock. They attacked them with bean bags, tasers, and other weapons, beating unarmed people. That day 141 people were arrested on 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty land. Many were held in dog kennels.
As I watched the news, I felt outraged. Since I could not leave school to be at Standing Rock, I wondered what I could do.
I started reading articles about divesting from the 38 banks that are giving credit lines either to the Dakota Access pipeline owners—Sunoco Logistics, Energy Transfer Partners, and Energy Transfer Equity—or to the Dakota Access pipeline project itself—Dakota Access, LLC—totaling more than $10 billion. I discovered that U.S. Bank, where I held accounts, was one of those 38 banks.
Feeling helpless after seeing the military and police brutality, I decided to divest on October 30. I wrote to the U.S. Bank CEO about why I needed to close my accounts. I was upset that my money was connected to these human rights violations. “This excessive force is not to protect the people, but to protect the man camps and the ongoing pipeline construction,” I wrote. “Shame on you U.S. Bank and its CEO for investing in greed and condoning human rights violations solely for your benefit. And the egregious use of the people’s money to in effect poison the people.”
I am not alone in closing my accounts—it’s a growing movement that has caught the attention of individuals and institutions. On November 1, Standing Rock passed a tribal resolution affirming 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty rights and declaring and affirming the “fundamental understanding of Mni Wiconi [Water is Life]” by divesting from any financial institution that had a connection “in any aspect” to the Dakota Access pipeline project.
The fracking industry and its creditors, those banks, may not have much regard for water or human rights, but they do care about money. If your bank account is connected to one of them, you can move your money, too. In this time of heated public pressure, Norway’s DnB Bank is currently reevaluating its Dakota Access investment.
Whether it is water contamination or violence, the disproportionate impacts of fracking on tribal sovereign nations and its people, especially the women, is unacceptable. It is time we all stood up to it.
Cedar Wilkie Gillette wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Cedar is a third-year law student at Vermont Law School studying environmental and human rights law. Cedar is also a tribal member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and lineal descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.