The Dakota Access Pipeline has been stopped, at least for now. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation and thousands of native and non-native allies won a remarkable and unexpected victory Sunday. Word came down that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied a permit for the pipeline owner, Energy Transfer Partners, to drill underneath the Missouri River, and that a full environmental-impact study would be launched. Grass-roots organizing, nonviolent direct action and leadership from front-line indigenous people succeeded in stopping the $3.8 billion, 1,200-mile pipeline in its tracks. As water protectors celebrated in the frozen camps, one question loomed: What will happen when Donald Trump takes over the presidency in six short weeks?
“Finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told us on “Democracy Now!” hours after hearing the news. “We’ve been talking about this with the Corps of Engineers for almost two years now, and we’ve been letting them know that we had problems with this pipeline, because it not only threatens our water, it threatens our heritage, it threatens our culture, it threatens our environment.”
Bitter cold weather has descended over the region, making life in the resistance camps even more difficult. Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and his deputies, along with a multijurisdictional array of paramilitarized police and National Guard, unleashed an arsenal of pepper spray, concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and, in the freezing cold, water cannons.
North Dakota’s outgoing Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, along with Sheriff Kirchmeier and Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, shares responsibility for the unbridled police and private-security-company violence that has rained down upon the pipeline resisters for months. A week before the permit denial, Dalrymple declared a state of emergency, saying, “Winter conditions have the potential to endanger human life.” In response, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe wrote, “The Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers [here]. It is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.” Former Vice President Al Gore, commenting a week later, said the use of water cannons in cold weather was “inhumane,” and called the pipeline itself “an atrocity.”
While Dalrymple threatened to forcibly evict the thousands of peaceful water protectors, troops of a different sort were massing to defend them. U.S. military veterans were responding to a call from tribal elders to come defend the camp. “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” were traveling to the camps to form a human shield around the protectors. Over 2,000 veterans made the journey, under the leadership of veteran Wes Clark Jr. If his name sounds familiar, it might be because of his father, Wesley Clark Sr., the retired four-star general who was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO and later ran for president.
After the announcement denying the easement to drill under the Missouri River, Wes Clark Jr. spoke at a ceremony at Standing Rock: “We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. … We’ve hurt you in so many ways. And we’ve come to say that we are sorry, we are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.”
Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault told us, “The pipeline is not going to move ahead. The campers that are there can now enjoy the winter with their families at home.” Many in the camps remain skeptical, like U.S. veteran Remy, a native of the Navajo Nation, who has been at Standing Rock for almost six months. “Until the project has ended, we are not planning to go anywhere,” he said on “Democracy Now!”
Donald Trump supports the pipeline, and could very well scuttle the Obama administration’s decision to deny the permit. According to financial-disclosure statements, Trump has held between $500,000 and $1 million invested in the pipeline, although a Trump spokesperson claims he has since sold his shares. Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Congressman Keith Ellison said the nominee “denies climate change and is beholden to fossil-fuel companies. Scott Pruitt has pledged to roll back environmental protections and go to bat for multibillion-dollar oil and gas companies.”
Last September, Lakota water protector Olowan Martinez locked herself to an excavator that was being used for pipeline construction. She was arrested and spent a week in jail. When we asked her how long she was planning on staying at the camps. She told us, “Until we know for sure that this black snake is dead.” Cold weather, police violence and government promises won’t deter these water protectors.