Life after Standing Rock

“The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas. And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people."

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

As part of the flurry of executive orders he issued upon taking office, President Donald Trump, through a stroke of his pen, effectively reversed the victory of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies in stopping construction of the 1,134 mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that snakes through their territory on its route to Patoka, Illinois.
To add insult to injury, Trump also gave the go ahead to the canceled Keystone XL project that will, alongside already operating pipelines, bring 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil across the Canada/U.S. border a day, creating the threat of a spill occurring somewhere along its path.

While DAPL is already near completion, the last phase of the Keystone XL pipeline that the President’s executive order gave the State Department only 60 days to approve, will take at least two more years. At least in part due to the rashness of the order, the project is already facing legal hurdles.

“In its haste to comply with the 60-day deadline, of course the State Department didn’t have time to meet all of its environmental review obligations,” Sierra Club lawyer Doug Hayes recently told Think Progress, “I think that’s a theme we have seen, and not just in the environmental process.”

The aftermath at Standing Rock

As for the resistance at Standing Rock, police and National Guard members cleared the last major obstacle to the pipeline, the Oceti Sakowin camp, arresting dozens more water protectors on February 23rd of this year, under the somewhat ironic pretext that the camp’s location on the flood plain made it a threat to the environment.

While most of the protesters had left shortly after the previous administration stopped construction in December to allow for further review, those that are left are building new camps on nearby private land. Aside from these holdouts, life is reportedly going back to normal on the Reservation, which is home to the Hunkpapa and Sihaspa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota peoples, who live in scattered communities on its almost 3,600 square miles of land.

Unfortunately, this return to normalcy is nothing to celebrate, as the communities that compose the Standing Rock Reservation have some of the worst living conditions in North America, with many people surviving without such basics as electricity and indoor plumbing. As reported by Time Magazine, “more 40% of the reservation’s population have an income below the federal poverty line, compared to 13.8% for the U.S. on average.”

By most accounts, amidst the carnage wrought by alcohol, suicide, diabetes and other ills, hope was an almost non-existent commodity at Standing Rock before the water protectors took their stand. Now the people that live there are left with the same problems that have plagued them for decades, alongside the new hazard of an oil pipeline that could rupture at any time, with potentially devastating consequences.

These crises appear to be of little interest to the newly installed Trump Administration, which, as reported by Inside Climate News’ Phil Mckenna, in “a draft HUD (Housing and Urban Development) budget proposal leaked last month suggests funds allocated for Native American housing would be cut by $150 million, or 23 percent.”

Meanwhile, some of those from Standing Rock and elsewhere who came to the make shift camps set up in the area are still dealing with the legal consequences of their constitutionally protected protest. Police arrested hundreds of non-violent Water Protectors, many of whom are still awaiting their day in court.

Although the alternative media did a good job of reporting on these events, mainstream outlets, when they covered the Water Protectors at all, often called their confrontations with authorities ‘violent’, without specifying that almost all of the violence was coming from police and private security forces, who met protesters with pepper spray, water hoses, dogs and ‘non-lethal’ grenades.

With the way the activists were disparaged in police and corporate statements that were then repeated by the mainstream press, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the way that the Occupy movement was covered when peaceful activists at many encampments across the US were met with similar violence on the part of authorities more than five years ago.

The case against Red Fawn Fallis

Perhaps the most serious case still winding its way through the justice system is that of Red Fawn Fallis, an indigenous woman from Colorado. She is in jail awaiting a federal trial scheduled to begin in March for multiple alleged felonies while being detained, the most serious of which is discharging a firearm at law enforcement officers. This charge alone carries a minimum ten year sentence.

A widely disseminated video of the arrest does show what appears to be overwhelming force on the part of authorities and, while the only guns visible in the footage are in the hands of the police, there is the sound of what appear to be gunshots in the background, although there is no way of telling where they came from. What the video of her arrest does demonstrate without a doubt, is how chaotic these kinds of confrontations can get, with police who appear to have had little interest in deescalation.

For her part, Fallis has pled innocent on all charges and activists, some of whom were there that day, dispute the accusations made by Morton County police. Those with some knowledge of Native American activism can’t help but point to past incidents of authorities treating indigenous people unfairly without any consequences.

As Glenn Morris, of AIM (the American Indian Movement) Colorado told 150 people assembled in Denver for a benefit concert in Red Fawn’s honor, “You saw the video. You saw who had the guns. You saw who had the dogs. You saw who has the tanks. You saw who had the snipers. It wasn’t Red Fawn Fallis, and they have the temerity and audacity to charge one of our people with violence? The audacity to charge one of our people for defending the water?”

Solidarity with Standing Rock and beyond

The huge problems facing those at Standing Rock, both the Water Protectors and the general population, are mirrored throughout indigenous communities in the United States and its northern neighbor, Canada. This was what made the peaceful uprising so important to this centuries long struggle, both for basic human rights and to protect the natural world.

It should also not be viewed in isolation as it built and expanded upon the successes of Idle No More in Canada and the fight against Keystone XL in the US.

As LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, whose great grandmother survived the Whitestone massacre of 1863, wrote last year at the height of the protests, “The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas. And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people. These sites must be protected, or our world will end, it is that simple.”

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