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On Sunday, November 6, in Redwood Valley, California several hundred people gathered to listen to activists report back from Standing Rock where they had stood in solidarity with Native American Tribes, known as Water Protectors, opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.
One such speaker was Jassen Rodriguez, a Mishewal Wappo tribal member whose ancestral landbase includes much of Sonoma, Napa, and southern Lake counties. He had just returned from a three-week sojourn to North Dakota, where had had stayed at Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, an encampment named for the seven bands of the Sioux people where a ceremonial fire has remained burning for many months.
Elders at Standing Rock had granted Rodriguez the responsibility of tending the sacred fire on behalf of the entire camp, and he choked back tears as he recounted the experience.
“It was the greatest honor of my life,” Rodriguez said. “It was an incredible blessing. The entire experience was a spiritual awakening.”
Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline has galvanized support from all over the world. Constructed mainly by Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline originates in the Bakken oil patch and traverses North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, and ends in Illinois, linking to transmission routes to the East Coast and Gulf Coast.
For several months, indigenous people, environmentalists and Great Plains residents have protested the project because it threatens water quality and myriad sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. It will also contribute to the global climate crisis.
On December 4th, the Standing Rock resistance achieved a major breakthrough when the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners’ request for an easement to build the pipeline beneath the Missouri River, requiring a full environmental impact statement before that part of the project can proceed.
The astonishing movement against the pipeline has touched deep into the heart of indigenous communities in places like Northern California. Hundreds of people from the North Bay and North Coast regions of California, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, have made the trek to the area of wind-swept prairie where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri.
Local support has manifested through fundraisers, rallies, and ceremonies. On December 4th, more than 500 people marched through downtown Santa Rosa to the beat of traditional drums. More than 600 people attended a November fundraiser in Sebastopol, with hundreds also turning out for events in Mendocino, Lake, and Humboldt counties.
Windsor resident Adam Villagomez, a Sonoma County Indian Health substance abuse counselor who is Dakota Sioux and Chippewa, has been at the forefront of Sonoma County Standing Rock support efforts. He traveled with his wife and three sons to Standing Rock in the week preceding Indigenous People’s Day.
Villagomez says that Standing Rock is only the leading edge of a much larger spiritual and political phenomenon that involves recognition of indigenous sovereignty, water protection, and combatting climate change. “Standing Rock is a spark that ignited fires in many people, which are going to grow and spread as people continue to bring the same spirit home to their communities,” he says.
The protests at Standing Rock first started filling headlines and social media feeds in August. Much of the attention has focused on the police’s brutal treatment of protests. With the Morton County sheriff in the lead, police have used high-powered water hoses, dogs, rubber bullets, sonic weapons, pepper spray and tear gas against water protectors who have resisted efforts to move them out.
The level of force and the militarized appearance of the police has captured national headlines partly because it has been wildly out of proportion to the physical threat posed by the activists.
Brandy Toelupe, a lawyer for the National Lawyers Guild, has helped file a lawsuit against the Morton County Sheriffs and other police agencies for using excessive force. “From the beginning, governments have used their latest technologies to take land and resources from Native nations and oppress Indigenous peoples,” she says. “[The Morton County Sheriffs] actions make it clear that nothing has changed.”
On November 20th, a demonstration outside of the Oceti Sakowin camp called attention to a police barricade that has prevented emergency services vehicles and other traffic from accessing the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s northern access route since late-October. A line of riot police responded by firing concussion grenades and rubber bullets, and by drenched hundreds of people with high-powered water hoses amid freezing temperatures.
I stood on or near the Blackwater Bridge on Highway 1806 – the center of the action — for several hours that night. People wielded plywood and galvanized aluminum roofing shields to protect themselves and their comrades from the rubber bullets. Many sang their culture’s traditional songs as expressions of prayerful defiance. The pungent smell of tear gas periodically filled the air, mixing with the more persistent smell of people’s vomit.
Sometimes, the police directed the rubber bullets at people’s faces and chests. Cars transporting volunteer medics periodically parted the sea of people on the bridge. By night’s end, the police had wounded more than 150 unarmed individuals. Yet, people kept streaming to the frontline of the action. The chaotic scene lasted for more than six hours.
A 21-year-old woman whose arm was nearly torn off by an explosive grenade is still undergoing multiple surgeries, as of this writing, and facing permanent disability. Another was shot in the eye, leading to possible permanent blindness.
Among those on the frontline that night was Loren Lincoln, a Wailaki from the Round Valley Indian Tribes in northeastern Mendocino County – California’s largest reservation. He first traveled to Standing Rock immediately after private security guards in Energy Transfer Partners’ employ sicked dogs on protesters, which severely wounded several people.
“Fortunately, the bullets whizzed past me out here – I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.
The police’s brutal assault on the unarmed water protectors seemed to prick the conscience of the nation. Certainly, it led to far greater media scrutiny from the mainstream media and members of the national political establishment. Meanwhile, the mood at the Oceti Sakowin camp tangibly changed. Despite being shaken by their experience, many people’s sense of pride and determination seemed only to have increased.
The North Dakota police, including representatives of the Morton County Sheriffs, have claimed that they are merely defending the Dakota Access Pipeline right-of-way owners from an intrusion on their right to use their property on their own terms, and that the areas of construction they are guarding have been legally permitted by state and federal agencies.
On November 28th, US Reps. Jared Huffman and Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson) sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting an immediate meeting to “demand accountability for (the) alarming treatment of Water Protectors and peaceful demonstrators at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.” Huffman’s communications director, Alexandra Shaffer, has not responded to a request for comment on the letter.
A reason for Huffman’s role in the letter may be the large number of North Coast people who have traveled to Standing Rock – and the growing political strength of indigenous people in his district. Lincoln says that indigenous people are accustomed to brutal treatment from the police.
For many California native people, the resistance at Standing Rock has helped draw parallels to their struggles at home. Because indigenous cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited, their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands, which face countless threats at any given time.
In California and beyond, contemporary indigenous people are engaged in battles over mineral rights, water rights, federal recognition, honoring of treaties, repatriation or honorable treatment of sacred sites, healthcare, language preservation, and more.
As in Standing Rock, recognition of indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection are inextricably linked. Largely owing to some of these tribes’ long struggle to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, for example, the Klamath-Trinity is home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California, not to mention one of the healthiest populations of steelhead trout in the Lower 48, and perhaps the world’s most abundant green sturgeon population – although all of these fisheries are in a steep decline.
Dozens of indigenous people from the Klamath basin have traveled to Standing Rock. “We’re out here in Standing Rock talking about our struggles in the Klamath, and about how nonviolent direct action has changed our world,” the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Dania Colegrove told supporters at an event in Arcata in September.
Jim Browneagle, an Elem Pomo traditional cultural leader from Lake County, traveled to Standing Rock with a contingent of Pomo people in October. He notes the similarities between the struggles for treaty recognition in California and North Dakota.
The Dakota Access Pipeline skirts around the Standing Rock Sioux reservation land by about a half-mile. They point out that the land rightfully belongs to the Sioux people under the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and that the land was only later seized without native people’s consent.
As Browneagle notes, US treaty commissioners negotiated 18 treaties with California’s 500 native nations in California, setting aside roughly 7.5 million acres of land as reservations within the then-new state’s boundaries. One of these treaties set aside much of the land around Clear Lake for exclusive use and occupancy by Pomo peoples. The US Senate refused to recognize the treaties, however, instead taking the unique step of having these documents placed in secret files.
Since returning home, Browneagle has given a number of presentations about Standing Rock, such as one he and his daughter gave to the Lake County Judge’s Association on December 4th.
He notes that low-income communities of color overwhelmingly are more likely to live near pollution sources or suffer adverse impacts from resource exploitation. For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline was originally slated to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital.
Due to concerns about contamination of the city’s water supply, it was rerouted to cross the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the sole water supply for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes and thousands of other people.
Again, Browneagle’s own people are a case in point. The Elem Pomo’s 50-acre rancheria is adjacent to the Bradley mercury mine near Clearlake Oaks – a site formerly on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund” list of the most contaminated locations in the country. The mine began operations in 1871 and was among the nation’s most productive mercury mines during War War II, feeding the demand for quicksilver detonators in munitions.
But the mine also contaminated the Elem’s land and waters with prodigious amounts of methyl mercury tailings, thereby causing premature deaths, birth defects, cancers, and bodily deformities among tribal members. It forced the tribe to abandon its ancient subsistence fishing culture in the 1970s, after the fish became contaminated far beyond levels fit for consumption.
“Ultimately, everyone in this area is impacted by the pollution, but we as native people are on the frontline of it, just like at Standing Rock,” Browneagle says. “As Standing Rock has showed, though, we can’t fight this kind of battle on our own. We have to unite our communities.”
Windsor’s Adam Villagomez agrees. “In Indian County, people have been dealing with these issues for a while,” he says. “So, when the call was put out, there was a massive amount of people who came from Northern California tribes.”
He adds, “As far as the non-native community goes, this is the most support we’ve seen as Native Americans.”
The Standing Rock struggle did not emerge in a vacuum. In recent years, movements against fossil fuel extraction have helped revive – and, to some degree, reinvent — North American environmentalism, with indigenous people frequently at the forefront.
There has been an impressive level of opposition to nearly any infrastructure project associated with the Alberta tar sands, along with widespread resistance to new coal infrastructure and to specific extraction techniques such as fracking and acidization.
Some campaigns have succeeded by targeting the fossil fuel industries’ greatest Achilles heel: shipping. Three of the largest and potentially most lucrative fossil fuel sources in North America – the Alberta Tar Sands, the Powder River Coal Basin, and the Bakken Oil Shale Basin – are located in the middle of the continent, far away from refineries, processing plants, and shipping hubs. In effect, they are landlocked.
Grassroots opposition to Keystone XL led President Barack Obama to veto the project in 2015. And opposition by some of the most systematically disenfranchised people in North America — western Canada’s indigenous people — was the main obstacle to the completion of the equally massive Northern Gateway pipeline.
An indigenous-led encampment protesting the Keystone XL pipeline also took place in 2013-14 at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, a little over 100 miles from Standing Rock. Bob Gough, a long-time resident of the Rosebud reservation, said in a conversation while sorting through supplies at the Rosebud Camp at Standing Rock that the Keystone fight had given indigenous people in the area “something to rally around – especially younger people here.”
From the perspective of many indigenous people at Standing Rock, their role in opposing fossil fuel extraction marks another chapter in a struggle that has lasted for more than 500 years. For many, it is also part of a spiritual awakening and revitalization of tradtional culture that was foretold generations ago.
On December 29, 1890, the US 7th Calvary Regiment massacred around 300 Lakota children, women, and men near Wounded Knee, South Dakota in what many historians see as the grisly final chapter in the Manifest Destiny period of US. The massacre at Wounded Knee symbolized to the Lakota the shattering of the Sacred Hoop – the traditional circle of the Oceti Sakowin, representing the unity of the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota Nation.
“My understanding is that the movement at Standing Rock is the fulfillment of multiple prophecies that involve our people coming together, standing up, and mending the sacred hoop,” Villagomez says.
As of this writing, at least 2,000 people remain camped at Standing Rock in spite of snowy conditions and North Dakota’s punishing winter winds, which blow clear down from Canada’s rapidly disappearing permafrost. The Dakota Access Pipeline is more than 90 percent completed, but construction adjacent to Standing Rock remains on hold thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers’ recent directive.
Most water protectors are fully aware that incoming president Donald Trump’s administration is committed to seeing the pipeline completed, and that the Army Corps could reverse itself once he’s in office. The Army Corps’ directive delays, but does not cancel, the project.
Of course, the Obama administration had also been a committed supporter of pipeline construction, and even gave special mention to North Dakota and Colorado during a 2012 campaign stop in Cushing, OK: “Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high.”
In the meantime, people across the country have launched divestment campaigns targeting the multiple banks that are financially fueling the pipeline’s construction. People in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Ukiah, and Clearlake have recently held protests at Wells Fargo, which is among the pipeline’s major creditors and is the main banker of Energy Transfer Partners, to encourage customers to close their accounts there. They have also targeted other banks.
In court filings, Energy Transfer Partners representatives have claimed that their contracts with the nine companies that have agreed to pay them to ship oil through the pipeline expire on January 1st and can then be renegotiated. One of these companies appears to be Oasis Petroleum, a major Bakken shale producer in which Marin County-based investment firm SPO Partners owns the largest stake of any investor – as I reported in October.
“If Oasis Petroleum has made a financial commitment to the pipeline, as it appears they have, it certainly raises questions about their complicity in the pipeline company’s egregious behavior toward the water protectors,” says Clark Williams-Derry, research director of the Sightline Institute, an energy policy think tank in Seattle. “The moral pressure is on them to decide whether they are to be a party to Dakota Access’ actions.”
Among those who participated in a November 30th demonstration at Wells Fargo’s Ukiah branch was Jassen Rodriguez, the Mishewal Wappo man who had tended the Seven Councils Fire at Standing Rock. Two days later, he would drive back out to Standing Rock, along with four family members, braving the snow and the ice of North Dakota’s punishing late-fall.
“We’ve been waiting for this a long time,” he says. “We’ve got to keep up the momentum.”