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Protesting the pipeline at the Camp of the Sacred Stones in North Dakota.

"This is a fight for saving Mother Earth and protecting it for all who live here. It's huge," one organizer said. (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

'If We Don't Lead This Fight, Who Will?' Tribal Leaders Demand Army Corps Stop Pipeline

Indigenous people and supporters hand-deliver letters of protest to Army Corps of Engineers in Nebraska

Nika Knight Beauchamp

Tribal leaders, Indigenous people, and anti-pipeline activists rallied peacefully in Omaha, Nebraska on Thursday in front of the Army Corps of Engineers office and demanded that work on the Dakota Access Pipeline be stopped immediately.

"This is a fight for saving Mother Earth and protecting it for all who live here."
—Judith LeBlanc, Native Organizers Alliance
"They will hand deliver letters from supporters, including People's Action Institute and Native Organizers Alliance, as well as the Winnebago, Ponca, Santee Sioux, and Omaha tribes opposing the pipeline route that has already desecrated sacred ground and puts important water resources, including the Missouri River, in danger," the participating groups wrote in a statement.

The historic and growing protest against the pipeline, which began with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's call to action this spring, has expanded rapidly in recent weeks as members of tribes across North America and their supporters have traveled to North Dakota to voice their opposition to the project.

The activists are also calling on President Barack Obama to compel the Army Corps of Engineers "do its job," as Judith LeBlanc, Native Organizers Alliance director and member of the Caddo tribe of Oklahoma, put it during an interview with Common Dreams.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the controversial pipeline over objections from other federal agencies, has "unfortunately, at the behest of the Energy Transfer Partners corporation, cherry-picked their own rules. Instead of following the laws that protect and guarantee tribal rights they have violated and ignored their own rules and federal laws," LeBlanc said.

President Obama "has done so much to deepen and expand the ability of Indian Country to have a role in federal policy" during his eight-year tenure, LeBlanc argued, pointing out his creation of the White House's annual Tribal Nations Conference and his historic appointment of a special advisor for Native American Affairs.

"Given all of that history and relationship building over last eight years," LeBlanc said, "I want him to ensure that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does its job."

President Obama was recently asked about the pipeline project during his tour of Asia, Politico reports: "At a town meeting in Laos on Wednesday, a Malaysian student asked Obama about Dakota Access on behalf of the Sioux. Obama acknowledged that 'I can't give you details on this particular case,' pledging to reach out to his aides on the pipeline fight."

LeBlanc, who has spent many days living at the Camp of the Sacred Stones protesting the pipeline, also noted that Native Americans are fighting not only on their own behalf, but for the rights of all people to clean water: "The thousands of Indians who are camping to prevent the pipeline from being built—they are fighting not only for their safety and their protection of their water supply. They are also fighting to protect the water supply of the entire region, for the farmers and ranchers who live along the river."

"We understand that if we don't lead this fight, who will?"
—Judith LeBlanc
The battle between corporate interests and activists is heating up: currently, dueling lawsuits regarding the pipeline are wending their way through the courts. "The main company behind the Dakota Access pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, is set to make its case in a North Dakota court today against the thousands of protesters," Politico notes, while water protectors await a Friday decision from a federal judge in response to their request for an injunction against the pipeline's construction.

And while the rally in Omaha was taking place, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple announced that he had requested the National Guard "support" local law enforcement with pipeline protesters near the construction site.

This battle is historic, LeBlanc said. Of her time at the camp, LeBlanc called it "an amazing beautiful experience, because we are reclaiming a tradition of standing together for the common good."

Despite the horrific destruction of sacred burial grounds by pipeline builders—which LeBlanc characterized as "an atrocity"—and the attacks on water protectors this past weekend, the organizer says the mood in the camp is hopeful.

"We have thousands of people camping together, eating together, everyday. Full-time kitchen, full meals. We have open fires, a radio station," LeBlanc continued. "When you have a village, a 21st-century Indian village that is operating, creating its own infrastructure, finding ways to resolve differences, it's a beautiful thing. Many people are saying, 'I've never smiled so much in my life.'"

"This is a fight for saving Mother Earth and protecting it for all who live here," LeBlanc said. "It's huge."

"This has never happened in Indian Country," LeBlanc added, of the sustained and growing action.

And as more and more join the protest camp each day, LeBlanc points out that to many Native Americans, the destructive aftermath of oil and gas projects are all to familiar: "The majority of nearly 600 Superfund sites [in the U.S.] are on or near Indian country," LeBlanc said, referring to the program for cleaning up some of the nation's most contaminated land. "We understand that if we don’t lead this fight, who will?"

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