It took months of fierce resistance, thousands camped out in protest, dozens of arrests, and a brutal encounter with attack dogs, but the tribal fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has emerged as a national moment of truth for the political establishment, as well as the hundreds of thousands who have voiced support for the Standing Rock Sioux in this pivotal moment.
In anticipation of Friday's federal court ruling that could temporarily halt pipeline construction, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple officially activated the National Guard to increase the security presence around the peaceful prayer camps, which heightened tensions for many tribal members.
"To an average non-Native person, that might feel safe," Faith Spotted Eagle, an Ihanktowan elder, explained to Indian Country Today. "To us, it feels really familiar, and it personally takes me back to the Whitestone Massacre," she said, referring to the 1863 attack by the U.S. military on the very same land occupied by the prayer camp. "But we know how to handle these situations...We pray."
U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg is expected to rule on the tribe's request (pdf) for a preliminary injunction against the pipeline permit. The Standing Rock Sioux want to halt construction of the 1,170-mile, $3.8 billion conduit until the court can determine whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted permission to Dakota Access in violation of numerous federal statutes, and without assessing the potential damage to the tribe's water supply.
Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II issued a statement on Thursday calling for peace regardless of the outcome.
"Thousands of people, from members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, tribes across the nation and First Nations in Canada, to non-Native supporters in the United States and around the world, have stood in solidarity against the harm and destruction caused by the Dakota Access Pipeline," he said. "The pipeline threatens our sacred lands and the health of 17 million people who rely upon the Missouri River for water. There is a lot at stake with the court decision."
He continued: "We call upon all water protectors to greet any decision with peace and order. Even if the outcome of the court's ruling is not in our favor, we will continue to explore every lawful option and fight against the construction of the pipeline. Any act of violence hurts our cause and is not welcome here. We invite all supporters to join us in prayer that, ultimately, the right decision—the moral decision—is made to protect our people, our sacred places, our land and our resources."
With so much at stake and with so much attention thrust on the stretch of land at the convergence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers, the silence on the part of the country's leaders, particularly President Barack Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, has been deafening.
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Obama was questioned directly about the issue during an event in Laos this week by a Malayasian student who asked, "What can you do to ensure to protect indigenous land and make sure environmental justice prevails" in the case of the Standing Rock Sioux?
The president said he could not give any details "on this particular case, but what I can tell you is that we have restored more rights among native Americans to their ancestral lands, sacred sites, water, hunting grounds, we have done a lot more work on that in the last eight years than had in the previous 20 or 30 years, and it is something that I hope will continue as we go forward."
When asked about that response, Oliver Semans of the Native Organizers Alliance told Campaign for America's Future, "I am hoping that what he meant by that is that all of the work I've done for the past eight years will mean nothing if they let this pipeline go through."
And much like the pivotal—and ultimately victorious—campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, as columnist Isaiah Poole wrote Friday, the confrontation over the pipeline "challenges" Obama, Clinton, and Congress, "to be clear whose side they are on—Native and non-Native Americans seeking to protect vital waterways and land from the risks of oil spills (and to stop global warming by leaving oil in the ground and using renewables instead) or the fossil fuel industry and its pursuit of profits at the expense of people and the planet."
On Friday, tribal women with the Brave Heart Society, White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, and Stone Boy Society issued an open letter to Obama calling on him to stop the pipeline and its related violence, in this particular case with the recent dog attack and desecration of burial sites, as well as the threats to women through the so-called "man camps" that come with pipeline construction.
Nearly 800,000 people have signed one of the multiple petitions circulating calling for the pipeline permit to be revoked, citing the threats to both clean water as well as tribal sovereignty. Solidarity events have been held in cities across the country with a day of national day of action planned for September 13. Meanwhile, numerous high profile activists, politicians, and celebrities—including Bernie Sanders, Susan Sarandon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill McKibben, and Shailene Woodley—have also joined the opposition.
On the ground, representatives from more than 185 Native American tribes from across the nation have joined the encampment in North Dakota, making it the biggest tribal gathering in modern history.
Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of the radical activist American Indian Movement, recently told BBC, "I am 80 years old...I've been jailed, I've been shot. This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. This is what I fought for."
"This is the biggest gathering of its kind in history," added Keith Lussier. "We will stand our ground if we have to."