Lessons from the environmental frontline

Jim Watson

Jim Watson

The Guardian
September 23rd, 2016
By: John Paul Brammer

“I’m here until January,” said a man sitting with his arms crossed in the backseat. The six of us had piled into an old Ford Taurus, hitching a ride back to camp from a prayer ceremony at the site in North Dakota where protests against the now infamous pipeline project had been met with riot police and attack dogs only days before. “The long haul.”

“Right on,” said a woman in the front. “That’s dedication.”

He was from the Navajo Nation, where he was studying business management at Diné College on the reservation. She was from the Cherokee Nation and had arrived at 3am that morning. Everyone in the car, it turned out, was from a different tribe. That’s not unusual for Red Warrior Camp near Cannonball, North Dakota, where nations and tribes from around the world have united behind a common purpose: stop the Dakota Access pipeline.

The campsites, Sacred Stone and Red Warrior, have swelled to well over 2,000 people. A seedling camp has sprung up on the road close to where construction on the pipeline is taking place about an hour south of Bismarck. Together, they constitute a sustainable community, complete with kitchens, donation centers, schools and legal counseling. The scope of the gathering is unprecedented, with over 280 tribes represented at the camps.

This combining of forces has been spurred on by the urgent nature of the crisis. For indigenous people, climate change and pollution aren’t the battles of tomorrow. They are very real, very present issues that have already dramatically impacted everyday life. The Inuit residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, are voting to relocate their village due to rising sea levels. The Navajo Nation is suing the EPA over a toxic mine spill that contaminated the San Juan River, which the Navajo depend on to water their crops and livestock. Last March, the Lenka people in Honduras lost civil rights leader and environmentalist Berta Cáceres, an ardent opponent of the privatization of the river Río Gualcarqueque, to assassination.

Historically, oil transportation has been bad news for indigenous populations. Last June, a train carrying tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil derailed and caught fire near Mosier, Oregon, contaminating the Columbia River, which the Yakama Nation in Washington depends on. In South Dakota, the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples fought off the Keystone XL pipeline that bisected treaty lands and, the tribes said, would lead to more pollution.

So when pipeline construction began on land just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and sacred burial sites were bulldozed in the process, it became a lightning rod for a broader struggle. “Water is life” is a rallying cry of the protests, and it’s a message that resonates as much with the Inca in South America as it does the Ojibwa in Canada.

“Cut the heads from the snakes!” said a man speaking at the prayer ceremony at the protest site, referring to oil pipelines everywhere. He wore camouflage pants and a feathered headdress. “Today, we hear about the Colonial pipeline.” He pauses. “That’s a good name for it, isn’t it?” He was referencing a recent eruption in the Colonial pipeline in Alabama that resulted in a massive oil spill.

The indigenous way of life is more immediately dependent on the natural world, and when nature is damaged, indigenous people are damaged. When the rivers are poisoned, indigenous people are poisoned.

Read more at the Guardian.