The Dakota Pipeline protests gathered steam as a galaxy of celebrities – from politicians to movie stars - have joined the ranks. Senator Bernie Sanders was one of the latest to join the protests as he addressed a group protesting in Washington DC. Although the protests have been going for several months, they had largely been ignored by mainstream cable networks because of the Presidential election coverage.
Now that the elections are over, some cable channels have provided airtime to the protests. In fact, awareness of the issue has spread far and wide so much so that protests have been held in more than 300 cities all over the world. In a big show of unity, native American tribes in the US and Canada have come together to fight the pipeline.
But why are the native Americans in North Dakota protesting? The Dakota Oil Pipeline protests is indeed a complex issue with multiple factors at play. But a brief backgrounder on the oil pipeline will help understand the reasons behind the protests.
Costing over $3.8 billion, the 1172-mile contentious pipeline built by Energy Transfer Partners’ subsidiary, begins in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and winds its way through South Dakota, Iowa and all the way to Patoka in Illinois. It is expected to carry almost half a million barrels of oil and gas every day and serve the energy hungry American heartland.
As a CNN report pointed out recently, depending on who you talk to, you would hear a version of truth they firmly believe in. Protagonists of the pipeline claim this will usher in an economic boom that will bring jobs and economic resurgence to the states as well as play a very important part in reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and gas. The pipeline is also expected to relieve pressure on the rail network and free some much-needed freight capacity for agricultural use. There is merit in the economic benefits argument.
But there are also serious concerns about desecration of sacred burial sites on native American land and environmental consequences. Hence the protests.
The protestors, led by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a swelling rank of celebrities think this is an assault on the native Americans’ culture and traditions. The desecration of sacred native burial sites has angered many and continues to bring in more supporters everyday as the awareness spreads far and wide. Native American tribes in the US as well as Canada together with other protestors have camped at the pipeline site forming a well-knit group to voice their anger.
Many believe the project could destroy the source of drinking water to the reservations in the event of a pipeline leak or burst. Given the memory of some recent pipeline accidents, the fear is real. Many influential groups have spoken out against the pipeline. Greenpeace, the non-governmental environmental organization as well as a group of scientists working for conservation of threatened natural resources have come out against the pipeline project. The Iowa Environmental Council has raised concerns over safeguards and inadequate financial provision to manage the impact of a potential pipeline spill.
The protests are a grassroots movement that started from modest beginnings in early 2016. It has now grown enough to attract global attention and support. Much of this is attributed to the way the state police and the administration of Governor John Dalrymple III have handle the issue.
There have been reports of excessive force and detention of celebrity protestor and threats to journalists. For example, North Dakota police charged noted journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now with rioting while she was filming police brutality at the protest site. This has raised serious concerns of freedom of the press and free speech. A judge later threw away the rioting charges, but that did little to address serious concerns of neutral Americans who have so far not taken sides.
There have also been reports of attack dogs being let loose on protestors. Police have also used water cannon in the night in freezing temperatures on protestors leading many to be treated in emergency care for hypothermia. All this use of excessive force by the police has only succeeded in inflaming the protests further and embarrassing the state administration.
The native Americans harbor deep distrust for the state and US authorities. History seems to be on their side. The US government violated the 1877 Lakota treaty by redrawing the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservation only to accommodate white homesteaders which ended in a disaster. Distrust built over the years has not helped in the current protests.
The pipeline imbroglio seems intractable with both the groups digging their heels. The state and federal authorities need to display statesmanship and provide competent leadership in handling the protests by respectful treatment of native American sensitivities. The native Americans, on their part, need to be more accommodating and flexible in resolving the deadlock by finding alternate path for the pipeline. Absent this, there seems to be no early resolution.