First came the battle cry: “We can’t drink oil!”
Then the resounding response: “Keep it in the soil!”
Drivers honked their horns. Rush-hour traffic screeched to a halt, as the stoplight went from red to green to yellow and back to red again without a single vehicle moving. At the center of the intersection of College and Chapel streets, in front of TD Bank, a line of defiant protesters stood, cardboard signs in hand, protecting the hundreds of picketers marching in circles behind their human wall. The slogans on their placards echoed their blaring chants: “#NoDAPL,” “Honor the Treaties,” “People Over Profit,” “End Environmental Racism” and “Water is Life.” And perhaps most significant of all, standing as they were in the middle of Downtown New Haven, “New Haven Stands For Standing Rock.”
Thirty minutes earlier, as the sun set on the chilly November day, the protesters had gathered under the bright streetlights on the corner of the New Haven Green. Almost all were from the local area. Huddled together for warmth, the crowd was a mishmash of children and adults, students and administrators, families and individuals. Mark Colville, founder of the Amistad Catholic Worker in New Haven, had come to stand in solidarity and recount his experiences at Standing Rock. Chris Fusco, a member of the southeastern Connecticut’s Mohegan Nation, stood in the cold to honor the work his grandmother and aunt, the current chief of his tribe, had done to defend Indigenous peoples’ rights. Ben Martin, a member of 350 Connecticut, an organization dedicated to building a statewide grass-roots coalition to promote the use of renewable energy, had come to protest both the violation of Native people’s rights and fossil fuels’ environmental impact. The demonstrators had gathered in front of TD Bank to protest its role in funding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a planned $3.7 billion oil pipeline that would stretch across 1,178 miles and four states, from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois. Their rally was just the latest in a DAPL protest movement that had begun four months earlier, in the hot summer days of late July.
Two weeks later, the U.S. government announced that the pipeline would be rerouted.
The federal intervention resolved a monthslong conflict that embroiled oil corporations, climate activists and Native communities. Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, had hoped that it would provide a more efficient means of transferring oil and increasing profits. Since the pipeline would have passed under the Missouri River, Native communities and environmentalists feared that an accidental leak could contaminate the Standing Rock Sioux’s primary source of drinking water. In addition, the pipeline would have crossed ancestral lands that the tribe considers sacred. By September, the local tensions arising from these concerns had escalated into a nationwide conflict pitting oil companies against Native American tribes and environmental activists.
The stakes were high on both sides. For ETP, completion of the pipeline meant transferring 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day — or $1.4 billion worth of oil per year. It held the potential for significant economic development and greater U.S. independence from foreign oil exporters. For the Sioux, it represented an all-too-familiar assault on Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty. As the standoff between the two sides stretched from the hot summer days of July into the frigid nights of November, many on both sides assumed the Standing Rock protests would continue into next year.
And then, on Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made an unexpected announcement.
“The Department of the Army will not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota,” the Army said in a statement on its website.
Instead, the pipeline would be rerouted to accord with a future “environmental impact statement with full public input and analysis.” The victory came just as thousands of veterans were arriving at Standing Rock to join the protesters. Jubilant celebrations from the Indigenous and Native communities, as well as their allies, greeted the announcement.
It came a mere two weeks after the New Haven rally at TD Bank. But for all the celebrations, underlying tensions remained as protesters looked warily to the future.
“There will be more battles against injustice and the denial of Indigenous sovereignty,” wrote Katherine McCleary ’18, a member of the Crow Nation in Montana, a part of the Ashkaamne clan and former president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, in her Yale Daily News op-ed the day after the announcement. “Native writer and organizer Kelly Hayes wrote in a Facebook post that yesterday’s announcement is a victory that should nourish our souls but also serve as a reminder of the ‘precarious nature of strategic gains made within the bounds of the system.’”
Indeed, the Native community has become well-acquainted with the “bounds of the system.”
Back at the rally in front of TD Bank, Colville was speaking. Gripping the megaphone confidently, he recounted his own trip to North Dakota to protest the pipeline. He described how a group of Native Americans attempting to cross the Missouri River was “mercilessly Maced, shot with rubber bullets and kicked into the water, [which] was freezing [so] there was a risk of hypothermia.”
More shocking than the graphic violence, however, was the far gentler treatment that he and his group of Christian and Jewish clergymen received from the similarly militarized police force at Bismarck, where they had gone to protest North Dakota’s governor, Jack Dalrymple ’70, who had “bent over backwards” to accommodate the pipeline.
“I was sitting in a circle with all white people, and we were treated with the utmost respect,” Colville said. “We were given these polite warnings that we weren’t supposed to be there. When the arrests were happening, it was all done with great care. Intellectually, I think I understand issues of race much more than I ever have. But that direct experience of it, from my point of view, of white privilege was very poignant for me. It was something that I really felt that I needed to see, and needed to talk about.”
While Colville might have been stunned by the predominantly white police force’s aggression against Native peoples at Standing Rock, McCleary acknowledges that such racialized violence is all too familiar in her community. In the rural fields of the Midwest, police brutality against members of Native reservations occurs with disturbing frequency and yet receives minimal media coverage, according to McCleary.
“The ethnic group most likely to be killed by police is Native Americans in the United States,” McCleary told me. “And so this type of violence against Native people is nothing new. The only reason that I think it comes as a surprise to other people [is] because the violence that is inflicted [by] police on Native people is usually not shown in the media.”
Since September, law enforcement has used attack dogs, sound cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas to forcibly remove demonstrators at Standing Rock. More recently, on Nov. 20, police used water cannons in freezing temperatures, a potentially lethal combination, on roughly 400 protesters trying to cross a blocked bridge. Many of the protesters suffered from hypothermia, and a Williams College student nearly lost her arm after being hit by a concussion grenade.
Haylee Kushi ’18 (Kanaka Maoli) — a member of Hilo Hawai’i, the Indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands, and new president of the ANAAY — heard many say there was a cruel irony to using water against “water protectors.” Maina Kiai, a United Nations official and human rights expert from Kenya, recently denounced U.S. security forces, including the North Dakota National Guard, for using “excessive force” to crack down on DAPL protestors. He also criticized the “inhuman and degrading” conditions of detention to which the arrested protesters have been subjected.
As the rally in New Haven continued, Fusco stepped up to the microphone dressed in a red sweater and Native headdress. Although nervous at first, his confidence grew as he spoke. He told of his grandmother’s pivotal role in securing federal recognition of their tribe in the 1990s, and of the role his aunt now plays in the tribe’s political life as the current standing chief who has worked to keep women’s voices present within “Indian country and national politics.” He came to this rally not just to stand with Standing Rock but to honor these women for their contributions. When asked later if he was optimistic about the situation at Standing Rock, Fusco laughed.
“I have hope [because] despite the hypermilitarization of the police force at the camps, my people are still staying incredibly peaceful,” he said. “That has to mean something, right?”
The Standing Rock Sioux are not Fusco’s tribe, and yet, he said, they are “my people.”
The Indigenous peoples and Native communities at Standing Rock hail from as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America. Though much smaller in scale, the New Haven rally seemed to reflect that demographic variety. Tristan Glowa ’19 came to the rally because of the parallels between the protesters’ fight against fossil fuel extraction and “colonization” resonated with the struggles of his Native community back home in Alaska. Rickie Lookingcrow, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe located in Princeton, Maine, participated because “red lives matter.” Lookingcrow is the caretaker of a reservation in Trumbull, Connecticut, which he said the government reduced from two acres of land to only a quarter. Sean Massa DIV ’18, an Indigenous student at the Yale Divinity School, attended to show his support for Standing Rock and “the allies.” The diverse communities participating in the rally reflected the Native and Indigenous solidarity that Kushi believes has made the NoDAPL movement so successful.
“People are comparing the movement against DAPL to [the American Indian Movement] because of the unprecedented level of Native nations gathering in support of each other,” Kushi wrote in an email. “I think the difference with DAPL is that the solidarity includes other Indigenous people [who aren’t American Indian], and allies. It’s beautiful and necessary.”
Martin spoke next on that November day, rallying the crowd. Standing Rock, he said, represents a “stark” example of the larger problem of fossil fuels, which pollute the Earth’s climate, land and water. He criticized corporations for taking lands away from Native peoples for the sake of profit.
He called on the people at the rally to support him and his organization, 350 Connecticut, in their fight for a better world not just for Native peoples but for all marginalized groups.
“We fight for the Natives in Standing Rock because they’re fighting for us,” Martin shouted to a cheering audience. “We fight for the unions, because they’re fighting for us! We fight for the immigrants, because they’re standing for us! I want everyone tonight to fight for peace, the planet and people over profit!”
Martin’s speech, perhaps more than any other given that night, captured the universalism that has characterized the conflict at Standing Rock. The fight against DAPL has drawn in not just environmental activists of different stripes but also people who see the movement as a struggle against an elite widely perceived to have failed ordinary people time after time.
Phil Brewer, the medical director of student health at Quinnipiac University, raised a handmade protest sign for the cars driving down Chapel Street: “The earth is precious. Don’t destroy it for $.” He came, above all else, to protest the environmentally destructive greed of modern corporations.
Local New Haven resident Linda Robinson was at the rally to protest the continued willingness of the rich to disregard “the average Joe.” She also wished to advocate for the use of solar power over oil.
“We outnumber the 1 percent,” she said. “It’s about damn time we stood up for ourselves.”
From infringements on Native sovereignty to environmental damage and climate change, from police violence to exploitation by elites, the intersectional power of the Standing Rock controversy, and the widespread support that power has enabled, was on full display at the rally. Conversely, some members of the Native community worry the inclusivity that enabled the Standing Rock protesters to attain such widespread support now threatens to dilute what the NoDAPL movement means to them.
To McCleary, the fight at Standing Rock is not about a particular pipeline or abstract environmental ideal so much as it is about Native sovereignty. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the federal government agreed to respect Native territorial claims, guarantees the “water protectors” the right to defend their lands from constructions like DAPL. Yet the Army Corps and the law enforcement disregarded that edict. The quest for federal recognition of Native sovereignty over their own lands is central to the Standing Rock protests. While the influx of support has provided Native American struggles with much-needed national visibility, some in the Native community feel that the widespread support also threatens to obscure the movement’s emphasis on sovereignty.
“I think that the emergent alliances between Native and non-Native peoples throughout the nation have been fantastic,” said Christopher “Kodi” Alvord ’17, a member of the Navajo Nation from the clan of Tsi’naajinii (Black Streak Wood) who is involved with ANAAY. “But I worry that many NoDAPL actions have been run by well-intentioned environmentalists who fail to sufficiently address the pipeline’s disregard for American Indian political sovereignty.”
Issues of environmental preservation cannot be separated from issues of Native sovereignty, McCleary said. She worries that not all of NoDAPL’s non-Native environmental supporters will appreciate that. Some of the Native people she knew at Standing Rock expressed concern that the non-Native protesters did not understand that “at the heart of environmentalism [we] should really be centering Indigenous sovereignty.” Indigenous sovereignty and environmentalism are inextricably connected, McCleary said, because the presence of the former enabled the success of the latter.
The widespread support also led to a number of racially offensive encounters, even here in New Haven. Melinda Tuhus, an independent journalist and the organizer of the rally that halted traffic that November night, had organized a similar rally in front of TD Bank two months earlier. Many Native Yale students attended. Much to their dismay, however, they arrived to the sight of a fake American Indian powwow drum group called Sacred Sorrow Singers founded by a non-Native. Many of the invited students found the experience so disturbing that they left right also.
“How do you support a Native American power movement without fetishizing it or hijacking it?” asked Bobby Pourier ’20, a member of the Oglala Lakota division of the Sioux Nation. “I am all for non-Natives lending their support and helping us, but it cannot be under the guise of ‘let’s go play Indian for a week.’ Non-Natives are welcome to give any support that they can in any way, under the pretense that they will assist their autochthonous allies, and not undermine them.”
Still, McCleary believes that the good that has come of the developing alliance between Native and non-Native people ultimately outweighs the bad. The support of enthusiastic environmental activists as well as other non-Native groups has been essential for the success of the NoDAPL movement, she said, which, unlike so many past protests against the injustices perpetrated against Native Americans, has become a nationwide phenomenon.
At Yale, the support of environmental organizations like the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and Fossil Free Yale was key to raising awareness of the DAPL controversy and supporting Indigenous causes. With YSEC’s help, ANAAY mailed Indigenous-authored books to the Defenders of the Water School, the site of instruction for the children of Standing Rock activists. Additionally, YSEC paid to deliver over 400 pounds worth of clothing ANAAY had obtained for its cold weather gear drive.
Native students also took the opportunity to educate their peers on what the DAPL controversy means and to win greater support for their cause. In September, ANAAY hosted a teach-in about the pipeline and its historical context. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Standing Rock Tribal Council member Frank White Bull came to Erza Stiles College to discuss the pipeline’s potential impact on the Native community. Many Yale students also participated in a Facebook check-in to support the protesters at Standing Rock. Native students hoped these efforts would encourage their peers to learn more about Native issues and move beyond symbolic support to more substantial activism.
The U.S. Army Corps’s decision to deny ETP an easement for the construction of DAPL through the Standing Rock reservation, while a highly significant victory for the Native American community, does not mark the end of the controversy. The day after the Army Corp’s announcement, ETP filed a case in federal court demanding the decision be overturned. Federal District Judge James Boasberg ’85 LAW ’90, however, has decided not to rule on the issue until February of next year, when President-elect Donald Trump will have assumed power.
The Republican-dominated Congress that Trump will inherit from President Barack Obama could make overturning the Army Corp’s decision simple from a legal perspective. Congress could pass an appropriations rider that would enable ETP to complete construction while still complying with the Clean Water Act, and thus allow the company to bypass the Army Corps. The president-elect himself has been supportive of the construction of oil pipelines, expressing interest in resuscitating the Keystone XL pipeline proposal rejected by Obama in 2015. The day after the Army Corps’ announcement, Trump spokesman Jason Miller told reporters that the president-elect is considering reauthorizing DAPL’s construction once he takes office.
The fragility of the Indigenous community’s DAPL triumph looms large in the minds of many, who know that the end is still not near. Chase Warren ’20, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, believes that the “water protectors” have scored a monumental victory but notes that the incoming Trump administration, which is considering privatizing reservations for oil reserves, remains a source of worry. Still, the “powerful” unity he’d witnessed between the water protectors and the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock in their stand against DAPL imbued him with a degree of optimism about the future of Native efforts to ensure tribal sovereignty and protect the environment. If things go well, Warren hopes that clean renewables will eventually overtake oil as the United States’ primary energy source. As he had heard his elders say many times, “We do not own the earth. The earth owns us.”
Others in the community agreed. McCleary stressed in her op-ed the need to reframe issues of environmental conservation in terms of Indigenous sovereignty. And as much as he thought the Army Corps’ decision represented a “huge win” for Native American rights, Pourier said he will not rest satisfied until divestment from the oil industry becomes a reality. All, it seemed, agreed that the Obama administration’s order to halt DAPL’s construction through Standing Rock is not an ending but a beginning.
“The battle is far from over,” Alvord said at the rally. “It will take a sustained effort to ensure the lasting protection of the Standing Rock community, but I have faith that the Indigenous movement at Standing Rock will prevail in this fight.”
His words echoed on that chilly November night, as hundreds of protesters of all ages, origins and colors single-handedly brought the entire downtown New Haven area to a standstill, all in support of Indigenous peoples most of them had never met.