On July 6, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to be drained of oil and cease operation within the month while a proper environmental review was conducted. It was a crucial victory for Native rights and the environment, but forgive me if I didn’t smile.
I didn’t smile because the decision came four years and countless lawsuits too late. I didn’t smile because we were still nowhere close to justice. I didn’t smile because the need for the decision was wholly indicative of how readily our country disregards the rights and welfare of Indigenous peoples.
Now, of course, that decision was stayed by a higher court while the legal fight rages on. But even in the best-case scenario, if we win that legal battle, we’ll have to think long and hard about whether or not those of us who support the Standing Rock movement can call it “victory.”
First of all, let’s consider what it took to get here: one of the largest and longest protests in the last two centuries. Seriously. Think about that. Tens of thousands of people, numbering as many as three or four thousand at a time, all united together with one goal for months on end, and the pipeline still goes through, allowed to operate to this day.
Oh, but I forgot to mention, these groups were Native-led, fighting for the rights of Native peoples. And we don’t care about that here in America. In fact, we care so little we carved the faces of our leaders, some of them slave owners, right into their sacred land. Even more shockingly, we still seem to think it’s pretty neat.
But when a wealthy, white community doesn’t want their water poisoned by oil? Well then, no problem, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get right on it. The original route for the Dakota Access pipeline was routed above Bismarck, North Dakota. According to ABC news, that route was rejected to “protect wells that serve the municipal water supply.” No fight, no fuss, but then again, that shouldn’t surprise any of us considering Bismarck is almost 95% white. I would probably point out how hilariously ironic this all is if I wasn’t far more concerned with how racist it is.
In order to even make this into an issue, it took months of protests where things really begin to get ugly. Even if we win the environmental victory in court, the countless other injustices that occurred at Standing Rock will still go without redress.
The response to those protests was nigh totalitarian. In a scene straight out of the 1960s civil rights movement peaceful protesters, including a pregnant woman and a child, were bitten by dogs and pepper sprayed by private security while police stood by and watched. Over and over again, peaceful protests, people doing little more than standing in the river and praying, were disrupted with pepper spray and rubber bullets. I was there the night a fire hose was used against protestors in freezing weather, police sitting safely behind razor wire in full riot gear while inflicting injuries on hundreds of protestors they claimed somehow posed a danger to them. I remember firsthand the sensation of shirts and jackets, soaked with water then frozen, crackling against mine as I helped hypothermic people out of trucks and into medic tents.
Despite the injuries, despite the police chief lying about the use of the fire hose, nothing happened. With police conduct at the forefront of our national attention, we would be remiss to let what happened at Standing Rock be swept under the rug.
Should the Standing Rock tribe win their court battle and the Dakota Access Pipeline is drained, hopefully for good, that cannot be the end of the story. Stopping the pipeline is not the last step, it is the first. Would I be happy the pipeline was stopped? Yes, absolutely. But would I be satisfied? No. Absolutely not. Only after the desecration of their sacred sites, suffering through brutality against protesters, months of protest, and years of legal battle might the Standing Rock Sioux receive the same consideration Bismarck received without lifting so much as a finger.
Even if the higher court rules in our favor, it will not be justice. It will be a reminder of how deep the injustices lie. Of how quickly we silence Native voices and disregard Native rights. Of the extraordinary effort and suffering it takes today to stand up to corporate America.
This is about more than a pipeline. Until the day we honor Native rights, until the day the right to peaceable assembly is restored in this country, until the day we respect the precious nature of water, life, and the earth we stand on, Standing Rock will not be over.