November 23, 2016 News » Cover Story

Indigenous locals travel to Standing Rock to join pipeline resistance 

Water warriors

click to enlarge Igloo is in it until the bitter end. - COURTESY IGGY IGLOO
  • Courtesy Iggy Igloo
  • Igloo is in it until the bitter end.

Iggy Igloo is preparing for winter.

It may be unseasonably warm in Colorado Springs, where 34-year-old Igloo, otherwise known as Jonathan Ellis, normally spends his days DJ'ing at KRCC, but this is not a normal November for him. He has relocated to North Dakota with no immediate plans to return. There, he is camping on, praying for and protecting land that's the locus of a struggle against cultural and environmental desecration.

In North Dakota, it's already pretty damn cold.

"Most days I gather wood, haul water, spend a lot of time in the sweat lodge in prayer," says Igloo, who's of Inupiaq descent, via phone to the Indy. "I've yet to go to the front lines."

The front lines he's talking about are in the advancing path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) — a $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile infrastructure project piping crude oil fracked from the Bakken shale formation in northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to hook up with a shipping point on the Mississippi River in Illinois where it would then head to refineries on the Gulf Coast for both domestic and international sale. Construction began in May under a fast-tracked permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and, as of press time, is about 90 percent complete.

The Standing Rock Sioux, who lived on the land before it became "North Dakota," would like to see that last 10 percent never get built. For months now, they've staved off the Black Snake, as the pipeline is nicknamed, both in court and on the ground, where they've called on anyone who's willing and able to join them. The resulting convergence at Standing Rock has become a historic gesture of tribal unity, not just to halt pipeline construction, but to reassert sovereignty in a political economy that's proven itself a poor caretaker of Mother Earth. (For a more detailed explanation of the movement see "Standing Rock, then and now" on p. 19.)

Igloo says he couldn't ignore the call. Since October, he's immersed himself in an alternative, autonomous community named the Sacred Stone camp.

"Sitting here, I'm seeing all these flags and stickers in my entire field of vision, left to right, from all the different nations of people that are here," Igloo says. "It's not an easy thing, to get tribes to set aside their historic beefs. I never thought it would happen, but it happened. It's just really beautiful to start healing the wounds of colonialism together."

He says that while other young men take on the role of warriors — confronting police officers, chaining themselves to construction equipment and getting arrested for the cause — he's content to keep a lower profile. For him, days are spent helping out with more domestic tasks, communal prayer and story-swapping. And that's been radical in a different way.

"I've been opened up to new worlds, just being able to talk openly and honestly with people about getting squashed underfoot all these years," Igloo says. And he's hoping that healing will spread: "I'm praying for the minds of the sheriffs and the energy company employees that they find reason and see there are a lot better ways to make a living than stomping on our right to clean drinking water and a peaceful home."

Igloo is among a steadfast contingent of "water protectors" — a term they prefer over "protesters" — that's committed to staying for as long as it takes to halt the pipeline once and for all. For now, that means impeding a connective segment of the pipeline planned to run under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. In October, protectors tried setting up a camp directly in front of the construction workers' path. They were on land that was once controlled by the tribe (under a now-broken 19th-century treaty), but is now owned by the pipeline developer. They were immediately cleared out by sheriff's deputies in a raid that saw elders pulled out of sweat lodges and cuffed, according to multiple reports.

The developer's parent company, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, doesn't yet have a permit to drill under the lake, as the Army Corps of Engineers has requested more time for review at the behest of a tepid President Obama, who has publicly mused whether the pipeline could be rerouted. His successor, President-elect Donald Trump, hasn't commented on the situation though he does have a personal holding in Energy Transfer Partners worth nearly $1 million, according to financial disclosures. Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren also donated $103,000 to Trump's campaign. On cable TV, just days after the election, Warren expressed "100 percent" confidence that the pipeline will get completed under President Trump.

So any hope for a Keystone XL-type victory — in which President Obama rejected the proposed 1,600-mile pipeline after years of indigenous-led backlash — will likely have to come soon if it's to come at all.

These shifting sands brought a renewed sense of urgency to 53-year-old Dwanna Robertson, another Springs local, who made her second trip to Standing Rock on Sunday.

As a young girl growing up as part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, Robertson was forcibly removed from her family during the government's campaign aimed at assimilating young natives into white settler culture through child welfare agencies. The Association on American Indian Affairs estimates that from the early 1940s to the late '60s, about a third of Indian children were separated from their families under the little-known but highly traumatic Indian Adoption Program. Robertson's mother — uneducated and poor but with a fierce protective spirit — took on the state, eventually winning back all five of her children. So ferocity is genetic for Robertson, who was hired as an assistant professor of Race, Ethnicity and Migration studies at Colorado College this year.

click to enlarge Indigenous women have long been leaders in the movement  for climate justice. - NANETTE PHILLIPS
  • Nanette Phillips
  • Indigenous women have long been leaders in the movement for climate justice.

She made her first trip up to Standing Rock earlier this fall.

"Last time, I had the honor to serve as head cook and it was so humbling," she says. Robertson says she was able to take on that role at the camp because she had previously managed a kitchen in New Mexico that provided 1,500 meals a day to homeless people. At Standing Rock, she says, "We did [meals] the traditional way, serving the elders first, then the fire-keepers. It was like if we still lived together, intact."

This time, when she returns, she'll continue helping with camp chores, while also conducting interviews for her research on how this movement is strengthening and perhaps reshaping indigenous people's cultural identities.

"People want to say, 'Oh, this is about the sacred burial sites,' or 'Oh, this is about water conservation' or 'Oh, this is about oil production,'" Robertson says. "No, this is about who we are as indigenous people — caretakers of all of this land. We hear the call of our ancestors. It's a responsibility to protect the earth for future generations."

The pipeline, if completed, would transport around 470,000 barrels of crude oil every day. According to the argument laid out on Energy Transfer Partners' website, doing so underground is safer than moving the same material by rail or by truck — methods that have proven to be disastrous on multiple occasions, including a 2013 train crash in Canada that killed 47 people and caused extensive environmental damage. According to data compiled and analyzed by the International Energy Agency, pipeline leaks occur less frequently than other modes of transport, but with great severity. That reality has been laid bare in high-profile accidents like pipeline spills into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, the Yellowstone River in Montana in 2015 or onto a wind energy development in California's Central Valley this summer. According to the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, over the last decade, an average of 97,376 barrels (4.1 million gallons) of oil and other "hazardous liquids" have been spilled annually from pipelines, along with an average of two lives lost and more than $263 million in property damage.

In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers apparently affirmed that DAPL poses a risk. Early plans show the pipeline crossing the Missouri 10 miles north of Bismarck that were later revised because of the threat posed to the predominantly white city's municipal water supply. The updated route through tribal lands brings the pipeline in close proximity to the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers. Between those and the Mississippi River (where the pipeline terminates), millions of people drink the water that the pipeline, should it rupture, would pollute.

Even if the pipeline works perfectly, the oil that it transports will more than likely reach a tank where it's combusted for energy, creating considerable emissions. Accounting for extraction, transportation, processing and finally burning, the environmental news outfit EcoWatch tracked the pipeline's carbon footprint. Figuring it runs at 95 percent capacity, DAPL would put 101.4 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year — the equivalent to about 30 typical coal-fired plants or 21.4 million motor vehicles.

Energy Transfer Partners makes no mention on its website of the emissions its pipeline will enable, but notes that "the U.S. still imports half of the oil it consumes per day and the pipeline will provide a critical link to help close the gap between what we produce as a country and what we consume as we work to be truly independent of foreign crude oil imports." (Though, notably, the company makes no guarantee that the oil will stay in the U.S.) Further, the company touts jobs as a benefit of the pipeline, estimating it'll hire between 8,000 and 12,000 people for construction and 40 people for permanent operations. (The pipeline's potential economic impact has caused some infighting in the labor movement, which remains divided on the value of temporary jobs that further environmental degradation at the expense of working people.)

Robertson says the Standing Rock resistance takes on even greater importance because the president-elect's appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, is an outspoken climate denier, as are other members of the cabinet and Congress. "We have to resist everything that threatens the environment at this point, especially if we've got people in power saying global warming isn't real," she says. "... We have to act now, not in 20 years."

Protecting precious resources is also top of the mind for Damian Gomez, 61, a Black Forest resident who's half Navajo and planning his return to Standing Rock this winter if the cards fall right. He made his first trip last month.

click to enlarge To get involved and assist the water protectors, visit standwithstandingrock.net. - NANETTE PHILLIPS

"My sister lives in Security, where it's not oil but it's all these chemicals from Peterson Air Force Base that got into the water, so they're having to buy bottled water, you know," he says. "Then you look at Flint, Michigan, and all these places all over the country where you can't drink the water, and it's like we're forgetting that water is life."

Gomez says that projects like DAPL, regardless of whether they directly pass through his backyard or not, affect everyone by degrading the sanctity of water which is already in short supply in this part of the country.

"I have five children, 27 grandkids and two great-grandkids," he says. "That's why I'm a water warrior."

Robertson posits another reason for why folks living in Colorado Springs ought to care about a pipeline that's states away: "When their drinking water gets ruined, where are they going to go? There's already been this influx to Colorado, which is a good thing for the economy, don't get me wrong, but the fewer inhabitable spaces in the U.S., the more people will have to relocate and will continue that historic shift westward. Always westward."

That fear also motivates Lisa Harlan, 40, of the Omaha tribe, who's been speaking out about the pipeline locally every chance she gets. "Brown or white, it doesn't matter — we all drink water," the Springs resident says. "For me, though, this is very, very personal. My kids live in Iowa so it's their water we're talking about."

After weeks of trying, Harlan finally convinced her boss at the sandwich shop where she works to green-light her upcoming trip to Standing Rock. "I know so many people who'd want to go be there and help if they could," she says. "But a lot of them can't take time off or can't risk arrest or have people here they can't leave. And they do what they can do on this end. But me, for whatever reason, I'm able to go and I'm not ungrateful about that."

Harlan says that she's prepared to put herself in an arrestable position, if needed.

"There's nothing I wouldn't give right now," she says, "including my life."

Support group

click to enlarge Damian Gomez gets out there on behalf of future generations. - JORDAN ELLISON
  • Jordan Ellison
  • Damian Gomez gets out there on behalf of future generations.

Many Springs locals have been supporting the resistance from afar.

For instance, some stay-at-home water protectors — as protesters prefer to be called — have been disseminating updates from indigenous and alternative news sources that keep the outside world abreast of camp news. That's important given not just sparse coverage in mainstream media, but also reported state repression like phone jams, online censorship and trumped-up charges against activist journalists (most notably Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, who filmed private security guards unleashing dogs on the protectors).

In addition to that kind of social media "slacktivism" — which does, if the number of Google searches is any measure, boost public awareness — locals have also organized donation drives and potluck meals to send money and supplies north with caravans.

There's been protest in public too, as part of other actions like the rally to rename Columbus Day at City Hall on Oct. 9 and the recent anti-Trump march downtown on Nov. 13.

Tuesday, Nov. 15, was a National Day of Action for the #NODAPL movement to mobilize in cities around the country. Local activists participated by organizing one midday and one evening protest. The latter drew about 50 people out in front of the downtown Wells Fargo building, selected because of the bank's funding of the pipeline. Protesters called for people to stop banking with Wells Fargo until the bank divests from Energy Transfer Partners.

Yet another #NODAPL action in the Springs took place on Nov. 19, this one in the form of a shared meal in Acacia Park, where participants broke bread and raised a little money.

Peace activist Matt Stys, 44, who's not Native American, left the following day for Standing Rock in a caravan that joined about 25 people from other Colorado cities on its way north. He and other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War have made a habit of going to various sites of struggles across the country to offer their skills and status as veterans in support. "We'll probably end up on the front lines, trying to be a barrier between cops and indigenous folks," he told the Indy. "We're only going for a week so our intention is to really make the most of the time there for the people who are in it for the long haul."

Stys is prepared for intimidation, given the photos and video he's seen of law enforcement with armored vehicles and assault rifles fending off the water protectors. The image disturbs him, given his primary association for that equipment is from a war zone.

"It reminds me of the fear we used to see in the eyes of Iraqi people," he says about the impact of a militarized police reaction — now a common sight at uprisings and protests nationwide. "We need to recognize the trauma that causes, especially for indigenous people whose ancestors lived here for thousands of years before settlers even stepped foot on this land."

Stys timed his trip to Standing Rock to coincide with Thanksgiving Day. He says the holiday should inspire deeper thought about violence against Native Americans by European settlers and the continued trampling of their sacred Mother Earth.

"We keep running with this false narrative about this holiday, but now, especially as we figure out how to move forward as a country, we've really got to deal with the origins of this nation," he says. "I know what I know, and as a white guy I can't turn away from it. I'm going to be part of a dialog that says, 'We may have celebrated this for whatever reason in the past, but let's sit down together and really try to transcend our understanding of what it means to be an American.'"

Standing Rock, then and now

click to enlarge NANETTE PHILLIPS
  • Nanette Phillips

Broken promises of the past

A modern movement

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story

Readers also liked…

All content © Copyright 2020, The Colorado Springs Independent

Website powered by Foundation