Southern Ute tribal member Shelly Thompson took a carload of blankets, jackets and other supplies last week to the thousands of Native Americans camped out on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, in protest of a controversial oil pipeline.
But Thompson, an Ignacio native who now lives in Durango, soon found out what the people representing more than a hundred tribes really needed was tents and sleeping bags. Winter’s coming fast, and the tribal members have made clear they’re not going anywhere, any time soon.
“It was very humbling to see all those people come together,” Thompson said. “This is not just about a pipeline. This is also about tribal sovereignty, and the ability of a tribe to be consulted on something that affects their land.”
On Sunday, nearly 40 Native Americans, mostly from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, gathered along the banks of the Pine River in Ignacio to show solidarity with the protesters in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
“We’re here to support the people up north,” said Raymond Frost. “They’re (proponents of the pipeline) trying to destroy the Earth, when the earth is our livelihood. Water is our livelihood.”
This summer, opposition to a 1,170-mile oil pipeline that would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to other pipelines in Illinois, reached a tipping point.
Tribal members in Standing Rock, the country’s sixth largest reservation, which straddles the border of the Dakotas, halted a pipeline they say would destroy sacred land and threaten the tribe’s water supply by standing in its way. Earlier this month, Native Americans, facing down bulldozers, were attacked by dogs and pepper spray, and some totals estimate more than 30 people have been arrested.
The “Dakota Access Pipeline” would come within a half-mile of actual reservation land, and traverse ancestral land, including burial grounds, and be built under the tribe’s reservoir, which provides drinking water.
The tribe, which has a population of about 8,250 members, soon received the help of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, which sued the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that approved the permit for Energy Transfer Partners to construct the pipeline.
In an Aug. 4 motion, the Standing Rock reservation also claimed it was not adequately consulted on the proposal for construction of the pipeline, violating a litany of federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, among others.
“The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas,” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Standing Rock tribal member, wrote in YES! Magazine. “And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people. These sites must be protected or our world will end. It is that simple. Our young people have a right to know who they are.”
For Southern Utes, the struggle in Standing Rock resonates. The current battle between Native Americans and the federal government highlights a legacy of wrongdoing and mistrust, Hanley Frost said.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” he said. “But we don’t have to be in the military to stand our ground. To be Native is to be a warrior. And we’re all warriors.”
Daisy Bluestar, an organizer of Sunday’s rally, said the pipeline and similar destructive projects all over the world threaten the health of the environment, and it puts into jeopardy the Earth’s finest resource: water, which many tribes hold sacred.
“We all have to think about our families and the future generations,” Bluestar said. “You can’t drink money. We’re out here to give the strength of support to each other, the creator and the spirit world. And we’re standing for them (Standing Rock tribal members).”
Throughout the morning, tribal members gave speeches and offered ceremonial songs that celebrated water and prayer. One speaker, Jakey Skye, said half his family is from the Standing Rock reservation, and the other is from the Navajo Nation.
“It’s just the same old story,” Skye, who lives in Albuquerque, said of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Put it on native land. They’re expendable.”
Many tribal members claim original plans for the pipeline show it passing closer to the city water supply for Bismarck, the state’s capital, until concerns were raised about contamination to water.
“Greed and money, that’s all the U.S. government has been about since they came here,” Sky said. “We’re natives of this country. Yet we’re still fighting the same fight as our ancestors. It’s like we’re just going in circles.”
On Sept. 16, a federal appeals court halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to give the court more time to assess concerns.
In the meantime, Thompson said she intends to raise money to purchase tents and sleeping bags as the cold Midwestern winter sets in.
“I understand when people say, ‘You’re tribe has oil,’” said Thompson in reference the Southern Ute tribe’s highly lucrative oil and gas production.
“But this is about a tribe’s ability to say no. And this tribe (Standing Rock) was not given that ability.”