Grassroots Change
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A Movement for Culture, Land, and Safety Rises in South Dakota

January 21, 2017

by Sean Smith, Communications Intern

In the era of climate change, grassroots environmental activism has increased and seen many successes. One growing movement concerns new oil pipelines. As these pipelines are proposed and approved in the US, they are often built on Indigenous land, as seen on this map. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in particular has resulted in unprecedented activism to protect land, water, and cultural sites from potential damage.

As planned, DAPL would run 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois transporting up to 470,000 barrels of oil per day. A half-mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, DAPL will cross the Missouri River and the Oglalla Aquifer. The pipeline’s river crossing poses a potential drinking water hazard for the 8,200 residents of the reservation, and for the surrounding communities who rely on these water sources. Beyond water pollution, DAPL has and may continue to damage sites of cultural and spiritual significance for the Standing Rock community. As reported in

“[T]he Tribe provided… documentation regarding a number of sacred sites, including stone features and burials, along a two mile stretch in the pipeline’s path. The following day, Dakota Access sent construction crews to that specific place, and bulldozed the entire area. This… action was taken without consulting with Tribal or State historic preservation officials.”

When DAPL was originally proposed, the route passed through Bismarck, North Dakota. The residents of Bismarck voiced their concerns about the potential hazards that the pipeline posed to their water supply, and following Bismarck’s objections, DAPL was rerouted through former treaty lands claimed by the Sioux.

The original route did not traverse any treaty lands, which are created under agreements between the United States government to exchange larger tracts of land for smaller reservations. Supporters of DAPL argue that the Sioux have no claim to the private land that the DAPL will pass through. However, in United States v. Sioux Nation, the US Supreme Court ruled that the US government had taken Sioux land without adequate compensation and required the US government to compensate the tribe. The Sioux refused this compensation as they would prefer to have the land returned.

An Emerging Grassroots Movement: Oceti Sankowin Youth Activism

The historical and contemporary significance of the Missouri river energized youth of the Standing Rock Reservation. In July 2016, months after the approval of the DAPL, native youth from the group Oceti Sankowin Youth and Allies embarked on a 2,000 mile run from North Dakota to Washington DC to urge President Obama to stop construction of the pipeline. The 30 youth who participated in the run are from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and are one of the many grassroots campaigns that have formed in opposition to DAPL. The run symbolized the cultural tradition of running important information between tribes, and also helped draw attention to the youths’ campaign.

The campaign started by the youth is called “Rezpect Our Water,” and has organized young people to speak out against DAPL by writing to President Obama and signing a petition. The youth use the Lakota phrase “Mni Wiconi” (Water is Life) to promote their campaign. In their letters, the youth talk about the real human and cultural costs of building the pipeline through their communities, and their fears of what it means for their future. The youth also had the opportunity to represent one of the main camps at Standing Rock: Oceti Sankowin (Seven Council Fire) Camp. In a video, one of the young people describes how the DAPL could impact her:

“My great grandparents are originally from Cannon Ball, North Dakota where the pipeline will cross the Missouri River. They lived along the Missouri River all their life. They raised gardens, chickens and horses. I want to be the voice for my great grandparents and my community and ask you to stop the building of the Dakota Access pipeline. If the pipeline breaks the oil will spill on the ground and into the water. Grass, crops, trees and animals will not be able to grow and live because of the oil. People will not be able to drink from the river or use the water…Water to Native American people is the first medicine. Mni Wiconi: water is life.”

-Anna Lee Rain YellowHammer, Standing Rock Middle School

Watch the video to hear more from the youth.

Oceti Sankowin & Sacred Stone Camp

Oceti Sankowin is the camp representing the unifying front of all Sioux people. Oceti Sankowin Camp also serves as the main meeting point for activists wishing to support the Sioux. In addition to Oceti Sankowin, the smaller Sacred Stone Camp has also played an important role in the movement.

On April 1st, 2016, 200 activists were led by a group of 40 horses to establish the “Camp of the Sacred Stones” at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers. The camp was started by Ladonna Brave Bull Allard who is from the Cannonball District of Standing Rock. Brave Bull coordinates tourism for the Standing Rock tribe and is a historian of her people. The philosophy behind this camp, like Oceti Sankowin, is non-violent resistance to the DAPL. Spirituality is the foundation for many in the camp, where prayers for water and land are organized daily. In addition to protesting for safe and clean water, activists are resisting the pipeline in order to protect sacred sites and burial grounds. The site of Sacred Stone, which resides on Cannonball Ranch – recently sold to the DAPL – is surrounded by historic burial grounds, villages and spiritual gathering places that would be impacted if DAPL were granted an easement.

Both Oceti Sankowin and Sacred Stone Camps have been successful in mobilizing indigenous and non-indigenous communities from all over the world. The groups have successfully utilized crowd-funding to set up and maintain their camps. Sacred Stone Camp alone raised more than $1.5 million, and more than 200 native nations have expressed support for the movement. This is the biggest pan-tribal gathering of this century.

As of Dec 4th, 2016, after months of grassroots activism and growing support for the #NoDAPL movement at the national and international levels, the Obama Administration blocked the easement for the DAPL under the Missouri River. There are now orders for an environmental report, which may take months to complete. Although a major victory for the opposition to DAPL, it remains to be seen if the pipeline will be rerouted or stopped. Activists have committed to stay at the camp and continue the fight. For many opposing the DAPL, the fight is about much more than water and land, but rather their survival as a people.

About the author: Sean Smith completed his BA at the University of New Mexico in Linguistics, and his MSW at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He spent the duration of his Master’s program providing individual and group therapy with American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit. At the University of New Mexico, Sean worked with a team of educators, students, and community activists to advance language revitalization efforts for the Tohono O’odham communities of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.