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Is Pure Water not a Human Right? From Minot to Standing Rock

Published
September 8, 2021
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CHINA is accused of crimes against the Uighurs. But what about Western crimes against indigenous people on their own land? Should we Westerners not be careful before casting too many stones? As we have seen, entire civilisations and very nearly entire peoples were wiped out by European colonisation.

Even in more recent times, a tendency to ride roughshod over indigenous rights continues. I was thinking of that, when I sat down to re-write this chapter about the long struggle between those who sought to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) for liquid fuels, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for gas, through native American lands.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was cancelled in 2020, after it came out that proper environmental studies had not been done. The DAPL was built and operated, but is the subject of lawsuits seeking its shutdown, driven by fear that it would leak and contaminate precious waterways and hinging once more on a lack of proper environmental studies.

I arrived in Minot, North Dakota, near the northern end of the DAPL pipeline route, for the second time at 9.30 a.m. It was really cold now, not just stormy, and the ground was almost knee-deep in snow. There had been a blizzard during the night, and I had to wait an hour for my taxi to arrive to collect me.

The taxi drove me through streets covered in sleet and sludgy grey snow that matched the sky, and dropped me off at a local car yard where I had arranged to pick up a rental. I collected the keys at the counter. But the people behind it didn’t want to come out of their warm office and show me where the oversized pickup truck they had given me was, let alone the finer points of how to drive it.

Trudging alone through the snow with all my bags, I found that all the number plates had been covered by the latest dump. I couldn’t tell which truck was mine!

It was twenty-seven degrees below zero on the Celsius scale, so cold I had to be wary of frostbite on my face and fingers and could hardly breathe. I had to find the truck soon and get its heater going. Finally, I discovered it: a big red Toyota.

Breathless, I got in and started the engine. I was more than a bit nervous about driving such a behemoth in the evidently appalling conditions of a North Dakota winter.

I found a nearby hotel on my device and drove there to book in for the night, and then practiced driving the truck all the rest of the day! The next morning, I left for a city named Bismarck, which was a hundred miles to the south.

Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota. It has a population of 61,000 and is about sixty miles by road from the town of Fort Yates, the tribal headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux. Along with its Native American heritage, North Dakota has interesting German and Norwegian beginnings, whence the name of its capital city.

I went shopping immediately and got a whole lot of stuff like snow boots and things. I had to do it quickly because I had read an article on the train where the chief of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, who was more formally known as their Chairman, had asked all the protesters to leave Standing Rock, their work done supposedly, after the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to drill under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, a long, thin lake formed by a dam on the Missouri that forms the eastern boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Cheyenne Reservation to its south.

I felt I might miss it all. But the protesters did not want to leave. My idea was to stay at the local tribal-run casino and try and talk to the people who have spoken to the media already.

A guy I had met on the train told me not to tell anyone that I was going to Standing Rock. I wasn’t sure why, and it made me a little uneasy.

A Dakota Pipeline’s Last Stand

The protesters in North Dakota were making a stand against an oil pipeline being built through Standing Rock Reservation on Sioux tribal lands. It was not just the Sioux people there either, it was people from all over: other Native American tribes, environmentalists, US celebrities and even New Zealanders and other international people.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project was a scheme that was to see a 1,170-mile-long oil pipe built underground, but also running below and across waterways like Lake Oahe.

The pipeline was seen as a cheap way of sending oil across the country. With the price of oil in decline, jobs in the industry were becoming fewer and people were leaving Minot. Many hoped that the pipeline would turn things around.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of leaks and oil spills with these types of pipelines, and it puts the land and water under threat.

The police and federal government agencies had turned up and fired rubber bullets and water cannons on the protesters even in the freezing temperatures. I found a number of harrowing videos that had been released online from the camp where that was happening.

The pipeline, also known as the Bakken Pipeline, was proposed to run from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield, transporting 570,000 barrels of oil every day. It was to cross a number of waterways, 200 in fact, any of which might have been in danger if there was ever a leak or spillage: and there would be, if the history of other pipelines around the US was anything to go by.

The Sioux tribe or Great Sioux Nation is broken into three distinct groups, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes. Their tribal lands once made up a good part of the states of North Dakota and South Dakota and some other areas, but over time have become segregated scatterings.

So, I could understand their need to protect their land and their waterways and drinking water. It is not just an American problem but a global one. I have seen it in New Zealand as well.

Driving out to the Camp

Getting to Standing Rock turned out to be one of those things where you’re in the right place at the right time.

I got talking to a guy called Jeff — not his real name — in the library in Bismarck. It turned out that Jeff was one of the front-line warriors in the protest, and he offered to take me to one of the camps involved with Standing Rock Reservation where he and a few others were camped out in support of the “No DAPL Pipeline” protest: a protest that was given international attention even as far away as New Zealand.

I asked if I could interview him, and he agreed.

First, I asked where he came from, and what Native American tribe he belonged to. Jeff looked at me with his dark eyes and began his story.

“I’m from Leech Lake Minnesota, I’m Anishinaabeg, I live in Minneapolis now, and then we have the KXL pipeline that we have been fighting for about five years now, and we still haven’t beat it, but we did get some victories with that so…”

“So, who’s putting in your pipeline?” I asked, and he replied, “KXL” [Keystone XL]. I asked him who KXL was.

Jeff paused for a brief moment before continuing. “I’m not sure, I’m not exactly sure. I mean it’s all tied to the same; they all have different like Energy Transfer, like different names. But it’s all, they are all tied to like, Enbridge is the one in Minnesota. So yeah, the Enbridge one is the one we are fighting, the funders ended up pulling their money out of that pipeline, so it’s not defeated yet but it’s a big step that the funders took their money out, but what they did is put that into the DAPL pipeline. So, I guess that’s why a lot of me and my people felt obligated — you can’t just put your problems off on the next state, you know? So that’s why we came here to try to help people in any way that we could. Yeah, been here for four months”.

I laughed a little at that and I said, “So you originally only came for four days?

“Yeah, we came for four/five days and then it just ends up it is hard to leave. I left for three days, and I was just itching the whole time to come back so I came back, and I have been living here since.”

I had skidded a few times in the snow while driving in Minot and had even gone through a red light quite unintentionally as a result. But the country roads seemed to be safer as the snowploughs cleared them regularly. Around town, there seemed to be more snow.

At Standing Rock Reservation

It’s a fight over pure drinking water — a human right. This is for all communities worldwide. You can see the fight in Nepal between China and India over water. I recently bore witness to that. So, water is the new gold.

I did not use a press pass, nor did I interview Chairman Archambault or another Sioux leader named LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, who sadly died in 2021: both respected leaders to their own followers, who had received interviews on social media. I received their Twitter messages.

The pipeline company, DAPL, has a record of around 80 spills in 20 years, the latest being the same month and year as the protests, December 2016 and it was no wonder they were worried. You’d think that’d make the DAPL owners worried, right?

When I was at Standing Rock, I took photos for two minutes and then I had to sit in the car and put the heater on, and it took me ten minutes to heat my hands up.

There was a blizzard coming and the camps at Standing Rock were not prepared. Sleeping bags and tents made for snow are specialist equipment.

The only people to survive or remain long term needed permanent structures or specialist tents with heating: with propane, teepees are ideal for the conditions. There were quite a few teepees erected at Standing Rock. Eight thousand people had gathered and there were lots of camps with different philosophies like the ones Jeff mentioned: Red Camp, Rosebud and Satellite. All meals were provided and sometimes accommodation. Screening people had become a necessity also.

By now, the police had closed the road down which Jeff and I had come, and some of the others as well.

I decided the gods must be looking after me. I know that a crew from the Māori Television current affairs programme Native Affairs had been to Standing Rock. But I was not part of a film crew with a driver, a photographer, a writer and full accreditation. I was just there from New Zealand by myself.

Jeff introduced me to his new family, Sasha Beaulieu, and Chad who was recovering from being tear gassed. It had badly affected his lungs. Jeff said his new family at Standing Rock meant everything to him, he gave up his job and home to make this last stand. Sasha said she was not part of the United States as her tribe had not signed a treaty.

An ancient cleansing ceremony had been conducted — Chad had started chanting. I felt like an intruder, but after all I was Scottish, and we knew all about dispossession and playing second fiddle to the English.

Sasha and I had connected immediately, and I promised to send her a dictaphone so she could write her story. I gave a food donation, and they said I could stay but they urgently needed wood as another storm had been forecast for the next day.

I met Dili from British Columbia, who was leaving as her car had been stuck and she was not prepared. People had just dumped tents and gone. Jeff and his crew were clearing up, they were all thankful for Jeff being there. I in turn, was thankful to have the opportunity to meet them. They asked me if I would like to stay and if I wanted food, and I said I would help in other ways. I stayed three hours all up and we discussed many things.

The Chairman had indicated that he had made a mistake asking all those to leave. There seemed to be a bit of distrust. Jeff and the frontline warriors had been of the view that the pipeline would continue, and there had been reports that the drilling hasn’t stopped, even though there had been an Obama Federal decision, and that Trump was going to overturn it when he was inaugurated on January 20th.

Why did Obama not do more? Justin Trudeau soon gave in to the British-Columbia pipeline up in Canada. Corporates, it seems, dominate and humanity is doomed if we cannot stop this polluting madness. I agree with Chad and Jeff. It is common sense that humanity has pure drinking water.

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