The ongoing and violent conflict between protesters and police at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is personal for Corky Mills.
“It’s on our reservation that they’re trying to run a pipeline under one of our dams,” Mills, a resident of Tulare and Lakȟóta Indian, said.
On December 4, Mills and her daughter, Tracy Mills-Salazar, also a Lakȟóta and resident of Tulare, joined more than a hundred others in Visalia marching down Mooney Boulevard in solidarity with the self-described “water protectors,” a fluctuating group who have gathered at Standing Rock in South Dakota to block Energy Transfer Partners’ (ETP) oil pipeline.
The project must be stopped, protesters say, to avoid further damage to an area already vastly altered by the dam the pipeline’s owners now want to undermine. In 1944, the federal government constructed the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River, creating the largest reservoir in the United States and flooding nearly 200,000 acres at Standing Rock and the nearby Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Mills’ former home.
“It threatens everything,” said Mills-Salazar. “It threatens the water supply. It threatens the wildlife, the plants. When you don’t have that, you don’t have oxygen and you don’t have people.”
Hydroelectric plants on the Oahe Dam are a major source of power for five states surrounding it.
The months-long protest at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation came to the national forefront in November, when local police and state troopers fired rubber bullets and teargas canisters at peaceful protesters, as well as using a water cannon during a period of extreme cold. Police later claimed using the hose on protesters was an attempt to put out a fire started by them, but video of the scene showed otherwise.
“The state troopers and local police have been escalating violence. The water protectors, they haven’t done any sort of violence at all. They literally just stand there and pray,” said Caty Wagner, a local advocate who visited Standing Rock in October and helped organize the local response. “(Protesters have) been met with rubber bullets, with water hoses in 20-degree weather, and concussion grenades. A woman recently lost her arm. And then they’ve been blockading the roads, so that emergency vehicles can’t get to them.”
In response to the uproar caused by the disturbing videos, protesters at Standing Rock were recently joined by a group of some 2,000 US military veterans led by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War vet who represents Hawai’i.
While environmental and economic concerns are forefront at Standing Rock, those opposing the pipeline also see this as a social movement that could force government agencies to be more responsive to local residents and less so to business interests.
“Energy Transfer Partners, they want to have an oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, and the people of Bismarck said we don’t want it going through our city, so they had it go through Standing Rock Reservation,” said Wagner. “It interferes with sacred burial sites, and then it also will be going directly under the Oahe, which is the water that provides life and livelihood for the Standing Rock Reservation.”
A lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of the reservation claimed the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), in rerouting the pipeline, failed to consult locals before making their plans. The lawsuit also claimed environmental and historical preservation laws were ignored. However, it failed.
New Hope, Old Dread
While facing that defeat, water protectors received news they won anyway, at least for now. The day after the Visalia march, the ACE announced it will not issue the final permit needed by Energy Transfer Partners, and will instead begin preparing environmental impact reports for alternate routes. The Dakota Access Pipeline, as the project is officially known, is already 87 percent complete, and was expected to go online next month.
The announcement prompted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe chairman to ask protesters to return home to avoid the harsh South Dakota winter, yet many have chosen to remain. They will not leave, they say, until the construction site is dismantled. Their concern may be justified.
Following the ACE announcement, ETP issued this statement flying in the face of the federal decision: “As stated all along, ETP and (Sunoco) are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”
Given ETP’s hard-line attitude, protesters have little choice but to continue their vigil, both in Standing Rock and at home. Kateri and Davina Ortega, young members of the Tachi Yokuts tribe who came to the Visalia protest in their traditional jingle dresses, came to walk against the pipeline and to support their aunt, who traveled to the Oceti Sakowin Camp to join the front lines.
“Their aunt was able to go out there, to South Dakota, which was a privilege,” said Sonia Bursiaga, another of the girls’ aunts, who brought them to the protest. “Their tribe had sent her and some other members of the tribe to go out there to stand in front. She’s planning on going out there again.”
Bursiaga said the Tachi Yokuts have also sent cash to the Standing Rock water protectors.
Angel Garcia, a resident of Lindsay and leader of CAPS, the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety, said his group turned out for the local protest because of environmental concerns CAPS shares with those in South Dakota.
“Locally, the problem is we need better, stronger protections from pesticides,” he said. CAPS, Garcia said, is getting better protection for rural children against common agricultural products. “We’re asking the Department of Pesticide Regulation to better protect the health of children in schools and day-cares.”
Other local groups joining the march were Paint Poplar, Sequoia Mavericks, Circulo de Hombres and Wild Places.