Since last April, thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the United States have gathered near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. They have put up tents and teepees, camping on the same land where many of their ancestors once lived. These tribes, joined by environmental activists, came to protest construction of a section of a huge new oil pipeline. Part of the pipeline’s 1,883 kilometer (1,170 mile) route was to travel under the Missouri River, just a short distance from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation.
Protesters, led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, argued that the pipeline was a major threat to both the environment and their culture. They said that the pipeline was being constructed too close to the tribe’s source of drinking water. They feared that a break in the pipeline could spill oil, poisoning the water. The pipeline was also being built through land the tribe considers sacred.
On December 4, the protesters won a huge victory. The U.S. government said that it would no longer allow the pipeline to run under the Missouri River near Standing Rock land. The government is now looking for other paths for the project.
Jon Eagle Sr. is a member of the Standing Rock tribe. He recently thanked everyone who joined in the protest. “I don’t know quite how to put into words how proud I am of our people,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t just mean the indigenous [native] people of this continent. I mean all the people who came to stand with us.”
TAKING A STAND
The Standing Rock protest started off small. But the protesters’ camp grew quickly, as people from at least 90 native tribes arrived to show their support. Non-indigenous people came too. Many of them want the U.S. to rely less on fossil fuels for energy because burning things like oil, coal, and natural gas pollutes the air.
Thousands of U.S. military veterans had also joined the protests. Some of them say they came to protect people from law-enforcement officers, who have clashed with the demonstrators. Police have used tear gas on crowds and sprayed protesters with water hoses, even as temperatures dropped below freezing. Law-enforcement officers say they were responding to violence and threats. The protesters have denied doing anything threatening and insist that they have been peaceful.
The pipeline, officially known as the Dakota Access Pipeline, is already more than halfway finished. It was designed to move oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Currently, most oil is shipped out of North Dakota on trains. Supporters of the project say a pipeline is a safer, cheaper, and faster way to transport oil. Energy Transfer Partners of Texas, the company building the pipeline, says the pipeline poses no threat to the water supply. It claims to have followed all the proper procedures to build it.
“For more than three years now, Dakota Access Pipeline has done nothing but play by the rules,” the company said in a statement. It also pointed out that construction projects like pipelines create jobs.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has challenged the oil company’s claims about the pipeline’s safety. Last summer, the tribe sued the U.S. government to stop the oil pipeline or change its route. The suit argues that the tribe was not properly consulted on the plan for the pipeline. The Army Corps of Engineers, a part of the U.S. Army, is in charge of many large building projects, including the pipeline. By law, any government agency working on a construction project has to consult with native peoples if the project is close to areas of religious or cultural significance to them.
In September, President Barack Obama’s administration ordered a stop to construction until the Army Corps of Engineers could revisit the arguments in this case. The agency ruled on December 4 that the pipeline could not be built near the Standing Rock reservation. Its decision that an alternate path for the pipeline should be found could stall the project for months.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Though the decision is a major victory for the demonstrators, not everyone is happy about it. Many people, including some Republican leaders, support building the pipeline through the disputed area. President-elect Donald Trump is one of them. When Trump takes over as president in January, he could work to reverse the Corps’ decision.
For many protesters, the ruling to reroute the pipeline meant that they wouldn’t need to stay out in the bitter cold in North Dakota all winter. But some say they are staying where they are, or will certainly be back because the future still feels so uncertain.
“This is a temporary celebration. I think this is just a rest,” Charlotte Bad Cob, a protester from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, told the news service Reuters. “With a new government, it could turn and we could be at it again.”