In rural North Dakota, hundreds of lodges and teepees spread across acre-long fields as tribes from around the nation gather in solidarity. Adults and children brave increasingly harsh weather and march across the land with a single arm held high above their heads in a fist. They are holding signs, conducting ceremonies, and spreading media awareness to voice their fight against the degradation of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Their peaceful protests are aimed against the most recent land issue—the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Energy Transfer Partners, a U.S. Fortune 500 propane and gas company, announced the creation of this pipeline in 2014, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois and encroach on the reservation. Along with destroying sacred sites, this pipeline would also prevent any access to clean water if an oil spill occurs.
The protests in North Dakota and in cities throughout the country, including Washington, D.C., have reached the White House, but construction of the pipeline continues. The Obama administration halted work on the pipeline within 20 miles of Lake Oahe until its disputed approval process can be investigated, but this does not apply to the rest of the privately owned land, where construction continues. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard this case on October 5, but is not expected to release its decision for months. Until then, the pipeline is still being built on private land, the Standing Rock Sioux people are still losing their home, and the people are still trying to be heard.
We spoke with Erik Stegman, the Executive Director of the Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute, about his experience at a North Dakota camp during the demonstrations.
Can you tell us about the Dakota Access Pipeline: what’s at stake, and why did you decide to get involved?
I was [in North Dakota] to better understand on the ground why this was the largest gathering of native nations over 100 years. During my time there, I was seeing a lot that wasn’t covered by the media.
This issue impacted me particularly as someone who has worked in tribal policy, frustrated by stories like the Bundy group protests in Oregon on the newscast every night [The armed protests by Bundy and his two sons were aimed against the federal government for changes to grazing rules. This escalated quickly, resulting in trespassing and a refusal to pay federally mandated fees]. Yet, a gathering of thousands of native people and allies across the country to support important issues that are much more widely shared than the public understands does not receive the same coverage. The public might see this as a battle over a pipeline, but the bigger picture is that for decades tribes have dealt with sacred sites being destroyed rather than protected by the federal government as they should be. They are not consulted over projects like the pipeline.
Tribes that decided to take a stand over protection of the Indian country should be given a respectful and meaningful place at the table as a sovereign government.
Studies have shown that Millennials are one of the most supportive generations to stop climate change. Have you seen this reflected in the demographics of those taking action to stop the pipeline?
A lot of the organization behind the protests have been driven by the youth. The youth at Standing Rock push the movement forward and call to their generation across the country to take part. They are primarily concerned with the loss of their culture, which is not always entirely accessible in communities. They are developing programs to combat this, such as a revitalization push and suicide prevention, entirely based on their culture. They put culture at the forefront of their movements.
The camp itself was largely intergenerational, but the youth helped catapult the protests into the media. They drove a lot of the video work that the group required. They also had lodges and teepees with youth groups from different tribal communities across the nation, camping, meeting, and understanding why we’re all in this together.
We are motivated and inspired by the next generation, as we are looking at the future of the Indian country. Tribes only exist because of them.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the media coverage—or lack thereof—that protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have received. What’s your take on the media coverage of the protests, and what kind of coverage would you like to see?
There is not enough coverage of this issue in the media.
Right now, there are military style bunkers set up on the highway by the National Guard, showing a state of emergency. None of that correlates with the camp. Everyone involved wakes up and goes to bed with drums and ceremonies, prayer walks, and a peaceful environment. This is not covered as much as other land issues, like Bundy. It seems like the media isn’t taking it as seriously as they should.
How can others help?
If you have the means to go to North Dakota, people will be there as long as it takes to get their voices heard. The weather is changing dramatically and the winters are hard, so they could use help. Urge your media outlets to cover this issue. The appeals court is set for a hearing, as the reservation is trying to stop the building of DAPL outside of federally protected areas. The Sacred Stone camp website is also accepting donations.
Lastly, this is not the only issue of its kind. Look into other critical problems around sacred sites and natural resources. The Bears Ears National Monument issue and the vandalizing of sacred sites are just a few of the conflicts happening right now.