From protesting offshore oil drilling to calls for green energy initiatives, Native communities know that environmental justice is a fight for survival. Far too often Native land is drilled, bulldozed over, or poisoned by what America calls progress, putting people and the natural resources they need to survive at risk.
Now a lawsuit from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has delayed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would run from western North Dakota to Illinois. The crux of the lawsuit is that construction plans violate the National Historic Preservation Act by posing a threat to sacred sites and natural resources; part of the pipeline is planned to run under the Missouri River, which could contaminate water supplies for the people who live on the Standing Rock Reservation less than a mile downstream. It will all come to a head on Wednesday, when a hearing will determine whether the Army Corps of engineers failed to follow environmental protection regulations when planning the pipeline. If the court rules in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the pipeline may be stopped or rerouted as a result.
Tribal lands have long been exploited for the gain of others. Several tribes in western states still have to cope with a legacy of illness and irradiated land from uranium mining during the Cold War era; the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming has had its groundwater contaminated by years of dumping wastewater on reservation land. Because so many communities have been affected by lackadaisical protection from toxic industries, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network support campaigns to stop oil drilling and move us toward clean energy alternatives.
Developers claim construction and maintenance of pipelines is perfectly safe, but environmental activists cite known problems with existing lines. A leak shut down the Keystone 1 Pipeline in South Dakota and contaminated an area nearly the size of a football field. The San Pablo Bay Pipeline leaked 20,000 gallons in California. 90,000 gallons of crude from a Shell drilling site left a huge oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
All of these accidents happened between April and May of this year. Imagine what an accident or an overlooked leak could do to people living just half a mile from a pipeline. Think about the millions living downstream along the Missouri River who would have that poison carried into their water supplies. Just as concerning is the impact these construction projects have on land and sacred sites that are integral to the culture of an entire tribe of people — a people already living in the wake of generations of systematic genocide.
Support for the people of Standing Rock and stopping this pipeline has been growing over the past few months, and over a thousand people have joined protests in North Dakota to block construction. One group of young people ran all the way from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of their cause, and celebrities like Ezra Miller, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Shailene Woodley have added their voices to those calling for a stop to the pipeline.
Other Tribal Nations from around the world have shared letters of support with the Standing Rock Sioux as well. Many of these communities have their own struggles against projects that endanger the environment and their people, and what we're watching unfold in North Dakota is the latest way in which Native communities are leading the charge for environmental justice.
In a statement issued on August 15, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault offered this truth for his people and any who will listen: "We have to speak for those who are not here - our ancestors, for those children who are not yet born. Our ancestors left sacred sites for us. We have to speak for them. Children not yet born will not live without water. We have to speak for them."
The demands of protesters in North Dakota and the questions raised in the lawsuit are a matter of life and death. We have to ask ourselves the cost of so-called progress. When that price includes danger to life and land, we should be in solidarity with so many communities fighting for survival. At this point in human history, we have a need for oil. Yet we have always, and will always, need people and our planet more.