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The Dakota Access Water Protectors Were Leaving—Then Came Trump’s Order

After Trump's order greenlighting construction of the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is ready to fight again.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman

"Today is a bad day, they're in meetings all day." Click. This is not the usual cool reception one gets from the operator when calling Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in Fort Yates, North Dakota. But it's understandable.

President Trump signed an executive order around 11 am Eastern today, directing the US Army to "review and approve in an expedited manner" the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile oil project that's attracted thousands to an encampment near Standing Rock's reservation in protest. The protesters are concerned primarily about the project's risks to the local water supply.


Many considered the months-long fight to be over after Obama's December 4 declaration to halt construction. Indeed, on Inauguration Day the tribe unanimously agreed to evacuate all remaining "water protectors," as the protesters refer to themselves, citing community exhaustion and the upcoming spring floods.

But that's all up in the air now, as activists and tribal leaders respond to Trump's actions, which include restarting the Keystone XL Pipeline, whose dormancy many Standing Rock activists considered a source of inspiration.

"We will be taking legal action, and will take this fight head on."

The news of Trump's order was followed by online calls to protest throughout the United States, in solidarity of the water protectors (many using the hashtag #NoDAPL).

Hundreds (maybe 1,000+) are gathered in front of the White House to stand up for our people and planet! Natalie GreenJanuary 24, 2017

In North Dakota, local law enforcement is already tightening up, too, as legislators seek to pass a bill that would give legal protection to drivers who run over water protectors. The most populated encampment sits near a highway, and activists on the ground estimate that 500 people remain, with more coming.

"We will be taking legal action, and will take this fight head on," said Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in a press release, after leaders emerged from their morning meeting. "Today, Trump announced an executive order on DAPL; it not only violates the law, but it violates tribal treaties. Nothing will deter us from our fight for clean water."


"You're opening the door to chaos," said Kandi Mossett, an organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network, a non-profit group that builds alliances between tribes for environmental causes. She said the tribal vote asking people to leave was made before Trump's announcement, and that activists "aren't focusing on previous statements" now. She insists that water protectors are peaceful protesters, but worries that aggressive legislation disenfranchising protesters could ignite violence.

"We're under attack by this administration, especially native rights," she added, echoing other activists I spoke with. "His actions demonstrate that he's more than happy to violate federal law and treaty law for the benefit of fossil fuel companies. We're prepared to push back."

Water protectors claim that the encampment and nearby water source at Lake Oahe are Oceti Sakowin treaty land. Last week, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe requested that the US Army's environmental impact statement encompass "the territory of the entire Great Sioux Nation" and not just this relatively small stretch of land.

President Donald Trump shows the executive order he signed in approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Trump's business-forward platform earned the spotlight in his inauguration speech. And so did America's heartland, as he rhapsodized about "the wind-swept plains of Nebraska" where children "fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator."

But at a press pool today, when asked about tribespeople at Standing Rock, Trump declined to make a specific statement. Yet native communities are firmly founded on this same kind of transcendent unity he recently spoke about, as evidenced by their rallying cry: "Water is life."


Trump claims that construction will bring a "lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs, great construction jobs."

"He doesn't understand because he never grew up in a frontline community, he's severely uneducated [about it]," said Mossett, who's attending a funeral this week after a tribesperson was hit by a truck near a Bakken oil field development. Trump claims that construction will bring a "lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs, great construction jobs." But Mossett says most of these will be temporary. Over the past few months, she's talked to me about the carnage that massive amounts of temp laborers impose on native communities, including sex trafficking and actual traffic.

Mossett's not making this up. The ravages of pipeline labor on native communities has been described in detail by innumerable sources, including the US State Department. Ruth Hopkins, a former judge for the Spirit Lake Nation and Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, also spoke extensively to me about those problems. She has relatives on the ground at Standing Rock and, like Mossett, says that protests will be occurring across the nation, which should help to solve the problem of whether supporters should decamp to North Dakota. A recent map indicates the site of other contentious pipelines throughout the country.

People are also mobilizing by removing funds from banks with connections to the Dakota Access Pipeline, "to the tune of more than 50 million dollars currently," Hopkins added. Trump owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline.


"I fully expect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to take swift legal action," said former judge Hopkins.

As for the water protectors, their faith in the cause may be stronger than ever, despite today's events.

"I just got back from DC, and you gotta do what you say when you're chanting: Community under attack, stand up fight back. For our future we have to push back against the administration," said Mossett, who's been accompanied by her three year-old daughter.

"The fire is still there, the heart is still beating."

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