What Anti-Pipeline Warriors Have Learned from Standing Rock
The protest didn't stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, but it energized a movement.
The floating camp in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Cherri Foytlin
South Louisiana is mostly swamp or bayou, so when Cherri Foytlin wanted to share her disapproval with the Bayou Bridge pipeline, she literally didn't have solid ground to stand on. Instead, she and other protest organizers built a floating prayer camp made of rafts.
"Historically, the swamp is where resistance has gathered," she told me. "Escaped slaves, indigenous communities escaping colonization. The swamp protects us, so of course this is where our camp would be—with the water."
The proposed pipeline she's fighting would be a 162-mile extension of an existing pipeline in Texas. If approved, the Bayou Bridge pipeline would pass through 11 Louisiana parishes. Foytlin, a Diné and Cherokee mother of six, has been a prominent leader in the struggle against it.
Camp L'eau Est La Vie, French for "water is life," is constantly changing and growing, with new rafts or indigenous art pieces being added on. Foytlin tells me that she and other organizers are intentionally keeping many details about the camp secret—a lesson learned from watching Standing Rock, where outsiders flocked to the anti-pipeline camps after the battle against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) became a national cause.
"Our camp will never be a call for all because the swamp is a beautiful and unforgiving landscape that is also quite fragile," Foytlin says. "Which is not to say that we may not need folks to come out to support in other ways. I think the most effective thing about the DAPL struggle was the messaging—water is life—you can't get much more clear than that."
That slogan in English and also in Lakota ("Mni Wiconi") became the anthem of the NoDAPL movement. And though the Standing Rock camps have disbanded and the DAPL is up and running (amid an ongoing legal challenge from the local Sioux tribe), the line is still being chanted on the front lines of protests across the country. Protesters are currently fighting against proposed pipelines running through at least a dozen states including Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Michigan. Many of these activists were inspired by and learned from Standing Rock, and organizers—many of whom were at Standing Rock—are asking what could have been done differently, and thinking about how to keep the momentum alive.
Watch the VICELAND documentary on Standing Rock:
Foytlin tells me her group thoroughly vets anyone who wants to join the floating L'eau Est La Vie camp, to protect it from infiltrators and spies. This was a concern among tribal leaders I spoke with during my time at Standing Rock last year, who anecdotally told me stories of people living at the camps whom they later discovered were connected in some way to the company building the pipeline. (That sort of infiltration was confirmed later in documents obtained by the Intercept.)
"There were a lot of things that didn't go right at Standing Rock," says Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance, an organization that fights pipelines all over the US. "There were a lot of infiltrators who gave a peaceful protest negative connotations. And it (the movement) escalated so quickly that there weren't financial accountability systems put in place. People with no ties to the tribe were setting up fundraising pages and raising a lot of money from well-intentioned people, but with no accountability for that money."
The sheer size, she says, made it challenging—if not impossible—to put fundraising policies in place. (By some estimates there were as many as 10,000 people living at the four camps, according to what the camps' organizers said last year.)
But beyond the on-the-ground difficulties at Standing Rock, the camps inspired people across the country.
"There will never be another Standing Rock," Kleeb says. "Standing Rock took pipeline fighting to a whole other level and I think captured people's desires to really fight back on these pipelines even when they seem like a done deal."
Part of that momentum, Kleeb says, was fueled by celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley who came to the camps and publicized the cause. "There are pipeline fights happening all over the country right now, but they don't have the megaphone of some of the celebrities that got involved," she says.
Many non-indigenous people were drawn to the camps, she believes, not only for environmental reasons, but for the indigenous cause.
"People felt a deep, personal responsibility to act because of the complete disrespect that America had given to the Native American communities," she says. "I think that really spoke to the American spirit of trying to right a wrong."
Like Foytlin, Kleeb agrees that more people showing up doesn't necessarily strengthen a movement. In fact it can have the opposite effect. "I've made it clear when we're in meetings with other groups that we don't want them staging civil disobedience camps here," she says of fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska. Much of the land belongs to farmers and ranchers that she wants to keep a good relationship with.
Of course, no one could have predicted that Standing Rock would grow to become home to thousands of supporters.
"People thought that it was going to be up for a month or that it was going to be 50 to 100 people," she says. "Things escalated so quickly that it became out of control. And then you had the added element of winter in North Dakota, which nobody was prepared for except the people who lived there, trying to tell people: You should go home."
While Kleeb agrees with the Standing Rock Sioux chairman's concern last year that the camps themselves could damage the water and land, she notes that that's now become a favored talking point by the oil companies. "In Nebraska at the public hearings with Keystone XL, (they) say that we really don't care about the land and look what we did in Standing Rock," she says.
"A lot of people got woke up by Standing Rock... And I want them to stay awake."—Winona LaDuke
Standing Rock has even had an impact on anti-pipeline campaigns that predate it.
Winona LaDuke, an environmental leader and activist who lives and works on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, has been at the forefront of the fight against the Enbridge pipeline there. "I have busted my ass fighting this corporation," she tells me, including traveling to the Enbridge offices in Canada. "They need to see my face," she says. At one of the public meetings Enbridge held recently, LaDuke tells me she said, "We were all at Standing Rock. Remember what we did?"
For her, and other tribes in the area, it's personal, and it's been going on for a while. "When they decided that they were going to put a pipeline through the best wild rice lake on my reservation—I was minding my own business! I said that's not going to happen. So I started organizing on that in 2013."
She spent time at Standing Rock last year, which she describes as a "Selma moment." "Everyone could see what was going down. The State of North Dakota decided to militarize that situation, people saw unarmed people on horses facing tanks." She saw the impact on people all over the world.
"A lot of people got woke up by Standing Rock," says LaDuke. "And I want them to stay awake."
But she also sees many aspects of that movement that could have been done differently.
"We're all learning from things that happened at Standing Rock," she says. "I learned a lot. To stay unified, keep your spiritual practice strong, be accepting of people. Because there are people that come from different practices, and in this movement, you need everybody."
Foytlin, Kleeb, and LaDuke are all quick to point out that these fights involve so much more than the physical act of demonstrating. These battles are being simultaneously fought in court, in public hearings, and in the offices of politicians. The Standing Rock battle is still far from over, after a federal judge ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to do an environmental review. The Army Corps has already submitted briefs in favor of keeping oil flowing through the DAPL during the review period. Attorneys for the Standing Rock Sioux say they will file briefs August 7 asking for the oil flow to stop during the review process.
Foytlin and the other organizers against the Bayou Bridge pipeline are reaching out to Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards to reverse his support of the pipeline or to demand an environmental impact study.
The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled against an indigenous tribe and in favor of Enbridge, rejecting a challenge to the Line 9 pipeline. The replacement of the Line 3 pipeline into Minnesota, which LaDuke is fighting, is already underway. Dozens of other battles against other proposed pipelines across the country are at various stages. On Wednesday, state environmental authorities in West Virginia ordered construction to stop on the Rover Pipeline in places where permit violations were damaging streams.
"These struggles are not against pipelines more than at the surface level," says Foytlin. "What they really are, and this goes for all issues of environmental judgment, is a struggle for the moral character of our combined humanity. Where we collectively decide to put our priorities in this time will determine the direction of the natural world and the true legacy that we will or will not leave for those yet to come."
Correction 8/1: Due to an editing error, the subtitle of this piece implied the Standing Rock camps were in South Dakota when in fact they were in North Dakota. VICE regrets this error.
Cole Kazdin is a writer living in Los Angeles.