Orange Alert

Rock and a Hard Place

Recent events at Standing Rock spark new questions about sacredness, environment, tribal nation sovereignty

Dec. 13, 2016, by Rob Enslin

Brian Patterson
Brian Patterson

When Brian Patterson heard the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was being delayed and possibly rerouted, he let out a whoop of joy. For him and thousands of others, particularly those at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the snow-covered Dakotas, it was a victory more than two years in the making. “There’s a sense of relief I cannot fully express,” says Patterson, a Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s governing body. “I believe it’s linked to generational, historical trauma.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Central New York, Patterson says the Dec. 4 announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to legally block construction of the DAPL, denying an easement it needs to drill under the Missouri River, is the latest, most substantial blow to the 1,172-mile pipeline, first proposed in 2014. Currently, more than 90 percent of the project is done. If the remaining section is ever built, a leak, rupture or spill could spell disaster for the reservation and approximately 17 million other people who depend on the river for clean water.

Patterson also is guarded. “In many ways, our struggles are just beginning,” he says, referencing an incoming oil-friendly president and Canada’s recent approval of two controversial pipelines, one of which would link Alberta to the United States. “It’s time to build and leverage our many ‘water protectors’ [what Standing Rock protesters are called] and alliances. For now, we sing and dance our victory song.”

Phil Arnold, director of the Skä•noñh-Great Law of Peace Center in Syracuse, says the Army Corps’ decision to look for alternate routes for the $3.8 billion pipeline, presaged by an environmental impact statement (EIS), could delay construction for months, maybe years. “It’s a significant victory, but it’s temporary,” cautions Arnold, who also serves as associate professor and chair of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences. “When an EIS was done for a proposed expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the project was shelved because the environmental risks outweighed the economic benefits. An EIS hasn’t been done yet for the DAPL. Drillers may wait for President-elect Donald Trump, whose interests are aligned with fossil fuel development, to take office in January and reverse the decision.”

News of the Army Corps’ decision spread like wildfire through the Sioux’s Oceti Sakowin camp, situated on a sprawling grassland, south of Bismarck, North Dakota. (“Oceti Sakowin” is the proper name for members of the Sioux people and means “Seven Council Fires.” They are part of the Dakota and Lakota nations.) Native members celebrated by parading around on horseback and singing and dancing into the wee hours of the morning.

Standing Rock's Oceti Sakowin camp has hosted tens of thousands of "water protectors" since April. (Photo by Kacey Chopito)
Standing Rock's Oceti Sakowin camp has hosted tens of thousands of "water protectors" since April. (Photo by Kacey Chopito)

Since April, Oceti Sakowin has hosted tens of thousands of activists, environmentalists and tribal nation representatives, who have joined in solidarity with the people at Standing Rock. It is with a trace of irony that the Army Corps’ announcement came hours before the North Dakota governor was scheduled to evacuate Oceti Sakowin for the winter—and hours after the arrival of more than 2,000 U.S. military veterans and first responders, hoping to serve as an unarmed militia and peaceful human shields for the protesters.

Clutching a microphone at the camp’s central fire, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II praised supporters for their months of prayers and protests. “It’s wonderful,” he said, amid cheers and shouts of “Mni Wiconi” (Lakota for “Water is life”), Standing Rock’s oft-repeated mantra. “You all did that. Your presence has brought the attention of the world.”

Reaction has been swift—from Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the Dakota Access company, saying it intends to complete the pipeline (“The White House’s directive is the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions,” the company states) to Greenpeace lauding the decision as a “monumental victory in the fight to protect indigenous rights and sovereignty.”

Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, says there still is more to be done. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously,” she writes, “is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” The Army Corps is part of the Department of the Army.

Scholars believe the bigger story here is a renewed awareness of indigenous knowledge and values. The traditional narrative, Arnold says, is that Native Americans have felt invisible or relegated to the past. Standing Rock, a global flashpoint for environmental and indigenous activism, has become the exception. “Seeing different people, especially different religious groups, rally around climate change is remarkable,” he adds. “I think we’ll start seeing more of these collaborations, as the Old World view of conquest, domination and extractive economical uses of the planet reveals itself to be counterproductive to human survival.”

Arnold’s colleague, Scott Manning Stevens, calls the decision a victory for all indigenous peoples—from the “water protectors” at Standing Rock to native students, activists and allies around the globe who have organized protests and rallies. “The struggle at Standing Rock is about several things: the environment and health of our homelands, U.S. treaty commitments, Native sovereignty and the importance of the sacred,” says Stevens, associate professor and director of Native American studies, as well as associate professor of English. “We will continue to fight for those rights wherever they are threatened and fight for the future of this planet for everyone else.”

Leave it to Patterson, who recently honeymooned at Standing Rock with his bride, Renée Roman Nose, to have the last word: “Really, the whole thing is about conscious-raising.”

Joe Heath '68
Joe Heath '68

Water Is Life
In a span of eight months, Standing Rock went from a relatively quiet protest movement to an all-out zeitgeist. When the calendar flipped to December, an estimated 6,000 activists were encamped on the windswept prairie, enduring heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. Many of them inhabited tents and teepees; others, modern campers and tiny makeshift houses. At night, they dozed off to the sounds of chanting and drumming against the purring of generators.

Kacey Chopito, a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences and Maxwell School, was one of several Syracuse students who made the pilgrimage to Standing Rock, which is tucked in the shadow of the sacred Black Hills near Cannonball River, a tributary of the Missouri River. He spent Thanksgiving learning about, praying for and protecting the sacredness of water and Mother Earth. Chopito says that, as an indigenous person, he has felt called to protect and give back to the planet—a philosophy reflected in the “water-is-life” saying.

“‘Water is life’ has deep cultural and spiritual meaning because water gives us life, and, without water, life cannot continue,” says Chopito, a member of Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico. “At camp, people didn’t say ‘Water is life’; instead, they shouted it with every part of their being. … Land is more than a place to stay. It includes our culture, our language and our way of life. At Standing Rock, we’ve been standing strong to protect and ensure the survival of Mother Earth and its sacredness.”

Chopito's travel partner was Cody Jock, a political science major in A&S and Maxwell and one of the organizers of a recent march on campus against the pipeline's construction. “This fight is not over. It’s far from over,” he told the Daily Orange. “We’ve got still a lot of work to do.” Jock is a member of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne in Upstate New York.

Members of Central New York's Haudenosaunee Confederacy pose at Standing Rock, holding their signature purple flag. (Photo by Kacey Chopito)
Members of Central New York's Haudenosaunee Confederacy pose at Standing Rock, holding their signature purple flag. (Photo by Kacey Chopito)

Standing Rock didn’t become part of the national consciousness until recently, when the Sioux objected to the pipeline’s path being close to their main source of drinking water. A single leak, they argued, could poison water supplies for them and for other reservations downstream. What is less known is that Dakota Access originally had planned to run the pipeline upstream, near Bismarck, but decided otherwise when they thought it was too close to the city’s drinking water.

“Although state and federal regulators had issued permits for the pipeline to proceed, the Army Corps never give permission to drill under the Missouri River, next to the reservation,” says Joe Heath ’68, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation and a New York State attorney. “What worries a lot of people is that Trump wants to finish the pipeline because he's been invested in it.”

Heath says that, if completed, the DAPL would traverse four states, carrying more than 570,000 barrels of crude every day from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, east of St. Louis, where it would be shipped to refineries and converted into usable fuel.

“If the pipeline comes to pass, it would be another sad chapter in the U.S. government’s long history of permitting construction of potentially hazardous projects on tribal nation lands and waters, without consulting them,” says Heath, a former adjunct professor of law at Syracuse. “There’s a lot at stake here.”

The Sioux also have been concerned about the DAPL running through a patch of nearby land teeming with burial and prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts. Although the land is not theirs, they claim it has been unilaterally taken away from them by the U.S. government—a violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which they and seven other tribes signed in 1851. Drillers have been bulldozing these sites without proper authorization or tribal consultation.

“The legal process behind these environmental and archaeological reviews for energy projects doesn’t always work,” Heath adds. “It’s a potent reminder of how U.S. government treaties with Native Americans are done under what [indigenous author] Vine Deloria has called a ‘cloud of impotence.’ Clear promises often dissolve into rhetoric when put to the test.”

Heath should know. Before taking up with the Onondaga in 1983, he made headlines as one of the attorneys representing inmates involved in the 1971 Attica prison riot in Western New York. (The suit was settled 18 years later to the tune of $12 million, in favor of the prisoners.) Since then, he has gained a reputation for being a “people’s lawyer,” fluent in civil rights litigation.

In October, Heath traveled to Standing Rock, where he saw more than 200 police and National Guardsmen use rubber bullets, pepper spray and water cannons to dispel activists from private land along the DAPL’s proposed route. When the dust cleared, 141 people were charged with criminal trespassing, rioting and endangerment by fire. “[The suspects] were thrown into dog kennels, with numbers inked on their arms, and held without due process of law,” Patterson says. In time, the scene at Standing Rock turned uglier. Clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials, in full riot gear, became regular occurrences.

Even though Oceti Sakowin is officially closed and temperatures are dropping, many protesters have refused to budge. “There are too many uncertainties about the Army Corps’ decision,” Heath says. “Plus, a lot of people have invested too much in the struggle to leave now.”

Chopito puts it this way: “Outside camp, we’re called ‘protesters’ and ‘agitators,” even though we’ve been protecting water in a peaceful manner. Standing Rock is, and always will remain, unarmed. We are armed only with our prayers and our culture.”

Ride the Snake
When Patterson traveled to Standing Rock in August, he was in the final moments of his decade-long presidency of United South and Eastern Tribes, representing 25 tribes east of the Mississippi River. Like his wife, an actress with ties to Oklahoma’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, he is an activist with fire in his blood. In November, this was powerfully evident, when the activist pair whipped the audience into a frenzy at a campus panel discussion about Standing Rock. Patterson doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and often says what others don’t—that oil leaks and ruptures are daily occurrences and drillers rarely catch them; that the United States should do away with fossil fuel; that the Sioux are unlikely to benefit from the DAPL, anyway.

What also makes Patterson’s rap different from others is a willingness to tackle lesser-known yet equally salient issues, such as race, tribal nation sovereignty and sacredness. “They’re applicable not just to Standing Rock, but to all of Indian Country,” he says.


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Patterson warns of an ancient Lakota prophecy about a “black snake,” which is supposed to rise from the deep and bring with it great sorrow and destruction. The “snake,” he says, may well be one of the more than 2.4 million miles of pipe that pumps black oil throughout the American heartland.

It is against this backdrop that the Sioux and other native people fear oil pipelines of any kind. “Pipelines may be cheaper and less accident-prone than trains, but they still leak or spill, usually with horrible results,” Patterson says, referring to a pipeline break in 2013 that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of oil onto a North Dakota wheat field. “The Army Corps of Engineers wrongly approved the whole DAPL project without adequately consulting Indian Country. This is a violation of tribal sovereignty, where we’re supposed to have a government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

That governments are obligated to consult tribal nations on infrastructure projects is outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which originated at a conference at Standing Rock in 1974. Adopted by the U.N. in 2007, UNDRIP has yet to be ratified by the United States, where the Obama administration considers it an aspirational document, but without any legal weight. “President Obama has done a lot to support UNDRIP, such as advancing the concept of self-determination to tribal nations, but that's not the same as following international law," Patterson says. "The situation at Standing Rock might have been avoided if the United States had embraced UNDRIP sooner."

Heath thinks the Sioux, who have been wrangling with the Army Corps in court for most of the year, still have a convincing case. “The area affected by the pipeline is private treaty land, granted to the Sioux as part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie,” he says. “Even though the U.S. government has tried to fix broken treaties by compensating tribes for lost land, none of them, including the Sioux, have accepted payment because they’d have to cede treaty claims.”

Complicating the situation are two laws that are supposed to protect tribal nation interests: the National Historic Preservation Act (1966), which preserves historical and archaeological sites in the United States; and the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), which provides a broad national framework for protecting the environment.

The question on everyone’s minds, says Jack Manno G’03, professor of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is whether the DAPL has met the requirements of these two laws. “On one hand, the Army Corps and ETP claim the Sioux didn’t respond to their requests to identify sacred and cultural sites near the pipeline,” he says. “On the other, the Sioux feel they haven’t been given enough time to address the environmental-impact question. All sorts of risks, such as oil leaking into their water supply, haven’t been taken into account.”

Phil Arnold
Phil Arnold

Some of that might change, if the Army Corps keeps its word. As a sovereign nation, the Sioux have the right to control their natural resources, as well as their domestic and tribal business dealings. But even with an EIS on the table, the Sioux are at a disadvantage. “Many tribal nations suffer from environmental racism,” says Arnold, adding that Standing Rock’s poverty rate is 43 percent, nearly triple the national average. “Suicide, mortality and dropout rates are some of the highest in the nation, as are rape and sexual assault. Health care is almost nonexistent. Eminent domain [expropriating private property for public use] has virtually obliterated Indian Country.”

Scholars insist the problems at Standing Rock—and the plight of tribal nations—run deeper. Arnold, for instance, points to the Doctrine of Discovery, a notorious papal document that European monarchies have used for centuries to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe. Credit Thomas Jefferson for applying the doctrine to the U.S. government in the 1790s, thus setting the stage for American imperialism and the treatment of conquered indigenous peoples. It quietly was adopted into U.S. Indian law with Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).

Arnold is one of many trying to get the doctrine revoked. “It has justified racism and the enslavement of indigenous peoples since 1493,” he says. “This edict has given Christians the right to exploit any land occupied by non-Christians. It also has allowed them to enslave or kill pagans, if they can’t be converted. Combined with Johnson v. McIntosh, which has yet to be overturned, the doctrine has celebrated genocide on a global scale.”

Says Manno: “The clashes at Standing Rock are rooted in the doctrine principles of greed and subjugation. We must expose and renounce these papal bulls, if we have any hope of creating a more just society.”

Bob Wilson
Bob Wilson

Digital Smoke Signals
Bob Wilson, associate professor of geography in Maxwell, has built a career on studying the American environmental movement. He is part of a growing segment of scholars who feel that social media, combined with laptops, tablets and smartphones, is changing the way people engage in nonviolent activism.

Since the fall, social media has been covered Standing Rock with a focus and seriousness that is virtually unprecedented. “We’ve come a long way from the famous 1970s ‘Crying Indian’ anti-littering commercials or the how-to tips [to lower greenhouse gas emissions] at the end of ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” Wilson says. “Live streaming videos and photographs showing police shooting tear gas into the crowd or spraying water cannons have captured the chaos at Standing Rock. The ‘water protectors’ have been narrating their own history.”

Fine by Sascha Scott, who says that mainstream media have been guilty of “rewriting the narrative” to suit their agenda. “Throughout American history, even when American Indians have been fighting to defend and protect their families, their land, their sovereignty, their way of life—even when they have been under fierce attack by the U.S. government and other forces—they have been depicted as the aggressors,” says Scott, associate professor of art history in A&S, where she specializes in American Indian visual culture. “That’s why [at Standing Rock] the people have called themselves ‘protectors,’ instead of ‘protesters’—to make it clear that they are not the aggressors, that they are protecting their land and water and the rights of those living downstream.”

Stevens thinks social media activism is the way forward. He references the more than 1 million people who checked into Standing Rock’s Facebook page in October, in a show of support. “There was a rumor on social media that local police were using Facebook check-ins to track activists protesting the DAPL,” he says. “Organizers then called on ‘everyone’ to check in at Standing Rock to ‘overwhelm and confuse’ police. It was a great demonstration of solidarity.”

Based in A&S, Stevens says this “new kind of activism”—consistent, persistent reporting by people on the ground, without aid from mainstream media and their “profit-driven motives”—changes how indigenous people and their allies interact with one another. “At Standing Rock, we’ve been connected by the Internet and by a common cause,” he continues. “With the new [presidential] administration, new tactics will need to counter new threats. The academy is vital to this process, as we think about educating the current and next generation of students about respecting the planet.”

Ostensibly, Standing Rock raises important questions about tribal nation sovereignty and the legacy of colonialism. “Opposition to the pipeline always was more than threats to water posed by the pipeline, itself,” Wilson explains. He is concerned, however, that the Army Corps’ decision will be a short-lived victory for the Sioux. “Many of the people Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration are supportive of the pipeline and of increased oil development, more generally. More worrisome, the president-elect seems intolerant of dissent. Future protesters … may be met with a harsh response by the federal government.”

Which is where social media comes in, bridging distances and connecting cultures. The first thing Patterson did at Standing Rock was whip out his phone and send some “digital smoke signals.” “Indigenous networking picks up where other communications leave off,” he says. “We’re finally seeing humanity respond to our traditional knowledge and value systems. This response will help turn all of us into more responsible stewards of the environment, making Mother Earth better for our children and our children's children."


Philip Arnold Associate Professor

Media Contact

Robert M Enslin