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The Standing Rock Sioux could still beat the Dakota Access Pipeline — in court

By some accounts, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline now looks unwinnable. Standing Rock became a ghost town last week after police raided and razed the prayer camp that once hosted thousands of water protectors. Earlier this month, the Trump administration fast-tracked approval to build the final section of the pipeline and cancelled the environmental impact statement ordered by President Obama. Construction is nearing completion and oil could flow through the pipeline as early as March 6. For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, time is running out — fast.

The Sioux’s best shot at stopping Dakota Access now lies in court. It may be a long shot, but a legal win is still possible, some advocates say.

A legal challenge filed by the tribe on Feb. 14 charges pipeline builder Dakota Access, LLC, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a range of environmental, cultural, and treaty-based violations. It asks a federal judge to rule on whether the Army Corps broke laws and treaties by allowing construction of the last leg of the pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir along the Missouri River in North Dakota.

“What you have is this well-supported decision from a past administration to do more and give a full consideration to treaty rights, and then the second administration throws it in the trash,” says Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice, who’s representing the tribe in its lawsuit. “That’s just not how it works.”

“It’s absolutely not over,” says Kyle Powys Whyte, a professor of philosophy and community sustainability and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He’s been closely tracking the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he thinks the tribes fighting the project have a good legal case. “Absolutely I think there’s a chance to stop this thing.”

One of the Sioux’s main legal complaints is that construction of the pipeline near its reservation and through sites it considers sacred would violate the tribe’s treaty rights — specifically, its rights under the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties. At the heart of the matter is the Sioux’s right to self-determination and tribal sovereignty. Tribes like the Sioux are independent, self-governing nations like any other in the world. And the sovereignty of tribal nations preexists the United States, just like the nations themselves.

Many Native Americans believe that this sovereignty is now under extreme threat. The administration of Donald Trump may be the most hostile to Indian tribes since that of Andrew Jackson, who caused the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, argues Matthew Fletcher, a professor of law at Michigan State University and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

The tribe’s legal motion also charges that the Army Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by terminating an environmental review of the pipeline, and violated the Clean Water Act as well.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has joined the Standing Rock Sioux in its legal challenge, and on Feb. 22, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe filed its own motion in the case, calling on the court to reject the Army Corps’ permit for pipeline construction. Several other allies, such as the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, have filed amicus briefs supporting the Standing Rock Sioux’s legal case.

Hasselman believes the Sioux have strong legal claims that could lead to the pipeline’s approval being overturned. If the current legal motion fails, he says the tribe will appeal in federal circuit court. Even if oil starts flowing in the pipeline in the interim, it could still be shut off down the line, Hasselman told the Bismarck Tribune.

And tribes are waging other legal battles against the pipeline too. On Feb. 9, the Cheyenne River Sioux filed a motion to temporarily halt construction on the grounds that the pipeline would violate their right to religious freedom by desecrating the sacred waters of Lake Oahe.

“I really hope that the case for religious freedom works,” Powys Whyte says. “This can’t possibly be a country where someone’s business idea can trample someone’s constitutional right to practice their religion.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe joined the fray on Feb. 13 with its own lawsuit claiming that the pipeline threatened its treaty rights to safe drinking water.

The Cheyenne River Sioux’s religious claim is being heard on Feb. 28, and other motions should be considered in the coming weeks. Still, it could take months, if not years, for all of these cases to move through the courts.

Even if pipeline opponents’ lawsuits are not successful in stopping the pipeline, Powys Whyte sees other gains that have come from the #NoDAPL fight. Standing Rock has provided a template for an indigenous-led movement against projects that pose threats to the environment and to tribes’ sovereignty — a template that could prove crucial to activists over the next four years. He points to two other battles for indigenous rights that will be heating up in coming months: the resistance against the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Tohono O’odham Nation’s staunch opposition to Trump building a border wall on their reservation in Arizona.

Powys Whyte urges non-indigenous environmentalists to get educated about Native American history and tribal rights, and to consult with tribes and incorporate their concerns into campaigns. “Part of the reason why non-indigenous activists are coming late to the Dakota Access fight is because they weren’t aware of the vulnerability and susceptibility Native tribes have,” Powys Whyte says. To learn more, he recommends reading the Native Appropriations blog and the Standing Rock syllabus.

“Literally, if more people supported democratic tribal sovereignty, we wouldn’t have something like the Dakota Access Pipeline happening,” Powys Whyte says.


California is getting soaked right now, but farmland is still sinking due to lack of water.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to withdraw $3 billion from the bank, in part because it is funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the city’s mayor said he would sign the measure.

The vote delivered a win for pipeline foes, albeit on a bleak day for the #NoDAPL movement. Earlier in the day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will allow construction of the pipeline’s final leg and forgo an environmental impact statement.

Before the vote, many Native speakers took the floor in support of divestment, including members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Tsimshian First Nation, and Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Seattle will withdraw its $3 billion when the city’s current contract with Wells Fargo expires in 2018. Meanwhile, council members will seek out a more socially responsible bank. Unfortunately, the pickings are somewhat slim, as Bank of America, Chase, CitiBank, ING, and a dozen other banks have all invested in the pipeline.

While $3 billion is just a small sliver of Wells Fargo’s annual deposit collection of $1.3 trillion, the council hopes its vote will send a message to other banks. Activism like this has worked before — in November, Norway’s largest bank sold all of its assets connected to Dakota Access. With any luck, more will follow.


These are the indigenous-led climate movements to watch out for in 2017.

In other words, they were about environmental justice.

There was widespread outrage as the national media woke up to the plight of Flint, Michigan, a largely black community whose water supply remains tainted by lead that leached in from old pipes. About 1,000 miles away, efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect its sole source of drinking water garnered national attention and a halt to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline — at least for now.

Vulnerable communities have lived with and fought against toxic dumps, big polluters, and recalcitrant government officials for at least as long as companies have produced pollution. That helps explain why communities of color struggle with higher rates of asthma and cancer. What seemed to change in 2016 is that the national media paid closer attention.

The latest example? St. Joseph, Louisiana. The state’s governor declared a public health emergency for the overwhelmingly black town after tests revealed elevated levels of lead and copper in water that runs brown out of the tap from deteriorating pipes.

With any luck, you’ll be hearing more about environmental justice stories in 2017. And with a bit more luck, attention and awareness will bring about some necessary change.


At Home With a New ‘Prairie’ Companion

Times journalists around the world bring you a new 360 video every day.Recent Episodes in The Daily 360 The Daily 360 1:36 At Home With a New ‘Prairie’ Companion The Daily 360 1:19 A Deadly District in Chicago The Daily 360 1:48 59 Rescues in 2016; Witness the Last The Daily 360 0:52 Room for Books (and Magic) The Daily 360 1:12 Justice on a Floating Courtroom The Daily 360 0:55 Standing Rock Celebrates Halted Pipeline The Daily 360 0:59 Up Close With Ailey Dancers in Rehearsal The Daily 360 0:54 Rocking Out Backstage With an Opera Star The Daily 360 1:22 Ohioans Cheer Trump on ‘Thank You’ Tour Show more videos from The Daily 360 […]

An injured Standing Rock activist could lose an arm, but her resolve remains strong

Since graduating from Williams College this spring, 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky has devoted herself full-time to fighting for environmental justice, her friends say. In a standoff Sunday night with police in Standing Rock, N.D., she might have lost an arm for it.

Yet as doctors worked to treat her injuries Tuesday, Wilansky had no doubt about where the attention should be. “Even though she’s lying there with her arm pretty much blown off,” Wilansky’s father said outside a Minnesota hospital, “she’s focused on the fact that it’s not about her. It’s about what we’re doing to our country, what we’re doing to our Native Peoples, what we’re doing to our environment.”

Emergency workers airlifted Wilansky to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis after she was injured during an encounter between law enforcement and anti-pipeline activists, friends and family say. News reports and social media accounts show that police confronted the activists, who call themselves “water protectors,” with an array of militarized tactics, including projectiles and a low-pressure water cannon in freezing temperatures.

The Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council said it treated 300 people after the standoff, sending 26 to the hospital. A statement issued Tuesday by the council quotes Sophia’s father, New York attorney Wayne Wilansky, describing the injuries to his daughter’s arm, which he said surgeons hope to save from amputation with a potential 20 surgeries:

A grenade exploded right as it hit Sophia in the left forearm taking most of the undersurface of her left arm with it. Both her radial and ulnar artery were completely destroyed. Her radius was shattered and a large piece of it is missing. Her medial nerve is missing a large section as well. All of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department told the Los Angeles Times that police “didn’t deploy anything that should have caused that type of damage” and maintained that “we’re not sure how her injury was sustained.” A sheriff’s spokeswoman told the Times that medical officials first encountered Wilansky away from the scene, at a nearby casino, and suggested she might have been injured when protectors were rigging their own explosives.

Activists counter that the demonstration was peaceful, and no one at the protectors’ camp has created explosives or even has the materials to do so.

Wilansky’s father put the blame squarely on law enforcement. “The police did not do this by accident,” he said. “It was an intentional act of throwing it directly at her.” He said surgeons removed grenade shrapnel from her arm, which will be held for evidence.

Standing outside the hospital Tuesday afternoon as sloppy snow fell, Wayne Wilansky said Sophia had planned to join the thousands of people from the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of other tribal nations who plan to camp out through the winter in attempts to block completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Three weeks ago, he said, she set off for North Dakota with a subzero sleeping bag.

It wasn’t the first time Wilansky has put her body on the line for a cause. Her friend Alex Lundberg, who protested a pipeline with her in Vermont, told Grist that she has also stood up to a Spectra Energy pipeline in New York and the West Roxbury Pipeline in Massachusetts.

“That’s three pipelines in one region she’s thrown down hard for,” Lundberg said, “in communities she’s not that familiar with, just wanting to show up and be supportive and be there with the people resisting.”

She got involved with Standing Rock the same way, he said. “She felt the calling to go out there and stand with the people against a continued cultural genocide and to help protect the water.”

A friend in New York, Becca Berlin, told Grist that Wilansky had been looking for a ride to North Dakota for weeks. In the meantime, she participated in direct action around New York City and the East Coast, attending protests organized by groups like NYC Shut It Down — activists fighting against racial injustice and militarized policing.

“It’s really not a hobby,” Berlin said. “It’s something that she’s been doing constantly.”

Wilansky was actually due to appear in court today in West Roxbury, Mass., said climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who was arrested alongside her this summer at a pipeline protest. Instead, she was shuttling in and out of surgery.

Wilansky’s injury occurred in just the latest of many escalating standoffs over the pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux say endangers their sacred sites and water. The pipeline also poses questions of tribal sovereignty. In an appeal to the United Nations this September, the nation said the pipeline violates human rights and breaches treaties.

This summer, hundreds of water protectors converged in North Dakota to voice anger and anxiety about the pipeline route. Over the past few months, photos and live videos on social media have shown aggressive tactics used by police against the protectors.

According to her father, Sophia’s body also shows welts from rubber bullet shots that she had received previously.

A collection of weapons used by police against protesters at Standing Rock.REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

“It’s unbelievable that governments are violently attacking citizens who are there peacefully,” Wayne Wilansky said. “We need everyone in this country to step up and say we’re not going to do this anymore, we’re not going to kill innocent people.”

Wayne said that his daughter’s arrival at the hospital was delayed for several hours because police have blocked roads, making it difficult for travel — including by emergency vehicles — between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Bismarck, where Sophia was taken before being airlifted to Minnesota. On Sunday, activists said, they were trying to clear two vehicles blocking a bridge on the main road.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department described the protectors’ actions on Sunday as aggressive. “We’re just not going to let people and protesters in large groups come in and threaten officers,” said Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier. “That’s not happening.”

But Wayne Wilansky says he holds police and elected officials responsible for his daughter’s injury. “I hold the governor of North Dakota, the police, the National Guard,” he said. “Even President Obama, who I love, said two or three weeks ago, ‘Well, we’re going to wait and see.’ There’s nothing to wait and see. These people need help. They need to diffuse the situation before people die. And people will die if the situation isn’t stopped.”


Police tactics at Standing Rock have escalated to using water cannons in the freezing cold.

On Sunday night, according to numerous news reports and live social media postings, North Dakota law enforcement sprayed a group of about 400 protesters, or Standing Rock “water protectors,” as they were trying to get into position to block construction work on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Temperatures in North Dakota on Sunday dipped into the 20s. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, 167 people were injured in the clash with police, and seven went to the hospital.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department told the Bismarck Tribune that activists had started several fires and claimed that rocks and logs were thrown at officers, calling it an “ongoing riot.” Activists told the Guardian they had lit two small fires because they were trying to keep warm. Police also used tear gas and percussion grenades, according to media reports.

North Dakota officials have come under increasing criticism for using militarized gear and tactics against the activists, who are attempting to stop the pipeline from jeopardizing what they consider the sacred land and water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

For more on the Dakota Access protests, see Grist’s ongoing coverage.


Dakota Access protesters reminded the nation they won’t be silenced.

The chances that activists can defeat construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) may have dimmed since last Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean the movement to stop it has slowed. Rather, the movement went national on Tuesday, with 300 rallies across the country demanding that President Obama do whatever is in his power to halt construction on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s ancestral land.

Tuesday’s national day of action to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline drew tens of thousands of people, according to organizers. In Washington, D.C., hundreds gathered around the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters as “water protectors” occupied the entrance. The crowd marched to the White House, where Sen. Bernie Sanders echoed a growing demand among DAPL protesters.

“We say to President Obama, in any and every way you can, stop the pipeline,” he said. “If there are other approaches, such as declaring Standing Rock a federal monument, let’s do that.”

Read Grist’s on-the-ground coverage of the DAPL fight.

San Francisco.350.orgLos Angeles.350.orgWashington, D.C.350.orgSt. Paul, Minnesota.350.orgNew York City.350.org […]