N.D. Pipeline Protester: 'It's About Our Rights As Native People' | KERA News

N.D. Pipeline Protester: 'It's About Our Rights As Native People'

Sep 12, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 8:03 pm

In North Dakota, work has stopped on one section of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Still, over the weekend protesters continued to stream into camps set up near the construction site.

One protest camp is about an hour's drive south of Bismarck. A prairie there is covered with tepees, tents and RVs. Flags from tribes around the country line the dirt road into the camp.

"We brought a ton of water, sleeping bags, mats to sleep on," says Jessie Weahkee of Albuquerque. She traveled 17 hours from Albuquerque to bring a moving truck full of donations for the hundreds of people who are now living at the camp.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposes the pipeline because the route crosses sacred sites and burial places. They're also concerned that if the pipeline ruptures it could pollute local drinking water.

Weahkee says her family faced a similar situation back home. They opposed plans to build a highway through Petroglyph National Monument, but they lost that battle. So she's here — hoping the Standing Rock Sioux can win this one.

For her, this protest is about more than opposing an oil pipeline. "It's about our rights as native people to this land. It's about our rights to worship. It's about our rights to be able to call a place home, and it's our rights to water," she says.

The company Energy Transfer Partners thought it had all the approval it needed to build the 1,172-mile-long, $3.78 billion pipeline.

Last Friday, a federal judge rejected a request from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to stop construction. But then the Obama administration stepped in and stopped construction on federal land. In a statement, the administration also asked the company to voluntarily stop construction within 20 miles of the section on federal land.

The tribe says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should have done a better job consulting with tribal leaders before approving construction. Now the Corps will go back and determine whether it should reconsider any of the conclusions the agency made that led to approving the pipeline.

The administration's decision was a win for the tribe and its supporters, but it's just a temporary halt to construction. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wants a permanent halt.

Energy Transfer Partners did not respond to NPR's request for an interview. A group that supports the pipeline, Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, was critical of the Obama administration's move in a statement, calling it "deeply troubling" and saying it could have a chilling effect on infrastructure development in the U.S.

If the protests stall the pipeline's completion, the big losers could be oil drillers in North Dakota. Because of a production boom, they are producing more oil than the state can use and that pushes down the prices they get.

The Dakota Access pipeline would transport about 470,000 barrels of crude a day from western North Dakota down to central Illinois. Without the pipeline, drillers may have to discount the price they get for oil so it could be shipped by train.

And beyond that pipeline, supporters point out that shipping crude by pipeline is almost always safer than shipping it by train.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The standoff in North Dakota over the construction of a controversial pipeline is continuing. Thousands of Native Americans and others have joined the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is planned to run near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

They were protesting on the weekend even though on Friday, the Obama administration ordered a temporary halt to the pipeline's construction on federal land. NPR's Jeff Brady is in Bismarck this morning, and he joins us. Good morning.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What has to happen before the government will allow construction to start back up again?

BRADY: One federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, they'll have to go back and look over their work again. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says the pipeline route crosses sacred sites and burial places. And the tribe says the corps should have done a better job of consulting with tribal leaders before approving the construction.

The Obama administration says the tribe has raised some serious concerns. And now the corps will go back and determine whether it should reconsider any of the conclusions the agency made that led to approving the construction.

MONTAGNE: Well, there have been confrontations between construction crews and protesters in recent weeks. How did protesters react to the news that construction will be stopped?

BRADY: You know, it's a win for them. But it's not everything they want. This is just a temporary halt to construction. And they want a permanent one. So over the weekend, protesters from around the country, they continued to stream in. I met people from places like Hawaii and Montana. I saw cars from Canada.

The protest camp I visited, it's on a prairie. And it's about an hour's drive south of Bismarck. There were teepees, tents and RVs everywhere. And the dirt road kind of leading down into the camp is lined with flags from dozens of tribes. And I came across this really interesting scene in the center of all this activity. There's this big circle with a fire pit. And that's where visiting tribes present themselves. Let's listen to that and some of the other folks I talked with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLAS HUMMINGBIRD: We support you a hundred percent from Southern California.

BRADY: Nicholas Hummingbird of the Southern California Chumash tribe was among those who arrived over the weekend. Some people wore traditional clothes. Others sang in their native language.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

BRADY: Just about everyone who arrived came with supplies. Jaron Smallwood drove more than 350 miles from Leech Lake, Minn., and brought wood to burn.

JARON SMALLWOOD: I heard there was a very low shortage on cedar. So I brought them a big bag of some Minnesota cedar.

BRADY: Cedar for what?

SMALLWOOD: They're having ceremonies and stuff, like sweat lodges.

BRADY: Many others delivered donated supplies for the hundreds of people who are now living at the protest camp.

JESSIE WEAHKEE: We brought a ton of water, sleeping bags, mats to sleep on.

BRADY: Jessie Weahkee traveled 17 hours from Albuquerque to bring a moving truck full of donations. Weahkee says she's here because her family faced a similar situation back home. They opposed plans to build a highway through Petroglyph National Monument, but they lost that battle. So she's here hoping the Standing Rock Sioux can win this one.

WEAHKEE: It's not just about this particular pipeline. It's about our rights as Native people to this land. It's about our rights to worship. It's about our rights to be able to call a place home. And it's our rights to water.

BRADY: So, Renee, you can hear this is about more than environmental concerns, though that's a big part of it. A lot of pipeline opponents mention that the route crosses under the Missouri River here in North Dakota, where a lot of people get drinking water.

And usually pipelines are just about the safest way to transport oil. But, you know, accidents do happen. And protesters here say they don't want to take that risk.

MONTAGNE: And for those who have not been following this, the Dakota Access Pipeline, who's building it? Where does the oil come from?

BRADY: A company called Energy Transfer Partners is building the pipeline. It would be nearly 1,200 miles long and move oil produced here in North Dakota down to central Illinois. Drillers here, they're producing a lot more oil than the state can use. So they need pipelines to get the crude out of here and down to the population centers, where there are more drivers.

And, you know, the company has been kind of silent the last few days. They didn't respond to our requests for interviews. But there is a group called the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now. They expressed frustration with the Obama administration because that decision to halt construction on federal land came just after a federal judge essentially ruled against the tribe and said that construction could go forward.

MONTAGNE: OK, so more to come on that story. NPR's Jeff Brady joining us from Bismarck, N.D, thanks very much.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.