Native and Indigenous activists gather to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo credit: New York Times. 

Wednesday afternoon, I joined YP4’s Communications Associate Saryn Francis on the steps of the US District Court here in Washington, DC to stand in solidarity with Native and Indigenous activists resisting the latest attempt by a major corporation to run an oil pipeline through the Great Plains. We lifted our voices in protest to draw attention to the potentially disastrous ecological consequences of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) but also to recommit ourselves to challenging past, present, and future manifestations of settler colonialism in the US.

Standing alongside these activists, we came to realize that this particular pipeline was significant not only because of the ways it would hasten the devastation of global climate change but for what it says about the sovereignty of Native and Indigenous peoples.

The DAPL has faced unified opposition from Native and Indigenous peoples as well as non-Native folks since it was originally proposed. The $3.8 billion, 1,134-mile DAPL is slated to carry over 500,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil from Canada through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois — crossing under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as well as sacred Siouan burial grounds along the way.  The sheer scope of this endeavor has earned the DAPL a haunting nickname: “The Next Keystone XL.”

At the crux of this issue are two inter-related concerns. On the one hand, folks across the Plains States are worried by reports that there’s up to a 57 percent chance that the DAPL will experience a catastrophic leak at some point during its operation. On the other hand, Native and Indigenous communities are outraged that they were not sufficiently consulted by the federal government or private corporations prior to the construction of the DAPL. And, they’re mortified that this pipeline is being allowed to bulldoze through sacred tribal sites.

Wednesday’s protests — not just in Washington, DC but around the country — are just the most recent mobilizations against these dual evils.

When Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of the Dallas-based oil giant Energy Transfer Partners LP, began construction on segments of the pipeline last spring, Native activists in North Dakota began a series of coordinated direct actions to halt construction in its tracks. The Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation lies hundreds of feet from the proposed pipeline route, built the “Camp of Sacred Stones” as a prayer and protest site close to the entrance to Dakota Access LLP’s construction sites. According to Indian Country Today Media Network, close to 4,000 water protectors have gathered at similar camps along the Missouri River in opposition to the DAPL.

As organizers occupy strategic sites in protest, lawyers for the Standing Rock Sioux and Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy organization, have sued the pipeline’s owners for both failing to consult the tribe on construction plans (beyond the offer to inspect two sites along the DAPL’s path) and failing to conduct an environmental and archaeological analysis of Siouan sacred sites jeopardized by the DAPL’s construction.

We joined the #NoDAPL movement quite late in the game, leaving the YP4 offices Wednesday and traveling just 20 minutes to attend a rally outside of the courtroom where Standing Rock Sioux defendants were fighting for their collective survival. We knew from research and from conversations with Native partners that Wednesday’s action was a time for non-Native people to show up and learn from the example of Standing Rock Sioux organizers who’d traveled to DC to register their outrage and manifest their power alongside allies from across Indian Country.

And learn we did. Leaving the protest Wednesday, it became clear the extent to which the fight against the DAPL magnified historical and enduring violence targeting Native and Indigenous peoples. In a speech before hundreds of activists gathered in front of the DC District Court, a series of speakers mentioned that the pipeline was originally not supposed to come anywhere near Standing Rock Sioux land. In fact, it was to pass 10 miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota, a majority non-Native city of 70,000 inhabitants. After outcry from locals, many of whom were White, the pipeline was diverted within to within hundreds of feet of the Standing Rock’s Reservation boundary. This strategic and deliberate decision to protect the health of non-Natives at the expense of Native peoples sends a clear message, even today: in the eyes of the State and of Big Business, Native and Indigenous peoples are still disposable — their humanity is less pressing, less burdensome than that of White colonizers.

Later that afternoon, we learned that a federal judge had bought more time — telling lawyers for the Standing Rock Sioux that he “needed more time to think” before handing down a verdict. On September 9th, we expect to hear his decision, with a possible appeal already slated for September 14th. Sadly, it goes without saying that the individual empowered to make a decision on the Standing Rock Sioux’s fate in this case is himself non-Native — like all but one Native judge on the federal bench.

As a YP4 team, this gross injustice demands not only our sympathy for those affected by our action in support of those at the frontlines. We encourage you to sign this petition, organized by the Standing Rock Sioux, and donate when you’re able to redistribute resources to those fighting back against the DAPL at the Camp of Sacred Stones. On our end, the YP4 team is thinking strategically about ways to expand the ways we talk about settler colonialism in our curriculum, further develop partnerships with organizations working with Native and Indigenous youth, and amplify Indigenous resistance movements at our 2017 National Summit.