One of Linda Black Elk’s favorite foods is the buffalo berry. Declared a superfruit just a few years ago, this red, slightly sour berry grows on shrubs on and around Indian reservations in the Dakotas. Black Elk, an ethnobotanist, takes her students at Sitting Bull College to the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in North Dakota every autumn to harvest buffalo berries. But now those stands are gone, bulldozed and replaced by a dark gash through the earth. In February, the government gave Energy Transfer Partners the final go-ahead to finish its construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Black Elk isn’t hopeful that the company will replace the buffalo berry plants it destroyed.
But to Black Elk, fighting the pipeline is about more than berry bushes and science. On its way from North Dakota to Illinois, the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline will snake beneath that sacred spot where the rivers converge and curve under the Missouri, just north of Black Elk’s home, the Standing Rock Reservation. The river is the source of the tribe’s drinking water, and the Standing Rock Sioux are concerned that the pipeline could spring an oil leak or burst at any of its many welds, polluting their water, contaminating their plants, and leaching noxious hydrocarbons like benzene into the environment.
“I immediately knew that I was going to have to stand up for my children and my students and my community, with my heart and mind,” says Black Elk.
She sees this land as her three children’s (and her students’) birthright. “This is the land of their ancestors. It’s land that literally their grandfathers fought and died for,” she says, “so that they could have access not just to the land itself, but to the foods and medicines that grow there, to all the amazing wildlife. So that it could always be a part of their culture.”
Black Elk was one of the thousands who joined the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline that started in April of last year. The water protectors camped out near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and on nearby land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Black Elk spent the freezing North Dakota winter visiting the makeshift community of Native Americans, veterans, and water protectors from across the country. In February, Governor Doug Burgum issued an evacuation order, and by the end of the month, police had forcibly removed or arrested anyone who remained.
What happened in North Dakota is not staying in North Dakota. The resistance has shined a brighter spotlight on the threats posed by fossil fuels, exposed Big Oil’s influence on the U.S. government, and brought hundreds of tribes together to speak out for their rights. It has also lifted up the long history of violence against indigenous peoples at the hands of the government. DAPL construction may be underway, but the water protectors remain powerful in the example they have set.
In Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of Chippewa is urging Enbridge to take its aging Line 5—a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, endangering two Great Lakes—out of the ground. Other groups are fighting to stop new projects, such as the Enbridge 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river swamp in the country and a refuge for endangered species like the Florida panther.
Communities should, by law, have a say in what dangerous projects come to town. The Clean Water Act requires the Army Corps to issue permits, and as part of that, the agency must seek public comment. But the Corps has been getting around more intense environmental scrutiny and public review by chopping large projects like DAPL into much smaller ones.
The water protectors drew attention to this shady maneuver. After government officials met with tribal leaders late last year to see how to better communicate with the tribes during the permitting process, agencies agreed they must consult more closely with tribes before projects move forward. What, exactly, that means is still pretty murky, says Maranda Compton, an attorney who represents tribes and tribal councils. Some agencies write letters to the tribes before issuing a permit, while others publish ads in local newspapers as a means of notification, but the government should now give tribes more of a chance to give feedback.
Of course, support for such collaboration is not universal. President Trump fast-tracked DAPL once he took office, thwarting further environmental review. In January he also signed an executive order that effectively speeds up pipeline projects by allowing governors to say a pipeline is a national priority. By doing so, he is suppressing public input and limiting environmental review.
Congress also introduced a couple of bills last year that have a clearer shot at becoming a reality now that Trump is president. The American Energy Renaissance Act would not only increase drilling on federal lands, but also limit public review, eliminate environmental review, and do away altogether with any considerations of how projects might contribute to climate change. Another bill, the Federal Land Freedom Act, would eliminate fossil fuel projects from review under laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act—thereby sidestepping public input. This potential erosion of the public’s ability to influence an energy company’s proposal makes Standing Rock’s fight all the more critical.
“Unless we want business to run our country, we need public participation,” says Sharon Buccino, a Washington, D.C.–based attorney for NRDC. It’s the advocates for fossil fuels at any cost versus the impacted communities and their supporters, and “the two forces are pitted against each other,” she says. If anything we need more input, she says, not less.
Whether they march in the streets or attend town hall meetings, Black Elk hopes groups fighting pipelines keep it up—and avoid the likely fate of her own community. She says if the people affected don’t stand up for clean air, water, and their environment, the rights to those natural resources will be buried along with those crude-carrying pipelines.
“Our issues have become world issues,” Black Elk says. “Hey, if they can force a pipeline on us, you guys are next.”