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Strategies to Prevent Harm from Development on Sacred and Ancestral Lands

Dave Archambault II, Senior Fellow at First Peoples Worldwide, has traveled the world to share his experiences as Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman during construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Working virtually since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he continues to meet with Indigenous communities, business leaders, students and educators to advocate for responsible economic development in Indian Country.

Transfer of government power is a constant complexity that Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. are confronted with when defending their land and resources from potentially harmful development.

In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Obama administration answered concerns of tribes after months of protest and two years of engagement by signaling a reroute of the pipeline away from Lake Oahe and our sacred land in November of 2016. By December that year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began preparing alternate routes, but a month later an executive memorandum from the new Trump administration effectively reversed course.  

Tribes continued to defend themselves through litigation, engagement with policy makers and corporations, and grassroots advocacy, which led to a temporary halt of the pipeline in July 2020 and a court order for a proper environmental review. Without the review, oil continues to flow and endanger our people. What I said in December 2016 holds true:

When it comes to infrastructure development in Indian Country and with respect to treaty lands, we must strive to work together to reach decisions that reflect the multifaceted considerations of tribes. Treaties are paramount law and must be respected, and we welcome dialogue on how to continue to honor that moving forward. We are not opposed to energy independence, economic development, or national security concerns but we must ensure that these decisions are made with the considerations of our Indigenous peoples. 

Days before the 2021 U.S. presidential inauguration, elected leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Yankton Sioux Tribe sent President-elect Biden a letter, asking that the United States to honor its treaties with the Tribes and to stop continued operation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, the Tribes reminded Mr. Biden, “poses a grave threat to the safety and sanctity of our water, to our hunting and fishing rights, and to our cultural and religious practices.”  

While revoking the Keystone XL permit and a moratorium on lease activity in the Arctic Refuge were among Biden’s first executive actions to have impact on Indigenous Peoples, the omission of action on the Dakota Access Pipeline gave cause for Indigenous leaders to once again call for a shutdown. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in partnership with Earthjustice released the video Tȟokáta Hé Miyé /My Name Is Future, a message of hope in the Lakota language.

Last week Biden signed an executive memorandum, which affirmed the Administration’s commitment to Nation-to-Nation relationships. A priority is “to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance, commitment to fulfilling Federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, and regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy.”

These are important steps from the new administration, but the recent history of reversals and counter-reversals around the Dakota Access Pipeline and the long history of unmet treaty obligations and the taking or polluting of resources in Indian Country demonstrate the need for constant vigilance and continuous engagement to safeguard our people, culture and capacity for sustainable, self-determined economic development. 

From my experience as Tribal Chairman during construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and from my conversations with Native leaders and Indigenous communities throughout the world facing similar issues, there are several key strategies to prevent or address harm from development.

Engage with Government Officials and Agencies 

Native people must have our voices heard at all levels of government. In the United States, this is through the city, state and federal officials. We should also engage locally at town council and community meetings.

Officials at all levels have varying degrees of understanding of what consultation means. Consultation is more than an information sharing exercise: it is a meeting between the most senior leadership of concerned parties, and it is discussion, negotiation and agreement that properly considers and addresses the concerns of all impacted Indigenous Peoples. Through dialogue, all parties’ concerns can be meaningfully integrated into project design and implementation. 

Prayer and Ceremony

When I have visited other Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world, I find that despite differences in our cultures and languages we all say the same thing: our connection to Mother Earth is connection to all beings. We speak for the lands and animals that cannot not speak for themselves, and it is vital to protect them and treat them as relatives as opposed to resources.

After the United States approved running the Dakota Access pipeline under Mnišoše – the Missouri River – we held a prayer ceremony to ask the Creator how to address the many issues and imminent threats. As I shared with Earthjustice, the answer was through peace and prayer, which has guided us through the years of action and engagement.

Youth & Generational Action

Elders set up a Spirit Camp which evolved into Sacred Stone. It was decided to set up a camp after a ceremony where the spirits gave instructions and told us  that with peace and prayer you can stop the pipeline, but with violence the pipeline will go under the river. Violence comes in many forms.

Prior to the camp, the Youth organized a run from Wakpala to Mobridge, South Dakota, running over the Missouri River to build awareness. In our tribe, we encourage youth to speak out. It is up to us as adults to make sure they are heard when they ask us to protect their future. 

Grassroots Action

The youth action led to a gathering unlike any seen in our history. The mass convergence included advocates, those who are trying to make change within their communities or within government, and activists, people with a burning desire in their hearts to contest a wrong and make change.

I have talked before about how there are many times advocates and activists don’t agree or see eye to eye, but when they do there is a tremendous opportunity for real change to occur. In order for change to happen there has to be unity and the message has to be consistent.

Corporate Engagement

When direct engagement with corporations does not stop projects that endanger Indigenous Peoples, the next step is to build awareness among shareholders, investors and financiers about the harmful impact that a project may have. 

Divestment from the Dakota Access Pipeline led to billions of lost dollars for banks and financial institutions. This was due in part to reputational loss from the mass social protest and in part from the Tribe’s engagement with investors and banks. Today, Indigenous-led corporate advocacy is a critical strategy to prevent harm from happening or to seek remedy where harm has occurred.

Legal Action

Legal action is necessary when companies or governments endanger or harm people. Earthjustice has a running list of all the litigation and action around the Dakota Access Pipeline, updated with the most recent decision that upheld the need for a full environmental review.

In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and for many tribal nations under threat from development, there are also complex issues of treaty and land rights. Suffice it to say, the situations require knowledgeable and skilled counsel to support tribes, and understanding that legal action can take years before anything is resolved.

Other strategies to consider are international human rights mechanisms such as the United Nations treaty bodies or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the important role of media and communications in storytelling and amplification of the issues.

All movements and crises are unique, and when and how to use these strategies will be different for different situations. A fulsome combination and unity around a consistent message will eventually bring about progress.

Indigenous Peoples are still here, and we are not going anywhere. The biggest wins come when we are liberated and united in a vision of sustainability and self-determination for our people. We see this in land, water and forest protectors defending sacred and ancestral lands from the Dakota Access Pipeline, Keystone XL, Enbridge Line 3drilling in the Arctic Refugemining at Oak Flatsdeforestation of Tongassand so many more in the U.S. and globally.

It is a hard truth that the pipeline went under the river, but that is not where the fight ended. Today the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribes continue to unite with Indigenous Peoples around the world to protect our land and resources with all our energy for our children and future generations.

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