“We can’t drink oil:” WSU Vancouver hosts discussion about Standing Rock

Drumbeats reverberated around the packed room as Phil Montana sang a Native American prayer out to demonstrators at Standing Rock opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Montana said the “song gives [the protestors] the strength to keep going.”

The room was filled with Washington State University Vancouver students, faculty and community members hoping to gain insight on the demonstrations surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The forum explained the history of the oil industry in North Dakota and how pipelines and instances of violence at Standing Rock affects the rest of the nation.

“We’re meeting here today on the anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre,” said Steve Fountain, a history professor at WSU Vancouver and presenter at the forum. “In many ways we’re seeing some echoes of that event with what’s happening in Standing Rock in North Dakota.” The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864 in the Colorado Territory, when United States Army cavalrymen killed between 70 and 163 Native Americans, an estimated two-thirds of which were women and children.

For months now the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, joined by thousands more indigenous and non-indigenous people, have opposed construction of an oil pipeline through lands sacred to Native Americans. Attempts by law enforcement to disrupt the demonstrators have in some instances turned violent, as police forces have used mace, dogs, rubber bullets and water cannons to dissuade the protesters from their activities.

Forum moderator Roben White said the violence occurring at Standing Rock has been toned down only because there are enough white people present to witness it.

Those opposed to the pipeline say it threatens local water supplies. According to opponents, should a pipe burst it would create environmental and economic hardship not just for local tribes, but other communities the water moves through. A recent ultimatum to evacuate the land was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and was met with the arrival of more protesters dedicated to helping the Sioux block construction of the pipeline.

As the discussion of the pipeline began at WSU Vancouver, Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission spoke about the history of North Dakota so the audience could “understand [the] motivation and circumstances of people” they did not know.

North Dakota is one of several states formed from the lands of a number of Great Plains tribes in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. In the twentieth century, North Dakota eventually suffered economic hardships that created an identity crisis for the descendants of many immigrants, who were forced to relocate due to lack of opportunity, according to Hudson.

Hudson said the oil boom created thousands of jobs and a more prestigious identity for the state. “However, having worked in the oil business myself, these jobs are transient,” said Hudson. He said that jobs in the oil industry are fickle and last only 10 to 12 years. By contrast, the effects in the community, such as oil and fracking spills, create long-term health risks and rising crime rates.

The decrease in living conditions discouraged residents from staying in the area and prompted Hudson to ask, “When diminishment of quality of life supersedes economics, have you done right in decision-making?”

Decision-making in fracking country is no simple proces, as much of the information regarding the risks of oil company practices are kept from the public and are loosely regulated, according to Hudson. “Truth and accuracy have been a casualty of oil boom politics,” Hudson said. As the consequences become apparent, he said, many community members are saying “enough is enough” as they are tired of “being expected to bear the risk of [the] oil industry.”

Also present at the forum was Cecilia Towner, president of Black Lives Matter Vancouver. Towner drew a comparison between the treatment of those at Standing Rock with that of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupiers led by Ammon Bundy. The Malheur occupiers recently had most of the  charges against them, including armed occupation and alleged vandalism, dropped. While there was a push to keep violence from occurring in the refuge takeover, Standing Rock occupants face daily assaults, said Towner.

“With little media attention over 300 tribes have gathered for the first time ever … over 7,000 people are enduring violence and a bitter winter,” Towner said. She noted that in spite of the harsh and uncertain conditions faced by the demonstrators, known as water protectors, “the words ‘peaceful and prayerful’ are taking root,” and said she hoped humans can commit to being more mindful of others.

“Indigenous people have a long history of defying the odds … when you are fighting for something you believe in with everything that you are, there is nothing that can sway you from that fight,” Towner said. “The fight for water is the fight for survival. We can’t drink oil.”

In his role as moderator, White had a question for the audience. “This is about human and civil rights,” White said. “What are you going to do when it’s your water?”

White concedes the need for more jobs and the need to correct environmental damage is prevalent, but said “those two are not mutually exclusive.”

The forum also proposed ways to support the Standing Rock demonstrators. Hudson said that supporters should be mindful of which companies their money goes to. Not providing money to corporations in charge of the pipelines can help show support, according to Hudson. Hudson also listed websites such as http://www.standingrock.org and http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org where supporters can learn more about the protests and ways they can provide support. Finally, the panel suggested Facebook pages such as “I Stand With Standing Rock” and “Indigenous Environmental Network” to learn about events from the perspective of demonstrators and “water protectors.”

Latest Developments:

According to news reports on Sunday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it won’t grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota. Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said her decision was based on the need to “explore alternate routes” for the pipeline’s crossing.
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