As judge sides against Sioux on pipeline, Denver march shows the power of tribal unity

They marched from the north, wearing red.

From the south they wore white. From the east, yellow. Those from west, who arrived last, ascended the steps at sunset in a sea of black.

And when at last the marchers were gathered at the Colorado State Capitol last night — thousands of them, led by Native elders from across Colorado, wearing colors representing the four directions of traditional Native prayer — the dancing began.

For weeks now, thousands of Native Americans from more than 100 tribes across the country have been camped near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation in opposition of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion, 1,110-mile project that will carry some 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the upper west corner of North Dakota to the bottom of Illinois. Last night, Native activists and their supporters from across Colorado and beyond gathered in Denver in solidarity with Standing Rock.

The tribe says the pipeline, which is slated to run alongside their land, poses a threat to both their water supply and their sacred ancestral lands. Environmental group Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the tribe against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking for a halt to the project.

This afternoon, the Sioux and their supporters learned of two important, contradictory developments.

First, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled against the tribe’s lawsuit. Boasberg acknowledged the “indignities” imposed upon the tribe over the past centuries, but said the Sioux had not demonstrated enough evidence that the pipeline would cause irreparable harm. The ruling was a major blow to the Sioux and the rest of the North Dakota demonstrators, as it means the project will continue as planned despite their objections.

But moments after Boasberg’s ruling was announced, the U.S. departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army stepped in with another announcement: Construction along a 40-mile stretch of land around one critical body of water, Lake Ohae, will be halted temporarily, pending further review. The feds called for a “serious discussion” about what the U.S. government should do in situations when massive infrastructure projects involve Native lands. 

Depending on the feds’ ultimate decision, Boasberg’s ruling could be a major setback for the opposition movement. But the Native American activists and leaders who came to Denver from across Colorado last night said that the fight isn’t over.

Native leaders who had visited the Standing Rock camp said last night that demonstrators there are willing to stay put as long as it takes, even if it means camping through the winter.

Over the past weeks, as opposition to the pipeline has grown, protesters — whom activists call “protectors” of land, water and Mother Earth — have faced pepper spray and dog attacks from hired security forces. In anticipation of today’s ruling, North Dakota’s governor called in National Guard to help with security. 

Last night, amid sage smoke that drifted across the capitol steps, tribal leaders asked the crowd to send their prayers and steadfastness to the protectors. Doug Good Feather, who had visited Standing Rock previously, led the group in prayer and song. Supporters held signs saying “Water is Life/Oil is Death” and “You can’t drink oil.”

Colorado Rep. Joe Salazar spoke passionately against the pipeline, saying that it would cause environmental and safety concerns. He specifically targeted the Colorado Oil and Gas Association for publishing a report earlier this week which said pipelines are safe. “They’re just full of lies,” he said.

Dakota Access, LLC, the company behind the project, insists that the pipeline is safe and will create thousands of jobs to boost a struggling economy. But the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, pointing to past pipeline leaks and explosions, says the massive project has a good chance of harming their drinking water supply, putting not only the thousands of Native Americans who live nearby, but also the millions of people who live downstream, at risk.

Molly Ryan KillsEnemy, a Denver woman who was adopted out of the South Dakota Rosebud Reservation when she was very young, organized the demonstration. She called the format of the event — four groups, from all nations, approaching the capitol from different directions — “a dream of mine.”

KillsEnemy stressed in an interview that the pipeline is much more than a Native issue. She derided the classification of the struggle as primarily impacting the “poor Natives” and their “sacred water.” Water, of course, is sacred to Native Americans, she says, but such statements take away from the potentially deadly effects a pipeline spill would have on non-Natives, too.

“How else do you water your crops?” she asked. “It’s not just us.”

KillsEnemy says it’s imperative that the movement against the pipeline succeed. It’s unclear, after Baosberg’s ruling and the subsequent announcement by the federal government, what the activists will do next. But one aspect of the North Dakota protests, which holds important significance for KillsEnemy, bodes well for a continued struggle against the project, if needed.

Of the steadfast, national alliance against the pipeline, she said tearfully, “This is the first time in 500 years that all the tribes have gathered together.”