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As Trump Advances Dakota Access and Keystone XL, Water Protectors Across the Country Double Down

Water Protectors fighting pipeline battles at Standing Rock and in five other states promise sustained resistance.

Water Protectors fighting pipeline battles at Standing Rock and in five other states promise sustained resistance.

Part of the Series

After President Trump signed five executive memoranda last week that will expedite environmental review processes for high-profile fossil fuel infrastructure projects and pressure federal agencies to support construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, Indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock and major environmental organizations promised sustained resistance.

On Tuesday, Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Standing Rock Sioux vowed to take legal action in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s expeditement and issued statements saying that Trump’s executive memorandum “violates the law and tribal treaties,” and that the tribe “will vigorously pursue legal action to ensure the environmental impact statement order issued late last year is followed.” Allies of the Standing Rock Sioux have responded with statements promising mass direct action against the pipeline.

Following news last week that TransCanada had submitted a new application to revive the northern segment of Keystone XL pipeline, Indigenous leaders from across the country outlined next steps in the fight against both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL during a national press call hosted by the Indigenous Environmental Network. In addition to promising a revival of the Standing Rock camp (the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council had asked Water Protectors to leave in January), Indigenous groups said they are working to organize other spiritual camps to resist the Keystone XL up and down the pipeline’s route.

“Donald Trump has declared war on Indigenous nations across the country. This pipeline runs right through the traditional lands of the great Sioux Nation. Attacks on our lands, sovereignty and health must stop. We will fight using prayer and nonviolent direct action to stop Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and we will not back down,” said Joye Bruan, an organizer from the Cheyenne River Sioux, during the call.

Resistance to pipelines is also growing far beyond Standing Rock.

“Donald Trump has declared war on Indigenous nations across the country.”

For weeks, Indigenous-led resistance camps and direct action campaigns have been building across the U.S., including in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma, where activists have been pushing back against several separate pipeline projects that threaten local water sources, some of which are owned by the same company behind the Dakota Access pipeline: Energy Transfer Partners (ETP).

Like the Indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock, these Native Water Protectors and their allies, many recently returned from Standing Rock themselves, say they aren’t deterred by last week’s executive memoranda and are vowing resistance against projects like the ETP’s Trans-Pecos, “Comanche Trail” and Bayou Bridge pipelines, and others, such as the Sabal Trail and Diamond pipelines.

Resistance Spreads to Other ETP Pipelines

As Truthout has previously reported, a new Indigenous-led direct action campaign has recently emerged in far West Texas targeting ETP’s twin pipeline projects there: the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines.

An Indigenous-led prayer and resistance camp on private land in West Texas’s pristine Big Bend region has undertaken a number of actions against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in recent weeks, with Water Protectors there facing an escalated police presence with U.S. Border Patrol agents assisting Presidio County deputy sheriffs (who are also moonlighting as private security for ETP) in making arrests. Water Protectors there have also faced escalated felony criminal mischief charges in recent weeks.

Most recently, a Sicangu Lakota teen from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Destiny Willcuts, locked down to a bulldozer on January 29 near Shafter, Texas, in an attempt to halt construction on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, and was charged with criminal trespassing and criminal mischief, a state jail felony.

ETP’s 148-mile Trans-Pecos Pipeline and 195-mile Comanche Trail Pipeline would carry 1.4 billion and 1.1 billion cubic feet, respectively, of fracked gas from West Texas to Mexico every day if completed.

Indigenous Water Protectors with the Two Rivers camp and the Frontera Water Protection Alliance say they are protecting the Rio Grande River — which both ETP pipeline projects would cross under — from contamination, as well as defending their sacred sites. Archeologists have already documented ETP’s destruction of archeologically significant Indigenous cultural sites to build the Trans-Pecos Pipeline.

“This is oil power at its finest. This is about all Trump’s oil buddies.”

“We knew something like this could happen when Trump came into office,” said Yolanda Bluehorse, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Society of Native Nations, an organization that has been working alongside the Big Bend Defense Coalition to organize the Two Rivers camp in recent weeks. “This is oil power at its finest…. This is about all [Trump’s] oil buddies.” According to his 2016 federal disclosure forms, Trump had investments in ETP. His team has indicated that he has since divested from the company but has not offered any evidence of this.

Bluehorse says last week’s executive memorandums are a reason she and other Native Water Protectors are pushing ahead with the Two Rivers camp’s direct action campaign. “You have to take a deep breath and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to get right back into it again, with more fury, with more fight,'” Bluehorse told Truthout.

Likewise, Cherri Foytlin, an Indigenous Water Protector fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline expansion in Louisiana, wasn’t surprised by the pipeline memoranda, and is readying herself for the long haul. She told Truthout that the potential for direct action tactics against the pipeline may be all but inevitable if it is permitted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“If this pipeline goes through, … we will protect ourselves. We will protect our land, and we will protect our water in whatever way that’s necessary,” said Foytlin, who is state director of Bold Louisiana and is of Diné descent. “There has to be a consistent level of action on these pipelines that mirrors what we saw [in January] with the Women’s March. There has to be that many people that are going to have to say that they care about our water and they care about our systems of life.”

“We will protect ourselves. We will protect our land, and we will protect our water in whatever way that’s necessary.”

ETP’s 163-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline extension would run directly through the Atchafalaya Basin, the world’s largest natural swamp, and would complete the final section of the Dakota Access route, if built. (It is still in its permitting phase.) More than 400 people showed up to a public hearing on the pipeline in Baton Rouge this month, including many tribal representatives. Water Protectors in Louisiana are already gearing up for another hearing next month.

Pipeline opponents are hoping to harness some of the momentum that resulted in mass rallies and civil disobedience in opposition to new lease sales that would open up large swaths of the Gulf to offshore drilling last year. “That has been quite fruitful, and it has been excellent training for us,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “This is a life and death battle. Here we are, at our moment, and we are ready to rise to that moment. We certainly are not scurrying away.”

More Pipeline Resistance Promised

In Florida, a number of camps with a significant Indigenous presence have formed to oppose the 515-mile Sabal Trail Pipeline, which threatens the state’s pristine northern Suwannee River and its famed mineral springs.

The pipeline, which is scheduled for completion later this year, is slated to carry more than a billion cubic feet of fracked gas through Alabama and Georgia to power plants in Florida. Companies behind the project include Houston-based Spectra Energy, Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy and Charlotte-based Duke Energy.

One camp in the small town of Live Oak on the banks of the Suwannee has grown in recent weeks in conjunction with a number of actions targeting the pipeline, including one last month that halted construction and resulted in eight arrests. Water Protectors in Florida have also faced escalated charges of felony trespassing under a Florida law conferring special protections to construction sites.

Last November, 14 Water Protectors there had been arrested under the same charge after blockading a Sante Fe River Pipeline site in Gilchrist County, but the charges have not yet been officially filed in court.

“Regardless of what Trump had signed or what he had chosen to do or not do, I would still be continuing forward with our efforts.”

Florida Water Protectors say that violations of state and federal laws occurring during construction on Sabal Trail warrant a revocation of the permit the state granted to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC. They also argue that the pipeline is an act of environmental racism, disproportionately impacting low-income communities of color along its route from Alabama across Florida, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which an environmental review of the pipeline failed to assess. In September, environmental groups filed a lawsuit arguing that in addition to its failure to assess environmental justice issues, the review did not evaluate the project’s potential impacts on the climate.

The “Sacred Water” and “Water Is Life” camps have been in place in northern Florida since last year, and now the Seminole Tribe of North Florida announced the opening of four additional “heartland” resistance and prayer camps on public land along the pipeline’s planned route in Levy County’s Goethe Forest. The tribe hopes to encourage Water Protectors to organize direct actions and to observe, document and report any violations they witness.

Sawgrass Flower, an Indigenous Water Protector, representative of the Seminole Tribe of North Florida and liaison for the heartland camps, told Truthout that while the camps are not on official Native reservations, they have been set up on lands with long histories of Native struggle, such as those around central Florida’s Station Pond and Chunky Pond, sites of the Seminole wars of the 1800s.

“We are at the line of what had been the original reservation territory under the original treaties,” Flower said. “This is considered Indigenous land, although it’s not current reservation property.” She is not discouraged by Trump’s memoranda.

“Regardless of what he had signed or what he had chosen to do or not do, I would still be continuing forward with our efforts,” Flower said. “Do I consider it a setback? Yes.” She emphasized that the fight should not be considered an exclusively Native one, but one that is “everybody’s responsibility.”

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, the direct action campaign group Arkansas Rising is raising funds for a camp to resist San Antonio-based Valero’s 440-mile Diamond Pipeline, which aims to link oil reserves stored in Cushing, Oklahoma, to a Valero refinery in Memphis, Tennessee.

Over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last month, 12 Water Protectors, including two of Indigenous descent, were arrested for blockading the Valero Memphis Refinery by chaining themselves to concrete-filled barrels to block entrance to the refinery. Five Protectors were charged with obstructing a highway and seven with disorderly conduct, criminal trespassing and obstructing a highway.

Permits for the Diamond Pipeline have already been approved, but no environmental assessment of the pipeline has been conducted. Construction is planned to be finished later this year. Water Protectors with Arkansas Rising say they are protecting the more than 500 waterways the pipeline would cross, including such major watersheds as the Arkansas River, the Illinois Bayou, the White River, the St. Francis River and the Mississippi River.

“Trump’s memoranda aren’t going to thwart any of my efforts.”

“[Trump’s memoranda] aren’t going to thwart any of my efforts,” said Katherine Hanson with Arkansas Rising, who was arrested during the Valero blockade this month. “If anything, it might escalate [our campaign]…. We stand in solidarity, so as we see other actions happening, we stand with those actions as well. It’s not just Arkansas Rising right now, it’s the entire nation.”

Indigenous Protectors with the Ponca Nation and Bold Oklahoma also say they are planning for a resistance camp to oppose the Diamond Pipeline in that state, citing the pipeline route’s potential impact on the Trail of Tears, the infamous route along which Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their lands in the southeastern U.S. in the 1800s to be relocated in Oklahoma.

“There are thousands of unmarked graves [along the Trail of Tears],” director of the American Indian Movement Michael Casteel told KOCO News 5. “This is a tragedy.”

Many of the Native Water Protectors and allies Truthout spoke with have traveled to Standing Rock in recent months, and have returned to their own regions intent on carrying the movement forward in their own local pipeline struggles. Foytlin in Louisiana says she is carrying that momentum forward not just on a material level but also a spiritual one.

“It’s more than about … any one moment, or any one pipeline, or any one [liquefied natural gas] plant,” she said. “This is about the spiritual battle between goodness and having a viable planet for future generations, or the evil and corruption and greed associated with money.”

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