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Labor Leaders Support the Dakota Access Pipeline — but This Native Union Member Doesn’t

Big unions have denounced the water protectors. But the voices of indigenous union members have been missing.

This article is part of a collaboration between YES! Magazine and Climate Workers that seeks to connect the experiences of workers with the urgency of the climate crisis.

As clashes over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline continue in North Dakota, a related battle is brewing in the halls of organized labor. In a statement issued September 15, the nation’s largest federation of trade unions threw in its support for the controversial oil pipeline.

“Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”

The president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) denounced the actions of the Standing Rock protectors, stating that “trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”

Thousands of people, including members of over 200 tribes, have been camped at the construction site for months to stop the pipeline, which would move 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day across four states, threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

As the controversy heated up, four unions representing pipeline workers denounced the water protectors, claiming they were illegal protesters who were committing dangerous actions while Illegally occupying private land. The AFL-CIO, which represents 55 unions and 12.5 million members, quickly followed suit.

Many union members were furious. Unions representing nurses, bus drivers, communications workers, and electrical workers issued statements in solidarity with the tribe and opposing the pipeline.

However, some critical voices have been missing from the conversation: those of indigenous union members themselves. One of those members is Melissa Stoner, a Native American Studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California Berkeley and a member of American Federation of Teachers 1474, AFL-CIO.

I recently sat down with Stoner. She shared her experiences growing up on the Navajo Reservation, advocating for domestic violence survivors, falling in love with libraries, and wrestling with the contradictions of a labor movement divided on climate at a critical moment.

Brooke Anderson: Melissa, where did you grow up?

Melissa Stoner: I grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation. I’m the oldest sibling in my family; I have two sisters and one brother. Growing up we had a small family farm, where we raised show lambs, rabbits, and horses. I was in 4-H for 10 years and would participate in livestock shows off and on the reservation. Being the oldest, there was always this expectation to set an example. Maybe that’s why I’m the first in my family to graduate from college and to get a master’s degree.

What early life experiences led you to seek justice for your community?

Growing up, I saw and heard of many injustices against my community. Alcoholism is one factor. It’s not legal to sell alcohol on our reservation, so men would go to nearby border towns, like Farmington and Gallup. The men would get drunk and pass out. White men from the community would target them, rob them or beat them, and leave them outside to freeze to death.

“Water is healing, and has to be respected.”

There was also a lot of racial profiling. I was constantly pulled over and ticketed by police in a way that has never happened to me living in California or Nevada. I’d have to go to court and pay my tickets. It was expensive, and when I fell behind on my payments, I was even arrested.

What inspired you to become a librarian?

Libraries were my first love. I started working in libraries when I started [studying] at a community college in Farmington, New Mexico. I worked at the public library that served a large Native American population. Later, I moved to Las Vegas, got my degree in criminal justice, and worked at a domestic violence organization as a court advocate. I’d go to court with women seeking protection orders, and also with women who were in the process of divorce or separation from an abusive partner. I would use the court’s resources to do research and help them access court documents.

Now I serve as the Native American Studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library at U.C. Berkeley. Being fairly new to this position, I’m familiarizing myself with the collection, assisting students with research, and pulling together items for the Native American Heritage Month display.

When we first met, you gave me a button opposing the Dakota Access pipeline and supporting those at Standing Rock. Why is this fight so important to you?

Water is an important element to Navajo culture. When we pray, we pray with water. We bless ourselves with water. When you attend Native American church, there is water in the drum. Water is healing, and has to be respected.

I first heard about Standing Rock on Facebook. I noticed that a lot of people from my reservation were posting about it, and even driving there to show their support. When my sister-in-law went, she met a Navajo man there who had quit his job and hitchhiked all the way from Arizona. He said he was going to stay there until the end.

“It is now at the point where we have to become the protectors of our environment.”

I don’t want what happened with the Navajo Nation with the Gold King Mine wastewater spill to happen to the Sioux tribe. That spill, which was due to the negligence of the EPA, sent millions of gallons of wastewater into the Colorado River. However, before the wastewater gets to the Colorado River, it flows through the Animas River and then the San Juan River, which flows through my hometown of Shiprock, New Mexico. The Navajo people water their farmland and their livestock with that water. Now over a year later, the EPA is still talking about how expensive and complex the cleanup will be.

I would hate to see the Sioux tribe or any tribe be left with contaminated land and water all because government agencies like the EPA or the Army Corp of Engineers are not held accountable for their actions. It is now at the point where we have to become the protectors of our environment.

As a Native union member, what do you think of the union statements that referred to the Native American land protectors at Standing Rock as illegal protesters occupying private land?

I thought it was silly — laughable — yet very insulting. The water protectors are not illegal occupiers. If anyone is an illegal occupier, it is the oil company and the law enforcement that choose to help them. The oil company is destroying land that is used for ceremonies, land that has sacred items buried beneath it that are much older and are of greater significance than what any pipeline has to offer.

“The water protectors are not attacking the workers. This isn’t the Wild West.”

The water protectors are not attacking the workers. This isn’t the Wild West. They aren’t shooting arrows and throwing spears at them. There are highly educated people in the camp that are having the same conversation we are having right now: that the construction workers aren’t the bad guys. The letter completely disregards the intelligence of the organizers and tries to vilify them.

What would you say to union construction workers who are building the pipeline?

I have a family member who is a member of one of the unions that has come out in support of the pipeline. She is the one person in my life who has most motivated me to want to be active in my own union. When I was younger, that union went on strike. I was working at the public library then, and she’d ask me to help her research the rules about unions.

So I’ve always seen unions as a good thing, but it’s a catch-22, because they work for this mine that is also responsible for a lot of the pollution in the area. However, with this job they are able to care for their families. So, I’m not mad at the construction workers. They’re just trying to live. Yes, the pipeline says it will create all these jobs, but the real question is, for how long? Because once the pipeline is built, it won’t need as many workers.

I can imagine it being very disheartening to hear that your union was actually in support of the pipeline that was responsible for the destruction of indigenous lives and land, especially if the union is one that you’ve been with for years. It would feel like such a betrayal.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, recently issued a statement saying, “The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive, and addresses the threat of climate change.” You’re a member of a union that belongs to the AFL-CIO. How would you respond to President Trumka?

The AFL-CIO should reverse its position and look into jobs in sustainable energy instead. Rather than wasting my time thinking about how to respond to somebody who would support this pipeline, I’d rather use that energy to support the the people who are fighting to protect our water.

What role do you see for librarians in supporting the encampment at Standing Rock?

This sounds really nerdy, but the stories of all these people who are traveling to Standing Rock, all the artwork that people are doing, all the video footage — someone is going to need to archive that stuff, and quick. Whether that pipeline gets built or not, gathering that history will be a great reminder to the future of a history we don’t want to repeat.

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