Standing Rock Sioux Elder: “We Have an Obligation to Protect All of America”

2017.2.1.Sainato.Speakout.main(Photo: Chelsea Skojec)

On the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Native American reservation in North Dakota, people have gathered from all over the world to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. If completed, the pipeline will transport roughly 500,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field to Illinois, traversing over sacred burial sites and threatening the tribe’s drinking water sources. The future operator of the pipeline, Sunoco Logistics, tops US charts for crude oil spills, according to a Reuters investigation. The Standing Rock Sioux’s struggle to stop the pipeline has transformed into a global environmental and Indigenous rights movement.

“I never envisioned this, but my sister and I came and we put that brown tent up and it was the first one, the only one,” said Phyllis Young, former council member for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the coordinator/organizer for Central Oceti Sakowin Camp, the main camp of Water Protectors at Standing Rock. More than 400 tribal nationshave joined the Standing Rock Sioux at the camp, and all of them have signed a treaty to protect the water from the pipeline.

The US government first violated treaties with the Standing Rock Sioux by taking land in the Black Hills of North and South Dakota after gold was discovered there in the late 1800s. In 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled these violations were some of the most “dishonorable dealings” in US history, and offered the tribe financial restitution, which they refused. Young added, “When the Supreme Court said we are buying your Black Hills, here’s the money, we never accepted that. Since the ruling in 1980, we have never accepted that money. What they have in the treasury accumulating is over $4 billion. We will never ever accept that.”

Between the Missouri River and the Cheyenne River, the Sioux have over 300 miles of river shoreline on their reservation, which were first threatened by development of dams in the 1950s. “It’s about having taken our lands to build the dams and for us to face hunger and homelessness in the national interest,” Young said. “We cannot accept those types of social conditions for our children and grandchildren, so America could have lights, gala, casinos and Las Vegas — it’s all on our backs.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has received offers from lawyers around the world to help them file litigation on the entire river. According to Young, the tribe is owed $4.99 billion for the hydro-power evaluations from the dams, for the collateral of their land used to build the dams they’re owed $710 million, and for the mineral rights for the past 55 years they are owed $50 million, with more evaluation estimates on the riverbed yet to be accounted for. Young noted, “We have great support to seek that first part, before you even embarked on this part (the pipeline) of it. For you totake our land and now to take our water — that’s genocide.”

Construction of the pipeline has already desecrated several sacred burial sites and cut through sacred sites used for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s religious worship. Young cited that nine North Dakota State police officers have resigned so far due to the infringement on Native American rights from the pipeline construction. The colonel in charge of the Army Corps ofEngineers delegated his authority to the Morton County sheriff without the knowledge of the US Army Chief of Engineers at the Pentagon. “The colonel is a very young man. I told him in the consultation ‘you could be my grandson. You better know what you’re doing,” said Young, adding no one can delegate the obligation the United States has in honoring their treaty with the StandingRock Sioux. “We know we have the legal ground. This country is still a republic. It’s governed by the constitution. Our supreme treaties are the supreme law of the land. We still hold that status. Wehave continuous hope,” she said. “We symbolize the struggle of every community in America, every state, and every country in the World about development, about the lack of water, about contaminated water.”

Young told us the state of California, the city of Los Angeles and other cities around the country have provided the Standing Rock Sioux with letters of support against the pipeline. “California produces a large percentage of the food in America, and they have no water. So they know, and they are the canary in the mine for this country,” added Young. “We are Sitting Bull’s people. Weare the vanguard of the Sioux nation, and we are obligated to protect everyone in our nation. But also, we are ambassadors to the outside world, and as such we have an obligation to protect allof America. We are the most beautiful people in the world and the world has come to us. We have to share that with you, and together, all of us, there will be no black snake crossing treaty territory.”