At the center of the Dakota Access pipeline fight are some of the country’s most impoverished and most economically powerful people.
One section of the four-state pipeline would run through North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where 41 percent of 8,200 residents live below the poverty level and nearly a quarter are unemployed. Thousands of people have joined the Standing Rock tribe in opposing the pipeline over concerns it will contaminate their water supply and damage sacred sites and cultural artifacts.
On the opposite side is Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), whose CEO, Kelcy Warren, has a net worth of more than $4 billion. While ETP is the majority investor, a number of Wall Street banks have lined up to finance the project.
In an example of the power of people prevailing over the power of money, the Obama administration has ordered ETP to halt construction to allow for further consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux. But the fight is not over. The corporation has vowed to press ahead and President Obama has not yet issued a definitive statement against Dakota Access.
Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, has been working to support native leaders as they develop strategies to continue to challenge these powerful forces. In mid-September she helped lead a four-day training at Standing Rock with tribal officials, native-led non-profits, and local community and political leaders on power mapping, strategic campaign planning, and direct action.
Inequality.org co-editor Sarah Anderson interviewed LeBlanc on her views about this ongoing battle.
Sarah Anderson: How did you get involved in this work?
Judith LeBlanc: I’m a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and I like to say I am one of the “AIM generation.”
You’re talking about the American Indian Movement that had its heyday in the 1970s, right?
Yes, and so I bring that experience to the work and I actually see a lot of parallels between that era and today. It is a time when many in Indian Country, inspired by the conditions and the social movements, are mobilizing to respond to inaction by elected officials, denial of equal rights, and the destruction of Mother Earth.
For me, it’s a blessing in a moment like today to be the director of a national network of native groups, leaders, and organizers who are supporting grassroots native community organizing, the Native Organizers Alliance. As my Mom always said, “It is not enough to be right.” If you believe you are right, then get organized.
What’s at stake in this fight?
Standing with Standing Rock has become the touchstone of the struggle for sovereignty. Tribes have not only the right but also the responsibility to protect our culture, our historic and sacred sites, as well as the water which supports native and non-native communities. Our historic ties to Mother Earth give Indians of all tribes on all continents a duty to lead and build strategic alliances before our planet is destroyed. Indians have always lived in balance with nature to — not simply survive, but to thrive.
The pro-pipeline forces say this project would help the local community by creating thousands of jobs during construction and generating tax revenue that could be invested in the area. What’s your response to that?
It is as old as dirt to pit short-term gains for a few against the longer-term interests or the greater good of saving Mother Earth. The 4,000 pipeline workers should have the right to jobs that in fact are sustainable and contribute to generations of prosperity and quality of life. Why not end the pipeline and create a federal- and state-funded program to winterize and insulate existing structures and explore alternative energy sources? The only roadblock to this community-based approach is our profit-based economy.
Whatever happens with the pipeline, do you think anything positive will come out of the protests and the national and international attention they’ve received?
The movement that has arisen to prevent the Dakota Access pipeline is the broadest coming together of tribes in our history. It has resulted in the largest and longest direct action led by those who have been most affected by environmental racism historically. It has changed how a cross-section of people in the United States sees the right to clean water.
In Indian Country, we have had thousands of “Flints.” For generations, industries have contaminated our soil, air, and water, resulting in an ever-growing cancer rate and other illnesses. We are the only people in the United States who continue to have an increasing rate of cancer. Grassroots everyday American Indians have taken action that will lead to greater politically empowered organizing against the greed and disrespect for Mother Earth of the fossil fuel industries.
What would you like people to do to support the protests?
In every city, town, and community, let’s make October 10, Indigenous People’s Day (AKA Columbus Day), the biggest day of #StandingWithStandingRock. Call on President Obama to use the climate test he established to justify his rejection of a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on the Dakota Access pipeline and all other such projects that would undermine US greenhouse gas emissions goals. Everyone should stand together to say no to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Water is sacred. And access to clean water is a human right.