After celebrating a historic decision on Sunday by the Army Corps of Engineers that blocks the builders of Dakota Access Pipeline from running pipe to carry fracked oil under the Missouri River, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and their allies are staying the course in an effort to stop the project from further impacting their sacred lands and water sources.
The Army, which owns the land on each side of the river, announced on Dec. 3 it will deny an easement to Energy Transfer Partners, blocking construction under the water, instead calling for an environmental impact statement to look at possible alternative routes.
"I'm still on the verge of tears each time I think of all the sacrifices people made to stay up at Standing Rock," said Toni Buffalo, a member of the UCC Dakota Association and one of the denomination's leaders in the Lakota community. Buffalo was in the Water Protectors camp near the reservation when the Army decision not to grant the permit was announced. "Although I'm happy [the easement was denied], we aren't naive to believe it's over. So after a day of joyous celebration last night, today we have to get ready for the next step. Already DAPL has issued a statement saying what was done last night won't deter them. No war is won with one victory in battle."
The Tribe and their allies remain committed to waging the battle along several fronts. In the camps around the construction site, thousands of people, including citizens from 300 Native American Nations, remain gathered in a prayerful and peaceful community. Three thousand veterans joined advocates this weekend to stand with them against future construction.
Monday afternoon, Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II participated in a webinar with financial investors to discuss the future viability of the DAPL. Archambault, who Sunday expressed gratitude to Standing Rock advocates and allies, saying "We want to thank everyone who played a role in advocating for this cause. We thank the tribal youth who initiated this movement. We thank the millions of people around the globe who expressed support for our cause. We thank the thousands of people who came to the camps to support us, and the tens of thousands who donated time, talent, and money to our efforts to stand against this pipeline in the name of protecting our water," indicated that much of that might not have been necessary if the energy company had done a better environmental and social risk assessment in the beginning.
"United Church Funds planned to be part of a webinar with the Standing Rock Chairman to learn how to continue to bring the voice of the Water Protectors into the corporate boardroom - so that epic planning failures like these don't happen," said Katie McCloskey, UCF's director of social responsibility. “The companies that partnered with Energy Transfer Partners thought they would be able to steamroll this in without doing their homework, thereby endangering the environment and Native American populations. Turns out they're just endangering their own investments and, therefore, the shareholders.”
Energy Transfer Partners, in a statement issued after the Army denied the easement, said the Obama administration has "abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency," and noted that the companies behind the DAPL "are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting." Who knows what may happen under a pro-pipeline Trump administration, and as legal challenges against the DAPL work through the courts.
"What happened when the Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement was a whole lot more than just the denial of building the pipeline in that spot," said the Rev. Gordon Rankin, conference minister of the South Dakota Conference UCC. "The United States government has always chosen to prioritize the needs of colonial Americans over those of First Nations people. Always. What happened yesterday was that the United States government said that the needs of our native population must be a priority. That was historic. Regardless of what happens with the Dakota Access Pipeline, that moment - that acknowledgement - can't ever be taken away. I suspect it changes far more than we can ever imagine."
So as the water protectors celebrate being heard, many plan to stay vigilant in the camps until the last pieces of machinery are removed from the construction site, even though Tribe Chairman Archambault asked them to go home for the winter. The Rev. Brooks Berndt, the UCC's environmental justice minister, has been working the advocacy front. Last week, he initiated an interfaith "lifeline" to stop the DAPL which will be presented to the White House later this week. The statement, which urged the president to deny final permits for the $3.7 billion project and encouraged a call to action "toward a more just and sustainable future," gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in just a few days from Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.
“I think the message of the day is this: celebrate, give thanks, and return to the struggle with renewed hope,” said Berndt. “Celebrate and be warmed by the fires of this decision. Give thanks for the remarkable leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, their allied water protectors, and the millions of people around the world who have declared their solidarity in standing with Standing Rock. After this much needed moment of joy and gratitude, our work continues. We need to continue with vigilance as Energy Transfer Partners determines their next move and as a new presidential administration takes office.”
"This is way more than a Standing Rock Lakota Nation battle, this is a human existence battle," said Buffalo. "So as I celebrate the victory of yesterday, I know we need to shore ourselves up even more because this war has just intensified."