When opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline galvanized the support of hundreds of U.S. tribes, it became an unprecedented show of Indian country unity and resolve.
Now, it’s a global indigenous movement.
Members of tribal communities from around the world have joined in activism led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A Sami group from Norway was the latest to arrive on Friday. This resistance campaign, many say, has emerged as part of a greater global crisis—a united struggle in which indigenous lands, resources, and people are perpetually threatened by corporations and governments often using military force. Integral to this shared narrative is the routine ignoring of treaties.
In their continued struggle, the Lakota Sioux are advancing an Indigenous agenda that calls for governments to acknowledge the unique and inherent rights of First Peoples.
While Indigenous Peoples reflect only about 5 percent of the world’s population, they represent roughly 15 percent of the global poor. With the exception of majority populations in places like Bolivia and Guatemala, Indigenous Peoples are typically the minority in their respective countries.
But they have land. And their tribal territories are among the healthiest ecosystems on the planet—and under constant threat from mining, logging, and dam and oil development.
“There is a tremendous awareness from Indigenous Peoples regarding what’s happening at Standing Rock,” said Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia University. “The Native Americans there are struggling and are connected to the whole world and a solidarity of rights.”
Lack of sovereignty is the biggest problem confronting Indigenous Peoples worldwide. And the fact that Indigenous Peoples are having a moment in the ancestral territory of the Great Sioux Nation is both symbolic and historically relevant.
“Wounded Knee! This is where our movement all started,” said Stamatopoulou. The human rights expert became the first chief of the secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2003.
She recounted the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation about 330 miles south of Standing Rock. The intense 71-day standoff led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) was a call to end internal corruption on the reservation and to expose the U.S. government’s failure to uphold its treaty obligations. AIM activists took their case to the United Nations, but the UN failed to observe the Oglala Sioux as sovereign. According to Stamatopoulou, this rejection began a decades-long process by Indigenous Peoples worldwide to demand recognition of their rights as self-determined nations within nations.
Today on the Dakota prairie, the images captured from the ongoing occupation near Standing Rock are not unlike scenes depicted from Wounded Knee more than 40 years ago.
Although construction of the Dakota Access pipeline is at a partial legal impasse, tension keeps building. An increased militarized response to the activism has dominated the demonstrations. Both sides have accused the other of using coercive measures. Law enforcement claim prayer protesters are armed.
What’s reflected is a power struggle over resource extraction and energy projects most often linked to developing countries.
On Wednesday, armored vehicles rolled onto the North Dakota prairie in response to a group of people gathered to protest the pipeline. At one point, police in riot gear aimed their guns at the demonstrators. Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier defended the action, alleging a protester on horseback had charged at an officer. The tension, streamed live on Facebook, has since been viewed more than a million times. Twenty-one people were arrested that day, and, according to the sheriff’s department, the total number of arrests has reached nearly 100 since the protests first began.
Progress of the global Indigenous rights movement has been celebrated, but slow. Details behind the dangers linked to defending lands and natural resources are only starting to enter American news feeds.
According to a recent study by the nonprofit Global Witness, nearly two-thirds of the 185 activists murdered last year—a rate of roughly three deaths a week—were Indigenous activists. The study also found that among the deadliest places in which to defend the Earth are the Philippines, Colombia, and Brazil.
In Honduras, prominent environmentalist Berta Cáceres was murdered last March. The 44-year-old mother and nonprofit organizer was shot dead in her home. Her last days were marked with danger and threats: give up the fight against the Agua Zarca Dam, or else.
“For those of us who are in the struggle, it’s seen as a crime to fight for Indigenous rights, to defend territory, to demand any sort of justice,” explained Cáceres back in January.
I had spent time with Cáceres weeks before her assassination. She introduced me to the Lenca community that had been fighting for years to protect the Gualcarque River from multinational dam development.
The battle was one Cáceres referred to simply as “the struggle.”
“So then the struggle… well, that brings repression and that brings threats, and I think that affects every element of our daily lives,” she said.
In early September, images of Cáceres started turning up at the center of the Sacred Stone Camp, the main site where hundreds of people have gathered since April to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline.
In recent weeks, Indigenous Peoples from around the world have journeyed to the windswept plains of North Dakota to stake flags in the ground along with those of tribal nations from across the U.S.
A delegation from the Sarayaku tribe in the Ecuadoran Amazon arrived at the encampment bearing gifts. Tribal leader Franco Viteri offered Standing Rock’s tribal chairman, Dave Archambault II, a traditional headdress that he wore during talks held inside a teepee.
“We are here to globalize the resistance to oil,” Viteri said.
The Sarayaku have fought and won against oil development on their own ancestral lands before. The visitors said their journey to Standing Rock was meant to lend strength to the overall Indigenous movement.
“The world needs us right now,” said Sarayaku delegate Nina Gualinga. “The statistics say we are 4 percent of the population, but we are protecting more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.”
Community organizer Alice Mathew, an Indigenous woman from Malaysia, was among the first to amplify Standing Rock’s struggle on an international scale. At a September 7 town hall meeting in Laos, she dedicated her one exchange with President Obama to ask him directly about the Dakota Access pipeline.
“I wanted to do something—like in solidarity for Standing Rock,” Mathew said in a Skype interview from Indonesia.
She said the protests near the reservation reminded her of a situation near her home community of Kota Kinabalu on the Malaysian island of Borneo. There, the Indigenous Dusun people are fighting the Kaiduan Dam. The development would provide water and power to nearby cities while displacing as many as 2,000 Dusun from their six villages. Just as the Lakota Sioux have claimed they weren’t properly consulted about the pipeline, the Dusun say they also weren’t adequately informed about the dam. Meanwhile, they’re insisting that an environmental assessment take place, a step advocates of Standing Rock have called for as well.
“Their needs are being put last,” said Mathew. “It’s like all the development of all the people are at the expense of Indigenous People’s rights.”
It’s why Mathew said she chose to ask President Obama how he would ensure that drinking water is protected for Standing Rock. Until that point, Obama had been silent on the issue.
“I’d have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this one,” replied the president.
Two days later, it appeared that the president had consulted with his staff. On September 9, the Obama Administration intervened in a federal court ruling. A section of pipeline construction along the Missouri River was paused.
According to Dakota Access, the $3.8 billion project is more than 60 percent complete. Meanwhile, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues its suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permitting the project in the first place. Among the tribe’s complaints is that the pipeline could environmentally damage ancestral lands. While the pipeline does not cross the reservation, it would burrow 92 feet below Standing Rock’s primary water supply, the Missouri River, which sits less than a mile north of the tribal boundary. Additionally, the tribe claims that ceremonial prayer sites and burial grounds have already been desecrated.
On September 20, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe took its fight to stop construction of the pipeline to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II addressed the 49-member council in traditional headdress and a charcoal gray suit. A beaded Lakota medallion hung from his neck. In his two-minute testimony, Archambault asked the human rights body to join Standing Rock in stopping the pipeline in its path.
“The oil companies have failed, and the government of the United States, have failed to respect our sovereign rights,” Archambault read from his statement.
The chairman spoke during the UNHRC’s regular session on Indigenous rights. The forum featured testimony from more than two dozen representatives from around the world—places like the Philippines, Ukraine, Sudan, and Brazil.
There was a unifying theme: direct encroachment on their indigenous lands and lives by corporations and governments.
“To see tribes from all over the world who are having the same experiences—it was powerful to see that we aren’t alone in our struggle,” Archambault said.
With its appearance at the United Nations, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is appealing to rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The human rights document is a culmination of Indigenous rights and advocacy more than 25 years in the making. A cornerstone to the UNDRIP is the government obligation of “free prior and informed consent.” Reference to this consultation process is repeated several times in the UNDRIP and is at the center of grievances made by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Of course, consultation and consent are different ideas.
And while the U.S. government understands that meaningful consultations must take place with tribal leaders, the State Department points out there is no implication that “the agreement of those leaders” must happen before such actions as energy development can occur.
In this way, for all its empowering language about rights for Indigenous Peoples, governments have for some time brushed off the UNDRIP as nothing more than a symbolic or aspirational idea. Whatever action stems from the human rights agenda is not legally binding.
So while action at the UN may not solve Standing Rock’s legal case or even prompt the Obama Administration to take direct action to permanently stop the Dakota Access pipeline, there is agreement that the more this global stage is used to assert Indigenous rights, the better Indigenous Peoples are for it.
It’s an important source of influence and context, according to Chairman Archambault. “If it’s working with the administration, with Congress, with other nations, we have to continue to look at different approaches to reach our end goal,” Archambault said.
“We’re doing everything we can to heighten awareness.”