“Oceti Sakowin” is Lakota for “seven council fires,” referring to the seven bands of the Lakota people, also called the Great Sioux Nation. “Since time immemorial, the people of the Great Sioux Nation have lived, hunted, fished, and engaged in ceremonies adjacent to the Missouri River – Mni Sose in Lakota,” four of the seven tribal governments wrote to Joe Biden on the day before his inauguration. They asked for “quick, decisive action on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).” DAPL is the 1,200 mile long pipeline that transports crude, fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields to Illinois, en route to Texas. As one of his first acts in office in 2017, President Trump greenlit both the Keystone XL pipeline and DAPL. On his first day in office, Biden revoked the permit for Keystone XL, but left DAPL intact. On Wednesday, one week into his presidency, dubbed “Climate Day” by the White House, Biden announced sweeping executive actions to confront catastrophic climate disruption, but again did nothing on DAPL.
The Lakota letter listed the 19th-century treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government, adding, “after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the government violated the treaties,” stripping “vast areas of land out of the Reservation.” For the original inhabitants of this land, American democracy brought not freedom but violence, displacement, and genocide. Nevertheless, indigenous nations on this land they call Turtle Island survive, and continue to resist.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, supported by hundreds of other native tribes and allies, successfully forced the Obama-Biden administration to shut down DAPL in 2016. Declaring in Lakota, “mni wiconi,” or “water is life,” they feared a DAPL oil spill would poison the Missouri River, on which their very survival depends. The pipeline company, owned by Energy Transfer LP, controlled by Texas billionaire and Republican mega-donor Kelcy Warren, hired private security guards to combat the water protectors. Over Labor Day weekend in 2016, they beat protesters as massive bulldozers razed sacred grounds. Our team watched and filmed in horror as guards unleashed attack dogs, biting the non-violent, indigenous protesters. Blood dripped from the mouth and nose of one of the dogs.
Since Trump’s approval, DAPL has carried hundreds of thousands of barrels of fracked oil per day under Lake Oahe, formed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Missouri River in the 1950s. In their letter to Biden, the tribes noted, “the Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other single public works project in the history of the United States.”
This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals in DC ruled in favor of the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Yankton and Oglala Sioux Tribes, in their lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. The Court’s decision forces the Army Corps to conduct a full Environmental Impact review, citing, among other reasons, Energy Transfer’s dismal record with past oil spills from its many pipelines.
In the court order, Judge David Tatel quoted the words of Dave Archambault II, the former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: “Water is more than just a resource, it is sacred—as water connects all of nature and sustains life,” Archambault wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers in March, 2016, a month before the first protest fire was lit near the path of DAPL construction, on unceded tribal lands at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers.
The DAPL resistance camps grew from a dozen or so people around that single fire in April to well over 10,000 water protectors by October. Lakota traditions were central to the organizing, with prayer, song, and a deep respect for the leadership of elders. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages indigenous nations across the U.S., there is a growing fear that their wisdom and the native languages themselves, will perish.
“North and South Dakota, home to the Lakota reservations, lead the United States for coronavirus rates per capita,” Jodi Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and former special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council, who is also Dave Archambault’s sister, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We are losing more than friends and family members; we are losing the language spoken by our elders, the lifeblood of our people and the very essence of who we are.”
Biden’s “Climate Day” executive actions signal a critical departure from Trump’s destructive, science-denying environmental policies. For indigenous nations, though, the climate crisis and COVID-19 have deepened the devastation of centuries of genocide. Shutting down the Dakota Access pipeline is a vital step towards repairing the damage already done, one that President Biden can and should take, with the stroke of a pen, without delay.