It’s not clear whether the U.S. Army’s decision over the weekend to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline’s river crossing is a temporary or permanent victory for the thousands who joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle to protect its water supply.
But even if the incoming Trump administration manages to quickly greenlight required federal permits, American Indians and their supporters should look on this protest as a successful flexing of their political muscle, with lessons in organizing and media savvy likely to pay dividends in ongoing battles for better schools, health care and land stewardship.
Politicians and corporations have been put on notice: American Indians, whose treaty rights have been shamefully disrespected for more than a century, will not be steamrollered by moneyed interests. It is no longer the path of least resistance to shift controversial projects’ risks to reservations. That was the case in North Dakota with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was routed away from Bismarck’s drinking water intake. Nor is it wise politically to ignore impoverished reservations’ needs, as Congress has historically done.
It’s unclear how or if President-elect Donald Trump could reverse decision to halt the pipeline’s river crossing, which requires a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers easement. But nothing is going to happen for a few months, so non-Sioux protesters should heed the reservation chair’s advice to return home as winter deepens. Nevertheless, all who were there should celebrate making their voices heard. That’s a refreshing change in a nation where the loudest voices at the U.S. Capitol often belong to wealthy special interests.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who have criticized the decision and blamed President Obama for influencing it, ought to keep that in mind. It reflects well on our nation that protesters camped out far from the corridors of power were heeded instead of K Street lobbyists. That three different federal agencies had raised concerns about the reviews of the pipeline’s environmental and cultural risks underscored the need for additional scrutiny.
Trump should weigh his administration’s pipeline policy with these points in mind. His anti-elitist, anti-corruption campaign won over average voters. Trump would have a global public relations disaster on his hands if the pipeline decision were quickly reversed after the inauguration. The guy who would benefit from such a move is a textbook example of the wealthy elite: Kelcy Warren, the Texas billionaire who is the pipeline company’s CEO. A political action committee linked to the pipeline company is a major contributor to the Republican Party.
It’s uncertain how long the Army’s move will halt construction at the river crossing. Its assistant secretary for civil works has called for an environmental impact statement, which could take months to complete. Identifying an alternative route would likely take longer. The Trump administration’s ability to speed up the process is unclear. Also unknown: whether the new administration can appoint different civil works leadership. An Army spokesman declined to comment on this Monday.
Clarity from federal officials is critical in the days ahead. All involved deserve to know whether this is a timeout or a game-changer. Regardless of the outcome, a peaceful resolution is still imperative. That priority must not change with the upcoming transfer of presidential power.