Act: Inspiration

What we Missed when the World’s Eyes fell on Standing Rock

January 3, 2018

This article is part of our series on the 2017 International Civil Society Week, where CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association of non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO) brought civil society members and activists from around the world together to discuss some of the key challenges our planet is facing. You can see more of what came out of the event here.

It’s not a question of if, but when. Dave Archambault II, the former tribal chief of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, USA, is reluctantly confident the Dakota Access Pipeline will eventually leak. The pipeline traverses land owned by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and passes several important water sources in the area. As such, any failing in the pipeline infrastructure risks contaminating water sources used by as many as 17 million people downstream, as well as having wider impacts on fishing, hunting and crop cultivation in the area.

Such failings are commonplace. Only last month, a leak from the Keystone Pipeline, not far from the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, saw a reported 210,000 gallons escape into the surrounding land. The cause of the spillage was attributed to damage to the pipeline during construction back in 2008.

It is a stark reminder that human constructions inevitably break at some point. In fact, since 1995, there have been more than 2,000 significant incidents involving pipelines carrying crude oil or petroleum, many of which are a result of construction errors. With pipelines posing such a clear environmental threat, it is hardly surprising that the Standing Rock movement was able to build such strong opposition to the authorities, and dominant society at large.

The movement, which attracted international support, convinced the Obama administration to put the project on hold. Their success was short lived when, upon on entering office, President Trump signed an executive order that gave the project the green light. So, the fight to preserve Standing Rock will undoubtedly go on for the local population, despite media attention having moved on to the next news story. Yet, the resistance movement of the last two years, Chief Dave Archambault explains, is about more than the pipeline and has taught the whole of society important lessons for the future.

What impact do projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline have on the areas they pass through?

With the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), it’s too early to tell. Even if we look at the recent spill from the Keystone Pipeline, it’s clear. Companies are required by law to have a ‘spill response plan’ in place, and in the case of TransCanada – the KXL  pipeline’s operator – this involves a quarantine which prevents unauthorised access. So its full impact is hidden at the moment.

But we know that the first population to suffer a leak from the DAPL will be the indigenous community of Standing Rock. Then it would also affect a potential 17 million others, who draw water from the Missouri River, not to mention the impact to plant life, fishing and hunting in the area.

Socially, the DAPL doesn’t have a positive impact, despite a lot of people thinking that it will bring jobs. This project was forced upon us, and knowing that we’re going to have to pay the environmental cost, there is absolutely no benefit to our communities. The tribe didn’t receive anything from the company, it didn’t want to receive anything – because we know the long-term negative impact outweigh any short-term gain.

What did you learn from Standing Rock that might help future movements in the region, or elsewhere globally?

I learned that the only way is by being united. In these resistance movements, what we’re doing is constantly learning. We’re learning how companies’ projects move forward, what methods work and what doesn’t work. And the companies – backed by dominant society and financial institutions – are also learning. The difference is, companies are entering communities that don’t want them there every day, whereas we don’t. They’ve developed strategies to divide indigenous communities, and they use money to do it, or place informants within communities that stir up this division. We’ve learned that now, and so we’ve learnt that the only way to combat it is to be united.

That’s doesn’t just apply to the indigenous communities. We also have to get dominant society to realise that this impact is not just a problem for us, for our children, but for their children too. We keep talking about “us” and “them”, and this keeps us separated and our conversations don’t change. But if we could all relate to one another’s life experiences, and understand the consequences of projects like this, we can help dominant society – including those downstream – and its future generations that are at risk. That’s what we’re trying to do.

What methods were most effective during the resistance?

What really stood out was the youth. Their action helped unite all of the tribes across North America, and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think Standing Rock would have gained so much momentum. They’re concerned for their future, and when they speak, we have to listen – and encourage them to talk. It isn’t just the DAPL they’re talking about, but other issues that our communities are dealing with too.

Where do indigenous rights overlap with environmental protection?

The Standing Rock movement was accused of being under the spell of the environmentalists. It was the other way around. Indigenous people live in harmony with Mother Earth; we were the first environmentalists. Today’s environmentalists are under our spell! We converge because we want to live in harmony with Mother Earth, it’s our basic philosophy of living, and we want to stop the abuse.

How should civil society engage with local movements, such as Standing Rock?

It’s important that when civil society enters a situation, it listens to the people who live there and be mindful of the land they live in. When you gather, collectively, to show support, you have to remember that the people who live there have always lived there, and will go on living there.

That’s not always the case. Civil society often enters a situation with its own agenda, and we saw this at Standing Rock. They come in, say they support us, but say they know what to do, contradicting the methods of Standing Rock. So when things don’t go right, these agendas surface. It becomes more about financial gain than listening to the wishes of the local community. And the bigger the movement, the bigger the opportunity to make money through crowd sourcing, through donations, or for foundations and NGOs.

Standing Rock never asked for donations. Organisations, and other tribal governments wanted to give to our cause because they saw we were in a legal battle – to assist with legal fees, and costs that the tribe we were stuck with, like waste management, clean up and some indirect costs, such as the impact on local business. So we received in total $11 million to cover these losses, which we can account for, and we’ve even asked our auditors to do an additional audit only on the donated funds. As for the rest of the money that was raised through donations (over $40 million), that the Tribe didn’t receive, we can’t account for.


Teaser photo credit: By John Duffy –, CC BY 2.0,

Piers Purdy

Piers Purdy is a former editorial manager (2016-2017) and ongoing collaborator with democraciaAbierta. He is a researcher, writer and political analyst and is interested in international development, civil conflict and public policy. He holds a BA in Politics from the University of Nottingham, and a Masters in International Relations from the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI). He tweets at @pierspurdy.

Tags: climate justice movements, indigenous social movements, pipeline projects, Standing Rock