Out of spotlight, Native American groups keep fighting Dakota pipeline

Native American groups that tried to block the Dakota Access oil pipeline during a months-long standoff with authorities in North Dakota more than a year ago are carrying on their fight in federal court, in what they contend is a symbol of their ongoing struggle for tribal sovereignty.

Members ride hundreds of kilometres on horseback to Wyoming gathering marking treaty anniversary

Roderick Dupris (centre, on a white horse), 45, from Bridger on the Cheyenne River Reservation takes part in the ride to the gathering at Fort Laramie, Wyo., in April. Opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline played a central role in the gathering of tribes that met to mark the 150th anniversary of the Fort Laramie Treaty. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Native American groups that tried to block the Dakota Access oil pipeline during a months-long standoff with authorities in North Dakota more than a year ago are carrying on their fight in federal court, in what they contend is a symbol of their ongoing struggle for tribal sovereignty.

"People think Standing Rock has come and gone," said Danielle Ta'Sheena Finn, a spokeswoman for the Standing Rock Sioux, referring to the site of the protests.

"But we will continue this fight until we are heard and the world knows what happened to us."

The pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP), has been operational since June 2017, after President Donald Trump granted its permit over the objections of tribes and environmentalists fearful that it would pollute a waterway sacred to the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux.

The pipeline approval, part of Trump's desire to increase domestic energy production, distressed Indigenous people in the United States and Canada who were concerned that it discounted Indigenous rights.

The Standing Rock and Cheyenne Sioux sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers soon after Trump ordered it to approve the pipeline, arguing that the tribes had not been properly consulted. The Army Corps of Engineers is involved with U.S. military construction projects around the world and also advises civil engineering activities, such as dredging America's waterways and cleaning up hazardous or toxic sites.

Col. John Hudson confers with another member of the Army Corps of Engineers at a meeting between Lakota people and the Army Corps of Engineers at the community centre in the Cheyenne River Reservation in Green Grass, S.D. in May. The Cheyenne River tribal members asked the Army Corps of Engineers to meet in Green Grass instead of at the tribal headquarters in Eagle Butte because Green Grass is their spiritual centre. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, D.C., is weighing whether the Corps adequately considered effects on the tribes before approving the pipeline. He is expected to rule by Aug. 10.

The Army Corps did not respond to a request for comment, but it has previously said that it worked diligently to meet obligations to tribes.

The tribes have expressed hope that Boasberg will suspend operations on the pipeline. They have said that they are prepared to appeal if he does not.

ETP declined to comment, but it has repeatedly said the pipeline would be safely operated.

The 1,886-km pipeline was built to move crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields to a refining and transport hub in Patoka, Illinois.

"We know we are going to fight this to the very end," said Standing Rock's Finn.

The Fort Laramie treaty riders come off the trail and ride past a housing cluster on the Pine Ridge Reservation as the sun sets in Oglala, S.D. The forward-most rider carries a sacred staff. Tradition dictates that all the riders ride behind the person carrying the sacred staff. There may be more than one sacred staff as people might bring a staff to represent their community. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Ride marks treaty anniversary

Opposition to the pipeline played a central role in last spring's gathering of tribes at Fort Laramie, Wyo., to mark the 150th anniversary of a peace treaty between the Sioux Nation and the United States.

Under the treaty, the federal government recognized the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory as part of the Great Sioux Reservation and hostilities ended between the Sioux and white settlers.

The Sioux contend the pipeline was built on land they never agreed to give up.

In 1868, their land included most of South Dakota and parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. It has shrunken to several smaller reservations in the region.

The April meeting in Laramie was the first time since the Standing Rock protests of 2016 and 2017 that all seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation were together. Many veterans of the Standing Rock protests were there.

Members of the tribes rode hundreds of miles on horseback to get to Laramie, passing through tiny communities like Green Grass, S.D., the spiritual centre of the Lakota People on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation.

Roderick Dupris, 45, from Bridger on the Cheyenne River Reservation shakes hands with students at the public school adjacent to the Wall rodeo grounds where treaty riders had their camp in Wall, S.D. The treaty riders spent an hour visiting kindergarten students and answering their questions. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Tribal leaders expressed disappointment that no senior members of the Trump administration were at Fort Laramie to commemorate the milestone for Indian country.

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, said the convocation was a reminder for Native Americans that the federal government had fallen short of its agreements under the Laramie Treaty including by approving the Dakota Access pipeline.

"They (the United States government) ought to be ashamed of themselves," Frazier said.

"They have a moral obligation to uphold the honour of the Great Sioux Nation."

Fort Laramie treaty riders and support crew roll out some hay for the horses to eat at the end of the day in Scenic, S.D. Horses in Lakota culture are considered sacred. The Lakota people say that the horses eat before they do because the horses carry them. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters )

Ivan Lookinghorse, a medicine man from the Cheyenne River Reservation and an organizer of the ride to Laramie, said the tribes intended to use the momentum from that gathering to stay unified as they gear up to fight other projects that they maintain threaten their wellbeing.

"We are going to keep it going, keep organizing meetings and find a way to be able to take care of the health and welfare of our people, and preserve land and water," he said.