FORT YATES, N.D. — Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Mike Faith said passersby would probably never know that the reservation's northern border was the site of international news when thousands of protesters gathered to help the tribe fight the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
When the nearly yearlong protest ended in early 2017, Standing Rock’s Environmental Protection Agency spent about $800,000 and 11 weeks to clean up leftover trash, generators, wood stoves, pup tents and dozens of broken down cars from protesters who weren’t ready to leave when newly minted President Donald Trump reversed his predecessor’s order and allowed the pipeline’s construction to continue.
“We literally picked up every little piece of paper,” said Hans Young Bird Bradley, the brownfields coordinator for the tribe’s EPA. “We turned over every rock.”
Now, more than two years later, the land surrounding the infamous Cannon Ball bridge looks just as it did before — sweeping green pastures sit on either side of North Dakota Highway 1806, interrupted only by tributaries stemming from the Missouri River. Though cleanup efforts removed any traces of the protest, the Standing Rock Tribe has built on its momentum as it continues to fight the pipeline in court to protect its water resources, and to pursue a sustainable environment within its borders.
“A lot of local people that have been empowered through that movement are continuing their work and trying to make a difference,” said Steve Sitting Bear, deputy director of the Standing Rock Community Development Corporation.
The Standing Rock EPA’s office sits on a gravel road off Highway 1806 and peers out at the Missouri River. The agency, established in the ‘90s, has helped in the tribe’s legal battle against Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the pipeline.
Energy Transfer Partners, on its website, said the 1,172-mile pipeline, which runs under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, “is the safest and most efficient means to transport crude oil,” adding that it is constantly monitored by a computer network control system.
But the tribe has said "no" to the pipeline from the beginning, said Standing Rock EPA Director Allyson Two Bears. In the initial legal complaint, the tribe said a leak or spill could contaminate its irrigation and drinking water supply. It also said the pipeline would destroy sites of historic and religious significance. Protesters, who dubbed themselves "water protectors," started gathering at the site of the proposed line in April, garnering thousands of supporters throughout the protest until the line's eventual installment.
In the lawsuit's latest wrinkle, the tribe made a motion for summary judgment in federal court in Washington, D.C., asking the judge for a ruling to vacate the line's permits and order an environmental impact statement, according to a news release from environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represents the tribe. And this month, Administrative Law Judge Tim Dawson approved the tribe’s status as an “intervenor” in the oil company’s plans to double the line’s capacity to as much as 1.1 million barrels a day. The status allows the tribe to cross-examine the company and call witnesses.
Two Bears, who has worked for the Standing Rock EPA since 2010, said her ultimate goal from litigation is that “the pipeline will be deemed unsafe, and it will be shutdown.” Chairman Faith has echoed that hope.
Two Bears and Faith have sought funding to install their own groundwater monitoring wells to detect leaks from the line. Currently, the tribe's EPA physically samples the water to check for hydrocarbons that could indicate an oil leak or spill, Two Bears said.
“My biggest concern is that we have something that goes undetected, and it just starts seeping into our environment,” she said.
As Standing Rock's legal battle continues, others within the tribe have taken the momentum from the protests to begin building a more environmentally sustainable future.
Just last month, nonprofit GivePower and Standing Rock’s Cody Two Bears unveiled North Dakota’s first solar energy farm in Cannon Ball, saying in a statement that “it pays tribute to everyone who’s come to Standing Rock and all their hard work and tireless dedication toward protecting our people and land.”
The nonprofit Standing Rock Community Development Corporation (CDC) also took its cue from the protests.
In December 2016, Brian Thunder Hawk started creating the new organization. He took the lesson from the pipeline protests saying, “if we can create a narrative change throughout the country with Indigenous people, we can do it here as well.”
In the first year, the new group surveyed community members in each of the tribe’s eight districts that stretch across about 1 million acres to find out what they want in their community. In the midst of a blizzard in December 2017, Thunder Hawk and Sitting Bear met at the house of the EPA’s Young Bird Bradley, where they mapped out the focus areas for the group, based on what community members had told them.
By the end of the night, the group had determined four objectives, each aligning with a cardinal direction that has a sacred meaning according to the tribe’s beliefs. The west means “protection,” aligning with the group’s objective of community development. The north is strength and nourishment, aligning with the objective of food sovereignty. To the east is a new day, matching up with youth development, and the south is the ancestors, aligning with language and culture.
In that moment, when each goal aligned with a sacred direction, it all clicked. “It was a moment of silence,” Thunder Hawk said.
Since then, the group has hosted a youth camp, as well as regalia and art making, fishing and food planting events. Thunder Hawk said one of the biggest milestones, though, was when the CDC purchased a decommissioned public school building in Fort Yates in order to retrofit it into a “net zero” structure for an upfront cost of $4 million. Among other things, that means the building’s electricity and heat will be provided through solar energy, virtually eliminating utility bills. Once rebuilt, the solar-powered building will be a K-12 language immersion school that also features an indoor garden to teach students about food sovereignty on a small scale.
“This project represents everything that the community told us they wanted,” Sitting Bear said.
Sitting Bear said Indian Country is “taking the lead” on the path to environmentally sustainable living. “That’s how we lived for thousands of years,” he said. “And we believe we can do it again.”
Since the pipeline protests, he said, “people are still looking toward Standing Rock to see what’s next.”