From Standing Rock to Line 3: Indigenous Action to Save the Planet

In an earlier essay in this series, Donna Katzin stressed that the goal of disinvestment of resources from harmful activities must go together with reinvestment of resources in activities that have beneficial results for the future. This is crystal clear in the urgent need for transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The cost of letting promises and belated minimal policy shifts substitute for significant action will be high.

In mid-October Indigenous climate justice advocates led a broad coalition in week-long demonstrations in Washington, DC to urge President Biden to take executive actions within his power to stop ongoing new fossil-fuel production projects. Although thousands participated, 655 were arrested, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs occupied by Indigenous protesters for the first time since 1972, the event was hardly covered in national news outlets.

That’s why Indigenous activists are not only protesting, petitioning, and fighting in the courts. They are also taking direct action to stop fossil fuel projects (see below) and building a new global vision based on caregiving rather than limitless extraction of resources for short-term profit for a few.

– William Minter

Indigenous Resistance against Carbon

August 2021

Indigenous Environmental Network

Oil Change International

[Excerpts from executive summary below. Full report available at links above]

Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon seeks to uplift the work of countless Tribal Nations, Indigenous water protectors, land defenders, pipeline fighters, and many other grassroots formations who have dedicated their lives to defending the sacredness of Mother Earth and protecting their inherent rights of Indigenous sovereignty and self determination. In this effort, Indigenous Peoples have developed highly effective campaigns that utilize a blended mix of non-violent direct action, political lobbying, multimedia, divestment, and other tactics to accomplish victories in the fight against neoliberal projects that seek to destroy our world via extraction.

In this report, we demonstrate the tangible impact these Indigenous campaigns of resistance have had in the fight against fossil fuel expansion across what is currently called Canada and the United States of America. More specifically, we quantify the metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions that have either been stopped or delayed in the past decade due to the brave actions of Indigenous land defenders. Adding up the total, indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.

Our aim is two-fold: First, that Indigenous land defenders are emboldened to see the collective results of their efforts and utilize this information as a resource to garner further support. Second, that settler nation-state representatives, organizations, institutions, and individuals recognize the impact of Indigenous leadership in confronting climate chaos and its primary drivers. We hope that such settlers, allies or not, come to stand with Indigenous Peoples and honor the inherent rights of the first peoples of Turtle Island — the land currently called North America — by implementing clear policies and procedures grounded in Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and by ending fossil fuel expansion once and for all. . . .

Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities Framework

Indigenous social movements across Turtle Island have been pivotal in the fight for climate justice. From the struggle against the Cherry Point coal export terminal in Lummi territory to the fights against pipelines crossing critical waterways, Indigenous land defenders have exercised their rights and responsibilities to not only stop fossil fuel projects in their tracks, but establish precedents to build successful social justice movements. The essential backbone of these movements is grounded in an Indigenous Rights framework.

This Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities approach is based upon the concepts of Indigenous Sovereignty, which exist regardless of the actions of settler nation-states. Indigenous Sovereignty endures as long as Indigenous Peoples endure, and understanding these concepts illuminates why advocacy to prevent the extraction, production, processing, and release of carbon is based not solely on the notion of inherent rights, but on the responsibility and obligations of Indigenous Peoples and Tribal Nations to the land itself. . . .

Destructive actions like fossil fuel extraction and the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure on Indigenous territories, lands, and waterways directly attack traditional Indigenous knowledge by seeking to untether spiritual ways, languages, cultural practices, legal systems, and social, economic, and legal systems from relationship with those lands and water. An Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities framework links the struggle to protect the land with the ever present struggle to resist settler nation state acts of violence and colonization fueled by an extractive economic system.

By resisting such acts, Indigenous land defenders and Nations disrupt the goals of the world’s most powerful institutions — nation-states and multinational corporations. This is done with a strategic framework that protects the land, builds collective power, confronts white supremacy, and challenges tenets of capitalism and Eurocentric materialism. These fights demonstrate how a movement built upon an Indigenous Rights framework far exceeds the goals of environmental protection and provides a road map to decolonizing our current economic paradigm.

Whether by physically disrupting construction, legally challenging projects, or effecting procedural delays, Indigenous land defenders and Nations utilize a multi-tiered approach to resist fossil fuel projects. These tactics demonstrate that Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities are far more than rhetorical devices — they are tangible structures impacting the viability of fossil fuel expansion. . . .

Due to the unique histories of Indigenous Peoples’ interactions with the United States and Canada, Tribal Nations and First Nations have a wide range of reserved rights that have been recognized and upheld within the eyes of nation-state court systems. These legal battles, coupled with grassroots expressions of self-determination, have stopped and delayed the expansion of fossil fuels, and also exposed the financial liabilities of such expansion when Indigenous Rights are violated. . . .

Free, Prior and Informed Consent

When challenging fossil fuel projects and confronting polluting industries, the international standard of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a key process through which Indigenous peoples assert their sovereignty and self-determination. This right is recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and — when implemented properly by nation states — allows Indigenous people to grant or withhold permission to projects that may affect them or their territories. . . .

Canada and the United States acknowledge UNDRIP on premise alone, but both nation-states have refused to adopt its text without qualifications. Due to this refusal, while these nations acknowledge the tenets of Indigenous Rights, they have consistently chosen to define these rights in a way that does not ultimately threaten control over lands, natural resources, and development plans that may affect Indigenous people and territories.

In both the United States and Canada, the current modus operandi to engage Indigenous Peoples on extractive projects is a process of consultation. Under this process, federal governments consult with Tribes and First Nations, seeking their input on planned projects. Such input and consultation does not guarantee outcomes in line with the wishes of those Nations; this consultation is crucially distinct from consent.

Furthermore, there are many examples of projects well underway before this so-called ‘consultation’ even begins with Tribes — effectively nullifying the intention of the process and exposing its severe inadequacies. Free, Prior and Informed Consent constitutes a much more rigorous standard than consultation, and it is a bare minimum standard needed to uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples. . . .

Criminalization of Defenders: Standing Rock and Beyond

This report on Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects would be incomplete without attention to severe threats faced by frontline leaders and communities when they speak out and take action. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is a notable example of these threats — what happened in Standing Rock should not be seen as an anomalous incident, but rather a disturbing commonality across Indigenous resistance efforts worldwide.

The grassroots fight against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline began in early 2016. The Bakken oil pipeline was expected to transport crude oil from the traditional lands of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations to an oil terminal in southern Illinois. The Dakota Access route crossed the treaty territories of the Oceti Sakowin people near the reservation boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and crossed beneath the Missouri River on the Tribe’s northern border. The Tribes and their citizens saw the pipeline as a serious threat to water resources, treaty rights, and sacred cultural sites, and mobilized one of the largest sustained Indigenous-led protests in the living memory of the United States.

In response to the mobilization against Dakota Access, local and state officials used military tactics to suppress public protest and intimidate water protectors. In May 2017, The Intercept reported on the activities of TigerSwan, a “mercenary” private contractor hired by Energy Transfer Partners to quell the efforts of water defenders at Oceti Sakowin, Standing Rock, North Dakota. . . . [The report] described illegal actions taken against peaceful Indigenous defenders and misinformation given to local police forces to attack thousands of people encamped near the Dakota Access Pipeline’s Missouri River crossing. TigerSwan communications described the peaceful gathering as “jihadist” and “terrorist,” and the private contractor used military-grade weapons and tactics to undercut, discredit, and punish the defenders. Tactics included infiltration, provocation, disruption of communications, aerial surveillance, and radio eavesdropping. Intimidation involved the use of large and visible forces of heavily armed personnel and personnel carriers, as well as drones and air surveillance.

The “task force” arrayed against the defender included agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Justice Department and Marshals Service, and U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as state and local law enforcement and police. TigerSwan transmitted daily reports “from the battlefield” to Energy Transfer Partners.

Local authorities arbitrarily arrested and harassed water protectors, and both local and TigerSwan forces used aggressive attack dogs and other forms of physical violence, including water cannons in freezing conditions. Despite later vindication by courts, thousands of victims of these abuses — the vast majority of whom were Indigenous — remain scarred by these clubs and beatings. . . .

In addition to physical violence, the Standing Rock Reservation was punished economically by the U.S. State of North Dakota, and the hard-won victories of Indigenous resistance were overturned when newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump overruled President Barack Obama’s denial of key permits and facilitated the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. During the height of the Dakota Access resistance, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Expert Member Edward John visited Oceti Sakowin and condemned the violation of human and Indigenous rights by Energy Transfer Partners, TigerSwan and federal, state, and local security forces. Tauli-Corpuz specifically decried the company and government’s violation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s right to land.

In her 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Tauli-Corpuz presented a thematic study on the criminalization of and attacks against Indigenous human rights defenders. Citing her own investigations and those of other Special Rapporteurs and the Organization of American States, she identified numerous rights violated at Standing Rock, including that of Self-Determination and the right to lands and territories. . . .

Counting Up the Impact

To assess the scale of Indigenous resistance against carbon, we begin by calculating the amount of greenhouse gas pollution each project would create. Most of these assessments were conducted by Oil Change International, with certain exceptions drawn from other sources (see Appendix for details).

We examined only the reported climate impact of specific pipelines, tar sands mines, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. . . . For scale, we compare the climate impacts of projects facing Indigenous resistance over the last decade to 2019 estimates of total combined greenhouse gas pollution from the United States and Canada — 6.56 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). . . .

Victories in infrastructure fights alone represent the carbon equivalent of 12 percent of annual U.S. and Canadian pollution, or 779 million metric tons CO2e. Ongoing struggles equal 12 percent of these nations’ annual pollution, or 808 million metric tons CO2e. If these struggles prove successful, this would mean Indigenous resistance will have stopped greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of annual total U.S. and Canadian emissions.

That 24 percent, equaling 1.587 billion metric tons CO2e, is the equivalent pollution of approximately 400 new coal-fired power plants — more than are still operating in the United States and Canada — or roughly 345 million passenger vehicles — more than all vehicles on the road in these countries.

If Not Us Then Who?

If Not Us Then Who?

Watch powerful 8.32 minute film on Standing Rock below. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, then the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, meets with Standing Rock leaders in 2017.

Selected Resources on Standing Rock and Beyond

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Litigation on the Dakota Access Pipeline

Nick Estes, Our History is the Future

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows

More books on Indigenous Resistance on Turtle Island

Winona LaDuke on Line 3 Pipeline

“In one narrative, the Canadian corporation won. Columbus conquered anew, proof that might and money remain the rulers.

Then, there’s another. That’s the Ballad of the Water Protectors — a movement born in the battles in northern Minnesota and North Dakota, a movement that will grow and transform the economy of the future . . .

The Canadian oil industry estimated that a lack of pipeline capacity reduced the industry’s income by tens of billions of dollars before the pandemic started… Uncertainty about Line 3 caused by Indigenous people and water protectors encouraged massive divestment from the tar sands by non-Canadian investors.”


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