Against the Pipeline, the Standing Rock Struggle

An interview with Jennifer Weston

by Camila Ruiz Segovia

Illustration by Ivan Rios-Fetchko

published September 30, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,100-mile pipeline under construction by Energy Transfer Partners, slated to carry a half million barrels of Bakken shale oil under the Missouri River just a half mile upstream from the border of the Standing Rock Reservation, and a few miles north of the drinking water intake for the majority of the reservation population. The pipeline is being built on the treaty territories for which the ancestors of the Standing Rock people negotiated in the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868.

Jennifer Weston was born and raised on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, and spent several years working for her tribal government’s Environmental Protection Department and tribal chairman’s office, as well as writing for the Lakota Nation Journal. She grew up surrounded by her mother’s extended families from the Hunkpapa band of Lakota in the Running Antelope and Bear Solder Districts of Standing Rock—two of Standing Rock’s eight reservation districts. Weston attended Brown University in the mid-’90s and studied American Indian history, Ethnic Studies, and journalism. She now lives in southeastern Massachusetts, though she frequently travels home to visit her family on Standing Rock. Weston corresponded with the Independent via email this past week. 




The College Hill Independent: How is the community of Standing Rock being affected and what is the potential environmental impact of the construction of the pipeline?


Jennifer Weston: Our drinking water and all water used for the region’s agriculture are at risk. The state of North Dakota has refused to responsibly regulate the oil industry in its hunger for tax revenues, and has allowed hundreds of spills of fracking liquids, lax disposal of radioactive fracking waste and equipment, and many other pipeline spills. Our people on Standing Rock are unwilling to bear any further consequences of this takeover by Big Oil.


The Indy: Can you tell us a little bit about how the conflict begin? 


JW: Dakota Access originally proposed building its pipeline just upstream of North Dakota’s capital city, and then came to Standing Rock in 2014 once its initial construction application was rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers due to its proximity to Bismarck’s drinking water and the number of sensitive wetlands crossings. For some reason the Army Corps has expressed little concern for Standing Rock’s public health concerns, perhaps due to our smaller population; however, we view their initial permitting of a river crossing just upstream from us as a classic case of environmental racism—one exacerbated by the fact that this same federal agency in the 1950s flooded 56,000 acres of our riverine ecosystem, best farmlands, gardens, medicine places, fruit trees and timberland. The Army Corps’ previous decimation of our homelands—and subsequent naming of the resulting reservoir in our own language, Lake Oahe (“Something to Stand On”)—has been the backdrop for generations of youth growing up on Standing Rock. We’re steeped in stories of this outrageous treaty violations, federal overreach, broken promises of free hydropower electricity for our communities, and the forced relocations of our grandparents and great grandparents from prime river bottom lands sheltered by massive cottonwoods to the harsh windswept upper prairies.


The Indy: We know that one of the main spaces of resistance within Standing Rock is the Sacred Stone Camp. Could you tell us a little bit about life in there? How many people are living there? What does a typical day look like? 


JW: Sacred Stone was founded in April on private land on Standing Rock, and overflow camps were established across the Cannonball River on federal lands adjacent to Standing Rock beginning in early August as more supporters arrived. A few hundred folks reside at Sacred Stone, and several thousand along the Cannonball in the Rosebud Camp, and across the river in the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) and Red Warrior Camps. Many supporters also stay at our tribal casino, Prairwie Knights Casino and Lodge, about 15 miles south of the camps along ND Highway 1806. Life in the camps is getting more challenging as the weather changes to fall and the north winds arrive, but the atmosphere of unity and solidarity is beautiful. Hundreds of tribal delegations and folks from around the world have joined in the local actions as water protectors, and the sight of 300+ flags flying above camp is inspiring and moving to witness.


The Indy:  So what has been the response of local authorities to the camp, the resistance efforts, and the pipeline project? 


JW:  Locally, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department (who polices the county directly adjacent to Sioux County, ND), has been functioning as a paid law enforcement agency serving Big Oil, alongside Energy Transfer Partners’ armed, private security contractors. Federally, the EPA, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and US Dept. of Interior have all weighed in to the Army Corps—the agency holding regulatory permitting authority for the river crossing—in favor of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement and shoddy cultural and historic properties review conducted by consultants paid by Energy Transfer Partners.


The Indy:  There seems to be a discrepancy between the position of local authorities and the US President on this conflict. What’s your stance on President Obama’s order to stop the ND pipeline construction?  Was this a victory? 


JW:  The Obama administration only ordered a temporary stoppage on the three miles of federal lands west of the Missouri, and 20 miles east of the river. Since 60% of the pipeline has already been built and active construction sites continue on private property easements up to the stoppage zone, we can hardly declare a victory. The federal appeals court ruling on September 16 extended the no-construction zone to 20 miles from the river in both directions, but construction zones are active everywhere else along the route.


The Indy: So do you think it makes sense to appeal to international bodies to permanently stop the construction of the project? How does the construction of the pipeline, for example, violate indigenous treaties and international law? What do you think of the UN’s response to the pipeline’s violation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?


JW: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples delineates our rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent to resource extraction and other development projects that impact our peoples, and our ancestral treaties guarantee our undisturbed rights to our homelands. Our Tribe’s lawsuit against the Army Corps cites explicit violations of the Clean Water Act, Clean Rivers and Harbors Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. I’m hopeful that statements from the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, the UN Human Rights Council, and NGOs like Amnesty International and the International Indigenous Treaty Council will continue to amplify our local voices on an international stage as we seek justice and a revocation of the federal permits that are enabling this direct threat to our communities’ health and survival.




The Indy: Media coverage can certainly play an influential role in building the narrative around this conflict. How has the media reported on the pipeline and the resistance against it? Are there important differences between local and national coverage? 


JW: Media coverage has been fairly sparse, and local coverage is extremely biased in favor of the energy industry. Tribes are portrayed as lacking an understanding of technology, and even in national coverage, pipelines are constantly referenced as the ‘safest means’ to transport oil. There is little evidence to support that, since the corrosive crude of the type from the Bakken shale oil region has only recently begun to be extracted in recent years.


The Indy: You said coverage is sparse, so what do you think the media has been missing about this story? 


JW:  The media is underreporting on so many elements of this story: 1) The original siting of the pipeline north of Bismarck, ND, for example. If the pipeline isn’t safe enough to be built north of Bismarck, then it’s not safe enough to be built north of Standing Rock. 2) The extreme nature of the energy production in the Bakken region that’s already destroying hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater by converting it to radioactive and saline fracking wastewater in an already arid region, while simultaneously generating huge volumes of methane and ethane emissions in this era of demonstrable global warming impacts. 3) The Army Corps’ already intolerable assaults on the tribes of the northern plains through their construction of Missouri River mainstream dams in the latter half of the 20th century, and their brazenness in returning again to destroy our water supply and means of survival. We are not America’s sacrifice zone for energy security. Millions of Americans rely on the Missouri River watershed for drinking water. 4) Our commitment to peaceful and prayerful resistance, our ancient ties to our remaining homelands, and our resolve in standing as protectors of our water—not as protestors. 5) The intensely militarized, morally bankrupt and unconstitutional response by the state of North Dakota in service to the energy industry. When the governor can senselessly declare a state of emergency, call out the National Guard to intimidate travelers on a state highway leading to our reservation, foment felony reckless endangerment charges against unarmed water protectors, and stand for arresting members of the independent media—Democracy Now! and Unicorn Riot—just for doing their job, all vestiges of democratic pretense are gone. Even after deliberate destruction of our ancestral sacred sites and burial sites were documented with the federal courts, and energy security teams unleashed dogs and mace on our people and our allies, the state and county law enforcement have continued to publicly promote the so-called abuses of energy company hired mercenaries by unarmed water protectors—folks carrying wonly tribal flags, prayers, and signs calling for justice. My relatives are under constant state and federal surveillance, aerial and ground-based. North Dakota is in the wrong, the world is watching, and we can all see how upside down democratic principles have turned when time-honored practices of civil disobedience are essentially characterized as terrorist activity by an elected official who serves as a member of the state industrial commission (which approves all energy industry proposals) and receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and investment income. 




The Indy:  The Standing Rock struggle has inspired thousands of people across the US. What has solidarity looked like on the ground? Have many people and organizations visited the camp? 


JW: At this point perhaps 10 to 12,000 folks have passed through the camps, with only around 70 arrests occurring—all for nonviolent and petty charges. Recently Morton County has escalated charges from misdemeanors to felonies (for the same actions like locking down to bulldozers), but the water protectors’ commitment to nonviolent direct action is unshakeable.


The Indy:  Can you tell us a little bit about the international solidarity with Standing Rock—especially from other indigenous communities around the world?


JW: Delegations have come to bring their flags and testimonies from New Zealand, Ecuador, Mauna Kea in Hawaii and beyond. We all face threats to our lands and waters from extractive industries and other exploitive practices, and our youth on Standing Rock have galvanized an international movement to stem the tide of climate change and reverse the longstanding pattern of unjust abuses against Indigenous Peoples through their peaceful and prayerful leadership. I’m so proud of our young people, and inspired by their ability to continue to persevere on a national and international stage. They’re a powerful force, and I’m grateful for their leadership in calling for a shift from fossil fuel reliance to renewable energy for the survival of future generations.


The Indy: How can people in Providence and elsewhere support this struggle? 


JW: Folks should consider donating generously at and, and coming to witness and support the movement in person through volunteer efforts on the ground. I also urge your readers to visit the ACLU of North Dakota online to read about their leadership in speaking out against the unconstitutional behavior by North Dakota's elected officials, and their work to defend my brother for exercising his constitutionally protected rights. While he was never arrested, he is still being sued by Energy Transfer Partners in a blatant attempt to bully and silence pipeline opponents. Our family is very grateful for the ACLU's efforts and pro bono representation. Our lawsuit against the Corps has yet to begin, and folks at the camps are going to winterize and move onto reservation land overlooking the river and the construction zone at the proposed river crossing. Our relatives are determined to prevail, and I believe in our people power and our prayers.


The Indy: Is there anything in particular you’d like us to add to this interview that we have not yet covered? 


JW: We can all support this movement to protect clean water as a human right, and to grapple with the necessary transition from the fossil fuel industry, through reaching out to our Congressional delegations, the White House, and by recognizing and calling for treaties to be honored for all tribes. We all benefit from recognizing the real impacts of climate change, and the imperative to turn the tide and implement a societal shift to renewable energy sources. Tribes have stewarded the water and natural resources of the Americas for tens of thousands of years, and we can provide leadership for today and the future, but we need and welcome allies in order to make this critical 21st century transition a reality.