Standing Rock Looks To Renewable Energy As Pipeline Fight Continues

Land defenders expand their mission to building a better, more sustainable energy future

Land defenders at Standing Rock. — AFP/Getty Images
Jun 08, 2017 at 5:01 PM ET

Oil began flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline on June 1, marking the beginning of a new era for the Standing Rock Sioux and other Indian tribes in their efforts to protect their land from the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration.

Land defenders have focused on stopping the construction and then the opening of the pipeline, and while legal challenges will continue, Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said at a press conference in New York on Thursday that the tribe’s goals would also broaden. Archambault was there to receive the inaugural Henry A. Wallace award, a $250,000 prize named in honor of Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive vice president and intended to help groups fight against corporate control of politics.

For the Standing Rock tribe, that means investing in renewable energy as a way to free themselves from fossil fuels like those carried by the pipeline. Archambault said the tribal government is exploring wind energy as a resource they can control commercially, while the tribe is also looking at smaller-scale solar power projects. He said these efforts don’t just mean building new infrastructure, but also helping community members understand how unfamiliar technologies like wind and solar energy could potentially help them.

“It takes a lot of education helping people understand what the benefit is once we go toward some sustainable, renewable energy for our homes and for our communities and then for our tribes,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Joining Archambault at the event was Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota who stood with Archambault against the pipeline. His work focuses on building sustainable communities and renewable energy in Indian country. He said the pipeline itself is just a mode of transportation for a much vaster industry that has to be dismantled.

Moving to renewable energy is a big part of that, but the extreme poverty on many reservations complicates that task. Oglala Lakota County is the poorest in the United States, and seven of the 11 poorest communities in the United States are reservations in South Dakota — which doesn’t even include Standing Rock, just across the state line in North Dakota.

“This pipeline did not only just go through the heart of Indian country, it went through the heart of ground zero for poverty in America,” said Tilsen. “These are communities that have experienced poverty for 150 years. These communities did not take part in the rise and fall of Cleveland and Detroit. They were left out of the industrial revolution. We’re talking about deep, entrenched poverty.”

At a speech Wednesday in Cincinnati, President Donald Trump discussed his decision to approve the pipeline, claiming the decision met with nothing but support. “it’s up, it’s running, it’s beautiful, it’s great; everybody’s happy. The sun is still shining. The water is clean,” Trump said. “But you know when I approved it, I thought I’d take a lot of heat, and I took none. Actually none. People respected that I approved it.”

Archambault offered a rebuttal to the president. “For him to say that nobody cared goes to show how out of touch he is with this issue. The common people of this country are not being heard.”

When asked about their contact with the new administration, both said the access they had built up during the Obama years was largely gone. Archambault said tribe had survived past administrations and would survive this one, though Tilsen observed that even past administrations that were more hostile to native interests at least pretended to listen — so far, he said, the Trump administration wasn’t even bothering with that.

With little reason to think the federal government will stand with them against the fossil fuel industry for the foreseeable future, both are focused on building a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly energy infrastructure from the bottom up. As Tilsen pointed out, no part of the U.S. faces greater challenges in building that future.

“If we make this transition happen at ground zero for poverty in America, then what’s everybody else’s excuse?”