Activists Want To Raise Local Awareness Of Standing Rock

President Trump’s Jan. 24 executive order to expedite review and approval of the disputed Dakota Access pipeline project has reached a new stage in the conflict between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and local, state and federal authorities in North Dakota.

On Feb. 1, authorities broke up one of the protesters’ camps and arrested approximately 40 people, according to Associated Press reports.

Trump says the construction of the pipeline will create many construction jobs for the American people, but the risks that come from constructing the pipeline are the main concern for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

UVa-Wise student senior Taysha DeVaughan is closely linked to the Standing Rock cause. When asked why the Dakota Access Pipeline situation is important to her, DeVaughan said, “I am in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle for protecting their water rights because as a Comanche nation tribal member I understand that this is a common theme you can see throughout Indian country.”

According to USA Today, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began protesting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline last April. The protesters are battling against the construction of the pipeline because they feel it is an infringement on their indigenous values, and a violation of the 1852 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the tribe and the Federal Government. The treaty established the land owned by Native American tribes is their territory and that the United States government has no ownership of that land.

If constructed, the pipeline will run through Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock’s tribe only source for water. The protesters fear the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline will lead to contamination of their water source.

DeVaughan says environmental protection is one of the core aspects of indigenous nations. The Dakota Access pipeline is bringing solidarity among the different indigenous nations because they are standing up for their rights to have clean and usable water sources against the government.

Crystal Willcuts, a steward over land on the Standing Rock reservation and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, has also tried to organize local support for the Standing Rock tribe recently. She is also being affected by the pipeline dispute.

Crystal Willcuts
Crystal Willcuts

“My reservation lies downstream of Standing Rock so what affects them, affects me,” said Willcuts. “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock are protecting not just the water their reservation and my reservation will drink; they are protecting the water that 18 million people living downstream will drink. They are protecting the water used in agriculture and ranching, and the factories that use this water to make our food. What is put in the water no matter where you live will eventually make its way to our dinner tables.”

Along with environmental concerns, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe fears the pipeline will run through sacred burial grounds that are located on the Standing Rock reservation. Sacred burial grounds are important for indigenous tribes because of religious reasons. DeVaughan said, “Burial grounds are places of intense energy and worship, functioning similar to a church that houses sacred shrines of the founders of Christianity or
other major faiths would.”

Willcuts also told the importance of the sacred burial grounds. “Our burial grounds are sacred and should be respected, yes, just like one would respect Arlington National Cemetery or their own family burial plots. These are resting grounds for our loved ones, our warriors, our soldiers, and one day, ourselves,” she said.

Environmental protection is an important part of indigenous culture. Willcuts said, “Indigenous people see the Earth as a living being, we call her Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth or Mother Earth. She, and all living things on her, are from the Creator, God. Like an artist puts a little of themselvesin each work, so the Creator’s spirit is present in each element, person, plant, and animal. That is why we look at all things as sacred because the Creator’s spirit dwells within.”

There have not been any planned events on campus surrounding the issue, but DeVaughan says that she is working along with others in the community to change that. She says the only incident that has been on campus relating to the issue was by a single woman and her daughter who were going throughout the community protesting the issue, and that woman was Willcuts.

Willcuts and her daughter took signs they had made along with their drums and protested on the campuses of UVa-Wise and Mountain Empire Community College. The day that she marched on the campuses, she was asked to speak to two sociology classes that were studying the practice of social justice. Willcuts also protested the same day at the Wells Fargo banks located in Big Stone Gap and Norton. The bank is one of seventeen banks directly funding the Dakota access pipeline.

When asked if there is a way for students on campus to get involved with the issue, DeVaughan says that organization is a crucial tool to the issue. If you are interested in helping the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, get together with students who feel the same way you do about the issue and go from there. “There will be several events coming up this month, next month, and in the summer regarding not just Standing Rock itself, but Indigenous activism, and the importance of water and Indigenous values, beliefs, and storytelling through art,” Willcuts said, regarding events that will be taking place throughout the community.

“There is funding online for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe where you can donate money, food, supplies to their camp,” DeVaughan said. “Also, any media equipment. Censorship of coverage in the camp is a big issue.”

DeVaughan says another way to help the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is by “calling your local and state representatives to let them know you are not in agreement with the executive orders to resume construction, the environmental concerns are what is most important and this cannot be tolerated.”

Willcuts encourages those to help with Standing Rock by “becoming involved in a way that feels right for them.” She says to “get involved in protests, community education and organizing because sometimes it’s necessary to step out of comfort zones when the issue is so important. We need each other in all ways, always. Also, educate yourself on these issues, and keep abreast of what’s happening with DAPL.”

The Dakota Access pipeline construction battle has been ongoing for months, and the new developments from the executive order from Trump’s executive order opened the issue again for debate. According to The Los Angeles Times, there are now protesters on site continually fighting for the stoppage of the pipeline construction. The protesters have no plans to leave the area.

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