‘Black Snake’ recounts the saga of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests
The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux was one of the most important news of 2016 – and rightly so, as it touched on issues related to climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, Indigenous rights and environmental justice. The protest lasted nearly a year, straddling two presidential administrations and drew thousands to the site of the protest camp in North Dakota. It caught the world’s attention and shed light on the country’s long and shameful history of abuse of indigenous peoples.
In “Black Snake: Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Environmental Justice,” human rights lawyer Katherine Wiltenburg Todrys examines the protest against the pipeline, whose proposed route threatened the water source and sites. sacred Sioux of Standing Rock. Although Todrys makes extensive use of sources and documents from both sides of the conflict, there is no doubt that his sympathies are with the protesters.
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was a massive $ 3.8 billion project that would transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil from the Bakken Shale oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to a oil terminal in south-central Illinois. Dakota Access and its parent company Energy Transfer Partners argued that a pipeline would be safer and more efficient than transporting oil by rail. (Railcars full of oil are known to derail and even explode, but pipelines are also problematic; they are known to produce large and small spills, leaving poisoned land and water behind.)
Even with the environmental risks inherent in a pipeline, Dakota Access has had little difficulty securing voluntary easements from landowners along its proposed 1,170 mile route. Few difficulties, that is, until the company deals with the Standing Rock Sioux. Despite widespread poverty on the reserve and an unemployment rate of 70%, as the author puts it, “the Standing Rock Sioux would not be bought.”
In April 2016, a small group of ‘water protectors’, many of them teenagers, gathered on land owned by a tribal member and established the sacred stone camp to protest the DAPL, which ‘they called the “black serpent”, referring to an ancient Lakota Prophecy about a serpent that would one day devour the earth. The camp quickly attracted Indigenous people from across the country, as well as non-Indigenous supporters. Their efforts gained attention through social media campaigns as well as acts of civil disobedience, in which protesters locked themselves in heavy machinery at the construction site and were subsequently arrested.
Over time, the camp has grown into an eclectic mix of some 10,000 protesters, including representatives of 300 federally recognized tribes, perhaps the largest alliance of indigenous tribes in US history. We were joined by politicians and celebrities, and the effort caught the attention of the international press and organizations like Amnesty International. The eyes of the world were on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
In the meantime, work on the pipeline continued. In the fall of 2016, peaceful protesters encountered fierce opposition from local law enforcement officials, who used rubber bullets, water cannons and attack dogs against them. Videos of dogs with bloody mouths, similar to footage of violent crackdowns during the civil rights movement, went viral and were rebroadcast by major news networks. “The whole world also saw what had happened to the Water Protectors,” Todrys writes.
Protesters scored a stunning (albeit temporary) victory in December 2016 when, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant DAPL easement to cross the Missouri River upstream from the Standing Rock Preserve. This was all undone a few months later when President Donald Trump took office. Construction resumed, the main protest camp was closed, and oil began to flow in June 2017 – although a court-ordered environmental impact review was ordered and is still ongoing.
Todrys, a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, clearly knows how to gather large amounts of information from a wide variety of sources. She also knows how to tell a good story. She does so in part by unveiling the events at Standing Rock from the perspectives of four Indigenous women who played key roles in the drama, integrating their individual stories into the larger narrative, and giving the events a human foundation. The historical context and field reports of conditions both in the reserves and in the oil fields add greatly to the power of the book.
Todrys also does an excellent job of guiding the reader through the thicket of lawsuits, counter-suits, court orders, injunctions, amicus briefs, summary judgment motions and other legal proceedings, as well as two treatises from the mid-19th century that are important for understanding the events of the 21st century.
In “Black Snake,” Todrys combines far-reaching research with solid field reporting to tell a compelling and important story, the impact of which has yet to be felt.