In early 2016, indigenous and environmentalist protesters organised a resistance movement against the approved construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The proposed pipeline was projected to cross beneath part of a vital water source located near the Standing Rock Indian reservation. Protesters’ voiced concerns that the pipeline would contaminate and threaten indigenous water supplies and sacred land areas.
In an already divided sociopolitical climate, protests were widely publicised due to a heavily armed police presence and their hostilities towards indigenous protesters.
In late 2016, Inland Revenue’s PSA delegate, Catherine Weusten, travelled to the United States to join in after witnessing the protests and the police hostilities through social media. When she returned, we talked to Catherine about her experience.
This obviously isn’t the first or the last time indigenous Americans have had to fight to protect their resources. How did you find the protesters’ morale when you got there?
They were in good spirits but they do also feel like history is just repeating itself where they aren’t being respected or listened to and their rights aren’t being upheld.
So it was a real mix of emotions for some people – some were really fired up and angry about the whole thing and understandably quite mistrusting of anyone who wasn’t indigenous who came into the camps.
But otherwise, they were actually really welcoming and so happy to have the support and get more people there… so there was a real sense of community.
As you mentioned, there has been some intense police presence at the protests. Did you ever find yourself in similar confrontations with an armed and militarised police?
Well, because it was over the Christmas period it was quite quiet. So I didn’t see anything like the things that happened prior to November where police used mace and rubber bullets and water cannons in sub-zero temperatures.
So I had prepared for more confrontation in that sense, but the closest I came was probably when some armoured vehicles and helicopters were launched while we were on a prayer walk.
They kept their distance and they weren’t hostile towards us though, I guess because their numbers were quite scarce because of the holiday period. I did also see on occasion people being detained and arrested on completely bogus charges like trespassing – even though they were on their own treaty land.
President Trump has recently taken executive steps to go ahead with the pipeline. Where to from here for the protesters?
At the moment, it’s become rather difficult for them. The Oceti camp was served an eviction notice and forcibly removed by a militarised police – the same happened to one of the other camps as well. So the camps have dwindled in size – before November, there were as many as 10,000 people.
Now they’re probably down to about 200 to 300 people. But many of the protesters are still in high spirits, they’re still determined – it’s the only home they have and they’re fighting for their environment for their children and future generations.
I do think the battle’s going to be long and hard but I think the more people who get involved and become more aware of what’s going on, the more we can help.
I mean there’s already been over $61 million divested from the pipeline because people have been lobbying their representatives and contacting their banks to protest. So I’m still hopeful that people can make an impact.
New Zealand has had its own debates over fears of water pollution. Do you see any parallels between New Zealand and what’s going on at Standing Rock?
Absolutely. At the moment we’ve got Chevron and other big corporations looking for oil along our coasts but after the Paris Climate talks it doesn’t make sense that we’re still looking for fossil fuels when we should be moving towards renewable energy. It’s not just big oil corporations that we’re talking about – if you look at our own industrial dairying practices, it’s having a real impact on the quality of our waterways.
And I know the government have said they’re aiming for 90 percent of our rivers to be swimmable in the next few years, but they’re actually just changing the standard for what a ‘swimmable’ standard should be.
They’re not actually fixing the problem. So it’s our government that needs to be held to account as well, because I want my grandchildren to be able to swim in the waterways and enjoy a safe and clean environment.