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What Trump's presidency may mean for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock Sioux

Winter is coming, but water protectors show little sign of standing down.

Dennis Zotigh and his father Ralph Zotigh of the Kiowa, Dakota, and Pueblo Tribes sing during a rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline
Dennis Zotigh (R) and his father Ralph Zotigh (L) of the Kiowa, Dakota, and Pueblo Tribes sing during a rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline September 13, 2016 at Lafayette Square in Washington, DC
Getty Images

Winter weather is descending upon Standing Rock, North Dakota, where thousands of indigenous people and allies have gathered to resist construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Undersupplied and facing the prospect of a Trump administration, the water protectors, as they call themselves, face a gloomy season ahead after seven months of protest.

Energy Transfers Partners, the developers of the pipeline, have met fierce resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux. The tribe says the pipeline, which comes quite close to their land, has the potential to burst or leak, therefore poisoning their water supply. The tribe also says construction runs through a few newly discovered sacred sites and burial places, which means building the pipeline would infringe upon the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal sovereignty. Meanwhile, the pipeline’s developers say they are using technology to minimize the possibility of leaking or spills, Vox’s Brad Plumer reports.

Protesters have clashed several times with private security and local police in recent months, and the National Guard was called in last September. This past weekend was no exception, as North Dakota law enforcement used water cannons and rubber bullets to push back protectors from a barricaded bridge leading to construction sites.

Despite the protests, construction of the pipeline is currently about 75 percent complete, with only the crossing at Lake Oahe left to be assembled. Natives, meanwhile, continue to pressure President Barack Obama to call off the pipeline’s construction, as he rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline. But hope dwindles as Obama prepares to turn the White House keys over to President-elect Donald Trump.

So what does the administration change mean for the future of this movement?

Alli Moran is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who grew up near Standing Rock. “Right now there is a lot of concern for what is going to happen within the next few months of Obama’s presidency, and major concern about what will come when Trump does take office,” says Moran, who has been involved in the fight against the pipeline’s construction.

Trump has not officially made a statement on whether he would continue to push the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction after he’s sworn in, though he has said he would reinstate construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Beyond the pipeline though, Trump’s presidency raises a concern for Moran and other advocates over tribal sovereignty, or the right for tribes to govern themselves and the land on which they reside. In the case of the Standing Rock Sioux in the Dakotas, sovereignty is being challenged with the pipeline being built through what the tribe says are sacred sites. Instead of the US maintaining its government-to-government relationship with the tribe, construction is being permitted without the tribe’s consultation.

Moran spoke to Vox about the future of tribal sovereignty, the disappointment in the Obama administration for not stopping the pipeline, and Trump’s potential impact on the environment.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JP Brammer

What are indigenous people most apprehensive about when it comes to President-elect Trump?

Alli Moran

A lot of the people I’ve been talking to say one of the major concerns is what he will do to our tribal sovereignty. He very well could terminate it. We’re apprehensive about our sovereign status because Trump has threatened it before.

JP Brammer


Alli Moran

Trump targeted sovereignty in 1993 because he couldn’t open up a casino. A tribe had their casino established and it was competitive. He was very biased against Indian gaming and said they had an unfair advantage over his casinos. He didn’t believe we should have that right. He had tribal sovereignty on the chopping block back then, and if he had that impact back then, we can only imagine what he’s planning on doing when he’s president.

JP Brammer

Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren donated to the Trump campaign and Trump has reportedly invested in the company. Do you think Trump will do something to assure the pipeline's completion?

Alli Moran

Definitely. Trump has his own financial interests in the pipeline. Just at the beginning of this year he was up in Bismarck, a half-hour away from Standing Rock. I went up to protest his rally and he was there, and he said he would definitely pass the Keystone Pipeline and [has signaled he would allow construction to continue on] the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A lot of people there have their own financial interests in the pipeline. That’s how he won a lot of his votes in the Dakotas. It really struck fear into me. I was a Bernie Sanders delegate, and I realized then I had to get more people registered to vote.

He doesn’t want our water protectors there. He definitely wants the pipeline to go through. That’s more economic gain for himself. At the end of the day, he is a businessman. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would pursue any legal action possible to complete it, even through executive action.

JP Brammer

Do you think Obama did enough for indigenous people, particularly in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Alli Moran

No. I don’t. I was a huge advocate for Obama back in 2008 when he was running for president. He was the candidate of hope. I believed in a lot of his initiatives and thought he did a lot of great work for indigenous people. Overseas, in Malaysia, however, he was asked about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he responded exactly like a man with a Western mindset and avoided the question.

It broke my heart. He defended himself saying he’s done a lot for Indian Country. That mentality, it broke my heart. I was so sad. He had been doing so great for us. He even came to Cannon Ball and experienced that community. How can you not want to stop this?

JP Brammer

Bernie Sanders is pressuring Obama to turn Standing Rock into a national landmark. Do you think that could work, and do you support that idea?

Alli Moran

I support that idea, and I do believe it will work. All around this country, you will find Indian Country. There are different cultural sites. If we were able to protect the cultural sites on Standing Rock as monuments, then that would give us some leverage in protecting the land and water.

JP Brammer

What does the future of Native sovereignty look like?

Alli Moran

That’s the main thing, that it could be terminated. For our Tribal Nations, this is an opportunity for us to really come together and unify and really exercise sovereignty.

JP Brammer

How can non-Natives help Natives in this fight under President Trump?

Alli Moran

They could definitely send high-quality shelters to the camp, winter gear, and definitely some monetary donations for the legal team. That legal team is doing a lot of work for the protectors who have been thrown in jail. The legal team has been getting them back out.

JP Brammer

What do you think Trump will mean for the environment and the planet?

Alli Moran

I’m really fearful for what will happen during the next four years. I read through his first 100 days in office and he plans to approve the Keystone Pipeline.

I knew that was coming back to the table, and it was never really off the table. I just think the pipeline is on his agenda and we really have to gear up. Our tribes have to produce our own policies and procedures to meet these pipeline people head-on. If this pipeline leaks, we need to make it clear they owe us this amount of dollars in fines.

There’s going to be so much that comes with the pipelines. Trump doesn’t understand how much this is going to be a detriment to the Native people that live near these pipelines or the environment.

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