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Native communities look toward the next battleground after the Dakota Access pipeline

“Native people will be able to find support within our communities and from allies in the future.”

Deadline Looms For Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters To Vacate Camp Photo by Stephen Yang/Getty Images

The last hundred people camped out for several months in protest of the Dakota Access pipeline’s construction marched out of the campground last month. A few dozen more stayed behind and were arrested for blocking continuation of the project.

The Army Corps of Engineers told water protectors (or demonstrators) they had until February 22 to leave the Cannon Ball, North Dakota, camp. It’s where President Donald Trump approved Energy Transfer Partners to resume construction for the pipeline shortly after he took office.

The Standing Rock Sioux had protested the Obama administration for months to halt the construction of the oil pipeline, fearing that a leak could contaminate the tribe’s main source of drinking water, Lake Oahe, and wreak havoc on sacred lands. While President Obama halted the project in December, Trump cleared Energy Transfer Partners to resume construction shortly after he took office the following month.

The move did not come as a surprise to those who have been fighting to have the pipeline stopped or diverted away from the lake. Few expected the Obama administration’s reprieve would last. Trump had made it clear that he supported both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. So now that the camp has cleared, what will come next for the Standing Rock Sioux, and Native Americans as a whole, with President Trump now in office?

Rosalyn LaPier is a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies and environmental studies and Native American religion at Harvard Divinity School. She is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana and is also Red River Métis.

“There has continually been a contentious relationship between tribal communities and the US government,” LaPier said of Trump’s presidency. “This is part of a long history that stretches all the way back to the 18th century.”

LaPier spoke to Vox about what the future of the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline will look like under Trump, his potential impact on the environment, and what non-Natives can do to help.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

John Paul Brammer

Protests began under President Obama. What is the biggest thing that protectors think will change under Trump?

Rosalyn LaPier

I think it’s the ability to change federal laws. Mostly, it’s his Supreme Court. They have the ability to make decisions and change previous decisions that will deeply impact tribal communities.

John Paul Brammer

So what do you think the biggest difference will be between them?

Rosalyn LaPier

It’s hard to say. The only time that Trump has dealt with Natives before was when he tried to open a casino in New Jersey, in Atlantic City. He fought with a few tribes in the northeast area over casinos. He saw them as business adversaries.

During that time, he used the same rhetoric he uses today, the way he talks about people who are different. He fought very hard to stop tribes from being able to operate casinos, which he lost.

John Paul Brammer

What are water protectors and Native communities concerned about right now?

Rosalyn LaPier

One is change of regulations. We don’t know what he’s going to change in the next four years. That’s a big concern. We don’t know about funding, another huge issue. Is he really going to dramatically cut back funding on the Environmental Protection Agency? Is he going to defund science and scientists?

It’s through science that we’re able to learn about the natural world, and they are the ones who support, for example, quality environmental impact statements, which we rely on.

Are those going to be defunded? We don’t know yet. But those are major concerns.

John Paul Brammer

What is the future of Native sovereignty under Trump?

Rosalyn LaPier

He hasn’t changed any laws yet. But historically, the way it’s worked is Congress is the entity that sets up the relationship between tribal communities and the government. They have plenary power over tribal communities.

Usually Congress is creating laws and enacting laws, and then there’s the Supreme Court that addresses legal actions and impacts Native communities.

It’s pretty rare for a president to step in there, so the future depends on Trump’s relationship with Congress. We’ve seen executive orders coming from Trump, so I’m not sure where we’re headed.

John Paul Brammer

Where is Standing Rock finding hope right now?

Rosalyn LaPier

Hope has been evident in this entire last year with the protesting that’s been going on.

It’s shown that people will support you, and Native people will come together and support each other, and you can actually bring together a large number of allies to address these concerns.

That makes people feel much more hopeful about the ability to move forward. It tells us that Native people will be able to find support within our communities and from allies in the future.

John Paul Brammer

You are a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School. What role has spirituality played in these protests?

Rosalyn LaPier

One thing we’re seeing more and more of, especially with the younger generation, is viewing this type of action, viewing protest, as spiritual.

They call themselves protectors. There’s an effort to see addressing the environment and harm to it as part of a spiritual practice.

Standing Rock initially started as a camp that people viewed as ceremonial, a place with daily prayers. Most of the young people doing these protests see it as participating in a process where they are protecting sacred land.

John Paul Brammer

In that context, there’s a draft for a religious freedom executive order floating around. Does that have any impact on Standing Rock?

Rosalyn LaPier

Yes. For one, people in the US have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that different Native communities have different traditions and religions.

But what we’ve seen [in the past month or so] is a push in the cultural idea that America is a Christian nation, that Christianity is our heritage and culture.

For those of us who are not Christian, and those of us who are historians, we know that’s simply not true.

When we have these kinds of conflicts over land and landscape in Standing Rock, the major reason is because there’s a conflict in religious ideas about the use of land. This will continue to be a conflict between Natives and the US.

[Trump] hasn’t signed the order yet, so it’s hard to react ahead of time. But the whole subtext of “religious freedom” in the US is Christianity. The subtext is not minority religions in America or Native religion or Islam or Buddhism. They’re saying Christianity.

So, yes. Religion will be wrapped up in the Dakota Access Pipeline and in the Trump presidency.

John Paul Brammer

In the fight ahead, what can non-Natives do to help?

Rosalyn LaPier

Continue to be an ally. Educate yourself about what is going on. The president has stepped into the process by having two separate executive orders. He did one on DAPL, but he did another on environmental impact statements.

As long as allies stay educated, maybe even learning what an environmental impact statement is and why they matter, and then speaking to their local legislators about them.

Speak to the people making decisions and be watchful. Be out there on social media and make sure people know that when a process is supposed to occur, like an EIS, make sure it actually occurs. When needed, push back.

Finally, make sure to not speak on behalf of Native people. Allow Natives to be on the forefront on their issues and make sure they’re the ones who are being heard.

You can stand side by side with people without being the one who is speaking out.

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