I wrote this letter to President Obama on November 18, the morning after I returned from a few days at Standing Rock. I am not an activist by temperament. I went to Standing Rock to support a friend who felt strongly called to go, as well as, to support the cause. I did not participate in direct action, because I did not fully grasp till I was there the preparations I would need to make in terms of clearing my calendar for jail time and a return to North Dakota for a trial. Gratitude and respect for those who are taking this risk and dedicating their lives to this cause.
One thing this letter below does not address is how to donate to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Given the overwhelming donations of food and clothing that are still pouring in, financial donation is more practical now. Here’s a link to the donation page: http://standwithstandingrock.net/ You can also donate to the legal fund: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/11B5z8 People are being arrested on a daily basis.
I am still sorting through the experience of this journey and its connection to what lies ahead for this country. Unlike many people who have suffered privation and injustice for years and centuries, I have lived in a relatively comfortable, privileged bubble in the Northeast, surrounded by natural beauty and by friends, family, and community of like mind. After this presidential election, I don’t think it is possible or conscionable to live such an insular life, though I do intend to savor and celebrate all moments of joy. The President Elect is clearly bent on environmental depredation. We all have a great deal to learn from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Dear President Obama,
I have just returned from Standing Rock, North Dakota where a friend and I spent time in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, home to the water protectors and their allies. We worked behind the frontlines sorting massive donations of food and clothing. We also volunteered to pick up trash—an unnecessary job, as it turned out. This camp with its fluctuating population of people from all over the world is one of the cleanest, best kept places I have ever seen.
We took the training for non-violent direct action, which included briefing by the volunteer legal team on what to expect if arrested. People were advised to write the number of the legal team in ink on their bodies, as arrestees are being strip searched and detained in kennel-like cells. We were warned that belongings and cash are unlikely to be returned, so it is best to carry nothing. Police are taking blood and DNA samples from arrestees without informed consent. Some people are disappearing.
In addition to volunteering at the Camp, we visited sites on the Standing Rock Reservation and spoke with several people, one of whom said he could not discuss the pipeline for fear of losing his job. We also spoke with non-native people in Bismarck. Many expressed frustration with the stalemate but acknowledged that the pipeline had been diverted from white population centers to its present course. They also told us that the oil boom has been hard on North Dakota towns. It is not creating jobs for local people. Workers are imported and housed in camps or low-budget hotels, like the one where we stayed. The man camps have been cited for drugs, prostitution, and rape, especially of native women.
There is deliberate obfuscation on the ground. Highway 1806 is blocked at the site of the pipeline for several miles in each direction. When we drove from Bismarck, we were stopped by a young woman in uniform who told us that the road was closed because a bridge was out. On our way back up the highway we encountered a phalanx of police cars preceding a long line of construction vehicles.
As you know, the Army Corps of Engineers has not granted an easement to the DAPL for the tunnel under the Missouri River just north of Lake Oahe. Work on the pipeline is supposed to have ceased, pending further review and negotiation with the Standing Rock Sioux leaders. On November 15, environmental attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr. visited the site and found construction ongoing. In a public statement, he said unequivocally that federal laws are being broken by an outlaw company.
In the final days of your presidency, I urge you to use your executive authority to halt construction of the DAPL and hold the company accountable for its illegal actions. Whatever happens when you leave the White House, you have the chance to stand as a beacon of moral leadership. I look forward to your response, as does the rest of the world. Thank you in advance for your decisive action on behalf of the First Nations water protectors, and water itself, which, we all know, is life.
This just in: a fuller interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr. on Standing Rock and environmental racism.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her debut mystery novel, Murder at the Rummage Sale, has just been published. An interfaith minister and counselor in private practice, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. She is a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.