An Open Letter to President Obama about the Dakota Access Pipeline by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth_Author Photo 2I 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:  You can also donate to the legal fund: 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.

Oceti Sakowin Camp - Standing Rock Photo by Mark Waller

Oceti Sakowin Camp – Standing Rock
Photo by Mark Waller

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.  

Elizabeth Cunningham

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.  

Categories: Activism, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, In the News, Interdependence of Life

Tags: , , , ,

33 replies

  1. Since I wrote the letter and the introduction, the situation at Standing Rock has intensified. On the night of November 20, the police turned water cannons on the water keepers in sub-freezing temperatures along with rubber bullets and mace. Many people were seriously injured.

    It is clear that President Obama does have the authority to halt the construction of the pipeline and order a more comprehensive environmental impact study. Sioux Tribal leadership must be included in all negotiations and decisions. Please continue to write and call the White House. Also please research which banks are investors. If one of them is yours, call them and let them know that they are investing in a company that has broken Federal Law. You can withdraw your funds if they refuse to divest.

    Time is of the essence as we all know. One of the investors in the pipeline is the president elect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth, for such an honest post. And especially thank you for being willing to step outside your comfort zone, as you wrote, and witness what is going on at Standing Rock. It is Thanksgiving Day and I love the idea of families getting together, and yet I cannot make peace with the history of this day and what is presently going on at Standing Rock even as I write.
    Thank you, again for your bearing witness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am speechless. I hear about this situation on the TV news and read about it in online news, but you tell us much more than the journalists. What is wrong with our president? I’d expect the Not Our President to nothing, but Obama?? Is he even paying attention?

    Elizabeth, I admire your courage for writing the truth and, especially, for going there. .

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am heartbroken to hear of such injustice and I applaud your courage and determination to refuse to accept this ongoing travesty. As a women with Native American roots, who has always been considered “different”, who has been discriminated against for her roots and activist work I know how impossible it is to change people’s minds in this culture of might equals right. Thank you for this letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It occurs to me that if you could post this open letter with a place to add signatures many people might have an opportunity to sign it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sara. Heartbreak is the right word. Because my letter is already so dated, it’s probably best that as many people as possible keep writing as the situation unfolds. I sent the letter by post and email and have been emailing the White House every other day or so. If I get a response, I will let people know in the comments here.


  6. I wrote to President Obama a couple of weeks ago, asking that he stop the atrocities at Standing Rock. I got back a form letter saying that we must encourage US oil development so we won’t have to rely on foreign oil, but that he will “continue to negotiate” with the Native Americans. As much as I love Obama, I think he has developed a spaghetti spine on this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have never loved Obama, though I admire his intellect. And he’s a thousand times better than Mr. Not My President will be. You’re right about the spaghetti spine. Thanks for your post.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I am so sorry to hear about that response. I haven’t gotten a response yet. I do not think the oil industry is any friend to the people of the United States. If we want energy independence, we need to step up investment in solar and wind power and improvements in that technology. I know I am preaching to the choir, here!


  8. Thank you for going to Standing Rock and for writing about it, as well as for contacting the White House, Elizabeth.

    I’ve signed any number of petitions regarding the direct assault on the demonstrators and the pipeline issue, but so far have received no replies, either.

    Barbara A. is certainly right about Mr. Not-My-President — who stands to benefit if the response to the pipeline, and other human and environmental atrocities, is allowed to go on by a cowardly current
    administration — and you’re absolutly on target, Elizabeth, about the oil industry not being anyone’s friends but their own.

    I feel more and more that we’re living in a sort of sci-fi country, run for profit only by “Star Trek’s” Ferenghi. These are difficult times, and we
    all need to take care of ourselves and each other so we can continue to stand, in any way we can, with Standing Rock.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elizabeth, thank you so much for going to Standing Rock, and for writing and calling President Obama. Thank you also for writing this post and giving us a first-hand look at the horrible things going on. I have been discussing this with my Bible study group and I will share your post with my group next week. I hope and pray that Obama will intervene, even if his successor undoes whatever President Obama may do.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you so much for being there for us. Reckless disregard for the law, the environment, human life, sacred traditions. So much more of that in store for all of us in the Trumpian future.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks so much Elizabeth for informing us of your first-hand experience at Standing Rock and for stepping out of your comfort zone. I have been following the horrific events as they unfold and signing petitions. Thanks for the link to donating. I will donate to the legal fund.

    Yes Obama is much better than Mr. Not My President but he has always been in the center, not a progressive. On too many issues he seems to be in alliance with big money and big power players. And yet what’s coming next is beyond disastrous.

    I am so grateful to the Native Americans for their wisdom and their activism. The fact that this country was founded on genocide and slavery so often gets left out of all discussion. The events at Standing Rock illustrate that the genocide of native populations has not ended. Legal action has happened to temporarily stop the project and yet it continues. Where is the rule of law which we are supposed to live under? As Onoosh says – very difficult times indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks, Judith. The legal fund is a great place to donate. The volunteer legal team is doing an amazing. Praying for Obama’s heart to open and his spine to strengthen!


  13. Shared your post with my Honors class at the University of Hawaii. Researching this issue has been one of our class projects and it has been wonderful to see them explore, express outrage, tune in and share as they learned. Thank you for helping that learning. with aloha and heratbreak, Dawn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aloha and heartbreak, indeed. So glad you students are doing research on Standing Rock. It does require research as the mainstream media has been quite absent. Good for you and for them!


  14. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Since the election results, I have become increasingly concerned not only about the plight of Standing Rock, but also about water safety throughout the USA. President-elect Trump has major interests in the company building the pipeline. North Dakota seems determined to go to extreme policing to make sure their fracking results get into this pipeline. This state has a long history of mistreatment of its native people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. I am very concerned about the Army Corps of Engineers proposed 12/5 closing of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Please write President Obama and urge him to intervene.


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