Campus students join protest efforts in North Dakota over proposed pipeline

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Thanh-Mai Bercher/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley students Wes Adrianson, Evan Yoshimoto and Thanh-Mai Bercher drove 25 hours in Yoshimoto’s Prius on Oct. 19 to join the efforts of more than 200 tribes gathered to protect the water on indigenous land.

Several students went to North Dakota this past week, among others who have traveled there in recent weeks in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, to fight for indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. More students are planning to make the same journey by caravan in the coming weeks.

“For us, it was a no-brainer to get out there,” said campus senior Adrianson. “I think that you have to take action sometimes, and this was just an example of a time that we couldn’t stay home.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July for allegedly violating the National Historic Preservation Act by approving the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribe claims the pipeline threatens its livelihood, sacred sites and water, according to a press release on the tribe’s website.

In the months after the approval of the pipeline, tribal citizens have been occupying the Sacred Stone Camp on the banks of the Missouri River — the main site of resistance against the pipeline.

“They’re literally camping on their own land and they’re being forced to move,” Bercher said.

Bercher explained that while most of the pipeline has been built, the rest must be finished before the cold weather sets in. She emphasized that the tribes requested as many people as possible to stand in front of the pipeline to block access.

“They don’t have any agency in North Dakota that’s looking out for them,” Bercher said.

Tasha Hauff, a doctoral student of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and a Native American studies instructor at Sitting Bull College — the tribal college at the Standing Rock reservation — explained in an email that she hopes the issues at Standing Rock will draw attention to issues other indigenous groups face as well.

“While the Standing Rock reservation itself is quite large, it has a very low population density. If we all left our jobs to protect, pray, or protest, there wouldn’t be much left to return to after it’s all over,” said Hauff, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe just south of Standing Rock, in an email. “That’s why it’s so great that people from all over the country are willing and able to make the trip here and aid in this fight.”

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The pipeline will enable domestically produced crude oil from North Dakota to reach Illinois in a more direct, cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner, according to the Dakota Access Pipeline Project website.

Ted Grantham, an adjunct professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management, explained in an email that a potential oil spill would contaminate water sources, making the water unsuitable for drinking, negatively impacting the wildlife, depleting food sources and leading to long-term declines in populations.

Christian Parrish Takes The Gun, a Native American hip-hop artist also known as Supaman, said he has spent some time at the camp. He believes this movement is different “in the unity (he’s) seeing from everybody.”

“It’s bringing awareness to the whole world about climate change,” he said.

Adrianson said he and his friends were only at the camp for a few days and had to return to UC Berkeley for midterms.

“We (recognized) our privilege in getting to leave, that they’re there for the long haul, for the winter, to protect their land,” Adrianson said. “It was very hard to be out there because of just how painful of a situation that it is.”

Adrianson explained that the members of the student cooperative where he lives, Lothlorien, voted to donate money from a discretionary budget to the tribe’s efforts. The three students, all members of Lothlorien, thought it was important to deliver the money they raised for Standing Rock in person.

“They don’t have people who can leave,” Bercher explained, adding that they were provided with receipts for their donations. “Volunteers like us can go into town and buy groceries and supplies like propane and gasoline.”

Elie Katzenson, a campus researcher working with Students with Standing Rock at Berkeley, said there are multiple groups of students traveling to North Dakota in caravans to take supplies directly to the camps. She explained, however, that students shouldn’t stay out there too long because they could “get in the way.”

Bercher also emphasized the importance of keeping the narrative about the tribes and remembering that it is their voices that need to be heard.

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“None of this should be about us. What is happening is historic because an unprecedented number of tribes are gathering, but these injustices have been perpetrated on such a large scale for so long,” Bercher said. “This is the least that we can begin to do for them.”

On Oct. 22, the three students participated in a march during which Bercher alleged that activists in traditional dress were identified and arrested. She alleged that the authorities were targeting the organizers of the action.

“On the action that took place Saturday, 300 people walked to support and stand with those water protectors who took direct action earlier to halt the pipeline at the site of construction,” Yoshimoto said in an email. “At least 127 people were arrested … Indigenous activists were targeted.”

Bercher said she and her friends were aware and prepared for the consequences, knowing they may get arrested.

Katzenson said the U.S. has a long history of “ignoring the rights and wishes of indigenous people and tribal people.”

“This is the most recent example of corporate alliance government disregarding the land rights of indigenous peoples in the midwest,” Katzenson said.

On Thursday, there was a confrontation between police in riot gear and protesters on horseback in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, with each side accusing the other of using aggressive tactics and violence. Law enforcement officials arrested 141 people.

“I would love to see people continue to talk about these things because there isn’t going to be another river or another opportunity for these people,” Bercher said. “We’re supposed to create the world we want to see.”

Sareen Habeshian covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sareeenn.