Community members demonstrate, pray in solidarity with Standing Rock protesters

Audrey McNamara/File
More than 50 demonstrators gather on Sproul Plaza on Nov. 2 in solidarity with protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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More than 50 demonstrators gathered on Sproul Plaza on Wednesday afternoon in solidarity with protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, if built, could threaten the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water and land.

After 15 minutes of silent reflection and a half hour of speakers addressing the crowd, the protesters formed a circle, holding hands and lowering their heads. Sheri Welch, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe whose daughter is a UC Berkeley student, led the group in prayer.

You can’t do a lot from here but pray and support,” said Melissa Cunningham, who belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and works in the campus’s billing and payments office. “We’re sending money, we’re sending winter gear. If that’s all you can do, it still matters. The prayers still matter.”

Since March, thousands of Native Americans, environmental activists and their allies — including some UC Berkeley students — have gathered at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to oppose the ongoing construction of the pipeline, which is intended to carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois each day.

The project’s proponents say pipelines are a safer, cheaper alternative to trains and trucks for transporting crude oil. Despite promises by Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, that it will employ technology to limit the possibility of leaks, activists opposing the pipeline argue that any oil that escapes from the pipeline would contaminate Standing Rock’s main water source, Lake Oahe.

“Water is life,” Welch said. “Everybody needs water, so everybody needs to start paying attention.”

On its website, Energy Transfer Partners says the pipeline will decrease American reliance on imported oil while creating between 8,000 and 12,000 jobs during construction. The pipeline will also generate an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes during construction and $55 million annually in property taxes after completion.

Last week, at least 141 people were arrested for protesting on private land. Police have reportedly used tasers and rubber bullets on protesters — Cunningham alleged she saw her cousin being choked by a police officer in a Facebook live video.

Protesters emphasized Standing Rock’s relevance as a symbol of continued oppression and violation of Native Americans’ rights and land throughout American history.

“We’re all into this,” said Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a campus professor in the anthropology department. “Indigenous people have suffered everywhere. Everywhere.”

The demonstration was organized by Students with Standing Rock at Berkeley, a campus group coordinating fundraising, events and rideshares to support protesters at Standing Rock, in conjunction with campus Native American groups, student environmental organizations and the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

“Our old ways matter. Our sacred teachings matter,” Cunningham said. “To sit here and see how these people desecrate our burial sites, it’s sad, because those are my relatives you’re digging up like they meant nothing.”

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @simondgreenhill.