Janine Jackson interviewed Kandi Mossett about the Native American pipeline protest for the August 26, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: For months now, the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota have been engaged in peaceful protest over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Intended to carry fracked oil from the Bakken fields more than a thousand miles into Illinois, the pipeline would, among other concerns, cross and recross the Missouri River that serves as a life source for the Standing Rock and others in the region.
The protests have drawn solidarity from indigenous people around the country—and some repression from state authorities, including the call by North Dakota’s homeland security director to remove water tanks and trailers from protesters’ campsites, and Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s issuance of an emergency declaration to free up state resources to, in the words of the Bismarck Tribune, “manage public safety risks associated with the protest.”
Despite the significance of thousands of indigenous people standing up directly to extractive industry, events have til now played out largely under big media’s radar, with social, independent and especially Native media doing the main work of getting the story out. Joining us now with more is Kandi Mossett, Native Energy and Climate Campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. She joins us now by phone from North Dakota. Welcome to CounterSpin, Kandi Mossett.
Kandi Mossett: Thank you. It’s really a pleasure to be here with you today.
JJ: Well, as we record this show on August 25, as far as I can tell, none of the three major TV networks has said a word about these protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. So those who are relying on television, anyway, for news will likely know nothing at all about it. I would like to ask you, then, to give us a sense of what this struggle is really about, and why it’s drawn so much attention within and, to some extent, beyond indigenous communities.
KM: Well, I think it’s important to understand where we are here in North Dakota. It has a history of being a fossil fuel state. I grew up here in North Dakota, I was born, raised here. My family, the majority, lives here. And I sort of had to work my way through how we were different or set apart from other areas.
We had a lot of people in this state that had a lot of sicknesses and illnesses, particularly in my family, particularly on my reservation, which is just northwest of here, known today by the government as the Fort Berthold Reservation, but known by us as the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation. We’re surrounded by seven coal-fired power plants, the country’s only coal gasification plant. Every single bit of the over 11,000 miles of rivers, lakes and streams that are in North Dakota are already contaminated with mercury contamination, because of the coal industry here.
So that history already exists. And then we have fracking, which started in 2007–2008, and we started seeing so much development taking place. And that’s how we learned about the Dakota Access Pipeline. They wanted to come through North Dakota and start here, and we had just been fresh—myself, working with the Indigenous Environmental Network—just fresh off of fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline, which many people are calling this Keystone XL Part 2, because it’s still another way to move and transport oil, although now it’s Bakken oil, which is being dug out directly under my feet at my homeland, and I’m seeing the devastation.
So I think the media has always had a blackout of the bad things around energy development, around oil industry or gas or coal or anything to do with fossil fuels, because they feel like it’s a good thing for our state—because it provides jobs, is always what the main headline is.
What they don’t tell people in the large-scale media is that North Dakota does have a low unemployment rate, yes. We always have. You can look back to statistics before even this Bakken oil boom, and we’ve had a 3 or 4 percent unemployment rate in our state, which is the same today.
And so it’s politicians here, protecting the work that they know. I think that they don’t know any better. It’s business as usual. And because this infrastructure is already set up for fossil fuel development, they don’t want the rest of the country to know and understand the struggles and the suffering that those of us on the ground have faced on a day-to-day basis — I’m getting emotional…
JJ: Yeah, of course…
KM: …because I am a cancer survivor, and there are so many around me that are fighting and struggling with it now. And I truly believe that the health of our people is impacted directly by the fossil fuel development, and it’s frustrating that the media is not telling the truth about what’s happening here. The truth being, we are peaceful protectors of water and of health, and we want our future generations to not have to deal with the cancers and the asthmas and the problems we’ve been facing here in this state.
And also to let the rest of the country know that what happens in North Dakota does not stay here. The water, the Missouri River, flows downstream, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, all the way down through to the oceans. And the toxins, the pollutions, the dioxins, the carcinogenic poisons, the cancer-causing poisons that are being put in our water, flow downstream, and this air that we breathe blows through the rest of the world. And we do not want that to be our legacy, as concerned community members and people that live here.
JJ: The Sacred Stones camp seems focused very much on a response to that broader and ongoing historical environmental context, but on an interruption of that business as usual, on saying, we want to say no—and call attention to our saying no—to this. And I think that’s why it’s so galvanizing and exciting for people. And I wonder if you could tell us—many people may not know that this is, as you say, a peaceful protest, a prayer protest, and it was begun, wasn’t it, by women? Women have a central role here.
KM: Women do have a central role. That’s not to say that men don’t have a role as well. There was ceremony that were led by four leaders, that were actually men that went into ceremony, but through the support of the women. The actual blockade itself—some of the things that people may have seen were when the field was stormed by a group of women. It started with one woman that went out and took the field on the west bank, where they were trying to build a road to bring in the heavy equipment, which would help pull the pipe under the water for boring.
So when they bore, they go underneath the ground, instead of trenching and laying a pipe directly on top of the water, on like the water bed. So that’s how the industry and how our state officials that signed off on this project make themselves feel better, is that they say they’re being environmentally responsible by boring. But they still have to build all these roads, they still have to bring in all this equipment, and that pipe can still leak. The problem is that it will be 90 feet below ground, so you won’t detect the leak as immediately.
But women stormed the field and went out. The workers didn’t know what to do. They just stopped their equipment, they were like, OK, hold on, and shut down and walked away. They were like, OK, go ahead, jump up there.
And that, effectively, is what stopped the work, because there hasn’t been this level of pushback in North Dakota, I don’t think ever before.
I mean, our tribes, the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, and certainly the Standing Rock Sioux, fought back against the building of the dams that created our reservoirs here. Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe are reservoirs that are manmade, that were created by a dam, and that was in the ’50s, late ’40s.
We fought back then. But not to this extent, where so many people came and stood with us. Because we lost that battle. And now, here, we are trying to protect what was—we were forced into having a reservoir to get our water supplies from, and now they’re threatening those reservoirs with this pipeline.
JJ: Right. Well—I hear a quiet voice in the background there.
KM: I do have my three-year-old here with me at the camp, and I have to say something, that if I thought it was a violent place, I wouldn’t have her with me. And there are also other children out here as well.
JJ: That’s an excellent point. Because a lot of what coverage I have seen has focused on conflict, has focused on violence. And to the extent that they talk about the concerns, the concerns get a phrase, which is: The indigenous people, or the Standing Rock, are concerned that a leak in the pipeline will pollute their drinking water.
I would say, first of all, leaks are not fears, really. I mean, look at history; they are near certainty, pipeline leaks. But also it’s important to say that it is not just the fear of a leak that is the concern here. There are other concerns as well, aren’t there?
KM: There are many, many, many concerns. And they have to do with spirituality, too. I mean, that’s why we come here in prayer. Everything is impacted, not just what a person might see on the surface. It’s not just the water, and it’s not just us as human beings. It’s everything that relies on that water, the four-legged, the winged, everything that swims in those waters is impacted, yet doesn’t have a voice to say, no, protect us, we don’t want this either. It’s all of the processes that go into getting that pipe there in the first place—and then that pipe isn’t just here, it’s through several states, in fact.
In the big picture, the long term, what that’s doing is, it’s saying that it’s OK to continue business as usual, when we know that our planet is in climate chaos because of anthropogenic causes, human-induced causes, of messing with our earth systems and our earth cycles. We burn these oils and these fossil fuels and we put them into the atmosphere, never knowing the full impact of what it’s going to do.
Well, I should correct myself. We didn’t know before, maybe, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but we certainly know now. We know that ethane and methane are causing warming temperatures, which are causing people to be displaced in the island states. In the Philippines, people are being displaced right now. We have all of these storms that are occurring, these hurricanes, and flooding in Louisiana, where my friend Cherri Foytlin down there is fighting to say “another Gulf is possible,” yet she’s cleaning the walls out of her home, cutting the walls out so they don’t get mold, because they were flooded.
There’s fires in California that are burning everything. There’s intense heat in the Northeast. These are related; all of this is not a coincidence. And it’s kind of taking a step back and looking at the big picture and seeing that this is not just a fight about this one pipeline. This is a fight to protect our planet for all of us as humanity.
JJ: When it comes to the treatment of indigenous people, those conflicts are treated, I believe, as historical. And there was a statement that came from the elders and leaders of the Sacred Stones camp that very smartly critiqued a New York Times article that talked about Indians in paint on horseback and their “tipi-dotted camp.” And they called it out, basically, as an effort to paint this struggle as somehow Native people having a romantic or a delusional desire to turn back time, instead of it being about a living community that is protesting present-day harms and also is concerned about the future. It seems to me that media coverage of Native peoples in general is kind of frozen in a very old framework that has nothing really to do with living Native people today.
KM: Yeah, and I would agree with that. I mean, that doesn’t surprise me, either. That is how historically we’ve been treated, as some romanticized version of something you read about, the historical things that happened to Native people. And it makes for a good story for a reporter or journalist when you talk about, you know, oh, the Wild West and these natives.
And what’s interesting is that we are all separate nations that have come together. And not all of us were horse people, not all of us were tipi people. Here we are on my traditional homeland, the Mandan and the Hidatsa, the Arikara, these sacred sites where they’re digging. These are Arikara traditional homeland. My ancestors’ bones are buried in these sites, and we were earth lodge-dwelling people. Yet I don’t see anything out there showing our true historical context. We did not live in tepees year-round. We didn’t predominantly hunt the buffalo and move around. Our relatives, the great Sioux Nation that we traded with, did these things, while we were farming people. That’s why we lived along the Missouri River always, for time immemorial. We grew corn, squash and beans.
This area that we’re gathered is a historic trading center, where we would all camp and come together so we could see each other. We could see our enemies and we could trade in a good way. That was something that happened a long time ago, [Hidatsa phrase], we say in Hidatsa. But here today we are gathered once again, traditional enemies coming together, all of us with our own different stories or different ceremonies, but in a modern-day way. We drove in with our cars, some of us. We’re camping in our tents, many of us. Sure, there are a few tipis, but it’s predominantly tents that you’ll see out here.
And it’s not: Oh, what happened to us historically as Natives in this country. It’s what’s happening to us now. This is history that’s being created, and people need to put it back into that context of, we never went anywhere. Sure, we were beaten down heavily, sure, a lot of our people died, but we’re still here. We never changed our story about the fight to protect our Mother Earth. We have been screaming, for over 500 years we have been screaming, about the wrong associated with capitalism and continued growth, and just taking and taking and taking and never giving anything back.
We have been saying, always, do not do these horrible, terrible things to the land and to our Earth, because it will come back. It will come back on us. And it is coming back on us now. It’s just taking other people a very long time to open their eyes and see what we have been talking about all along, about respecting the sacred, respecting the water, respecting the air, respecting the soil. And it took people to start seeing the dangers and the harms and to start getting sick and to start realizing that we’re in a bad way before they decided, well, maybe we do need to stop. And yet, still, oil industry people, gas industry, all of the corporations, still do not see; they’re still blinded by greed and the false power associated with money.
If we turned on our tap and didn’t have anything come out, what would we do? If we went into a grocery store and there was nothing on the shelves, what would a person do? Could you find water if your tap didn’t turn on? Could you feed yourself if you didn’t have a store to walk into? Some deep, deep, deep understandings are being made, I think, as a result of what we’re doing here.
And the reason we’re praying is because of the power of the prayer. The reason we’re peaceful is because we never wanted to be violent. Even in historical context, we were peaceful. None of that has changed. And so we speak for ourselves, we tell our story.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, Kandi Mossett, what happens now? There was a hearing yesterday. I understand that construction is not going to be halted. What’s going to happen next, do you think, in terms of the activism and the response?
KM: I feel like the camp’s going to grow. The hearing did happen yesterday, in Washington, DC, and the decision was no decision. September 9 is going to be the next date for the hearing.
And so we’ll be ready, and we’ll be in DC again. We’ll be here at the camp preparing for what will happen, and we’ll be prepared here at the camp if the Energy Transfer Partners and Dakota Access people should decide that they want to continue to try to build here. We will meet them again, as we did before, and be prepared to protect our water and be prepared to do what we have to do, which is nonviolent, direct action in order to protect that water for everybody.
The power of visiting, there’s nothing that can take away the power of visiting. It’s a beautiful thing to see our relatives coming together in such large numbers, visiting over a campfire and eating some good food at camp, and telling stories and laughing, and seeing the babies running around and playing.
And the intensity of the emotion here, it can’t be described. It can’t be described, and so if a person wants to know it, they should come here. They should come here to Standing Rock, to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and join us in our struggle and our fight, and set up a camp. Everybody is welcome.
More information can be found at SacredStoneCamp.org. We also have a Facebook page, No Dakota Access in Treaty Territory. It’s an open page where people can go and see the ongoing list of supplies that we have, that we need at the camp. If you cannot come here, you can donate. You know, there are definitely ways to help. There’s a petition that people can sign on Change.org/RezpectOurWater. And that petition, we’re trying to get a million signatures on that, and we’re calling on our president, President Obama, to take notice and to come out here, and to see what we’re talking about, and to understand what we’re trying to protect, and to effectively halt the Dakota Access Pipeline.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Kandi Mossett, Native Energy and Climate Campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Thank you very much, Kandi Mossett, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
KM: Mah-zah-gih-dats, thank you.