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Opinion: Standing Rock Pipeline Protests Spark Unity in a Year Filled With Division

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Amid a year marred with argument and division, it might seem surprising that a thousand mile oil pipeline would become a focal point for controversy. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a proposed 1,172-mile pipeline that would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois. The purpose of the pipeline was to find a cheaper way to transport oil across the states. A lack of demand for oil in North Dakota had lead to a supply build-up that would not be profitable without a cheaper mode of transportation. However, environmental activists claimed that such a pipeline was susceptible to leaks that could spill into rivers. Skeptics, on the other hand, believed the pipeline was just another project passed by lawmakers to pay off political favors. The issue was, indeed, one of division, but nothing would prepare the contracted energy companies for what was about to ensue.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been at the receiving end of government greed since the 19th century’s Gilded Age. Eager for newly discovered gold, the U.S. government pushed a Sioux War in order to obtain Native American lands. The ensuing Indian loss led to a downward spiral for the Standing Rock tribe. Assimilation was forced onto the Native Americans as many were beaten — sometimes literally — away from their nomadic culture into a Christian culture characterized by strictness and obedience.

The people of Standing Rock had tried time and time again to fight federal government policies, but progress seemed distant. What would soon occur with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline struck a fiery chord in the hearts of Native Americans across the country.

When dealing with historical lands — like Native American Reservations — the federal government must, by law, first consult with Native American leaders on the land before exercising eminent domain. Although the federal government claimed to have done this with Standing Rock, a majority of the tribe claims that the talks barely resemble what the government attests the tribes were informed of. Standing Rock’s reservation holds historical sites and burial grounds holy to their people and stands near the tribe’s drinking source: the Mississippi River. It’s unlikely that the tribe would agree with the federal government to support a policy that could put all of this in jeopardy. Yet construction continued. It was a metaphorical spit in the face to Native Americans across the country.

The idea of creating lofty deals with Native Americans to take their lands had been the basis of historical grievances as notorious as the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. But it became clear that the Native American spirit, which had been tested time and time again, would not flicker. Protests began in April. According to BBC News, this became the largest gathering of Native Americans in the last hundred years. Despite the violence of police on nonviolent protesters, despite the endurance of hundreds of years of oppression, Native Americans from tribes across the country risked their jobs and safety to stand up for one tribe’s land. On Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would halt the pipeline construction, an environmental impact review would be conducted and alternative routes would be explored. Thanks to the powerful protest of thousands, their voices were finally heard.

As the country was experiencing one of greatest political divisions in history, for many people, the Standing Rock protest became a story of unification. People from all walks of life united in an effort to protest Standing Rock. It showed a brief glimmer of what the best of humanity could bring to the world when united.

Sireesh is a 16-year-old junior at Chattahoochee High School. 

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