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Lessons from the Standing Rock Pipeline Battle

Tara Houska on what protesters preparing to fight TransMountain can learn.

By Cara McKenna 18 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Cara McKenna is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver, B.C.

One week ago Tara Houska was arrested while opposing the $3.8-billion Dakota Access Pipeline.

Now she’s come to Canada to share her experiences and expertise with people planning to fight back if Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion goes ahead. A federal decision on the project is expected in the next month.

Houska, who is from Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, has been a leader at the Standing Rock camp, which has attracted thousands of people opposed to the pipeline. She’s also a tribal lawyer, campaigns director for the environmental justice organization Honor the Earth and advised Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign.

Houska spoke at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus Thursday at Leadnow’s event “From Standing Rock to Burnaby Mountain: Can Direct Action Stop New Pipelines?”

The Tyee spoke to Houska beforehand. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: The Standing Rock protest has garnered a ton of support here in B.C. as well as worldwide. What do you think it is about this moment in time that’s significant to so many people?

Houska: I think Standing Rock is about a lot more than just a single pipeline. We’ve reached a point in the overall narrative when we are hoping to change the relationship with people to fossil fuels. The Paris climate change accord was not enough for actually righting the ship. We know we’ve only got a few degrees left and a very short timeframe left to actually change what’s happening and try to stave off the destruction of the planet.

So this became a pipeline fight that had hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous nations from around the world come and join. I think that happened because Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by these projects around the world. We are first and worst hit by the effects of climate change and also by these projects. Once that mass mobilization of Indigenous people happened, I think all these other people came in and saw this as the fight to change the narrative, and also to stand up for Indigenous people.

You’re speaking here on this issue of whether direct action can stop pipeline projects. Do you think that’s possible after all you’ve experienced?

The nonviolent direct actions and standoffs with Dakota Access, and putting our bodies in front of machines, and hundreds of people being arrested at this point, that resulted in a push on social media that went to millions of people and eventually reached to the president of the United States of America, who is now saying that they’re going to re-evaluate the entire process of permitting with relationship to tribes. That’s a massive win. So although I’m not sure what the fate of Dakota Access is going to be, that is how you make massive change. They’re looking at the whole process itself.

And from physically, firsthand, being out there, yeah, it stops construction for that day and I think it makes investors pretty nervous. There have been major people that have pulled out of this, huge banks have pulled out of this project and started to re-evaluate and re-assess.

Here in Western Canada, we are awaiting the federal decision on Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and people are preparing for direct action if it’s approved and construction begins. What are some of the lessons people can learn from Standing Rock?

One thing is making sure that there are really strong ties in the various communities that are organizing. There are going to be different approaches on how to stop the pipeline. Some folks are going to do non-violent direct actions, others are going to rally in the streets, others are going to try and push the legislature. Having cohesiveness between those three groups is really important.

Also, having a really strong legal team in place is really hugely important. We have raised a lot of donations from outside sources to help out with all of the charges, but it would have been helpful to have criminal attorneys, licensed locally, from the very beginning.

Be prepared for an overzealous prosecutor that may bring any number of charges. Maybe this will bring a response like Standing Rock, maybe not. But the response in Standing Rock has been very, very violent on the part of the police, and so be prepared for the emotional impacts of this, beyond just the physical. It’s more than just the actual act of being maced or something like that, it’s also the trauma after that. So having a really good network in place is important.

People often think about the impacts of fossil fuel projects and the discussion is often solely around the environmental impacts. Could you explain briefly why it’s also a feminist issue?

Actually on Tuesday there was this call for nationwide and then worldwide solidarity with Standing Rock, so all over the country and world there were direct actions.

But in Standing Rock there was direct action at a “man camp,” one of the places where thousands and thousands of male workers who influx into the area to build the pipeline and to run the rig and run the machines. It was an action that we actually tied into the missing and murdered Indigenous women movement here on the so-called Canada side of the so-called border.

All of these women have gone missing or been murdered in various situations, but a lot of this is tied to extractive industries. These man camps impact Indigenous communities because we’re right next to them. You’ve got thousands and thousands of male workers, and all of a sudden violence is going up, sex trafficking is going up, kidnapping, all of these frightening and violent acts against Indigenous people are going up. And so they brought in the Red Dress campaign to represent each missing and murdered Indigenous woman on Tuesday in Mandan, North Dakota, to kind of pull together the issues.

You know, we’re not just angry about the environment. Clean drinking water obviously is crucial for our survival, but it’s also human costs. This hurts people, this hurts communities, this hurts Indigenous women, it hurts women, period.

We've seen more protests across the continent since Donald Trump has become president-elect. Do you think we're seeing the start of a larger uprising of the political left?

I certainly hope so. I was a Native American advisor to Bernie Sanders, and that was a campaign that was largely run on grassroots organizing. It was almost the complete antithesis of Donald Trump. You had him over on one extreme, you had Bernie Sanders over on the left. Although I thought it was interesting that he was considered so extreme when he’s just talking about things like protecting the environment and taking money out of politics. But I guess that made him an extreme candidate.

I hope that people are realizing just how important it is to be engaged, and realizing that the status quo and just voting in President Barack Obama and thinking he was going to solve everything and you don’t have to do anything, doesn’t work. You have to be engaged in local politics, you have to be engaged in what’s happening in your own community to really make change, otherwise something like a Donald Trump makes it through.

So it’s very important that we organize and strengthen our own perspective because we can’t complain without actually doing something.

Many Dakota Access protesters have faced violence from law officials, including you. Can you talk a bit about what happened to you, and how you are doing now?

There has been a lot of violence from the North Dakota police and the many police they’ve actually brought in from other states. Oct. 27 was probably one of the more extreme instances. That was when they pushed out, they swept out, the treaty encampment that was directly in front of the pipeline construction. That day was marked by police officers pulling people out of sweat lodges and zip-tying them on the side of the road barely clothed, throwing them into jail cells for days at a time. I saw a huge group of teenage girls get maced directly in the face right next to me. I watched a gentleman on my left get pulled out by police and just get beaten with batons.

It was such an intense situation, I was calling out to the police officers: “Is this what you signed up to do? Did you sign up to protect the interests of the people or are you just protecting the pipeline? You’re hurting these people, over that.” And there’s construction right there. Some of the police officers started looking ashamed and putting their heads down, and that’s when their goon squad officer who had a less-lethal gun took aim directly at my face. I was pulled back by my partner behind me, and the round exploded right next to my head. They were aiming to hurt me, I didn’t really realize what happened until much later, when I realized how horrible that would have been.

On Friday (Nov. 11), we did a peaceful demonstration and construction stopped and we were given a dispersal notice and so we were leaving, and then I actually got arrested on a public road getting into my car. They targeted myself and my partner. I heard, “there they are,” and then saw him getting pulled out of the car forcefully by a police officer and then thrown to the ground, and then I was arrested, zip-tied on the side of the road for two hours, and then we were brought to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and we were put in dog cages for six hours. After that, we were full body strip searched, which was really humiliating and degrading, put into jail, and then I got charged with a crime around maybe ten and a half hours after the process started.

What were you charged with?

I was charged with trespass. As an attorney and someone who’s been helping to manage attorney resources to defend these cases, it was a firsthand experience of what a lot of folks have been going through, and some of them have been going through far worse.

Do you see an end in sight for these protests?

I left and the next day there was another demonstration, and this is for clean water. This is the Standing Rock Sioux reservation’s water, but it’s also the water for 14 million people who live along the Missouri River. This fight is much more than an uncomfortable experience in a jail cell. What we’re fighting for matters so much more than that. In my camp, for instance, people have been arrested multiple times and just keep fighting. They will fight until the very end.

What are some tangible ways that people outside of the U.S. can join in the fight against Dakota Access?

I always encourage people offsite to write letters to the Army Corps of Engineers and write letters to the White House. Even though you aren’t U.S. constituents, if I were a staffer it would mean a lot to see an international letter pushing my president or my agency to do something, that it matters that much that outside people are looking at it. There’s also sharing the word, sharing the message.

There are several different donation sites. I think one of the most important ones at this point is the Sacred Stone Legal Defense Fund. That’s crucial to the cases of the people who have been arrested and continue to be arrested. A lot of the sleeping bags and stuff are already there, so right now it’s about the legal aspects of it. Or if you know somebody who knows somebody who’s a criminal defense attorney. That kind of thing.

Or disrupting in your own community. That’s how you make change, when you start disrupting people’s everyday comforts. I think that matters, and I think we also have to come together as a community. We are in a global society now and we all have the same issues. These are the same issues. People here are fighting Kinder Morgan, but we’re also fighting Dakota Access and every other pipeline.

How are people from both sides of the border going to come together?

That’s where I’m really hopeful that we can show that there’s really not much of a border. I guess maybe the different mechanisms of how you push things through the Legislature or through Parliament or the legal structures in the provinces versus the states versus the federal government might be different, but the issues are the same.

What’s next for you? Are you going back to Standing Rock?

Yeah, I’ll be back in Standing Rock tomorrow. I’ve been there since August.

Do you have anything else you’d like to say about this issue?

Keep fighting.  [Tyee]

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