UConn Expert on the Pipeline Protest at Standing Rock


Winter arrived in Standing Rock at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota, Dec. 5, the day after the Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement needed to build the pipeline. Despite driving snow and 40-plus mile an hour wind a group of 700-plus veterans and water protectors marched toward the barricade on highway 1806. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This fall, UConn professor Barbara Gurr visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota twice and witnessed firsthand the dedication and determination of those who actively oppose a proposal that would run an oil pipeline near the reservation, threatening its water supply. The trips have impacted her teaching and research, allowing her to see the complexity of a controversial issue that has received very little media attention.

Gurr, a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor, knows that the Department of the Army’s decision Sunday not to approve the easement needed to build the pipeline near the reservation is a victory that should be celebrated. However, she also recognizes that there is still work to do in Standing Rock. She calls Sunday’s ruling a “pause” in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle to defend their land, their water, and their treaty rights.

Gurr describes her trips and how she brings what she learned to her UConn classrooms.

Q: What was the atmosphere like during your most recent visit to the water defender camps at Standing Rock Reservation? What did you see? What was the feeling among the protesters?

A: I went to Oceti Sakowin camp for the second time the Friday after Thanksgiving; it was less than a week after the horrific events of November 20, when police attacked the water protectors with rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades and water cannons (in subfreezing temperatures). I arrived the same day as the Army Corps of Engineers’ letter stating that people at the camp would have to leave by Dec. 5, ironically for “safety” reasons. The mood at the camps (both Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone) was complicated, but much as it has been for the last several months. Folks were angry, but positive. Mostly, people at the camps were determined. As a new relative said to me about the actions of the police and Army Corps, “They think they’re going to scare us. Don’t they know they just make us stronger? We’re not going anywhere.”

Q: What about events at Standing Rock Reservation do you find most interesting ?

A: I am regularly amazed by the staunch and unwavering commitment to non-violence. Every prayer ceremony, every public ceremony, every action is preceded and guided by non-violent principles. When faced with such blatant civil rights and human rights violations, when faced with such a disproportionate response in the form of violence, false arrests, intimidation, and preventing access for supplies and emergency vehicles, the water protectors have consistently and insistently responded with nonviolence. I had the opportunity to join a Women’s Walk on my second trip to the camps. We walked to the barricaded bridge and spoke with police. We sang prayer songs and danced a round dance (which is a friendship dance). We told a few dirty jokes. We wore white skirts and carried white flags, and the whole time we were there, two snipers hid behind an armored vehicle with their guns pointed at us. But I’m also impressed by how well everyone at the camps is taken care of. There’s always a place to warm up, no matter who you are. There’s always a hot cup of coffee available. There’s medical care for everyone. There’s food for everyone. Everyone is welcome, included, and expected to contribute through their labor or the supplies they bring, because everyone is a part of this struggle. The Standing Rock Lakota are statistically some of the poorest people in the country – two of the ten poorest counties make up that reservation – yet no one is turned away from care, no one is excluded, unless they break the very simple rules: No drugs, No alcohol, No violence. Breaking those rules gets you ostracized. Treating your fellow water protectors with dignity and respect gets you the same kind of treatment.

Q: How do the events at Standing Rock Reservation relate to your research?

A: One of my primary areas of research is reproductive justice in Native America. Those who work in reproductive justice understand that there can be no reproductive justice without water; there can be justice without land; there can be no justice without dignity, human rights, civil rights. So my interest in reproductive justice for Native Americans centers on Native women, but necessarily includes so many other issues with which Native people contend, often uniquely. What’s happening at Standing Rock is primarily and immediately about keeping the water safe, and respecting land that the Lakota people consider sacred. But it is also, always, about treaty rights and Native sovereignty; about human, cultural, and civil rights; about the energy and economic future of our country; it’s about the water and so much more. It’s a rich place to consider justice; what it has looked like in the past, and what it can look like in the future.

Q: You’ve been to Standing Rock Reservation twice. How do you highlight what you’ve learned on these trips in the classroom? How about on the UConn campus as a whole?

A: I’ve done lectures in my own and other classes across campus, as well as a public lecture in early November. I was also honored to be included in a NoDapl rally students organized on campus November 15. I teach for the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program which is a great place to think, teach, and write intersectionally, so I’m looking forward to developing a Native Studies course for WGSS – we need far more of those on our campus.

Q: Why is it important for more people to know details about events at Standing Rock Reservation, and what can the UConn community do to make a difference?

A: The narrative that’s been put out about Standing Rock has been deeply riddled with half-truths and blatant falsehoods, which is a phenomena we’ve been seeing increasingly in general, I think. As well, the mainstream media paid virtually no attention to this for months; only recently have we seen a very few, short reports from the New York Times or CNN. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has access to print and visual media; they used that access to blatantly lie to the citizens of North Dakota and the U.S. about events at the camps and protest sites. The water protectors had alternative media, social media, and their own drone specialists to tell a different story. This differential access to the media, and thus to controlling the information that the American public receives, is in itself why it’s important for people to know more details. Beyond that, we’re really talking about a large, complex host of issues from land and water rights, to treaty rights and environmental justice. 18 million people will be affected if and when that pipeline breaks under the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Not just Native people. The green energy industry posted better profits in the last quarter than the extractive energy industry did in the entire last year; that’s an economic indicator that as a nation, we’re moving in the wrong direction with oil pipelines. Not everyone can pay attention to everything, all the time; capitalism keeps us busy. But everyone should have at the very least a sense that they didn’t get the whole story about Standing Rock.

The UConn community has already reached out to make a difference in so many ways; I personally know many students, both undergraduate and graduate as well as alumni, who traveled out to Standing Rock over the last couple weeks. The Native American Cultural Society Office, together with other campus units, sponsored a rally for Solidarity Day and helped feed the people who came to my public lecture in November. Another student of mine was so inspired by the defenders at Standing Rock she created a zine; another is working on a short public service announcement about it. UConn has been amazing in its response to Dakota Access Pipeline, but the fight isn’t over yet. I strongly encourage everyone I talk to to donate to the Standing Rock tribe – they have a donation button on their reservation website. The money donated to the tribe helps to provide water, food, and other necessities to the defenders in the camps as well as covering legal fees for the tribe.

Q: What do you think about the decision issued this past weekend?

A: The latest news, released Sunday December 4, is a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers indicating that they would not approve the easement for Energy Transfer Company to build the pipeline under the Mni Sose, the Missouri River, at its planned location. This followed three federal offices (the Army Corps’ office, the Justice Department, and the White House) urging Energy Transfer to wait before building further while the Army Corps considered the situation; Energy Transfer refused to wait and continued to build. It’s important to note that the Army Corps of Engineers in fact never did the full environmental assessment that the Tribe requested several times over the last two years; it is long-standing federal policy for this to be done, and the Army Corps was negligent in not doing it sooner. The Army Corps also “fast-tracked” the permit for Energy Transfer almost a  year ago, without the Tribal consultation that is required by federal policy.

The Army Corps of Engineers decision now to deny the easement comes late, but is fully lawful and in keeping with federal policy (although not always federal practice). The water protectors have won a hard-earned pause in their battle through their very real sacrifice and unshakeable commitment to defending their land, their water, and their treaty rights. But the battle is not, in fact, over; this is only a pause. We deserve to celebrate this historic moment, virtually unprecedented in our nation’s history; but then we must get back to work. In the words of my relatives from Oceti Sakowin camp: “we’re not going anywhere.”

By: Amanda Falcone | Story courtesy of UConn Today

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