TIMBER LAKE, S.D. — Just as the sun peeked over the horizon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, youth of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began their slow jog north from Timber Lake, South Dakota, in the freezing cold with only their burning determination to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline keeping them warm.
The temperature hovered around 11 below zero during the first legs of the 93-mile journey. A runner, followed by a convoy of cars with more runners ready to take over, kicked off the relay run toward the finish line at the distant Oceti Sakowin Camp — the site of the 2016 Dakota Access pipeline protests.
The Standing Rock youth took up this mammoth effort to grab President Joe Biden’s attention and urge him to shut down the pipeline that has been a source of outrage for the tribal nation for years.
“We’re fighting for the next seven generations to ensure that they have clean water to drink from and to have a better climate for our people and the whole world,” said Maya Runnels, president of the Standing Rock Youth Council that organized the run.
The movement to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline that stretches back to protests over its construction in 2016 and 2017 has found new momentum in the last month.
Biden came into the White House with the most ambitious climate platform of any president before him, and his first weeks in office have been marked by a series of aggressive, environmentally targeted executive orders. For many, his Day One decision to cancel a permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline was taken as a signal of his willingness to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline, as well.
Standing Rock youth gathered to run on this frigid February morning in part because of a deadline imposed last month by a federal judge requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Biden administration to produce their plans for the pipeline, which no longer has a legal permit at its Missouri River crossing, by late morning on Wednesday — a deadline the court bumped backed to April before the group finished their run.
“I just can’t believe four years later we are still fighting for our lives,” said Annalee Rain Yellowhammer, vice president of the Standing Rock Youth Council.
The runners carried a small staff in their hands, which was also used in 2016 when Standing Rock youth organized a 2,000-mile relay run from Standing Rock to Washington D.C. to deliver a petition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking them to halt the pipeline’s construction.
The staff is culturally significant to the Lakota people, said Joseph White Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Youth Council. It is believed to have its own spirit, and by transferring the staff from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to Standing Rock, it signifies helping one another and unity, he said.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose reservation is located in South Dakota just south of the Standing Rock Reservation, is also advocating for the pipeline to shut down. Tuesday's runner began the relay run in Timber Lake to signify unity between the two tribal nations in the effort against the Dakota Access pipeline.
For leadership in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the dedication of young members on the reservation is a testament to the grassroots support that fueled the anti-pipeline movement for years.
“As we look back to 2016, it was the youth who really generated the discussion which eventually led to the protests and was part of our legal battle against (the) Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Standing Rock Vice Chairman Ira Taken Alive. “Whether it’s here at Standing Rock, or historically other protests, it’s always been the youth.”
Since protests over its construction drew the global spotlight four years ago, the Dakota Access pipeline has been a flashpoint in debates over environmental justice and North Dakota’s energy future. For months during the pipeline’s construction in 2016 and 2017, protestors camped near the site of its Lake Oahe crossing, just off the Standing Rock Reservation, where they said the pipeline risked polluting the water source for the reservation and endangered important cultural sites.
The police and the people demonstrating against the pipeline clashed after weeks of protests. Many Indigenous people were arrested.
Since then, the fate of the pipeline has been mired in a winding legal battle. Last summer, a D.C. judge ordered operators to shut down the pipeline immediately and until the completion of an extensive environmental review by the Army Corps. Dakota Access avoided the shutdown in subsequent court decisions, but an appeals court ruling last month — and the rollover of the Army Corps into the Biden administration’s hands — left the looming possibility of a sudden shutdown order.
Many runners and opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline said the pipeline is operating illegally. In the last year, high courts ruled that the pipeline is an “encroachment” on the federal property around the river crossing, though they have left it up to the Army Corps to decide what to do about it. And though the Army Corps was running up against a deadline to lay out its plans for the pipeline by Wednesday, a court order released late Tuesday afternoon gave the Biden administration breathing room, potentially delaying clarity on the new president’s intentions until April.
If Biden does choose to intervene, it would not be the first time that the White House has taken a side in the Dakota Access dispute. President Barack Obama moved to stop the pipeline’s construction near the end of his second term, a decision that was quickly reversed with the start of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Now, opponents of the pipeline point out that Biden could shutter the pipeline with the stroke of a pen. In the days leading up to the Army Corps’ voided deadline, Congressional Democrats and a roster of Hollywood celebrities urged him to take that action.
“The tribe, over the course of the past four and a half years, has maintained its fight, sometimes — often times — without publicity,” Taken Alive said. “We’re hoping that, with this revived publicity, we’ll be able to present our story to the Biden administration, just as Dakota Access presented their story to President Trump."
The organizers are also calling on Biden to shut down the Line 3 pipeline construction in Minnesota, because if Biden claims to be a president who prioritizes combating climate change, he should kill the pipeline being constructed in Minnesota as well, Runnels said.
Multiple Indigenous Line 3 protesters have also been arrested.
“Biden claims to be a climate president, but we haven’t seen that from him yet,” Runnels said.
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