On Friday, when a federal judge denied the request of the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction on a major oil pipeline being built near their reservation in North Dakota, tribal chairman David Archambault II was disappointed, but hardly shocked. That’s the way things have always gone: land taken, treaties broken, and little relief from the legal system. “We felt that the deck was stacked against us,” Archambault said on Monday. “It’s how tribes have been treated for 200 years.”
But what happened a few minutes later was truly surprising: Three federal agencies stepped in to suspend construction near Lake Oahe, where Energy Transfer Partners—the company backing the pipeline—planned to bore beneath the Missouri River, which the Sioux depend on for their water. The statement from the Justice and Interior departments and the Army acknowledged the “important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally.” The agencies called for a “serious discussion” with tribal governments about “whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
Thousands of people, including members of some 280 tribal nations, have gathered at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball to protest the pipeline, in what has been called the largest Native American gathering since the Battle of the Greasy Grass—or Little Bighorn. People kept arriving over the weekend, even after the government handed over an apparent victory. The agencies’ announcement signals that the protesters have been heard—no small thing, considering that earlier in the week, while traveling in Laos, President Obama responded to a question about the pipeline as if he’d hadn’t heard about it.
But it was no outright victory. The decision halts construction on a fraction of the pipeline’s route, namely the section immediately bordering and under Lake Oahe. The government also requested a “voluntary pause” to construction within a 20-mile radius, but it’s not clear yet if the pipeline company will comply. Federal agencies have limited authority throughout the remainder of the 1,172-mile construction route, because 99 percent of it crosses private land. “At this point, I don’t think we really know what’s going to happen next. We don’t have any details from the government about this reconsideration process,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the Standing Rock Sioux. “We’re taking them at their word that this will be a meaningful process.” Given the uncertainty, some people camped at Standing Rock are making plans to stay through the winter, even into next year.