Cover StoryNewsResearch

Standing Rock weighs heavily on Eugene participants

On Oct. 10, the City of Eugene will recognize Indigenous People’s Day for the first time. This comes on the heels of the city council’s declaration of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.   

A month ago and over a thousand miles away, images of bloodied attack dogs, private security contractors with batons, and impassioned demonstrators raised awareness of the events at Standing Rock.

Over the summer, information about the Dakota Access Pipeline filtered its way through Facebook feeds and news sources without widespread coverage. That changed when Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, reporting from Standing Rock Reservation, followed protesters through a fence along a utility easement near the Missouri River on Sept. 3.

That day, protesters stopped large bulldozers from continuing construction on a pipeline that would connect the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations to refineries in Pakota, Illinois. Actions taken by security forces contracted by Energy Transfer Partners — parent corporation of DAPL — resulted in mace and dog bite injuries. These actions thrust the mounting hostilities at Standing Rock into the national spotlight.  


The demonstration camp in North Dakota. (Courtesy of Peter Capossela)

Peter Capossela, a 1988 UO law graduate, is an environmental lawyer working to defend the cultural and environmental claims of the Standing Rock Reservation. He believes DAPL and the Army Corps of Engineers broke the law when their bulldozers tore through the earth, disturbing culturally significant artifacts.

“Dakota Access has taken advantage of regulatory loopholes between state and federal law,” Capossela said. “That is how they were able to begin construction in areas outside of federal jurisdiction. The Corps of Engineers exercised federal jurisdiction very narrowly looking at its responsibilities for environmental use.”

He claims ETP should never have been permitted to build because the appropriate cultural impact assessments were not completed before the issuance of permits. Capossela believes ETP was exploiting this loophole by using pre-existing permits to build the pipeline at Standing Rock.

According to Capossela, ETP has access to the land but doesn’t have the right to construct the pipeline. Executive Order 12898 issued by President Clinton in 1994 says that minority groups — like the Standing Rock Sioux — and low income populations should not be disproportionately burdened by environmental risks.

Kirby Brown, UO professor and Cherokee tribal member, worked on a letter — signed by 37 members of the Native Strategies Group and allies — that details why Standing Rock resonates with native peoples in Eugene.

In an interview with the Emerald, Brown said “the settler-colonial context” of the United States “basically means [the United States] has claimed authority over indigenous life and land and resources.” He continued, “That context is operating everywhere across the country in relation to tribal communities, in relation to sacred sites, in relation to traditional foods, traditional cultural practices.”

The Army Corps of Engineers’ disregard for the reservation land is seen in the false impression that the Standing Rock Sioux were consulted before the pipeline project neared the area, according to Capossela.

I think there’s often a very big gap in the legal protections of indigenous rights and our land. – Sigvanna Topkok, UO law student
“The notion the Corps of Engineers consulted with the tribe in a meaningful and culturally appropriate manner and that the tribe’s concerns were incorporated into the Corps of Engineers decision-making process, that notion is preposterous,” said Capossela.

Construction on the pipeline at the contested crossing of the Missouri River is temporarily halted. “They cannot do construction within a 20-mile buffer of the Missouri River pending further order of the appeals panel,” Capossela said.

Capossela told the Emerald he expects the decision of the three-person panel of judges in the Washington D.C. Federal Court of Appeals to be reached Oct. 10.

Sigvanna Topkok is following in the footsteps of Capossela by challenging the settler-colonial paradigm through legal means. Topkok said she is attending UO Law School “for reasons very similar to what’s happening in North Dakota: environmental law and how it impacts the indigenous people.” Topkok, current president of the National Native American Law Students Association, sees her UO education as a way to make a greater impact.

“I think there’s often a very big gap in the legal protections of indigenous rights and our land. I wanted to attend the UO to further educate myself to go back and work for indigenous communities on these issues,” said Topkok.

People from all parts of the country have made their way to Standing Rock in a show of support for the indigenous people standing their ground. Many more are heading there now as the protest camps prepare for a harsh winter.  

Nikos Pastos, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is traveling to the site of the demonstrations. Pastos believes he has a responsibility to help protect the interests of the people of Standing Rock. He and his associate Carl “Angut’aq” Wassilie made a stop at the UO Many Nations Longhouse as guest speakers for a panel discussion on DAPL.

The two men spoke to about 25 students and community members at the event hosted by the Native American Student Union on Oct. 6. Afterwards, the Emerald spoke with both.

“I’m not willing to die for what I believe in; I’m willing to live for it,” said Pastos after the panel discussion. “What that means is to take a measured, balanced approach and a long-term view of the change that has to happen. We need to recognize the phenomenal historic moment that’s happening with all of these tribal nations coming together.

Pastos and Wassilie have worked together on ecological issues affecting Native American communities with Alaska’s Big Village Network.


The demonstration camp in North Dakota. (Courtesy of Peter Capossela)

“It’s a paradigm shift because now, [Native Americans] are the ones that have the opportunity to defend America from its own corporations that are trying to destroy our water, which the government — both federal and state — is allowing to go forth without any public process, administrative oversight [or] any type of opportunity for American citizens to be able to have insight into what is actually occurring in our major waterways,” Wassilie said.

Ryder Coen, a UO junior majoring in environmental studies, travelled from Eugene to join the demonstrations in North Dakota. Coen said “Mni waconi,” which means “water is life” in the Lakota Sioux dialect, was the mantra he heard repeated during the time he spent at the camp.

Coen stressed that the people camping at Standing Rock do not consider themselves protestors but are instead engaged in a “stand of protection.” This distinction has great significance to those at the demonstrations. According to Coen, they are not occupying others’ lands but are instead protecting indigenous land from being built upon by ETP.

A sense of unity and momentum is growing from the struggle against DAPL. Capossela expressed the optimism and energy he felt when he visited the camp at Standing Rock.

“The protest camp is an awesome place. It’s kind of like a Native American United Nations because there are so many tribes camped out there,” said Capossela. “It’s on a different level than the legal and administrative machinations that are going on between the tribe and the government. It’s at a different level. It’s at a better level and that gives one hope that we will be able to stop this thing in the long run.”

Do you appreciate independent student journalism? Emerald Media Group is a non-profit organization. Please consider a donation to support our mission.



Tell us what you think:

Carl Segerstrom

Carl Segerstrom