Dispatches From Standing Rock: Day 1

Taken by ELVIA MENDOZA. On Highway 1806 just after being turned around by armed guards.

Only about one in three Americans knows the natural source of their drinking water. They turn on their tap, the water always comes out (even in extreme drought) and so there is seemingly no need to understand the infrastructure it takes to get water from lakes and rivers to the tap.

I wonder what the Standing Rock Sioux would think of that?

In case you’ve been so inundated by the election media blitz and you don’t know what I’m talking about, the Standing Rock Sioux are at the center of the standoff to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from the possibility of polluting their water source – Lake Oahe, a reservoir connected to the Missouri River. (The Missouri also provides fresh drinking water to 18 million Americans, not just the Sioux Tribe.)

You can be sure 100 percent of the population at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have long known the natural source of their drinking water – and not just after DAPL construction came so close to their water source.

Taken by ELVIA MENDOZA We followed the Missouri River from Bismarck south toward Standing Rock.
Taken by ELVIA MENDOZA. We followed the Missouri River from Bismarck south toward Standing Rock.

Pipeline Primer

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to connect oil wells in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to another pipeline in Patoka, Illinois, and ultimately to refineries on the Gulf Coast. This is how we get gas for our cars and trucks.

DAPL became public in 2014, with anticipated completion this year. That is, until it became time to run the pipeline beneath the Missouri River right by Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux protested, saying DAPL threatens their water supply and sacred grounds.

This past summer the tribe began taking legal action to halt pipeline construction. Then, in September, when a federal judge denied the tribe’s request for an injunction to block construction, Native Americans from across North America traveled to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. Subsequently, however, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior surprised the world by requesting “that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

It’s been a legal roller coaster, and I’m not an attorney so if you want to know more, Earth Justice presents a straight-forward legal timeline here, complete with PDFs of legal documents.

Selfie on the side of 1806. Elvia Mendoza on the left is our team photographer.
Selfie on the side of 1806. Elvia Mendoza on the left is our team photographer.

Why Are We at Standing Rock?

This standoff first got our attention when one of our staffers saw this Facebook video post about a violent September 4 confrontation at a DAPL construction site. Instead of posting the video, in an attempt to be neutral and not take sides on an issue I don’t know enough about, I tweeted this.

And then during the South By Southwest Eco Conference (SXSW Eco) in Austin the week of October 10, we got to hear firsthand the perspective of panelists from Standing Rock.

“ … [We must look toward] the future of our society, whether we’re going to stick to fossil fuel, or we’re going to move toward a just transition toward renewable, sustainable and localized energy production.” – Dallas Goldtooth at SXSW Eco

These are not words about protecting sacred sites, which is important. These are words that involve an enormous business proposition – capitalizing on renewable energy in a way like never before and rethinking our infrastructure. And that’s why we at EnviroMedia are interested in the issue of Standing Rock.

What probably seems to most like solely an emotional, environmental justice issue involving Native Americans is what we at EnviroMedia believe will be the biggest tipping point for change in the way we are aware of where our water and energy come from, and what our water and energy future will look like.

Politics Also Unprecedented

Now that Donald Trump has won the election, rumors began circulating on Friday that the Obama Administration would greenlight completion of DAPL as soon as Monday (tomorrow). Officials have denied this, saying “The process is ongoing and no decisions have been made.”

We shall see firsthand tomorrow, because we got here at Standing Rock yesterday. Instead of reading from the sidelines, some of us at EnviroMedia finally decided a couple of weeks ago to come see for ourselves what’s going on. Why? Standing Rock is an unprecedented nexus of water, energy, and environmental justice. These are issues we’ve been working on for 20 years at EnviroMedia. However, never before have we seen the three come together in such a visceral, public way for all the world to see.

I don’t know if it’s the election or apathy, but Standing Rock has not been covered well by mainstream media. Just like the climate change conferences. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Paris Climate Agreement, but did you know the 2016 climate conference is happening right now in Marrakesh, Morocco? Like Standing Rock, U.S. media have not covered global climate negotiations well, so we went to five of these conferences between 2007 and 2011, witnessing for ourselves various perspectives and reporting back via blogs and social media. Not to take a stand. Just trying to understand what’s really going on. It’s science, it’s technology, it’s politics, it’s culture, it’s the economy, and it’s finance.

ELVIA MENDOZA We were politely instructed to turn around at this roadblock on Highway 1806. The scene looks unchanged since Oct. 24 news reports of the bridge confrontation.
Taken by ELVIA MENDOZA. We were politely instructed to turn around at this roadblock on Highway 1806. The scene looks unchanged since Oct. 24 news reports of the bridge confrontation.

Day 1: What Went Down

Yesterday, we got on a plane in Austin, flew to Bismarck, and drove south along the Missouri River toward Standing Rock. What’s unfolded already has reinforced the lesson that you just don’t learn about real happenings via the Internet.

After we headed out of Bismarck, we had already driven south about 30 miles on Highway 1806 when we were stopped by militarized guards who politely directed us to turn around and gave us alternate directions to where we’re staying at Prairie Knights Casino (the only place to stay that’s not on the Reservation). Our encounter with one of the armed guards when down like this:

Her: Where are you headed?

Us: To Prairie Knights and then to Standing Rock.

Her: The bridge has been damaged by demonstrators so you can’t go through. [Gives directions for an alternate route.]

Us: Thanks. What happened to the bridge?

Her: You know, the demonstrators. They damaged it.

As we turned around, we snapped the above photo.

We were perplexed, slightly alarmed, and confused. We worried something had just gone down on the other side of that blockade. We had bad reception on our phones so couldn’t pull up any news stories on the 1806 bridge. And why didn’t we see any alternate route signs on 1806? Maybe there are some and we just missed them?

We managed to call a fellow EnviroMedian in Austin to look up anything on the 1806 bridge and she texted us this story.

If you click on the above link, you will see the exact militarized scene we encountered yesterday, and it’s been three weeks since this 1806 bridge showdown occurred.

So, did we just naively wander into the epicenter of the Standing Rock standoff? Yes. That bridge, which is miles from the reservation, is the site where Energy Transfer Partners wants to begin horizontal drilling below the Missouri River (where it connects to Lake Oahe).

Shame on us for not researching more about the bridge and how it might affect our route before we left Austin. But in hindsight, out of convenience, we probably would have avoided 1806 altogether on Day 1 and taken an alternate route to Prairie Knights. We might have planned to drive to this bridge blockade to check it out later, but I doubt it as we don’t want push our luck with law enforcement.

It’s our naiveté that led us to experience firsthand the literal roadblocks associated with DAPL.

Not Taking a Stand

To be clear, I am a businessperson. Our clients provide water and energy to millions. At the same time, we’ve always said, “We’re not tree huggers but we can put you in touch with a few.” We’re not just communicators but also bridge-builders between government, business and grassroots organizations.

It’s our jobs to communicate to consumers and stakeholders about natural resources, and in order to do that well, we must understand and present all sides. We must uncover all perspectives ourselves – not solely rely on the media. EnviroMedia can do that like any communications agency by commissioning a market research study. And we can and should go straight to the source whenever possible – from a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, to an unprecedented, high-stakes standoff about our natural resources in Cannon Ball, North Dakota (closest town to the Standing Rock scene).

People need to know where their water and energy come from because the more they do, the more efficient they will be with our not-unlimited natural resources. Because, as we’re witnessing at Standing Rock, our water and energy have to come from somewhere, and it has implications – to people, to land, to history, to industry, to jobs, to the economy, to government, to the law, to politics, and even banks. These are moral, ethical, and financial decisions to be made and the world is no place for apathy now. Not apathy by us consumers, the government and the business world. And let’s face it, the possibilities for innovation in water and energy are pretty cool and can be financially rewarded to the pioneering change-makers who are paying attention and willing to take risk.

Stick with us as we post daily from Standing Rock through Wednesday. Our goal: speak to all sides, learn and share. Please follow the journey here and on Twitter.

Footnote on Paris Agreement

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, the world is watching to see how the U.S. might try to get out of the Paris Agreement. For a quick update, click here. But that’s a whole other story. Or is it?

Originally published on Huffington Post