Obama expresses support for native Americans in pipeline clash

In an interview with social media news organization NowThis, the president called for peace and restraint on both sides. He also said that the US Army Corps of Engineers is looking into alternative paths for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Mike Mccleary/The Bismarck Tribune/AP
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters stand in the foreground and in the waist-deep water of the Cantapeta Creek, northeast of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, near Cannon Ball, N.D., Wed., Nov. 2.

As the Dakota Access Pipeline protests enter their fourth month, activists have received major support from a friend in high places: President Obama.

On Tuesday, the president voiced his support of the rights of native Americans and announced that the US Army Corps of Engineers was looking for alternatives to shift the path of the pipeline away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Construction of the pipeline had already been halted by the Corps to review the project in light of the protests, which began in July.

"As a general rule, my view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of native Americans," Obama told NowThis. "And I think, right now, that the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline."

While many protesters have expressed gratitude for Mr. Obama's support, some say that he should be doing more to stop the pipeline's construction. This criticism has been fueled by the fact that the Corps has provided no timetable for finishing its review, even as the conflict escalates between protesters and local law enforcement.

Obama's comments are some of the most explicitly supportive of the native American protesters to come from a high-ranking member of the federal government, which has largely stayed quiet on the issue. Many of the demonstrators have been calling on Obama for more concrete support since the protests began.

"Obama has not delivered all his supporters wanted, but he has done a lot," Michael Oberg, professor of history at SUNY Geneseo, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "And for a president to speak out on native American issues, in any context, is unfortunately extremely rare."

Part of the reason Obama has been so reticent to  speak on the pipeline protests is due to some of the legal complexities of the case, according to Bruce Huber, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.

"In stark contrast to natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines fall largely under state jurisdiction, not federal," Dr. Huber tells the Christian Science Monitor in an email. "The federal government's role in the Dakota Access pipeline is quite limited. A reroute of the pipelines is certainly possible, but it will ultimately require the cooperation of state officials and others outside the White House and the Army Corps."

As Obama nears the end of his final term, he is focusing more on his presidential legacy, which may have played a role in his willingness to support the protest, however mildly. And the continued outcry on social media has made the Standing Rock protests hard to ignore.

"We’re going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans," the president said in the interview.

Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault welcomed Obama's statement, and said that the Corps should go farther, stopping construction completely and doing a full environmental study on the potential impact of the pipeline. The tribe is concerned about damage to sacred lands as well as potential water supply contamination if the pipeline should rupture.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry oil across a 1,172-mile stretch through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa to a shipping point at Patoka, Ill. The initial plan routed the pipeline across the Missouri River, which raised concerns about contaminating the drinking water for Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota.

The path was then shifted to within a half-mile of the border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Since the protests began, regular clashes with local law enforcement have led to multiple arrests of native Americans and other supporters at Sacred Stone Camp. Protesters have frequently blamed law enforcement officers for using unnecessary force, while law enforcement claims that the protests are unlawful and often violent.

But in the NowThis interview, Obama called for peaceful cooperation on both sides.

"There's an obligation for protesters to be peaceful, and there's an obligation for authorities to show restraint," the president said. "I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard, that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt."

Obama's comments come as the protests have grown in popularity in social media, including "hashtag activism" on Facebook, as the Monitor's Gretel Kauffman explained:

North Dakota's Standing Rock Indian Reservation was virtually flooded with visitors this week, thanks to thousands of Facebookers who "checked-in" to the location to show support for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The phenomenon began as an effort to assist protesters, as a viral status claimed that the local sheriff's department was using social media to target demonstrators – a claim the department denied. But even after Snopes had declared the rumor "unproven," the check-ins continued, with many posters explaining the move as a symbolic show of solidarity.

While Obama may have been aware of this Facebook activism, says Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, executive director of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, he tells the Monitor that the credit for breaking the president's silence should go to the activists at the camps themselves and their ongoing efforts to stay on the radar of media on all platforms.

"Obama's announcement reflects the recognition that the current protests have been of unprecedented breadth and intensity," says Dr. Pérez-Bustillo. "Social media has played a key role in channeling this impact, but ultimately the key factor has been the depth of engagement by indigenous activists and their allies within the US and beyond who have succeeded in positioning this struggle nationally and internationally."

Obama's support may bolster protesters' confidence as temperatures drop at the camp. The movement faces an uncertain future after Election Day, since neither major party presidential candidate has explicitly spoken out about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. But the unprecedented unity among the various native American tribes and non-indigenous supporters at Standing Rock has many of the protesters optimistic about the outcome.

"A lot of hard things have been done to our people," BJ Kidder, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, previously told the Monitor. "It's finally changing, slowly, after years of barely changing."

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