NAU Professor Returns From Gathering On Standing Rock Sioux Nation

Nov 22, 2016

Thousands of people have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, trying to stop construction of a massive oil pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. "Water Protectors" are concerned it will destroy sacred tribal land and contaminate drinking water. This weekend, they were subjected to water cannons at the hands of police. Dr. Michael Lerma is a professor of Native American politics at Northern Arizona University. He recently joined the gathering and spoke with KNAU's Aaron Granillo about his experience.

NAU professor of Native American politics, Michael Lerma, at Standing Rock demonstration in North Dakota
Credit Adrian Manygoats

AG: Dr. Lerma, what compelled you to travel to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and protest this pipeline?

ML: Well, I wanted to pitch in in some way. And now I get to correct you a little bit. I wanted to join the Water Protectors - is what they're calling themselves. They don't call themselves protestors. And so, they're just protecting that water source because they know you can't drink oil. And, so they're not really protesting as much as they are defending. But, wanted to go out there with a purpose, so as somebody that has some privileges that others there won't have, I wanted to lend that to a bigger issue than just myself. Something for the community.

AG: Is there any reasonable way, in your estimation, to possibly reroute this project so it avoids potential water contamination and steers away from sacred land?

ML: I don't know how you avoid that Missouri River. And, I'm not a geography scholar, but that's a lot of water. And that's a lot of water for all citizens of the United States. The technology for extracting resources seems really wonderful. They're really good at it. The clean up is 40 or 60 year old technology. There's no profit in that, so there's no research and development that goes into that. So, the Protectors have that concern. It's not just indigenous. It's not just sacred sites. It's water for everybody; all the children, and it's non-native kids, too. You know, the indigenous Protectors are protecting water for non-indigenous citizens so that their water stays clean. So, I don't know about redirecting it.

AG: The outgoing president and the incoming administration have different views on environmental policy, on fossil fuel production. What are your thoughts on this transition that's about to take place?

ML: It's my hope that this new administration will embolden protectors of the environment to take more action as best they can, as they see fit, using their talents to push back because we don't have to just sit down and do nothing. We can push back. And, so that's the message I see, you know, that we have to fight back. We have to fight back.