Standing Rock has become a worldwide symbol of nonviolent yet firm resistance to highly damaging extraction projects. These projects not only contribute to global warming by continuing to burn fossil fuels and release harmful emissions into the atmosphere, but also violate human rights in many ways, in particular those of indigenous peoples whose land and environment suffer from dire consequences.

Pressenza has been closely following the events around the struggle at Standing Rock, which had received support both from within the US by other Native tribes, human rights and environmental movements, politicians like Bernie Sanders, celebrities and millions of individuals via Facebook, and also from many other organisations, groups and people all over the world who are concerned about our planet’s future being threatened by powerful corporations with profit-orientated policies.

This growing counter-movement can be summed up in the term “Divestment”, which has proved to be the only way to try and stop harmful mega-projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last year saw a growing number of banks and investors pulling their money from extraction projects due to public pressure aimed at reminding them that their own high standards set to protect human rights and indigenous people’s rights often exist on paper, but not yet in reality.

A delegation of Indigenous women leaders of the Standing Rock Movement and their allies toured Europe last month to rally support in their quest for justice regarding violations of Indigenous rights and environmental justice. During their stop in Munich, we talked to Jackie Fielder (Mnicoujou Lakota and Mandan-Hidatsa, Campaign Coordinator of Lakota People’s Law Project and organizer with Mazaska Talks), Michelle Cook (Diné/Navajo, human rights lawyer and a founding member of the Water Protector Legal Collective at Standing Rock) and Tara Houska (Anishinaabe, tribal attorney, National Campaign Director of Honor the Earth, former advisor on Native American affairs to Bernie Sanders) along with Osprey Orielle Lake, Executive Director of WECAN Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, who organised the tour and whose objective is to empower women to develop nonviolent, inclusive solutions to the problems humanity faces today.

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There is a growing worldwide trend towards divesting from fossil fuels, not least owing to the struggle at Standing Rock. In your opinion, are European banks more susceptible to public pressure than American banks?

Michelle: Absolutely. For example, we have travelled to Norway, Switzerland and Germany. And the reason we chose Norway in particular is that it has domesticated international human rights into its legal system. So, as a country, they are making steps towards implementing human rights standards. This isn’t the case in the United States. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on indigenous people’s rights James Anaya, as well as the most recent Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, have both said that the United States’ domestic legal system does not align with indigenous peoples’ human rights. And also, because we are getting a lot of push-back from this current administration, it’s necessary that we go outside of the United States to seek support from allied nations and organisations to protect indigenous peoples’ cultural survival and physical existence.

It seems surprising that this is necessary in the first place, given the narrative that at least we were told here in Europe when we grew up which is that all the injustice done to the First Nations peoples in the past has been made good and that they have all their rights back…

Michelle: There is a big difference between rhetoric and reality, between what is said on paper and what is actually lived in the lives and bodies of indigenous peoples and women. And I would say also that if we look at Supreme Court decisions from the 1800s onwards, these court  decisions are very clear in their position of indigenous peoples as a racially inferior population whom the United States must protect as a ward.

Tara: You know, there’s a common thought that Obama was this great president. Standing Rock – this movement – happened under President Obama’s administration. So, the change of administration really has not affected indigenous peoples in the United States. It’s one person after another that says something and doesn’t do it.

Michelle: In the U.S. it’s difficult because the only place that indigenous peoples have recourse to actually change this law is by congressional action or reversal of Supreme Court precedent. And if we have a court that still maintains racial stereotypes, that bleeds into their opinions. So, for example, when we met with Credit Suisse, they said: “We just want to make sure that you don’t bring weapons or tomahawks or spears, so that’s why we wrote you that email about not bringing weapons”. Now this is the racial stereotype that these decision-makers still hold

It is known that racial discrimination is a big problem also for the Black community in the U.S. The Black Lives Matter movement supported Standing Rock at the time. Is there a continuation of mutual support and collaboration?

Tara: Yes, absolutely. I work with them on mascot issues, on dehumanisation of Native Americans in media representation and the stereotypes of football teams and all that, which I know is very prominent here in Germany, that this “noble savage” imagery is still pervasive. We work closely with Black Lives Matter because they are very targeted as a population. It’s been very targeted by the police. Native Americans are right alongside them. By demographics we are actually the most likely to be killed in the hands of the police in the United States. Even though we’re less than 2 % of the population. When we have interactions with police officers, it often turns deadly. And they understand that and the collaboration of and support from Black Lives Matter and all kinds of different movements from around the country, immigration, all these different places was incredible. And they are still there by our sides.

On your European tour you are meeting with banks and insurers like UBS, Credit Suisse, Zürich Insurance, Swiss Re, Bayern LB, Allianz, Deutsche Bank and others who are still involved in the financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Yet there have been others who have already stopped their investments, like BNP Paribas in France.

Tara: BNP Paribas has made a huge statement about its decision to withdraw its business relationships from anyone funding tar sands or shale oil and to stop arctic drilling.

BankTrack, who is monitoring and fostering divestment campaigns, is calling on other banks to follow BNP Paribas, starting with banks who have signed up to the Equator Principles. What are the Equator Principles and do they really provide adequate protection for the environment and indigenous rights?

Jackie: They are the presumed gold standard for financing of projects at a project level and they come with environmental and social risk management. They let those countries do what they want with indigenous people. And right now in the United States the standard of consultation is consultation – not consent, which is permission. To consult is per definition to exchange information, it’s not asking for permission. The Equator Principles are completely broken. They’re not even really abided by when it comes to actual projects. The Dakota Access Pipeline was Equator Principles compliant, but clearly it has no benefits for the environment and it’s violating internationally recognised standards of who they’re trying to represent.

Michelle: We ask these banks to follow their law that when their clients abuse human rights or inflict violence against indigenous peoples, that they will exclude that client from their investment universe. In the case of Standing Rock, we have clear discrete concrete human rights violations resulting from Energy Transfer Partners. And we want that client to be excluded from the investments of these various banks that we’re meeting in Norway, Germany and Switzerland.

In your opinion, what can we do in Europe to support the Standing Rock movement, the divestment campaign and indigenous rights in general?

Tara: When indigenous peoples are coming over, flying 5,000 miles to meet with these banks, they’re looking at us and saying: “We don’t have enough evidence”. We’re right there in their faces. We have court documents and we have UN reports and we have all these things and they’re still saying: “Well, we’re looking at the evidence”. We need citizens to say: “Hey, these are our banks, that’s our money that’s invested. We can do something about it!”

So, would you say that actually pulling one’s money out of a bank is really the most effective thing to do?

Jackie: Yes. Energy Transfer is suing Greenpeace, BankTrack and other people at other organisations that we work with on a daily basis. They’re suing them because they’re having a hard time financing the other projects as a result of divestment.

Michelle: And I would add to that we must find a way to control banks and corporations. There has to be a way that we are able to hold these institutions accountable. Because it’s not just a problem for Indian people when we can’t hold these banks accountable to human rights, it’s a problem for every citizen in the world because these banks impact everyone. So, it’s a global problem, but we’re looking at it from our angle. But we need laws that will hold them accountable when they break the law. And right now there is not a lot of that available for victims who have been brutalized by either corporations or by fraudulent actions by banks.

Tara: The world is changing. It’s changing very rapidly. And the world is not going to wait as the corporations are still running the narrative and controlling all the money. And so it’s on us, as organisers, as citizens, as people who want to survive into the next generation to do something. We have to do something.

Indigenous people are some of the most poverty-stricken, oppressed people in the United States. We have very, very, very little. And those people are the ones fighting for a future for everyone. But they are successful because it costs these companies billions of dollars in divestment. It is dedicated groups of people that really care, that can make the big change.

Michelle: Our request would be that any company that is going to propose energy development in indigenous territories must seek meaningful and effective consultation with the objective of getting Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). That should be the standard for all development throughout the world that occurs within indigenous peoples’ traditional land and territories. That should be the standard and that’s the standard that we’re working for.

Are there many city councils across the U.S. who have already pulled out of these kinds of investments?

Jackie: Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, New York’s mayor made a statement, several cities have been looking into it, Washington D.C. and about four others, Santa Fe, too.

The fight at Standing Rock has added a strong spiritual foundation to nonviolent resistance, summarized in the wonderful slogan “Defend the Sacred”. How can this spirit continue and in your opinion how can we instill more much needed spirituality in our societies?

Michelle: This system despiritualizes human beings in order to control them. To make them docile, to rob them of their true power. What I hope is that we understand that during the course of western civilization, 500 years of war against tribalism, including Europe, including women being burned, this territory was robbed of its medicine people, ages ago with the Spanish Inquisition. So, there’s a reason why there is a disconnection, it didn’t happen naturally. It happened by deliberate force, to take that power from the women and to take that power from the people. But I think now, there’s a time to heal, to heal that circle of life. Part of what we’re doing I think is trying to heal that, to say we can’t continue on abusing the Earth and the resources. We have to learn how to live with the Earth again. We have to learn how to be a relative. We are all connected in a web of life. If you look at a spider’s web, if you move one area of that web, it will ripple throughout the whole web. And that web is delicate, and that’s how life is. Life is like a spider’s web, very delicate. And so we have to be very careful with one another, with what we do and say. Because we influence the world around us. So, the more that we can attune ourselves to understanding that we live in relationships with one another, that what you do impacts me.

There is this old saying that says “While I’m in my canoe and you are in your boat, we share the same river of life. What befalls you, will befall me”. So we share this planet together. We share these resources, we share a future. And so we have to work together. We have to see each other as relatives, as human beings. We have to work together for the seventh generation. I hope that all of the world, and especially those who have been decimated by colonization, can rekindle and reconnect their spirit to their power.

More information about the delegation:


 Image by Teena Pugliese, Women’s Indigenous Media – From left: Michelle Cook, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Tara Houska and Jackie Fielder in Norway as part of DAPL divestment delegation