Criminalization of Defenders: Standing Rock and Beyond

This report on Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects would be incomplete without attention to severe threats faced by frontline leaders and communities when they speak out and take action. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is a notable example of these threats — what happened in Standing Rock should not be seen as an anomalous incident, but rather a disturbing commonality across Indigenous resistance efforts worldwide.

The grassroots fight against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline began in early 2016. The Bakken oil pipeline was expected to transport crude oil from the traditional lands of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations to an oil terminal in southern Illinois. The Dakota Access route crossed the treaty territories of the Oceti Sakowin people near the reservation boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and crossed beneath the Missouri River on the Tribe’s northern border. The Tribes and their citizens saw the pipeline as a serious threat to water resources, treaty rights, and sacred cultural sites, and mobilized one of the largest sustained Indigenous-led protests in the living memory of the United States.

Anishinaabe land defender faces off against North Dakota police forces, Standing Rock 2016, photo courtesy of Indigenous Environmental Network.

In response to the mobilization against Dakota Access, local and state officials used military tactics to suppress public protest and intimidate water protectors. In May 2017, The Intercept reported on the activities of TigerSwan, a “mercenary” private contractor hired by Energy Transfer Partners to quell the efforts of water defenders at Oceti Sakowin, Standing Rock, North Dakota.13 The Intercept’s initial report — the first in a series of 16 — was based on internal company documents and described illegal actions taken against peaceful Indigenous defenders and misinformation given to local police forces to attack thousands of people encamped near the Dakota Access Pipeline’s Missouri River crossing.

TigerSwan communications described the peaceful gathering as “jihadist” and “terrorist,” and the private contractor used military-grade weapons and tactics to undercut, discredit, and punish the defenders. Tactics included infiltration, provocation, disruption of communications, aerial surveillance, and radio eavesdropping. Intimidation involved the use of large and visible forces of heavily armed personnel and personnel carriers, as well as drones and air surveillance. The “task force” arrayed against the defender included agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Justice Department and Marshals Service, and U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as state and local law enforcement and police. TigerSwan transmitted daily reports “from the battlefield” to Energy Transfer Partners.

Local authorities arbitrarily arrested and harassed water protectors, and both local and TigerSwan forces used aggressive attack dogs and other forms of physical violence, including water cannons in freezing conditions. Despite later vindication by courts, thousands of victims of these abuses — the vast majority of whom were Indigenous – remain scarred by these clubs and One young white supporter had to have her arm amputated, and two Indigenous women lost eyes due to tear gas canisters. Hundreds were left with arrests on their records and files at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, with gratuitous charges including trespassing despite being arrested on public roads. The brutality of the private security forces played a major role in provoking public outrage.

In addition to physical violence, the Standing Rock Reservation was punished economically by the U.S. State of North Dakota, and the hard-won victories of Indigenous resistance were overturned when newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump overruled President Barack Obama’s denial of key permits and facilitated the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

During the height of the Dakota Access resistance, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Expert Member Edward John visited Oceti Sakowin and condemned the violation of human and Indigenous rights by Energy Transfer Partners, TigerSwan and federal, state, and local security forces. Tauli-Corpuz specifically decried the company and government’s violation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s right to land.14

A line of prayer ties separate North Dakota police and water protectors, Standing Rock 2016. Photo courtesy of Dallas Goldtooth.

In her 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Tauli-Corpuz presented a thematic study on the criminalization of and attacks against Indigenous human rights defenders. Citing her own investigations and those of other Special Rapporteurs and the Organization of American States, she identified numerous rights violated at Standing Rock, including that of Self-Determination and the right to lands and territories.

The report situated these abuses in a global context in which governments and industry intimidate and persecute Indigenous communities when they act to defend their lands, territories, water, food sovereignty and security, and ways of life.15 Tauli-Copuz cited specific instances of heavy-handed intimidation through militarization, including

illegal surveillance, disappearances, forced evictions, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, limits on freedom of expression and assembly, stigmatization, travel bans, and sexual harassment. Authorities in Latin America and elsewhere have also utilized false allegations, unfounded prosecutions, and terrorism charges to intimidate Indigenous communities and leadership. These attacks have now spread to social media, where hate speech and racial discrimination add to the violence ofteninflicted on Indigenous leadership and defenders.

The Special Rapporteur confirmed that Standing Rock was not an anomaly — intimidation of Indigenous communities and their defenders is occurring at an alarming rate world- wide. She also cited the worst human rights violation of all — the right to life – and reported data on the killings of Indigenous defenders.

In 2017, 312 defenders in 27 countries were murdered in defense of land, the environment, and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.16

Also in 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox cited a Global Witness report that environmental defenders were being killed at the rate of four per week. He described the global situation as an “[…] epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, [and] eliminate anyone who stands in the way.”17 In 2021, the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica reported to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that an Indigenous defender was assassinated every two days in the Amazon Basin of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru.18

These killings not only eliminate vocal opposition, but also intimidate other movement leaders, families, and entire communities and regions. This deadly record of harming has not abated — it has held steady at four per week and disproportionately impacts Indigenous defenders, according to an updated 2019 report from Global Witness:19

“Indigenous Peoples continue to be at a disproportionate risk of reprisals, with 40% of victims belonging to Indigenous communities. Between 2015 and 2019, over one-third of all fatal attacks have targeted Indigenous people — even though Indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population.”20

Traditional Indigenous Peoples have always felt a great responsibility to the Earth and its well-being — this has been their duty as those closest to the land. This duty extends to the protection of Mother Earth and its entire web of life, including the struggle against climate change. In spite of gross violations of their inherent individual and collective rights of Sovereignty and Self-Determination, Indigenous peoples continue to resist extractive colonialism in all forms.

“We move with spiritual foundation, grounded in our love for the land, for we know the self-evident truth of our struggle — the land is our sovereignty, and our sovereignty is in the land.”