By Gregg McQueen
To Cedric Goodhouse, water is sacred.
“Water is life, not just for me, but for all of mankind,” remarked Goodhouse, the Hunkpapa Lakota Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, which is located near the construction site of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
Plans call for the $3.7 billion oil pipeline to run underneath the Missouri River, the only source of clean water for the Sioux Reservation.
Sioux tribe members and their supporters have dug in to protest the pipeline, which they view as an environmental threat. Goodhouse said he has witnessed authorities mistreating people from the reservation engaged in peaceful prayer protests.
“Grandmas, children getting hurt, just to pray,” he said.
Goodhouse was among the indigenous leaders and environmental activists who rallied at City Hall on Thurs., Feb. 22, urging Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller Scott Stringer to pull municipal assets out of banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, often referred to as DAPL.
Groups assembling on the steps included the American Indian Law Alliance; American Indian Community House; New Economy Project; and Bronx Climate Justice North.
Betty Lyons, President and Executive Director of the American Indian Law Alliance, asked for New York City to follow the lead of Seattle, which recently severed business ties with Wells Fargo over its connection to the pipeline.
She noted that the New York City pension fund, which provides benefits to firefighters, police officers and teachers, has approximately $165 billion in investments with Wells Fargo.
“That needs to be divested,” Lyons stated. “Wells Fargo alone underwrote half a billion dollars in New York City municipal bonds, and they’re about to get a new contract. So, Mr. Mayor, you have to do something about this and you have to do it now.”
The activists responded with chants of “Do it now!”
Recently, President Donald Trump issued executive orders that would grant the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project necessary permits, paving the way for construction to resume.
When finished, the pipeline would be more than 1,100 miles long and connect the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields to Patoka, Illinois.
“The violation of the environment, the violation of Native American sovereignty at Standing Rock, has galvanized Native people in a way I have not seen in my life, because we all understand this pipeline is a threat to our very existence, and the existence of future generations,” said Rick Chavolla, member of the Executive Board of the American Indian Community House (AICH). The group was founded in 1969 as the “first urban Native American community resource” and organizers say the organization represents the largest Indigenous community presence in the New York metropolitan area.
On February 17, de Blasio sent a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of Wells Fargo, asking the bank to withdraw funding for the pipeline. Chavolla urged de Blasio to sever the city’s financial ties with the bank, and any others connected to the pipeline, including Citibank, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC and TD Bank.
“Talk is OK, but action is what really counts,” remarked Chavolla, who said the city can exert considerable influence over the banks as a major institutional investor.
“Please, Mr. Mayor, stand up for us, and the environment,” he urged.
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
While the City Comptroller cannot independently enact a decision to divest the pension fund — the decision must be made by the entire Board of Trustees — Stringer has suggested that the city can better influence the banks by maintaining a relationship with them.
“We support those standing up against DAPL and join them in defending the human rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” said a spokesperson for the City Comptroller’s office. “The more the public speaks out, the better. That’s why last week we, along with a large group of investors, sent a letter pressuring these banks to change the route of the pipeline and respect the tribe’s sovereignty. In every situation in which we see wrong, we believe in using our position as a major shareholder to change behavior and change policy.”
The Sioux tribe’s protest camp near the pipeline site garnered national media attention and was credited with instigating a temporary halt to construction.
Goodhouse has seen first-hand how protestors are handled by authorities.
“Mace, water cannons, concussion grenades, runner bullets, batons — this is the stuff that’s hurting people,” he said. “That’s what [these banks] are paying for.”
The protest camp, which housed thousands, was emptied on February 22, following an evacuation order by North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
“Our spirits our not down,” said Goodhouse of the camp’s closure. “We will continue this fight.”
Activists expressed concern that an oil spill or leak from the pipeline could contaminate the Missouri River, and the nearby Ogallala Aquifier, which provides fresh water for drinking and agriculture.
Lyons said that alternate energy need to be explored.
“Why can’t we invest in something that’s renewable, that’s sustainable?” she remarked. “Mother Nature doesn’t need another pipeline, she needs a lifeline.”
Genesis Tuyuc, a New Yorker of Mayan Kaqchikel descent, said she hoped that awareness of the potential environmental hazards from the pipeline could increase now that Trump has given the project his approval.
“The world needs to know what’s going on,” said Tuyuc, a student at Columbia University. “This isn’t fake news; this is what’s happening.”