Native American advocacy group hosts panel on aftermath of Standing Rock protests

Panelists Sonia Martinez, Chase Voirin, Natali Segovia, and Stephanie Big Crow discuss the ongoing issues regarding the Dakota Access pipeline. (Lauren Marshall/DD)

Phoenix Native American organizations like Whisper n Thunder are pushing for a continued recognition of the efforts to protect Standing Rock. For indigenous communities across the nation, the outcome of last year’s protests could display a victory or loss in the protection of native lands and culture.

The activist group hosted a panel discussion Saturday called “Gathering of Voices: Standing Rock” with the goal of educating attendees and garnering support for the Native American members of the community and across the nation.

The panel included Sonia Martinez, an attorney and Whisper n Thunder board member; Chase Voirin, a Navajo wildlife biologist and past recipient of a Whisper n Thunder scholarship; Stephanie Big Crow, a healthcare consultant, and Natali Segovia, chair of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Committee of the National Lawyers Guild.

The protests began in April when the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to continue construction of the proposed 1,100-mile Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The pipeline would have run directly underneath the tribe’s main water source, the Oahe Lake, which tribal members claim could endanger their livelihood. Late last year, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit to continue with the pipeline while awaiting the results of an Environmental Impact Statement, in what was largely viewed as a victory for protesters.

Although many native and non-native people attended the protests, members of Native organizations like Whisper n Thunder say the effort must continue if tribal communities everywhere expect to hold on to such widespread support for their land and culture.

Panelist Sonia Martinez visited protest camps at Standing Rock and discussed her surprise at the depth of effort to protect the Sioux Tribe’s Lake Oahe from contamination by the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“When I went in there, I was completely shocked to see just the level of organization this movement has brought in,” Martinez said.

Panelists said social media was a key tool in the cause, as it helped protesters tell their stories and helped garner national attention.

Environmental Scientist Chase Voirin said the dangers of a pipeline leak are a lasting concern for many who oppose the pipeline’s construction. He cited a pipeline leak 150 miles away from Standing Rock in December as an example of the protesters concerns.

For Whisper n Thunder’s President, Billie Fidlin, promoting awareness of these issues is the driving force behind the push for a national Native American resistance. She urged attendees to remain aware.

“Really be tenacious about what is happening, especially now and in the weeks to come,” Fidlin said. “What is happening? What is going to happen with this injunction?”

The panelists also discussed the future of Standing Rock in light of the election. Voirin expressed little faith that the Trump administration would favor the tribe.

“I think he’s a businessman who has heavy financial interests in big business, which oil is,” Voirin said. “I would say he would probably support the pipeline and want to put it through. But, I don’t even know how hard he could really push that.”

Big Crow said protesters will have to keep working to oppose the pipeline in the coming year. She said she felt skeptical the tribe would have a victory, given that the U.S. did not initially sign on to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I think we are going to need to be vigilant,” Big Crow said. “There’s going to be a need to have both national and international pressure.”

Jan Polasky, who attended the panel and is not Native American, said she attended the event to gain a better understanding of the movement.

“We really didn’t know much about the issue,” Polasky said. “I was really enlightened by the background information.”

Correction and clarification: January 10, 2017:

An earlier version of this story misidentified the gender of Billie Fidlin. She is female, and the story has been updated to reflect this.

An earlier version of this story also inaccurately contextualized a quote from Stephanie Big Crow about international pressure. The story has been updated to reflect that this was in reference to the U.S. not initially signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

An earlier version of this story also included a photo caption with the incorrect spelling of Natali Segovia’s name. It has been updated.

Contact the reporter at ljmarsh1@asu.edu.