North Dakota Oil Pipeline Fight Comes to Denver

Sage burned thick in the air. Drums pounded. Hundreds marched, danced and prayed under the gold dome of the State Capitol.

The dispute over a North Dakota oil pipeline leaked into Denver Thursday evening, as Native American children and elders led activists from all over the state who had converged at the State Capitol.

The cry from the crowd: “Water is life. You can’t drink oil.”

The rally was a peaceful display of solidarity with Native activists in North Dakota, who have tried to block the construction of the $3.8 million Dakota Access pipeline that would move hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil from North Dakota oil fields through Standing Rock Sioux tribal property to Illinois.

The North Dakota protesters, many of them Native Americans, have been pepper-sprayed, arrested and attacked by police dogs while trying to stop sacred sites from being bulldozed. Footage of the police action has focused national attention on the pipeline protests.

Denver police greeted leaders with hugs, offered demonstrators water, escorted the march and then largely disappeared from view.

Though children and elders led the march and speakers encouraged peaceful, spiritual participation, tensions were high last night in anticipation of federal judge James Boasberg’s ruling on a lawsuit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that alleges the pipeline would endanger drinking water for thousands of tribal members. The ruling is expected to come down later today.

Several Denver activists prayed Boasberg would rule against further construction of the pipeline, but they also noted victory was far from guaranteed.

They were particularly concerned that North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple had just ordered 100 National Guard troops to be prepared to respond to any protests if the judge rules in favor of the pipeline construction.

Representative Joseph Salazar, who has used his seat in the Statehouse to try to abolish Columbus Day statewide and to fight fracking, used the rally as an opportunity to blast the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the state's trade group for the oil and gas industry, as “false prophets” who claim that oil pipelines and fossil fuels are safe.

Salazar rattled off a litany of oil spills and accidents, including a recent explosion in New Mexico in August that killed ten, to challenge the claim that pipelines pose no threat to drinking water.

“What’s their definition of safety?” he asked.

In North Dakota, protesters are planning to camp out and block construction long into the winter if the judge does not halt the project. More than 150 tribes have expressed support for the struggle. Supporters are collecting money and supplies to send to Standing Rock. 

The North Dakota actions seem have re-energized Denver's native activism. The style of Thursday’s Denver march, with four groups coming together downtown from east, west, south and north Colorado, harked back to the American Indian Movement's legendary Transform Columbus Day protests.

In recent years, AIM demonstrations against Columbus Day have vanished in Denver. But last night, several speakers rallied the crowd to come back to the Capitol to decry Columbus Day on October 8. One person shouted out: "I don't want us to lose this momentum." 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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