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In Victory For Protesters, Obama Administration Halts North Dakota Pipeline


In North Dakota today, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is celebrating. It's a stark change from months of sometimes violent protests. The Standing Rock Sioux, with the support of some 200 other tribes, have opposed construction of an oil pipeline that cuts across native land.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would span more than 1,100 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, dipping under the Missouri River. The tribe says it would threaten nearby burial sites and the Sioux water supply if there were a spill. Outrage over the pipeline has galvanized Native American tribes across the U.S. in a way not seen in decades.

This all came to a head Friday afternoon when a federal judge officially said construction can continue on the pipeline. But minutes later, the Departments of Justice, Interior and the Army announced a voluntary pause of all construction activity within 20 miles of the site. Meanwhile, the Standing Rock Sioux are appealing the court order. In a few minutes, we'll speak with the head of the Standing Rock Sioux. But first, we'll hear from reporter Amy Sisk of Prairie Public Broadcasting.

AMY SISK, BYLINE: On the line outside the Capitol building in Bismarck, hundreds of people are gathered for what was supposed to be a protest over construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline. Dozens of state troopers are lined up monitoring the protesters, but the mood is joyous. There's dancing and singing and chanting.

DANIELLE TA'SHEENA FINN: It actually feels like a gathering here to me. It feels - it doesn't feel, in any way, like a protest.

SISK: That's Danielle Ta'Sheena Finn, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, a law student and the current Miss Indian World. The Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to pass just north of her reservation where it crosses under the Missouri River. So the tribe sued, and the subsequent protest has drawn thousands of supporters, mostly Native American, from across the country. Joseph Moose belongs to three tribes in California and felt compelled to travel here to join the movement.

JOSEPH MOOSE: I don't think it's just the Standing Rock Sioux tribe issue. I think it's a issue of everybody that uses water.

SISK: He welcomed news from the federal government that it plans to block construction for now at the pipeline's river crossing near the Standing Rock Reservation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Chanting) I believe that we will win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) I believe that we will win.

SISK: So did Kirsten Kelsch, who organized the protest at the Capitol.

KIRSTEN KELSCH: So it's good. It's really good. I felt like crying, honestly (laughter).

SISK: The Army Corps of Engineers says while construction has halted, it will reconsider its previous decisions about the river crossing to make sure they're lawful. Not only that - the Justice Department says it will meet with tribes about nationwide reforms to make sure there's adequate consultation on similar projects. Dave Archambault is chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT: It's a win for all Indians. It's a win for indigenous people.


SISK: Joseph Moose says it's not that clear cut.

MOOSE: It's kind of a win and a loss.

SISK: That's because of the court outcome. Just minutes before the government's announcement, a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock tribe in court. The tribe had sued the Army Corps of Engineers, which handles permitting for the pipeline's waterway crossings, asking for an injunction to halt construction. The judge rejected that request.

MOOSE: The halting of the pipeline was the ultimate goal and that didn't happen, so it just shows that there's more to do.

SISK: The protesters' fight against the pipeline is spreading beyond the Missouri River. Bernie Sanders has a rally scheduled Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and solidarity protests are expected around the country. Kirsten Kelsch says this fight is far from over.

KELSCH: I feel very positive that we're going to win. I just feel like - you know, my mom always taught me that good things come to people who wait, and we are patiently waiting.

SISK: How long they will have to wait for the final outcome remains unclear. The federal government said in its announcement that construction would be halted while it reviews whether it needs to revise any of its original decisions on the pipeline. But it didn't give a timeline for how long that might take. And the tribe's broader lawsuit is still tied up in court. For NPR News, I'm Amy Sisk in Bismarck. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Amy Sisk covers energy for WESA and StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public media collaboration focused on energy. She moved to Pennsylvania in 2017 from another energy-rich state, North Dakota, where she often reported from coal mines, wind farms and the oil patch. While there, she worked for NPR member station Prairie Public Broadcasting and the Inside Energy public media collaboration. She spent eight months following the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, her work frequently airing on NPR and other outlets. Amy loves traveling to rural communities -- she visited 217 small towns on the Dakota prairie -- and also covers rural issues here in southwestern Pennsylvania.