Insights from Standing Rock: Courage and Global Leadership

Updated: Oct 28, 2020


Around the world, people watched events unfold last November as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others protested the construction of a 1,172-mile oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Members of the tribe were concerned about the potential for the pipeline to contaminate the Missouri River, according to news outlets. The river is the main source of their drinking water. Tribe members also felt the pipeline threated land that is sacred to them.

The Dakota Access Pipeline project is designed to carry about 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois, news outlets report. Pipeline construction has created 12,000 jobs and will generate more than a hundred million in sales and income taxes in Iowa, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. According to a recent analysis by the Associated Press, North Dakota alone stands to gain more than $110 million annually in tax revenue.

More than 99 percent of the path of the pipeline is on private land and, thus, does not require federal approval. Court filings state that the Standing Rock Sioux had not been adequately consulted about the route of the pipeline, according to news reports.

As a result, a small group of Native Americans engaged in non-violent protests against the federal government last year. During freezing weather in November, some protesters were injured when police used water hoses to disperse demonstrators. Protesters also blamed police for other injuries.

The Native Americans achieved a victory from outgoing US President Barack Obama, who halted pipeline construction. Newly inaugurated President Donald Trump then reversed the decision and fast-tracked the project for completion. The conflict continued with evacuation and arrests at the anti-pipeline camps in February, a march in Washington, DC, more court filings, and completion of the pipeline.

As of May 2017, no oil had begun flowing through the pipeline, according to news reports. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the firm that built the pipeline, states it will be fully operational in June, according to a Dakota Access website. Meanwhile, anti-pipeline protesters are awaiting court decisions on Dakota Access and also have begun protesting other pipeline projects around the nation, news reports state.

Global Leadership and the Practice of Courage

What can we learn about this ongoing controversy as a demonstration of Global Leadership? What are some of the deeper conflicts? And how might a Global Leader create an optimal outcome?

My inquiry sent me first to the Presence card deck. I envisioned an outcome in which everyone involved could receive maximum benefit. I shuffled the deck and pulled out the card "Courage." I read the text and reflected on it. I then started researching the Standing Rock controversy and found insightful sources and inspiring examples of Global Leaders acting with tremendous courage to create a better path forward.

My initial research revealed that Standing Rock brings to the surface a deep clash of cultures: one culture focused on economic resources and material achievement, and the other focused on a beautiful, sacred, and connected Universe. Both cultures see their approach to life as essential to the survival of their people.

The culture clash is complex and bitter. According to journalist and author Graham Hancock, who was at the scene in Standing Rock last winter, the Lakota word for white people is Wasi’chu. Lakota is one of the languages of Native Americans from the region. Wasi'chu means “he who takes the fat” or “he who takes the larger portion,” according to Hancock's report.

Hancock spoke to Cody Two Bears, District Representative for the Cannonball Community on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council. Cody stated: “We’ve always called white people that [Wasi'chu] because we see the greed in them a lot of times—the one who takes the larger portion.”

Pipeline advocates see the project as necessary to restoring US infrastructure and bringing energy to homes and businesses. Advocates say they included Native American input in the planning process and state that the pipeline uses advanced technology, which makes oil transportation safer than truck or rail, according to The Des Moines Register. States will gain substantial tax revenue, and trade groups tout the economic windfall reaped by workers who helped build the pipeline, according to the Register.