Two Tallahassee environmentalists recently headed west to join the protest against the Dakota Pipeline. Now that they've returned, they plan to use what they learned to oppose a similar project closer to home.
The Dakota Access Oil Pipeline project extends more than 1100 miles from the northwest corner of North Dakota to southern Illinois. But this past spring, a protest began to halt construction of that part of the pipeline that would come within half-a-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Opponents were concerned the pipeline would affect the reservation's water supply and the tribe's sacred sites. Hundreds of people ultimately joined the protest, including Tallahassee writer and environmental advocate Susan Cerulean.
"For me, it was the election," she explained. "The election was so overwhelming - and not in a good way - that I thought, 'What can I do that would be a major step out and stand for what we do believe in and do want to protect."
Accompanying Cerulean on the journey was her niece and Sierra Club of the Big Bend activist, Erin Josephine Canter. She also saw this as a cause that resonated on a very profound level.
"Okay, we can no longer wait for the government to step in because that's not the direction things are going, so this has to be a persona/community/allied effort where people are standing together and I think the physical presence of being there was something that really drew me to standing there, being an ally and standing together against this ridiculous injustice that's happening at Standing Rock," Canter said.
Cerulean said she and Canter came to the demonstration site at a particularly dramatic time.
"Right when we arrived, the vets started to come in," she recalled. "And they were so wanting to put their bodies between the native people and the pipeline people who were hurting folks."
Those veterans, themselves Native Americans, were a reassuring presence Canter said because of what had happened to the demonstrators before.
"We did on November 20th hear of the sheriff's department using water cannons and pepper spray and using violence against these peaceful protestors and we say the footage of it. And so there was some concern for people there, but I was never going to put myself on the front lines in that way and the whole idea of the (demonstrators') camp was one of peacefulness and prayer."
For Cerulean, the entire experience was transformative.
"We really got to learn a lot about Western oppression and how as white people to step back and let someone else lead that has a longer tenure on a place than we do," she said.
After several days of solidarity with the protestors, Cerulean and Canter were at the airport, about to head home to Tallahassee, on December 4th. That's when a civilian U.S. Army official denied a permit for the pipeline construction across the disputed land near the Standing Rock Reservation.
"And all of a sudden, there's all this cheering," Cerulean remembered. "And I went over to see what the people were doing and they had just gotten the word (of the permit denial). Actually Erin said, 'I think there's some good news that you'll want to hear,' and it was thrilling!"
Now, Canter said there's a similar situation not far from Tallahassee that may require her and Cerulean's attention.
"The Dakota Pipeline was moved from a white neighborhood down to cross the Missouri River where there were Native Americans," she said. "This Sabal Trail Pipeline is going through lower-income minority neighborhoods all through Alabama, Georgia and Florida. So there's a lot of environmental justice issues that are parallels on both sides of the aisle that I think we can really get behind."
That proposed pipeline, carrying natural gas instead of oil, would be more than 500 miles long from Alabama, through Georgia and down to Central Florida.