This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Amicus, Colorado Law's semi-annual alumni magazine. Read the full issue.
By Kate Finn ('16), American Indian Law Program Fellow, and Jesse Heibel ('16), Getches-Wyss Fellow
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight against the Dakota Access pipeline precipitated one of the largest indigenous rights movements in recent American history. What started as a prayer camp established by a couple dozen tribal members to advocate against placement of the pipeline on ancestral territory culminated in thousands of supporters from around the globe traveling to the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in rural North Dakota. While grateful for the support, the tribe’s resources were quickly overwhelmed. Thus, in September 2016, the American Indian Law Clinic (AILC) at Colorado Law entered into an agreement with the tribe to provide legal support for its opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.
First, the AILC established Standing Rock Legal Connect, a hotline for those looking to receive or contribute legal assistance. Legal Connect was run by AILC students and received more than 400 emails and phone calls from supporters. Those arrested during the direct actions were put in contact with the Water Protector Legal Collective, a legal team composed of criminal defense and civil rights attorneys located at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. For those looking to donate their time, the AILC compiled a volunteer database so the tribe could quickly access qualified legal professionals.
In September 2016, the AILC traveled to North Dakota to visit the reservation and witness the effects of the AILC’s work on the tribe’s efforts to protect its land and resources. Students held working meetings with the tribe’s legal department and the lawyers based at the camp. The visit provided students with an invaluable opportunity to observe the extraordinary gathering of indigenous peoples, and provided students with a truer sense of the people and values their work was supporting.
As a direct result of meetings with the tribe, the AILC partnered with Colorado Law’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic to ensure that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s flag and logo were properly protected as the tribe’s intellectual property.
Next, the AILC worked with the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Yankton Sioux tribes to access international remedies. The AILC and the tribes first brought a unified request for relief to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Working with Earthjustice’s international office, the AILC requested a “thematic hearing” focusing on the impact of extractive energy and infrastructure projects on indigenous rights. The AILC provided briefing materials to tribal council members from all three tribes, who then testified about how the planning and construction of the pipeline circumvented their rights and threatened their cultural and natural resources.
The AILC also worked with the three tribes to submit a request for precautionary measures to the IACHR. The 25-page request asks the commission to call upon the U.S. to stop construction of the pipeline, pending a full environmental and cultural review in conjunction with the tribes, and to adopt immediate measures to prevent irreparable harm to the tribes, their members, and others who would be affected by ongoing construction of the pipeline. Finally, the AILC facilitated a visit from the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples to better understand the controversy and the effects of development that occurs without the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples in the U.S.
Overall, the AILC’s representation of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe provided students with a holistic understanding of the intersection of federal Indian law, environmental law, and intellectual property law. Consistent with the American Indian Law Program’s mission, the AILC will continue to represent the tribe, and many others, to advance the sovereignty and self-determination of Native Nations while training the next generation of indigenous rights advocates.
Kate Finn and Jesse Heibel worked alongside the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School to represent the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its fight against the Dakota Access pipeline.
Pictured: Associate Clinical Professor Carla Fredericks (far right) with American Indian Law Clinic students at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota.