The Historic Victory at Standing Rock
What it means, what the law says, and what comes next
The remarkable outcome of the Standing Rock protest may let us glimpse the coming years of the American environmental movement. A group of protesters upended their lives to defend the claim that the tribe should have a say over its natural resources. Specifically, the “water protectors” claimed that the legal rights granted to them by the United States government—through treaties in the 19th century and through federal laws in the 20th—should be as valid today as any other promissory note.
Against the odds and the expectations, the group swelled. It captured the sympathies of millions of people around the country and the globe. Eventually, it awoke the moral imagination of the federal regulatory state. Now a years-long battle in court—over statutory particularities, over the level of acceptable risk, over the letter versus the spirit of the law—will follow.
What won this victory at Standing Rock? The answer is indisputable. In great numbers, people put their bodies in the way to declare and defend their rights. In so doing, they revealed what legal rights are: not just idle promises, not just nice things to have, but the material guarantee of safe drinking water and community self-determination. In so doing, they forced a moral reckoning within the federal deep state, the multitude of administrators and civil servants who ensure the day-to-day functioning of the United States government. In so doing, they pose a question: Can the same deep state defend the virtue and integrity of its decisions in the years to come? The consequences will ripple far beyond the grassy plains of North Dakota.