Oakton honors class assists pipeline protesters in North Dakota

(Dec. 5, 2016) Seven students and six faculty members from Oakton Community College made a four-day service-learning trip last month to a camp on the Cannonball River in the Oceti-Sakowin Reservation, one of three camps where the Sioux Nation was engaged with the state of North Dakota, the Army Corp of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners Co. in a protest over the routing of an oil pipeline that stretches from Canada to Central Illinois.  

The pipeline was routed to cut through the reservation at an ecologically and culturally sensitive point. The area it crossed was deemed sacred by the Sioux, and if a leak occurred, it could destroy the drinking water for the entire reservation.

For the Oakton contingent, the trip was to help students better understand the factors that led to the standoff.

“Our goal is to help students analyze a problem and then put theory into practice to solve it. Students learn that by wrestling with big problems, they become active citizens engaged with the world. Also, by working to serve others, they can be productive and gain social insights that would be impossible from a purely academic perspective,” said Oakton Professor Richard Stacewicz.

The students and faculty got to work almost as soon as arriving at the camp. They helped protesters prepare for winter by splitting and stacking wood, working in the kitchen cooking meals and by stocking and inventorying a newly-organized medical facility. The Oakton group also raised over $3,000 to buy retail gift cards to aid protesters in supplying the camp.

The idea for the expedition to North Dakota came from the students in a Core Honors Seminar that studies social problems taught by professors Stacewicz and Hollace Graff.

“At the start of the semester, we asked our students to find a current problem that interested them. This year they chose the pipeline protests,” Stacewicz said.  

The students in the class formed into groups to study the problem from various perspectives, with the ultimate goal of finding solutions. Individual members analyzed different aspects including society’s need for energy, pipeline engineering, ecology and the history of pipeline failures, Native American history--conflict and reservations, eminent domain laws and the history of nonviolent protests in the U.S.

Students documented their trek with interviews and a video. Upon return to campus, they presented their findings to more than 150 students and community members during Oakton’s celebration of International Education Week.

According to honors student Brooke Reotutar, “We were there for only a few days, but it was truly a life-changing experience for me. We encountered a community of people who were fighting for their lives. Yet, I have never met people who were so open and welcoming.”

News reports indicate the standoff is coming to an end. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault announced Dec. 5 that non-Sioux protesters could leave the protest camp. The government ruled in favor of rerouting the controversial pipeline project around their lands.

“The Sioux have a saying, ‘water is life,’” Reotutar said. “By seeing the area, how parched the landscape is, it became much clearer to us why the fight was so important.”