Man with brown hair sticking out from a red baseball cap and goatee wearing a black T-shirt

Frank Martin stood in front of his Standing Rock middle school students on the morning of April 1, 2016 with an announcement that none of them expected. The predominantly Native American students were surprised to hear that 50 tribal leaders were undertaking a ceremonial 20-mile ride on horseback that very morning to draw attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The tribal leaders had not been consulted about the pipeline that was planned to go under the Missouri River just north of the tribal lands. The biggest concern was the risk of a leak polluting the river. The ride and subsequent camp would lead to a standoff between tribal leaders and their supporters against an alliance of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), their hired militia, the state of North Dakota, and military and police personnel from across the country. It was a confrontation that would have global repercussions and would be witnessed by tens of millions on social and mainstream media.

In the coming months Frank Martin's middle school students would join the protest by posting videos on line imploring people to help protect the water. They would join their tribe on the front line and be tear-gassed by forces working for the pipeline company. The students would witness their parents being attacked by dogs, beaten, sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures, shot with rubber bullets and jailed. It was a lesson in social studies and history that will live forever in their memories and reaffirm their distrust for the White Man's law.

Frank Martin is not a Native American but he has come to understand their plight by teaching a generation of their children. He was born to a middle class family in Worthington, Ohio in the 1960's. He delivered the Columbus Citizen Journal as a kid and got his education degree from Ohio University.  Post-graduate work at the University of North Dakota led to teaching High School and Middle School at Standing Rock beginning in 1998. In the past few months he has had a remarkable opportunity to witness what could be a watershed moment in American history.

I spoke with Frank recently while he was home to visit his mother and asked him to tell me about the current status of the pipeline protest. The last many of us heard about the pipeline was on June 14, 2017  when Judge James Boasberg wrote, “the Court agrees that [the Corps] did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

The ruling was widely hailed as a win for the tribe. But, in reality, the pipeline was completed shortly after Trump's executive order. The oil has been flowing ever since. The protesters have been removed and the evidence of the protester's camp essentially erased.

In the meantime, the court cases are slowly being processed for 800 protesters who were arrested and charged with various misdemeanors including trespassing on what used to be tribal land. Counter-charges are still pending, including claims that ETP illegally used private security, that they illegally purchased the land where the protesters were charged with trespassing, that the State of North Dakota illegally colluded with the pipeline company to allow the purchase of the land, and that numerous environmental laws were either ignored or overlooked to fast-track pipeline approval. These cases may take years to resolve, costing the tribe and supporting organizations millions of dollars in legal fees.

On the upside, Standing Rock has become a model for protecting natural resources all over the world. Tribal leaders, who 16 months ago, road 20 miles on horseback to make a statement, are flying to Europe and beyond to confer with other indigenous leaders. Support around the world for their efforts is high, most notably in Europe, where there is a strong sense of urgency regarding the environment and climate change. The oil may be flowing under the Missouri River, but this is far from over. A generation of school kids in Standing Rock have new role models. They have new definitions of bravery and know that standing up to seemingly insurmountable odds is not just for mythical heroes.

There is plenty of work to do for all of us. Pipelines are being constructed in many other locations. In northeast Ohio, Energy Transfer Partners, the same company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, is building the Rover pipeline. They have already been embroiled in several legal battles, including with the Ohio EPA for discharging two million gallons of drilling waste into Ohio wetlands. Fortunately, the State of Ohio does not seem to be colluding with ETP like North Dakota did, protesters have the model refined at Standing Rock as a guide, and environmental legal defense tactics are becoming more sophisticated.

As we parted ways, Frank promised to keep in touch and suggested connecting on Facebook with the Environmental Defense Fund, Standing Rock Indian Reservation and Sacred Stone Camp as the best way to stay up-to-date and learn how to support their efforts. He also expressed hope that the same kind of efforts in Ohio would lead to better outcomes and continue the legacy of the Standing Rock water protectors.

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