Divest, Invest, Protect: Indigenous Women Lead Divestment Campaign


As a continuation of the Standing Rock fight against extreme resource extraction and human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples, a divestment delegation led by Indigenous women traveled to Europe in the spring and fall of 2017 to meet with European financial leaders. Called the DIVEST, INVEST, PROTECT Campaign, the delegation seeks to protect the climate and defend human, Indigenous, and environmental rights through education, advocacy, and action that challenges financial institutions and injustices. The campaign is organized as a partnership between Indigenous women leaders and the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International. The delegations visited Switzerland, Germany, and Norway to urge financial institutions, including the Bank of Norway (DNB), Credit Suisse, and Deutsche Bank to divest from corporations and projects that cause Indigenous human rights violations all over the world. The delegations called for divestment at the corporate level from ongoing extractive fossil fuel projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, Line 3, and Keystone XL, all of which pose severe threats to Indigenous rights, sovereignty, lands, and ways of life.

Far from over, the Standing Rock Movement continues as five Water Protectors face federal charges associated with protest camps in North Dakota. Dually motivated by this injustice and a desire to prevent future tragedies, the delegations are targeting the sources of funding that allow these development projects to occur. Through the leadership of Indigenous women who experience firsthand injustices against their communities, the delegations provided a unique platform for those most impacted to share their testimonies and demands with leaders who have the potential to foster systemic change.

The delegation was organized by WECAN and led by Michelle Cook, a Dine (Navajo) human rights lawyer and Osprey Orielle Lake, WECAN founder and executive director, who met while participating in the protests at Standing Rock. While in Europe, the women attended many high level meetings with government and bank officials and members of the press. During these meetings, the women spoke of the consequences of extractive projects that neglect Indigenous People’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The first delegation traveled to Switzerland and Norway in the spring of 2017 and included members Lake and Cook, along with Wasté Win Young (Ihunktowanna/Hunkpapa of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), Sarah Jumping Eagle (Oglala Lakota/Mdewakantonwan Dakota), Autumn Chacon (Diné/ Navajo), and Tara Houska (Anishinaabe). As the largest oil and gas investor in the world and a global leader in human rights advancement, Norway was the strategic first choice to send the delegation. While in Norway, the Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegation met with the DNB, the Norwegian Parliament, a delegation of Sami Indigenous peoples, and with Norway’s Sami President, Vibeke Larsen. By sharing the stories of their people and educating Norwegian financial leaders on the abuses facing Indigenous Peoples in the United States, the delegates were instrumental in helping to persuade DNB to sell its $331 million stake in the Dakota Access pipeline.

Upon hearing the news of DNB’s divestment decision, Young said, “We are thankful that in Norway, DNB announced that it will financially divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline [DAPL]. While this is a step in the right direction, we continue to push the Norwegian Oil Fund and other financial institutions to divest from DAPL because of the human and civil rights violations that have occurred against the people and Indigenous communities at Standing Rock. Norway is a leader in the global community, and by taking this step to divest from the DAPL, their actions can cause a ripple effect throughout the world for the greater good.” Although grateful for DNB’s decision, Young highlights the importance of a continued fight to get other financial institutions to divest.

Following the success of the first delegation, a second group composed of Cook, Lake, Houska, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Lakota), and Jackie Fielder (Mnicoujou Lakota/ Mandan-Hidatsa) returned to Norway to meet with the Norwegian Parliament in order to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous rights in the guidelines of the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, one of the largest worldwide investors. After the delegation met with the fund’s ethics council in October, the council stated that it is now reviewing allegations that Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, may be breaching the fund’s investment guidelines related to the environment, human rights, and other issues. Only a month after the second delegation met with representatives in Norway, the Norwegian Oil Fund urged the government to divest from oil and gas companies, affecting $37 billion worth of investments.

Cultural Survival spoke with Cook and Lake in December.


CS: Please speak about your experiences at Standing Rock.
Michelle Cook:
Standing Rock was a game changer and a clear example of the continued denial of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights in the United States, laying bare the danger and coercion they face when exercising their human rights in the second half of 21st Century. However, Standing Rock was simultaneously a place of power, regeneration, and emergence. Most of my time was spent organizing legal infrastructure and resources for those encamped, a difficult effort still being coordinated and carried out by the Water Protector Legal Collective and many others.

Osprey Orielle Lake: I was very honored to be at Standing Rock on three different trips in the summer, autumn, and winter of 2016 to support the resistance efforts, bring supplies, and record interviews with Indigenous women at the forefront of the Standing Rock Movement.  The women’s voices shone boldly with dignity, wisdom, love, and strength in the midst of horrifying and unlawful violence by state and corporate actors, including attacks by dogs, mace, water cannons, pepper spray, concussion grenades, and strip-searching those arrested during peaceful actions to protect water.

CS: How did the Divestment Delegation come to be?
Michelle Cook:
My divestment work began in Standing Rock in September 2016. When Indigenous women attempted to meet with the Bank of North Dakota to discuss loans to local law enforcement, they were unable to have a meeting to discuss their concerns. The delegation emerged from a basic need to provide space for Indigenous participation and civil dialogue for Water Protectors.  The delegation provides tangible resources and safe opportunities for impacted Indigenous women to directly engage with banks and financial institutions to request accountability and divestment from companies responsible for violating their human rights and dignity. Financial leaders in Europe are largely ignorant of the state of law and human rights in the United States as it relates to Indigenous Peoples, primarily the existence of Tribal governments and treaty obligations with Indian nations. Moreover, these leaders falsely assume that the domestic law of the United States complies with and aligns with international human rights standards to which they are held.

Osprey Orielle Lake: The goal of the Spring and Fall 2017 delegations was to provide a platform for Indigenous women leaders to meet face-to-face with representatives of European financial institutions and insurance companies to expose injustices and directly share with these entities and the public, press, and government representatives exactly how their fossil fuel investments violate human rights and Indigenous rights, while also driving climate disruption. A major goal of the delegations was, and will continue to be, to put pressure on institutions to divest and participate in a variety of strategic platforms. Norway, Switzerland, and Germany have been the focus due to the fact that these countries are home to some of the largest institutions financing extraction across North America and around the world.

CS: Was it difficult to get banks to realize their role in causing Indigenous human rights violations?
Michelle Cook:
We are still advocating that Indigenous Peoples are peoples with unique rights under international law, not risks to be insured against or special interests to be managed. Our mission is to humanize Indigenous Peoples and to teach the world how central the bank’s role is in sustaining projects and companies that harm Indigenous Peoples.  We do that through the strategic use of direct engagements, personal narrative, video, and media. There is power in direct engagements. Many of the institutions are receptive to meetings; however, very few have followed through with our request for complete divestment from all the companies who are engaged in controversial conduct relating to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Some have ended project finance to DAPL, [but] very few have ended financing the corporate entities themselves. However, we do very much appreciate the banks and financial institutions that have divested and have made important steps in the right direction. A key issue is that banks and the policies presuppose that courts and U.S. law will produce fair and just decisions for Indigenous rights and victims. This is not always the case for many victims of Indigenous human rights violations in the United States.

Osprey Orielle Lake: The goal of the campaign is not only divestment, but also economic paradigm shifts that include investments in renewable energy technology and sustainability, and just, transparent, and accountable banking institutions—economic systems that are not detrimental to Indigenous peoples rights or the environment.

CS: How has Standing Rock provided a platform to educate the public and business sector about Indigenous rights?
Osprey Orielle Lake:
I think it’s really important to keep going back to what actually happened and to remember that this [campaign] is about people standing up for water, life, and their territories and land. We’re really trying to bring to light these frontline struggles because they’re going to continue. A part of demanding accountability from financial institutions is showing them that this fight is not over. The delegation is a definite follow up to the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance effort, demanding accountability for what happened there and that the egregious injustices that occurred there must be responded to.

Michelle Cook: I think one of the best things we can do is educate people, but then what do we do with institutions that are educated and know about what happened at Standing Rock? Right now as a society, we have a hard time keeping our economic institutions accountable to the people; whether you’re an Indigenous person or a working class citizen, there are very serious issues of accountability presented here that concern everyone. That’s what I hope we can learn and take away from this, that the whole encounter at Standing Rock will actually bring some true legal and material change to the lives of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. I hope that that will take us somewhere new in terms of human rights in the United States.

CS: As a delegation of women, how is the perspective you bring to Indigenous human rights violations unique?
Osprey Orielle Lake:
Women have been fighting these systems of oppression for a long time, including extractive economies, dominant worldviews, and the institution of the patriarchy, which has put women’s rights, voices, mobility, bodies, economic power, and political power in a very detrimental situation. Indigenous women have met even further injustices and discrimination in the form of racism, colonization, and environmental impacts. At the same time, it is vitally important that we hear from Indigenous women because of what they have experienced for centuries. Their perspective on solutions, land-based knowledge and science, and what is vital for cultural transformation and economic and political social change speaks to the heart of a path forward for society overall. Indigenous women rising and being respected is essential, and we are witnessing around the world a rise of women’s power.

CS: What are some of the biggest challenges you face advocating for Indigenous rights? What are your sources of hope?
Michelle Cook:
There is a desperate need for well funded and specialized criminal and civil legal aid and support for Indigenous human rights defenders in the United States. Indigenous human rights defenders need sustained financial support and assistance in navigating the legal system as they continue to exercise their unique, sui generis rights relating to their traditional lands and territories. Accessible, effective, and culturally competent legal support for victims and this specific population must include knowledge and fluidity in customary law, tribal law, state, federal, and international law. The need for training, retaining, and growing more Indian lawyers and advocates who can work for the purpose of tribal self-determination and sovereignty with and for Indigenous Peoples is fundamental to providing access to justice to Indigenous communities. I hope that the divestment work continues to carry the torch for Indigenous rights and illuminate the obscured economic architecture required to sustain harmful resource extraction and development in our ancestral lands and territories. And I hope that we can use the encounter at Standing Rock to advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the United States into a safe, secure, and peaceful future. I also hope that the Indigenous-centered methodology of the delegation can be replicated and developed so that more Indigenous Peoples can directly participate and engage with the banks and financial institutions that impact their human rights, lands, and peoples. To learn more about the Divest, Invest, Protect Campaign, visit: wecaninternational.org/ pages/divest-invest-defend.

Osprey Orielle Lake: In the pursuit of justice, we are calling for financial and insurance institutions engaged in fossil fuel extraction and development projects to stop business as usual, given egregious violations against Indigenous Peoples and their lands and the urgency of climate change. If institutional guidelines that are supposed to uphold rights are not working, then we need to look systemically at how these guidelines must change and be implemented to take into account Indigenous and human rights and climate chaos. There is no time to lose, as climate disruption escalates and people around the world face life and death situations. WECAN is working to ensure that Indigenous women have the opportunity to speak for themselves directly to the institutions, governments, and policymakers whose decisions are harming their communities and territories through their continued investment in violent, destructive projects. It has never been more vital to listen to the voices of Indigenous women leaders who are often the backbone of their communities and movements. Together, with their voices at the forefront, we can restore the health of our communities, transition to clean energy, and seek justice for Water Protectors and those who continue to be impacted on a daily basis by fossil fuel development at Standing Rock and communities around the world.

To learn more about the Divest, Invest, Protect Campaign, visit: wecaninternational.org/ pages/divest-invest-defend.


Photo: Michelle Cook (Diné/ Navajo), LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Sioux Lakota), Tara Houska (Anishinaabe), and Jackie Fielder (Mnicoujou Lakota and MandanHidatsa) in Norway, Fall 2017. Photo courtesy of Teena Pugliese.


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