by CHRIS ROGERS
Even as developers prepare to pump oil through the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), some Winonans called on local institutions to stop doing business with Wells Fargo because of the national bank’s support for the pipeline. Wells Fargo is one of three banks the city of Winona uses, and on March 1, the city of Winona’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) voted unanimously to recommend that City Council close the city’s Wells Fargo accounts. At Winona State University (WSU), Wells Fargo provides the school’s handful of on-campus ATMs. Last week, the WSU Student Senate voted to recommend that WSU change ATM providers.
Wells Fargo is helping to finance the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which runs under the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota. According to Wells Fargo, the company behind DAPL borrowed $2.5 billion from various financial groups, of which Wells Fargo provided $120 million. Leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Dakota and Lakota tribes oppose the pipeline. They said any leaks could pollute the tribe’s drinking water and the pipeline runs through sacred sites. Developers said pipelines are safe and they were careful to avoid burial sites. There were major protests at the pipeline construction site and across the country throughout 2016 and 2017, including a November 2016 march in Winona that was one of the largest demonstrations in Winona in years.
Also last November, the HRC and the Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance (WDUA) — the group that hosts the annual Great Dakota Gathering in Winona — asked the City Council to approve a symbolic resolution stating that the city supports the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and anti-pipeline protestors and opposes the “pollution of [Native] water and soil and the destruction of sacred sites, including indigenous ancestral graves.” The WDUA and HRC said that the resolution was in-line with a 2012 Covenant of Friendship city leaders signed with Dakota tribes, including several that oppose the pipeline, and HRC Chair Chuck Ripley said that not approving the resolution could damage years of trust-building between the city and Dakotas. The City Council approved it on a 4-2 vote.
“Wells Fargo and Company is invested in this continued genocide of the Dakota Nations … through the financial support of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” stated Aaron Camacho, the president of the WDUA and WSU’s Turtle Island Student Organization.“As Winona, Minn., has made great strides toward reconciliation with the Dakota Nations and many other indigenous communities, we must not let Winona take part in this continued oppression by doing business with Wells Fargo & Company,” she added.
Camacho and Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot agreed on one thing: Wells Fargo is just one of many DAPL financiers. Camacho cited the activist organization DefundDAPL.org’s list of other financial backers.
Camacho led a march to Wells Fargo’s downtown Winona office last month, where she hand delivered a letter asking the company to stop funding DAPL. Hobot said Wells Fargo cannot back out of its contract with DAPL developers.
“At times, customers from varying parts of our business may have differing opinions or views that conflict with one another,” Hobot said. He added that Wells Fargo funds many renewable energy projects. “We have served the energy industry for over 40 years, and since 2012, we have invested more than $70 billion in environmentally-sustainable businesses,” he wrote in a statement. Over the last four years, Wells Fargo gave $16 million to tribal nonprofits across the U.S., and since 2001, has donated $660,000 to Native American organizations in Minnesota. National Wells Fargo leaders said that, in response to the anti-DAPL movement, the company strengthened its policies for reviewing whether to finance projects and “ensure that the financial services we provide do not facilitate unacceptable impacts on communities or the environment.”
WSU Student Senator Deanna Hoff helped champion the proposal for WSU to use a different ATM provider. She pointed out that pipeline planners considered routing DAPL through Bismarck, N.D., instead of Standing Rock. Instead of sending it through a “white, middle-class city,” they routed DAPL “to a place where the people don’t have a voice in government,” Hoff said.
“The Human Rights Commission sees it as a natural follow-up of what we asked the council to do to support the Standing Rock protectors,” Ripley said of the HRC’s recommendation for the city to divest from Wells Fargo. The HRC is still drafting a letter to the council. The recommendation probably will not come before the council until next month. “We believe that it is in keeping with the Covenant of Friendship that the city deal with companies that respect Native Americans, and Wells Fargo with its involvement in the pipeline don’t meet that bar,” he stated.
Other HRC members also pointed to the recent incident in which numerous Wells Fargo employees across the U.S. charged customers for accounts they never agreed to open. Hobot said the company has made numerous policy changes to prevent that from happening again.
The city uses Wells Fargo for all of its credit cards and for online payment systems. The city uses Winona National Bank and Merchants for other accounts, and the city invests its reserve funds through all three banks. At the HRC’s March 1 meeting, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said it would be difficult for the city to stop doing business with Wells Fargo. Sarvi stated that Winona Finance Director Mary Burrichter recommended not divesting because the city needs a bank with a lot of equity in order to guarantee very large influxes of cash the city receives after selling bonds or during twice-annual tax settlements. In a subsequent interview, Sarvi was not sure if other local banks might be able to provide those guarantees, but at the HRC meeting, he indicated that the city needed a bank of Wells Fargo’s size to provide them. “I understand the human rights side, but it’s really hard for us to do business if we [divest],” he told the HRC. “Our hands are tied,” he added.
Hoff said that WSU administrators seemed supportive of the student senate’s recommendation. The university’s five-year-long contract for ATM services ends this summer, so the timing for a change is good, she added. WSU Interim Communications Director Andrea Northam said that the school plans to include students in the process for selecting a new ATM provider and that WSU might include social responsibility as one of the criteria for selecting would-be ATM providers, but WSU administrators have not made any firm decisions.
Editor's note: a previous version of this story stated that WSU officials could not be reached for comment. They attempted to respond to the Post's inquiry, sending an email that was not received because of an email problem at the Winona Post.