Keystone XL may have been a prelude, but the success of the Standing Rock 'water protectors' was more about environmental justice than just another pipeline.

The year 2016 may become a turning point for Native American leadership in environmental activism, as a once-small protest over a little-known pipeline in rural North Dakota captured the imaginations of people worldwide and erupted into a global protest action.

The fight against Dakota Access, a nearly 1,200-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Illinois, became this year's Keystone XL, a celebrated fossil fuel project ultimately rejected by the Obama administration in the face of unrelenting opposition from environmentalists and landowners.

Dakota Access is halted but its fate is by no means settled. It is not the first major pipeline being constructed since Keystone XL perished. And Native Americans were not the first to oppose it, with Iowa landowners having raised their voices more than a year earlier. Yet when thousands of American Indians set up camp on the open prairie demanding their drinking water be protected, the world took notice.  

Pipeline protesters, who call themselves water protectors, found a sympathetic audience for their plight, particularly after news reports revealed that the pipeline was initially intended to cross the Missouri River at a different point, 10 miles upstream of Bismarck, the state capital. The pipeline was later rerouted to a half-mile upstream of the Standing Rock reservation, an area of 3,572 square miles and home to 8,200 people, 41 percent of whom live below the poverty level. The people of Standing Rock rely on the Missouri River for drinking water, irrigation and fish.

The old route had been rejected for a number of factors, including the potential for a leak to contaminate Bismarck's drinking water supply. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipeline in July, it did so despite the urgent recommendation of the Environmental Protection Agency and two other federal agencies to undertake a new environmental assessment, including a more thorough analysis of environmental justice issues.