Standing Rock report #1

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,170-mile pipeline that would transfer oil from northwestern North Dakota to southern Illinois, have gathered for months near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to highlight issues related to environmental degradation, the treatment of Native Americans and the use of force by the police against protesters.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whom claim ownership of the land through which the pipeline is scheduled to be drilled, contend that the pipeline would pollute the Missouri River and harm sacred cultural lands and tribal burial grounds. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and their native and non-native allies, known as “water protectors,” see the pipeline as a major environmental threat and worry about the catastrophic damage the pipeline would do if it were to break under the Missouri River. A break or leak would send oil directly into the tribe’s main source of drinking water. DAPL was originally scheduled to run north of the State Capital in Bismarck, but due to concerns from capital residents that the pipeline would endanger their water supply, the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., rerouted the line to Standing Rock. It should be noted that, Sunoco Logistics, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, who would operate the Dakota Access pipeline has had 274 hazardous leaks and spills in the last decade. In October, one of their pipelines burst in Pennsylvania, spilling 55 thousand gallons of oil into a river that supplies drinking water to 6 million people.

Beyond these environmental concerns, the pipeline route also takes possession of ancestral lands claimed by the Standing Rock Sioux, which challenges the tribe’s inherent sovereignty. Native tribes are by law considered “nations within a nation” and the US government is to have a government-to-government relationship with the tribe. Thus, the opponents of DAPL do not see themselves necessarily as social justice activists, or even as protesters. They see themselves as protectors of their treaty rights.

Similar land grabs effecting the sovereign position of the Standing Rock Sioux occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when the U.S. government seized hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal land through the federal eminent domain process to build several dams within the Missouri River Basin. One dam construction flooded over one hundred thousand acres on the Standing Rock Reservation to create the Lake Oahe reservoir. The flooding disrupted natural resources and wildlife along the river bottom, eradicating 90 percent of the tribes’ timber resources, and destroying medicinal and ceremonial plant resources. The flooding also destroyed entire towns, sacred sites and burial grounds.

Thus, to its opponents, DAPL represents the latest manifestation of treaty violation and the defilement of sacred land. As one water-protector expressed, “this isn’t our first experience with cultural and economic genocide. This [form of] colonial oppression has been hundreds of years in the making.”

In November, the federal government postponed the construction of the final component of the pipeline in order to review approvals previously granted to drill under the Missouri River.

Despite this, Energy Transfer Partners continued digging the pipeline route, an act widely seen as an attempt to circumvent the postponement order and make the pipeline inevitable. Protesters have since intervened by occupying and building a community of activists on land that lay directly in the pipeline’s path.

The core camp blocking the construction site has since been termed Oceti Sakowin (O-chet- ee-shak- oh-win) and translates to the “gathering of the seven council fires.” Symbolically, it refers to the meeting place of various “tribes” and has become a “parliamentary place” where representatives work to make laws, organize camp life, and oversee protest action.

Indeed, multiple “council fires” have shown up. Tribal members from over 300 American Indian Nations have turned up in support along with non-native allies ranging from representatives of Black Lives Matter, to various religious groups and environmental activists worldwide. Several thousand strong currently occupy a sprawling Oceti Sakowin camp, a gathering that began in April with a few dozen praying water protectors has swelled into a small city that seems to grow larger every week.

Camp life is egalitarian and consists of communal open-air kitchens, portable toilets, tanks of drinking water, daycare and school facilities, medical and mental health facilities and recreational areas for soccer, lacrosse and basketball. There are daily meetings, prayers and ceremonies led by elders. Though most sleep in tents or tepees, construction of more permanent structures are underway-especially in preparation for the winter weather.

The structures are not exactly built for comfort, but as a camp resident expressed, “We’re not here for comfort. We’re here to fight for the rights of future generations to have access to clean water…. and to start the transition away from a fossil fuel economy.”

As thousands have filled the camp, confrontations have risen between water protectors and the local sheriff’s office, as the police have been ordered to protect the construction site. Dozens have been arrested on charges including disorderly conduct and trespassing onto the construction site. More than 300 have been injured on or around police barricades that protect access to the pipeline.

In the past several weeks, camp members have been injured by batons, rubber bullets and water from fire hoses delivered in freezing temperatures in attempts to keep water protectors away from the pipeline dig site. Police were often quick to escalate conflict due to cultural misinterpretation of prayer circles as riot mobilization or mistaking ceremonial objects like Chanupa sacred pipes for pipe-bombs.

Police are working 12-hour days and are often tired and apprehensive as they continue to follow orders to protect the dig site. Thus, in this way, police are also victims of a corporate entity endangering their well-being.

While in camp, the protests were peaceful and were organized under the guidance of tribal elders and broadly took the form of prayer and silent civil disobedience, such as sitting at the police barricades in prayer or silent contemplation.

From the prospective of local law enforcement, all actions at the camp were termed “unlawful protests” and an “organized riot” and interactions between police and camp members were often tense. However, weapons, drugs and alcohol are prohibited from the camp and children and family pets routinely marched in the daily demonstrations. At camp meetings, tribal elders reminded all that they are camped out in prayer and in the friendship of the tribe, but would be removed if tribal culture was ignored and if violence was promoted.

Jack Dalrymple, governor of North Dakota, has ordered the camp evacuated and is using the winter weather as justification for his order. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, issued a statement that said the order was an attempt to intimidate protestors and ignore tribal concerns and ensure the construction of the pipeline.

“We’re not going to be going anywhere, especially in the middle of a blizzard in North Dakota,” said camp leaders during a press conference in response to the order.

Archambault II argued that it would be more dangerous to force campers from into the cold. For now, camp members are defiant in their stance and say they see this protest as a last stand for their children to live in a pristine environment and have access to clean drinking water.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would delay indefinitely the drilling of the pipeline under the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Reservation and explore alternative paths while they take time to conduct an environmental impact study. The impact study, which will take at least several months to prepare, could possibly end the pipeline project on the reservation.

After president elect and pipeline investor Donald Trump takes office, Energy Transfer Partners may file a new request to continue construction along their desired route. But that will not be enough to circumvent the Army Corps’ recent decision to block part of the pipeline.

“If an agency decides that a full environmental review is necessary, it can’t just change its mind with a stroke of a pen a few weeks later,” said Jan Hasselman, environmental attorney who represents the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. “That would be violation of the law and it’s the kind of thing that a court would be called upon to review.”