An in-depth report on the fight against the North Dakota Access Pipeline
By Marcus White and Madalyn Gardas
Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed or omitted at the request of the interviewees for fear of their safety and privacy. The Promethean has chosen to honor this request.
(Oceti Sakowin Camp, N.D.) The Backwater Bridge along State Highway 1806 connects Morton County with Sioux County, North Dakota. At least it used to. Since April of this year the roadway has become the flashpoint between the Standing Rock Tribe and Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners over who ultimately have final say over the building of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL.
Two weeks ago, before the change of course of events that has now seen Army Corps of Engineers and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple [R] send an official eviction notice to Standing Rock officials to vacate the main camp at Oceti Sakowin, three journalists and one freelance writer from the Promethean journeyed to Standing Rock to see for themselves and to bring back the stories of the people who have made Standing Rock their home. The following is not our story, rather our observation of what is happening in a corner of the country not often thought about in the public mind.
About 70 miles south of Bismarck, N.D., sits the northern limits of the Standing Rock Tribe. At the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers sits the encampment of close to 6,000 protestors, or Water Protectors as the prefer to be called. Spread out across four camps that range from a few dozen to a few thousand people; this is ground zero for the fight for Native American rights and the potential future of environmental policy in this country.
The DAPL, if completed, would connect North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Fields to Illinois, allowing the transport of more than half a million barrels of oil per week across the Great Plains. The Standing Rock Tribe and their supporters have been fighting to ensure that this never happens.
Behind the scenes there is much more to the story than an environmentalist fight. The resistance to DAPL is not just about the rivers it will cross, it is about honoring history, both past and present, and the test of time to see how the government and corporations will approach Native American sovereignty.
It is obvious where the camps are when you approach them by night. Dozens of military-grade floodlights dot the hillside on the Morton County side of the Cannonball River, illuminating the teepees and tents on the grassy North Dakota landscape.
As press, upon arrival we are directed to the highest point in the camp - Facebook Hill or Press Hill, as one of our greeters referred to it - since it is the only place in the camp that receives cell service. This is where we begin.
As we park on top of the hill we are greeted by Lee, a member of the Standing Rock Tribe. We stand with him on the hill as he points to each part of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. We have arrived too late in the day to check in as members of the media, so Lee points out each section of that camp and tells us who we might find there if we choose to set up our own camp.
We choose a spot right off the main entrance, across the makeshift entry road from the camp’s main sacred fire. It is long past dark and the temperature is dipping below freezing. We make camp and prepare for the next day.
Native American legend tells a tale of a “Black Snake” that will one day invade the sacred lands that the tribes of North and South Dakota have inhabited for thousands of years. As we wandered through the camp, a tribal member said that many in the area feel that the DAPL was the Black Snake coming to destroy their way of life; that no good was going to come of a pipeline crossing the rivers that they hold as sacred.
DAPL would not be the first pipeline to cross a major waterway in the United States. But it is alleged to be the first that has been directed to potentially cross or come near un-ceded Native American territory without the consent of the tribe. Since the mid-1800s, when the Federal Government signed treaties with the nation’s Native tribes, land in treaty areas has been largely divided between ceded and un-ceded territory. The former being land wholly controlled in most cases by Native communities and the latter being land that has been given or sold to state or federal governments. Some of these land transfers has been against the will of the tribes. Northern Wisconsin largely sits on ceded territory.
At issue with DAPL is not only the treaties establishing Native land rights in North Dakota, but the 1980 United States Supreme Court case, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. In that case, the Supreme Court affirmed that Congress had violated its authority by pursuing land claims against the Sioux Nations in violation of prior treaties. The court’s ruling to many has been interpreted as recognizing that the Sioux Tribes of the Dakotas retained control of the land west of the Missouri River in all South Dakota and southern frontier of North Dakota. Despite financial offering from the Federal Government to buy the land from the Sioux Tribes, they have never accepted the money and/or the transfer of land to the federal government.
The Backwater Bridge located along Highway 1806 has become the unofficial boundary of the treaty region. Just to the east of the crossing is where the DAPL would briefly cross into Standing Rock territory and the Missouri River, which the tribe asserts claim to. Along the riverbed between the two banks of the river now lies razor wire, preventing the crossing of the river by foot or boat. The bridge itself is blockaded by a pair of burnt military trucks.
Each day, thousands of protestors make the walk from Oceti Sakowin camp to the bridge to hold vigils, ceremonies and protest DAPL and law enforcement agencies who are protecting the construction sites.
“Stand off the road,” yelled one woman as tribal elders began on horseback down the road. On that day we walked alongside the marchers who held a special ceremony in honor of Veteran’s Day. Alongside the protestors and media stand tribal security guards armed with holstered knives.
As the crowd swells and makes its way down the road to the blockaded bridge, people stand aside as a truck carrying elders who can’t make the walk passed by. Despite signs saying that the protestors are unarmed, in honor of Veterans Day, a group of flag bearers also carry assault rifles intended for a 21-gun salute on the bridge.
At the bridge, the ashes of a fallen Native soldier who was killed in action overseas are scattered into the Cannonball River alongside the razor wire to float away into the Missouri River. Observers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) looked on to ensure that law enforcement is respectful of the protest.
Since October, when the protests became violent, organization such as the ACLU and Amnesty International have been sending legal observers from across the country to ensure that protestors are not harmed by law enforcement. It has been alleged by many protestors that crowd-control tactics employed by police in the region constitute excessive force. Flags have been set up along the hillside that warn people that they may be shot by law enforcement if they go any further.
A security guard from Standing Rock pointed to the flags and told us that if you are in front of the flags and not part of the protest, that people have been shot with rubber bullets from sharp shooters positioned on the other side of the river.
The crowd is made up of both young and old, and people from every ethnicity from dozens of different countries. Banners litter the side of the highway sent from supporters from Brazil, the West Bank and countless other countries and regions.
Imagine a place where thousands of people who differ in race, gender, age, and ethnicity, who come from places around the world, gather and work together for one cause.
This is the scene that Celia Graciano, a resident of California, wants her 8-year old son Valente, to witness.
Graciano made the 25-hour trip to Standing Rock to not only protest the pipeline, but also so she could show Valente, who is questioning his identity, that it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, or what you believe in. That as people we stand together.
Graciano also said that the protest is a symbol for the way of life of many Natives. “If we can’t protect our water, then we can’t protect our land. It’s an injustice to our children,” she said.
Even at the age of eight, Valente said that he knew where he stood on the issues of the pipeline. “Oh, that’s just not right!” he said when his mother told him that families, traditions, and entire ecosystems would be destroyed in order to build this pipeline.
Entire families have uprooted themselves to join the DAPL protests. At the nearby Sacred Stone Camp, volunteer contractors from southern California have come to build a school to educate children who have been brought by their families to the camps.
One of the builders, a woman who goes by the name of Multi (for multi-tool), said that the material used to build the school were locally sourced. The building when complete will educate children in the camp who wish to attend.
The team of builders shuttles their materials back and forth in a pickup truck from their riverside campsite to the school site, about two football field lengths apart.
“We’ve been here since Oct. 30,” said Multi, “We plan to be here until the job is done, so about another one to two weeks at least.”
She added that when complete, the building will be able to withstand the harsh conditions of winter in the Dakotas. The group of builders came when they heard the request from the Standing Rock Tribal Council to send any assistance that could be afforded to the protesters.
As we toured the camp we came across people from across the country. Our camping neighbors were a retired couple from Oregon. “We’re retired,” they said, “We sold what we had so we could come out here and join in the fight.” Their story is common. Many people we encountered had dropped everything to come to North Dakota.
One of our encounters led us to Dave, a documentarian who flew in from Australia with his son. He was a freelance documentarian who had been covering the Federal election, and decided to stay a few extra days to document Standing Rock and bring it back to Sydney with him.
As the day came to an end, and we had toured the camps we were able to, one common theme was present. Aside from the fight to preserve the environment and Native Rights, this was a grand experiment. Less than a year ago, the land around the area sat grassy and unused. But in the span of a few months, it was transformed into a series of four camps that function as towns complete with a local government, social services, and a road network. None of it existed before April.
Even as reporters, at times it was hard to break apart from the scene, that even though we were there for just 24 hours, we lived there, even if for a day. We were not one with them, yet in many ways we were. We camped with them and shared the same fear that at any moment this could all come crashing down and we’d be left with nowhere to go.
As we drove out of the camp on Friday night. We were passed by riders on horseback chasing down an alleged police informant. As we drove away, fearful if we didn’t leave then we might get stuck after more protests had nearly shut off our route home, it was hard to believe that anything we saw was real.
From the eagles soaring above as they held drum circles, to the broadcasted messages of support from around the world: No matter what side you are on the debate over DAPL, it cannot be ignored that it might represent a turning point in relations between Native Americans and the country that has taken over much of the land that once was theirs alone.
DAPL is also forcing the country to come to terms with just how far we are willing to go to satisfy the need of an oil-driven economy in the face of global climate change. At least for now, the questions have not been answered. But it won’t be long before the decisions come down, for better or for worse.
-Mark Erb, Patrick Hurley and Susan Stanich contributed to this report.