Oil

At Standing Rock, activists dig in on historic treaty land

‘Water protectors’ say they won’t move on a Dec. 5 eviction notice.

 

The scent of sage drifted above the muddy prairie where 29-year-old Andrew Waupekeney of the Menominee Nation stood, draped in an American flag. When he first arrived at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, he carried the Stars and Stripes upside-down, he said  —  a symbol of his loss of faith in a country that promised freedom and justice for all. 

“As Americans, we shouldn’t be facing situations like this,” said Wapuekenay, gesturing toward a line of police on a ridge known as “Turtle Island.” It was Thanksgiving Day, and hundreds of protesters had gathered along Canaputa Creek in a symbolic act of homage to the idea of taking back ancestral Sioux lands.

The anti-pipeline activists, who call themselves “water protectors,” say they are ready to dig in even deeper, despite an eviction notice from the federal government, mass arrests and the recent arrival of a bitter North Dakota winter.

“We did not get this far to bow out respectfully,” said Wasté Win Young, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member. “I love my people, and I will stand for our water.”

Protesters cross a makeshift bridge to Turtle Island, which they consider sacred land, at Standing Rock Reservation on Thanksgiving Day while police line the island's hill.
Jenni Monet

The day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was closing its land to the thousands of people now living in the sprawling encampments of Oceti Sakowin. The occupation site is named in honor of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people and their historic territory as affirmed by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

“The Army Corps letter evicting the Oceti Sakowin camp is a declaration of war,” Win Young said, echoing a common sentiment that hints at the continuation of the months-long standoff. “We are a sovereign nation. This is Treaty land.”

Over the years, the Great Sioux Nation has watched as its boundaries diminished in the course of federal government land seizures. First came the enforcement of Indian reservations in 1889 by passage of the Dawes Act two years earlier.  Tribes saw their lands partitioned into individual lots while as much as 9 million acres – one half of the Great Sioux territory—were sold for ranching and homesteading.  Further encroachment followed with the 1944 Flood Control Act. The latter gave the Army Corps rights to 56,000 acres, including a stretch of the Missouri River along with Lake Oahe, which itself was created from an Army Corps dam project in 1948. Because of this, the Army Corps still holds permitting control over the encampments, as well as of the bodies of water that the Texas-based pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners, wants to cross with its Dakota Access pipeline.

Win Young, formerly a tribal historic preservation officer, has been fighting the energy project since company representatives first appeared at tribal headquarters in September 2014. A tribal council meeting was held and, according to an audio recording of the talks, Win Young and the tribe responded clearly: They did not support the pipeline. “For us to endorse a proposal that would negatively impact our cultural sites, our prayer sites, our duties and responsibilities as stewards of the land, it would be unacceptable,” Win Young told the pipeline representatives. “The risks are too great for our children.” 

Roughly translated from Lakota, “Oahe,” the name of the lake, means “a place to stand on.” And since April, that is what thousands of anti-pipeline protesters have done, determined to protect the Missouri River from the possibility of an oil spill. The river is the primary source of drinking water for the tribe, along with thousands of other people downstream.

The Mni Wiconi movement, which takes its name from a Lakota phrase that means “water is life,” accelerated in July after the Corps issued permits for the $3.8 billion energy project. Plans call for the construction of a 1,172 mile-long pipeline, buried 90-115 feet below the Missouri River, that will eventually transport up to 570,000 gallons of fracked crude a day from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil fields.

The project was originally slated to cross land near North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck. But according to the Army Corps’ environmental impact assessment, the route was diverted because of fears that the pipeline posed a potential threat to the city’s water supply, including its municipal wells.

“The Corps put our water and the lives and livelihoods of many as secondary,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archmabault II said. “But it fell on deaf ears.” 

Pipeline construction is nearly complete, but the Army Corps has halted work in order to reassess its permits. Meanwhile, both the tribe and the energy companies are in federal court. Standing Rock leaders claim they were not properly consulted, while Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline operator, is demanding that a judge declare that it has the legal right to lay its pipe underneath the Missouri and Lake Oahe.

As the battle rages in the courts and on the prairie, the area has come to resemble a war zone. In the past month, tensions between an increasingly militarized police force and the protesters have escalated. Violence has erupted and there have been mass arrests — more than 525 since August. Deputies with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department have repeatedly used rubber bullets, mace, pepper spray and tear gas against activists who insist that they are unarmed.

On Nov. 30, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced an additional $7 million dollars would be borrowed from the state’s reserves to support continued law enforcement response to the Mni Wiconi occupation.  It brings the total line of credit to $17 million. Meantime, Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann said additional members with the North Dakota National Guard have been activated, an increase of about 300 soldiers to 500 now on active duty.

On Nov. 20, a woman protester was airlifted from Bismarck to Minneapolis after her arm was badly injured during late-night clashes with police. Police say 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky rigged a propane canister that exploded in her hand, while her fellow activists claim a police-launched concussion grenade caused the injury. 

“Police officers are getting away with all of this,” said Wapuekenay, who drove 500 miles from the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin to Standing Rock as soon as he learned that Wilansky faced possible amputation of her arm. The night she was injured, Morton County officials sprayed water on protesters in sub-freezing temperatures as a way to control the crowd.

Activists say that what started as a campaign to stop a pipeline has become a far greater movement protesting corporate greed, police brutality and diminishing civil liberties. And at Standing Rock, they say their struggle is also the start of an attempt to reverse 500 years of colonization and oppression on the very lands that are central to the current standoff. That standoff is now being tested by wintry conditions that have settled over the state, including freezing temperatures, snow, and heavy wind. Still, thousands of protesters remain.

“We have rights just like (the police) have rights,” said Wapuekenay, as drumbeats and the voices of Lakota singers resonated across the prairie. A prayer demonstration was being staged near a mound that the tribe says is part of its ancestral burial grounds — land now managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’re the original people of this land. We’re the protectors.”