Editor's note: On Jan. 24, President Donald Trump signed memorandums to advance construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as Keystone XL. Read more here.
In September 2014, a colleague sent Wasté Win Young, then the historic preservation officer for North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a news article. It described a proposed oil pipeline that was headed straight for ancestral lands and water, Young said, yet no one had told the tribe about it.
The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline, operated by Energy Transfer Partners, was slated to be the largest pipeline ever to originate in North Dakota, able to transport up to 570,000 gallons of crude per day from the booming Bakken oil patch, across South Dakota and Iowa to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois. North Dakota welcomed the project, which could further boost the state’s oil production. By April 2014, output had topped 1 million barrels per day, and proponents said transporting the oil by pipeline would be safer than using trains, which can derail, causing spills or explosive fires.
South of the Bakken, though, the Standing Rock Sioux were increasingly wary of the state’s energy ambitions. The tribe had long resisted the multibillion-dollar fracking industry, even as North Dakota was becoming one of America’s leading oil producers, second only to Texas. A strong believer in tribal sovereignty, the Standing Rock Sioux began banning Bakken-related projects on its territory as early as 2007, citing historic treaties, the tribe’s right to natural resources and its deep spiritual connection to the land and water.
The tribe’s distrust of the oil industry only deepened when the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, 200 miles up the Missouri River, began to experience the darker side of the Bakken boom. These tribal communities on the Fort Berthold Reservation were among the state’s leading oil producers. But the boom also brought an increase in drugs and crime: According to the FBI, rape, murder and assaults rose 121 percent between 2005 and 2011 throughout the Williston Basin, home to Fort Berthold.
The Standing Rock Sioux’s doubts about fracking and oil carried over to the Dakota Access Pipeline, provoking something state officials rarely encountered in their pursuit of an energy agenda: environmental debate. The tribe’s resistance to the pipeline eventually blossomed into a much larger struggle for Indigenous rights, environmental justice and racial equality. But it all started out quietly, as great social movements so often do.
Young, now 38, was the first to draw attention to the pipeline plans. As historic preservation officer, she was responsible for overseeing artifacts and cultural sites across the reservation’s 3,500 square miles. Young emailed Energy Transfer Partners the day she learned about the pipeline, and on Sept. 30, 2014, two company officials, Chuck Frey and Tammy Ibach, visited tribal headquarters in the small town of Fort Yates, on the state’s southern edge. Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II thanked them for showing up — something similar infrastructure companies had never bothered to do — but he was adamant: The tribe had no intention of offering support.
“We recognize our treaty boundaries, Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868, which encompasses North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming,” Archambault explained, according to a recording of the meeting. He was referring to treaties that had been broken by the U.S. government but remained central to the tribe’s policies and decisions.
The energy company representatives did not seem to understand.
“As Tammy (Ibach) just mentioned,” Frey said, “we have avoided the existing tribal boundary property, and we actually come within 2,500 feet to your current tribal boundary.” Frey meant the current reservation boundary, not the larger ancestral territory claimed by the Sioux. His statement sidestepped the sensitive issue of tribal sovereignty, as well as the lingering rancor caused by previous Army Corps of Engineers projects on the Missouri. The construction of the Oahe Dam and other projects during the Pick-Sloan program in the 1950s and ’60s had swallowed up Standing Rock’s more fertile bottomlands, forcing out tribal members and throwing many into lasting poverty.
To make matters worse, the Army Corps representative who agreed to attend the September 2014 talks never showed up. “We’ve actually been having a hard time setting up a meeting with the Corps for this particular project,” Young told Ibach and Frey. (The Army Corps maintains that it tried multiple times to discuss the pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux.)
The Standing Rock Sioux’s stance was clear from the start. “Our water is our single last property that we have for our people,” Councilwoman Phyllis Young, Wasté Win Young’s mother, told the company representatives. “Mni Wiconi. Water is life.”
Last spring, supporters began to arrive and were warmly welcomed by Standing Rock’s leaders. Activists pitched teepees and tents along the Missouri and joined in prayers to protest the pipeline. At the time, construction had yet to reach the river. Protesters, who called themselves “water protectors,” described the pipeline as the “black snake,” citing a Lakota prophecy that warns of the destruction of Mother Earth.
The first encampment, the Sacred Stone Camp, was established April 1, and initially consisted of just two people, Joye Braun, 47, and her cousin, Wiyaka Eagleman, 30. Braun hailed from the nearby Cheyenne River Sioux, Eagleman from the Rosebud Sioux. Within a month, a dozen more joined them, including veterans of the Keystone XL pipeline protests. They became the core of the burgeoning movement, and their determined presence along the banks of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers helped legitimize the resistance campaign. “This isn’t just a Native American issue, this is a human issue,” Braun said.
Among the early activists was Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Navajo Nation. “It’s not ‘if’ there’s going to be a (pipeline) spill, but ‘when,’ ” he said in late August, echoing the view of many fellow protesters. “It’s corporations like Dakota Access and Energy (Transfer) Partners that are committing an act of aggression, that are violent against Mother Earth.”
As summer settled over the prairie, Goldtooth’s son, Dallas, who is Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné, began to organize the movement online, distributing short videos, live updates and drone footage of the growing camps. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, R, later acknowledged that the state’s efforts to address the movement were “outgunned” by Standing Rock’s “social media machine.” The camps continued to grow, from no more than 20 people in April to nearly 2,000 in early September.
A major turning point came on Sept. 3, after private security guards attacked dozens of protesters with pepper spray and dogs. That Saturday, on Labor Day weekend, Dakota Access crews began bulldozing land that the Standing Rock Sioux consider sacred, home to tribal burial sites. A group of women scaled a wire fence, followed by men and children. Violence swiftly erupted. Some guards had attack dogs on leashes, and several demonstrators were bitten. “The dog has blood in its nose and its mouth,” Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman declared in a dramatic video that went viral.
The ranks of protesters swelled, and by October as many as 300 tribal flags flew over the Oceti Sakowin Camp, named for the Seven Council Fires, the bands of the Great Sioux Nation that had assembled earlier in the summer. The gathering represented the first time they had reunited since the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Oceti Sakowin grew into a sprawling community of encampments, defined by tribal affiliations and other traits including the Red Warrior Camp and Two Spirit Camp.
Hollywood celebrities, including actor Mark Ruffalo, became involved, as did a broader coalition of civil rights activists. The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared the issue to Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, which continues to devastate already impoverished African-Americans. The camps included Indigenous delegations from as far away as Norway, Ecuador and New Zealand.
In response, law enforcement efforts also intensified, and by late September, Morton County sheriff’s deputies were arriving at prayer demonstrations in armored vehicles and riot gear. By mid-October, security forces were again pepper-spraying protesters. In late October, two mass arrests took place just days apart, and nearly 250 people, including respected spiritual elders, were detained by police. On Oct. 27, Morton County deputies, assisted by the National Guard and more than 200 officers from six neighboring states, conducted a military-style sweep along Highway 1806. They razed a newly established camp that sat directly in the path of the pipeline and used tear gas, rubber bullets and Tasers to push protesters back to the Oceti Sakowin Camp. On the night of Nov. 20, deputies sprayed water cannons on dozens of people in sub-freezing temperatures during a protest over the police barricade at the Backwater Bridge.
Finally, on Dec. 4, the Army announced that it would not grant an easement to the pipeline without further review and an environmental impact assessment. By then, an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 people were living in the camps. But winter had come as well, and after the Army’s announcement, Chairman Archambault urged the protesters to return home. Many left as blizzards raked the prairie, but some have stayed on, ready if necessary to renew their opposition to the pipeline and the system it represents.
“It’s always been their laws, their political system, their money interests,” Wasté Win Young told me. “We have a duty to our people to protect our resources and our land.”
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
Jenni Monet is a freelance journalist reporting for PBS NewsHour, PRI The World, Al Jazeera America and Yes! Magazine. She is executive producer and host of the podcast Still Here and is a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo. Follow @jennimonet
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