Feds to send conciliators amid tensions over Dakota Access

In Bismarck, officials describe a chaotic mix of law enforcement and protesters.


The U.S. Department of Justice will send in conciliators to help reduce tensions between Standing Rock protesters and law enforcement, but officials in Bismarck, North Dakota, describe a chaotic situation that is growing more complicated by the day.

In a video statement Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department would be sending conciliators from the Community Relations Service of North Dakota to help defuse tensions near the Standing Rock reservation, 40 miles south of the capital. Since April, Standing Rock Sioux members and their supporters have been camped in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile, $3.8 billion oil pipeline they say threatens water supplies and ancestral burial sites. Thousands of people are now staying at the camps.

In making the announcement, the Justice Department will be sending mediators into a tense standoff that has seen numerous clashes between protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” and law enforcement. An unknown number of law enforcement agencies across multiple states, such as the National Guard and sheriffs from Minnesota and Wisconsin, have been activated this fall. One local official said that police from North Dakota Game & Fish, North Dakota Parks & Recreation and state penitentary guards were also activated. Rising concern for the safety of the protesters came after law enforcement hosed people with water in sub-freezing temperatures on Nov. 20 and used tear gas and rubber bullets, resulting in several injuries.

In a press conference on Saturday, Sheriff Paul Laney of Cass County, North Dakota, an “operations chief” of the sprawling law enforcement response, said officers are considering pulling back from a bridge near the encampments that has been the site of recent clashes. Laney said law enforcement would stop staffing that area if protestors agreed to remain off the bridge, stay south of it, and not remove barrier materials placed on the bridge. 

The complex nature of the standoff has left local law enforcement stretched. “All this about the treaty of 1851, they were made in agreement with the federal government that won’t engage, even though we have asked numerous times: Come help,” Sheriff Laney said Saturday. Moreover, law enforcement is facing the prospect of a major national media event, with reporters arriving daily ahead of a Dec. 5 Army Corps of Engineer’s stated closure of the area. Morton County Commissioner Bruce Strinden told me he gets between 40 and 150 calls or emails each day from angry citizens across the country. Officials that I spoke to described a complex mix of agencies and protesters, facing off over the Missouri River, as a bitter North Dakota winter looms.

The top commander of the massive law enforcement effort is Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who has been fairly tight-lipped, other than sporadic press conferences open only to select members of the press. Kirchmeier’s office isn’t answering most press calls or emails. On Friday, when I visited, the office, which is in Mandan, across the Missouri River from Bismarck, was locked. About a dozen members of the International Indigenous Youth Council demonstrated outside in support of the stand against the pipeline.

County and state officials say the police deployed near the Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps are tasked with public safety and preventing damage to private property. They stand between the protesters and the Energy Transfer Partners' pipeline construction site, which sits a half-mile from the encampment and two miles from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

In some places, police have constructed barricades with concertina wire between them and the camps. “There’s an expectation on the part of our citizens that we’re going to have law and order,” Strinden said. 

Near the land occupied by protesters and the pipeline construction site are properties of North Dakota farmers and ranchers. Jeff Zent, spokesman for North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who issued a Nov. 28 evacuation order for the camps, said landowners have complained of trespassing and blocked roads. This has further added to local political pressure to end the standoff.

Prohibiting people from breaking private property law is a clear mandate; responding to a massive protest where thousands of people with an unknown variety of personal motivations, including arguments of Native American rights and treaties, at the outset of a Great Plains winter, is much more complicated, and something officials say they’ve never dealt with before. “Arguing their treaties is logical,” Morton County Commissioner Andy Zachmeier said. “But Morton County has no jurisdiction of treaty violations, nor does the state of North Dakota. We have property rights at our back and First Amendment rights at our front. It puts us in the middle.” 

Tay Wiles is an associate editor of High Country News. She can  be reached at [email protected]

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