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Now the Sioux Must Battle Big Oil

September 2016

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

Members of the Lakota Tribe at Standing Rock and their supporters around the world have garnered an important recent victory with the halting of the Dakota Pipeline construction. Their courageous actions captured world attention and in a surprise victory, three federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Justice ordered a halt to controversial project until the Lakota were properly consulted. However, the resisters at Standing Rock are also preparing for Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline corporation, to renew its attempt to complete the $3.8 billion project. The following article by Alan Gilbert, who visited Standing Rock recently, summarizes the key issues surrounding the pipeline controversy.

Residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota say they were never consulted about an oil pipeline. Now they’re fighting back.

“This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.” —Dave Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, Sept. 4, 2016

1.  What land-protection means

On April 1, some 70 men and women from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, erected an encampment on private land own`ed by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard off the reservation. They were there, on what they hold to be sacred land, to protest the poisoning of their water, water that they hold to be equally sacred. Without consulting the Sioux tribes, a conglomerate oil company in Texas—Energy Transfer Partners—had gotten permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP), an oil pipeline that would run near the reservation and beneath the Missouri River, the reservation’s sole source of water.

The Dakota and Lakota tribes have long lived in this territory. Here, led by Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, they fought off the U.S. Army and were defeated after long battles. Here, on Sept. 3, 1863, the army committed the Whitestone Massacre of 300 men, women, and children. The tribes still hold treaty rights to this land. Their ancestors are buried here.

But the Lakota were consulted by the Army Corps of Engineers neither about grave sites nor the waters.

The oil pipeline was originally supposed to go above Bismarck, in territory mainly inhabited by whites. But the company shifted it to go south through Standing Rock, crossing under Lake Oahu (part of the Missouri River) and the Missouri twice.

The Sacred Land encampment is a vibrant, spiritual place. It had grown into a second camp of some 2,000 people on nearby public land by the time I arrived on Aug. 30 with photographer Paula Bard. Over the weekend, the numbers swelled, and now, according to news reports, some 3,000-4,000 protesters have encamped.

Since April, word about protecting the waters has spread, and many indigenous peoples have sent support. As you enter Red Warrior camp, the flags of 154 tribes flutter along both sides of the road. People come locally and from Manitoba, Sasketchwan, California, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Paula and I entered the Standing Rock reservation where it divides the bright waters of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. Water does not just give life here. Water is an extension of the people. Mni Wiconi is the Lakota phrase: “Water is life.”

We spent five days with the land protectors (they do not call themselves protesters, but protectors or defenders). We listened to drumming and prayer songs, sometimes late into the night. We met three Cheyenne and Arapaho women who had just driven 15 hours from Oklahoma, and a man from Minnesota who had been at Standing Rock for a week, gone away, and had just returned.

We heard a Minnesota woman who lived near Lake Superior speak about how when she was growing up, you could catch and eat a fish every day. One day, her grandfather warned that there would be a fight over the purity of the water. This had seemed unimaginable to her, the water blue or gray, shifting with sun or clouds.

People hang a sign near a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River nearby, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work.

Now, the waters are murkier, and a pregnant woman may eat only one fish caught in the lake in nine months.

The Lakota is also a women’s culture, so there were two large circle prayer meetings of women while we were there. One went down to the river. The other lifted its voice to the pure waters in the sky. Women sought the maintenance of the Missouri and Lake Oahe for children, grandchildren, and seven generations to come.

In April, young Lakotas said they would not acquiesce to oil pipes under the water. Some 15 organized the Oceti Sakownin (7 Council Fires, the original name of the Sioux) run to Washington. At one evening gathering, a Pawnee counselor who had worked for 12 years to prevent teenage suicides told of the vibrancy and initiative of the runners who spoke to Congress about the DAP.

When the Lakota people pray and sing, they speak naturally of the earth, the mother. The water and the land are given by grandfather spirit—tunkashila in Lakota—to make the life of all tribes, animals, and humans good. Tim Mentz, an elder, spoke of the understandings and instructions, passed through the grandmothers, of 19 generations. And Dave Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, said that the prayers which began in April had yielded guidance, as the elders conjured a vision of a nonviolent resistance movement to protect the water.

Despite dispossession from the lands, the ethnic cleansing, the treaties broken by the U.S. government, and the associated transgenerational trauma, the people at the encampment display an immediate, rich sense of the continuity of their ancestors and the sacredness of the earth.

As 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer put it in a petition: “Oil companies keep telling us that this is perfectly safe, but we’ve learned that that’s a lie: from 2012-2013 alone, there were 300 oil pipeline breaks in the state of North Dakota. With such a high chance that this pipeline will leak, I can only guess that the oil industry keeps pushing for it because they don’t care about our health and safety. It’s like they think our lives are more expendable than others.”

A substantial leak would poison the waters all the way down to where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi, all the way down to Mexico.

We camped next to a Navajo family from Arizona. They told us how last year, tailing ponds from Colorado mines leaked radioactive waste into the Las Animas River near Durango and Pagosa Springs. Las Animas flows into the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Downstream in Arizona, they could no longer give their horses water.

Many of us drink the Missouri’s water, and most of the country eats the crops grown in the region. This pipeline threatens every American.

2.  Wounded Knee

Standing Rock was the reservation of Sitting Bull, who led the defense of the Black Hills against Custer’s invading army. In 1876, at the battle of the Little Big Horn, which Native Americans call the Battle of Greasy Grass, a coalition of indigenous people led by Sitting Bull defeated the invaders. Sitting Bull then led his people to Canada, but eventually returned and settled at Standing Rock, where he was murdered by the U.S. Army during the suppression of the “ghost dance” at Wounded Knee in 1890. The ghost dance was an indigenous/Christian dance for the resurrection of the indigenous community and the repulsing of the invaders.

Starting on Feb. 27, 1973, the American Indian Movement led a great movement to revive the spirit of Wounded Knee, when 200 Oglala Sioux occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. They demanded the U.S. government honor or renegotiate treaties and opposed the violent and corrupt official leadership of the tribe. People were electrified. Indigenous activists and other supporters joined from all over the country. An armed standoff ensued. Dennis Banks and Russell Means, two leaders of AIM, were indicted. Because of “prosecutorial misconduct,” however, the charges were dropped.

3. A Company Attack with Dogs and Mace

Last Saturday, Sept. 3, Energy Transfer Associates organized a hasty new plowing of grave sites. A large nonviolent demonstration took place. Demonstrators were attacked by company dogs and maced.

Before any investigation, Kyle Kirchmeier, the sheriff of Morton County, echoed the Energy Transfer Company’s report about the alleged “violence” of protesters. So did the lead column (front page, top right) of the Bismarck Tribune for Sunday. April 5, written by Leann Eckroth.

“Protestors Get Into Worksite,” the headline read. “Security Officers, Dogs Injured.”

In civil disobedience actions over the last week, protesters have chained themselves to machines. They were eventually cut loose and arrested. No dogs were present. But while the company sicking 10 dogs on demonstrators was unusual, it does conjure the ghost of Bull Connor, the police chief of Birmingham who infamously unleashed dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on high school students in 1963. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe from Minnesota, responded: “I feel like telling the governor is that, you know, you are not George Wallace, and this is not Alabama. You know? This is 2016, and you don’t get to treat Indians like you have for those last hundred years. We’re done. You know? It’ll be interesting times.”

The Bismarck Tribune alleges injuries to security—one security official was bitten by his own dog—and to the dogs themselves: “Three private security officers at the site were injured by protestors, said Donnell Preskey, spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office. One of them required hospitalization. Two security K-9s were also taken to a veterinarian to be treated for injuries … The security officers were hit and jabbed with fence posts and flag poles.”

The dogs were not trained. Dog expert Jonni Joyce exclaimed that they “looked like alligators on leashes.” They bit some 30 people, including a pregnant woman and a child.

Marcus Frejo, who is of Pawnee and Seminole ancestry and came from Oklahoma City, said, “We made it to the top of the hill and saw several bulldozers and trucks, and we walked up to the fence. There’s sacred sites up there, so one woman stepped through the fence, just feet in, telling them with her son at her side that this is sacred land. She yelled at them to stop.

“Bulldozers were less than 10 feet from her, and I was thinking, ‘Why can’t this bulldozer that is so close to her stop?’ So I ran in front of the bulldozer to stop, and security came up from behind and just grabbed me and flipped me over. All of a sudden I’m on the ground, and then more people started coming through the fence and got him off me.”

Ursula Young Bear, an Oglala Lakota, reported,  “The women joined arms, and we started saying, ‘Water is life!’ A dog came up and bit my leg, and right after that a man came up to us and maced the whole front line.”

The Bismarck Tribune reports protesters with fence posts, but no protesters had fence posts. The Tribune says, “According to several reports from security officers, knives were pulled on them or they witnessed protestors with large knives.” No defender had a knife. The camp forbids them, and the people are protesting nonviolently. Only the guards used dogs and mace.

Leann Eckroth did not speak to any of the hundreds of protesters. She did not go to the campsite, a mile down the road from the construction site.

“Reporting” on Native American protest in the North Dakota press does not include both sides. It does not pretend to the “objectivity” of ordinary journalism.

Neither the sheriff nor the Bismarck Tribune were on the scene. They did not speak with the tribes. The governor has now called out the National Guard.

Due to the numbers of protesters, the tractors retreated over the hill. Construction stopped.

4. The Desecration of Graves

Demonstrators only learned later of the company’s premeditated grave desecration.

Tim Mentz, a Lakota elder, had recently explored this land with three of his cousins. He spoke last Saturday night to an assembly at the camp, where he reported discovering 27 graves of ancestors and 82 rare sites on the land bulldozed that day. He found the coup stick—Wagamuha—of the Strong Heart Society. He found the half rings or handles of the dipper which the Nachas of the Straight Lance People had made. These would have been the only ones in the North Dakota State Data Base.

Company archaeologists show no familiarity with Sioux practices. They walked right over this.

Mentz said that archaeologists call graves “burial mounds” to justify stealing the skeletons, and stressed the importance of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One result of that legislation is that 20,000 indigenous skulls in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute are slowly being returned for burial.

On the destroyed site, Mentz’s team also found a sacred buffalo effigy.

David Meyers, who owns the land where the pipeline is to run, encouraged Mentz to look for the sites. Meyers is learning Lakota and wants to know why the land is important to the people. But he could not interfere, he said, where the land had been taken by the company through eminent domain. He says Energy Transfer Associates had threatened to sue him.

In district court in Washington, archaeological consultants for the company testified there were no grave sites on the land. On Friday, Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Sioux, introduced Mentz’s discoveries in hope that these sites would be protected. But on Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, bulldozers destroyed the very sites Mentz identified.


Earlier today [Sept 9] a U.S. District Court judge denied a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the DAP. But later in the day, the Obama administration blocked the pipeline at Lake Oahe pending review and consultation with the Lakota.

Prepared for the long haul, the tribe will appeal. Protectors will engage in resistance and civil disobedience into the winter.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and author of Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, University of Chicago Press, 2012 and “Slave-gangs, Press-gangs and Emancipation in the American Revolution.”

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