Dakota pipeline protesters confront the "black snake": "We're living by the fire"

"We're gaining strength": On the Standing Rock reservation, winter is coming — but protesters won't give up

Published October 18, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Actress Shailene Woodley in a rally in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their lawsuit   (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Actress Shailene Woodley in a rally in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their lawsuit (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

NEAR CANNON BALL, N.D. — From the edge of the road, near the banks of the Cannon Ball River, you could hear a prayer rise from the darkened bowl of land below. It was 7:30 on a Monday morning on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. A faint glow appeared in the east, widening slowly to reveal a large circle of perhaps 100 people, most standing, a few kneeling in the center, facing the light, singing their prayer then lighting long pipes and passing them around. Behind them, dozens of white tipis stretched across the flood plain, their tops catching the early sunlight.

A few months ago, this treeless clearing in the Missouri River flood plain was empty. Now, 1,200 people are camping here, a fraction of the 5,000 who gathered in the summer. They have come from Indian lands across the Dakotas; from 300 North American tribal nations; from Jamaica, Central America, Norway, the United Kingdom, France and Japan. Their common pledge: to kill the long black snake — also known as the 1,172-mile, 450,000-barrel-a-day, $3.78 billion Dakota Access pipeline — before it poisons the drinking water that millions of people in the Great Plains depend on.

The prayer group began to disburse. A voice on a bullhorn cut through the din. “Please go back to your tents, pack up and get in your cars,” said Vic Camp, who grew up on the Oglala Sioux reservation to the south, on the other side of the Badlands. His father, the late Carter Camp, was a leader of the uprising at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in the 1970s, Vic told me.

Now the son called on the assembled protesters to gather at the pipeline site, some 12 miles from here, to erect a tipi, sing and pray. “While you slept, a federal judge in Washington lifted the injunction,” he said. There was no time to waste. Construction of the pipeline would resume today — ironically, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, known to much of the nation as Columbus Day.

The lines here are sharply drawn. One one side: pipeline advocates, including the Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer, its billionaire Texas owner, Kelcy Warren, and nervous company investors; the governor of North Dakota and Donald Trump adviser, Jack Dalrymple, and elected officials; a state economy heavily dependent on oil revenue; the staunchly pro-pipeline North Dakota media, with its bellicose talk-radio hosts whipping up anger among local white farmers, ranchers and townsfolk; and a militarized police presence, including concrete-barrier checkpoints, National Guard troops and hundreds of sheriff’s officers called in from as far away as Wisconsin.

On the other side: The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its tens of thousands of supporters, on the ground and worldwide in an ever-expanding social-media network, whose common rallying cry is “Water is life.” The tribe’s main focus is potential contamination of the Missouri River and destruction of sacred burial sites.

“Protecting water and our sacred places has always been at the center of our cause,” Standing Rock's chairman, David Archambault II, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. In September President Obama handed the tribe a major but provisional victory, ordering three federal agencies to temporarily suspend permission to build the pipeline under the river, on lands adjacent to the reservation.

Indigenous and climate activists want to halt construction altogether, forcing the company to “keep it in the ground.” The Dakota Access pipeline “would increase emissions by the equivalent of 29.5 new coal fired power plants per year,” said Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Put another way, that's the equivalent of 21.4 million more vehicles on the road per year.”

Mossett grew up north of Standing Rock, on the Fort Berthold reservation, in the heart of the North Dakota oil patch. That experience helped her forge a vision for alternatives to massive pipeline projects.

“What does it actually look like, transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy into a renewable economy? It's something that doesn't happen overnight," Mossett told me. "But there are people willing to donate solar power and wind power and earth-lodge building and longhouse building and wigwam building, and even tiny houses. If those steps are taken in this moment to make that happen, then it's a very real possibility.”

“The world is watching what's happening at Standing Rock right now.”

* * *

The Monday morning sun was still low in the eastern sky when several hundred protesters began to gather along the pipeline route north of the Cannon Ball encampment. Despite the federal government’s suspension of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River, Energy Transfer had not complied with President Obama’s request to voluntarily suspend construction within 20 miles of the dammed Lake Oahe, on the Missouri River.

And now a federal appeals court in Washington has denied the tribe’s petition to ban pipeline construction near its sacred burial sites. So construction of the “black snake” was to commence again.

Several dozen police vehicles, including an armored personnel carrier, began to gather on the hillside. A yellow company helicopter swooped low, buzzing the protesters. A few miles away, National Guardsmen checked vehicles at a highway checkpoint. And there were multiple reports from encampment residents of surveillance drones and “stingray” devices that vacuum personal data from cellphones. At times I felt like I was back reporting in the West Bank not in the Northern Plains.

Below the ridge, under Vic Camp’s direction, protesters had swiftly erected tipi poles, forming a circle beside unassembled lengths of pipe. Native dancers from Oregon and California chanted prayers, and soon police began to assemble on the ridge at the side of the road. “You are trespassing,” an officer shouted through a bullhorn. Leave the land now, he said, or you’ll be arrested.

Most of us began to walk slowly toward the highway, but some two dozen activists did not move. Some stood between the tipi poles, and police began to cuff them. Twenty-seven people were arrested, including Camp and actress Shailene Woodley, who live-streamed the moment.

A tense standoff ensued as officers prepared to escort the arrested to a waiting wagon. Nearly 100 baton-wielding officers in riot helmets formed a long line, faced down by protesters waving banners declaring “Defend the Sacred,” “DAPL DESTROYS WATER, FARM, CLIMATE” and shouting, “The whole world is watching!” and “We are peaceful.”

At one point, a small group of protesters angrily confronted a man with a television camera who declined to identify himself; it later turned out that he was filming for a local station in Bismarck, the state capital. Yet despite the emotional intensity, from my observation, the protests were without exception peaceful.

Yet later that day at a press conference in Bismarck, Sheriff Paul Laney called the protest a “riot.” Prosecutors added “engaging in a riot” to their charges of criminal trespassing. Misdemeanor riot charges were also filed against Amy Goodman, “Democracy Now!” host, for her earlier coverage of anti-pipeline protests; on Monday, a judge dismissed those charges. (Documentary producer, Deia Schlosberg faces felony charges in connection with another North Dakota pipeline protest; she faces a possible 45 years in prison.)

Add to these the inflammatory rhetoric of local radio hosts — last week I repeatedly heard them call anti-North Dakota pipeline protesters “terrorists” — and it is clear that this oil-first state, abetted by a largely compliant local media, is adopting a scorched-earth policy against the anti-pipeline forces and any media at all sympathetic to them.

“It is because of the behavior of the state that these tensions are heightened,” said Standing Rock's chairman, Archambault, after emerging from a special meeting in the tribal community of Cannon Ball to discuss the protest movement.

It has been state and county officials in service of the pipeline company who have ratcheted up the tensions, Archambault told me. “They put the blockade up. They have low-flying planes they’ve brought in. County sheriffs from all over. In fact, the National Guard.

“And they're the ones who use the terminology ‘terrorist,’” Archambault added. “So if there's a heightened level of confrontation it's not because of what the demonstrators are doing when they walk down that road to protest the construction that's going on.”

Archambault himself was arrested at a recent protest. Like other protesters (who prefer to be called “water protectors”), the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was strip-searched; he stood naked as an officer checked his braid for weapons. One woman told Goodman she was strip-searched and forced to “squat and cough.”

* * *

Across the Cannon Ball River, at the encampment on Standing Rock treaty lands — taken from the tribe and now administered by the Army Corps of Engineers — protesters are digging in for the long haul. A core group of perhaps 320 people is determined to tough it out through the winter despite the fact that Northern Plains temperatures can reach minus-30 Fahrenheit.

“And when that snow and sleet comes they’re going to need a place to get into,” said Johnnie Aseron, who is coordinating many of the logistics for the camp. The weather had just turned cold; Aseron squeezed in an interview as he pounded in stakes for a large Army tent that would provide better shelter and windbreak for winter campers. “A lot of people are not prepared, living in summer stuff,” he told me.

Despite its lack of hierarchy, the camp is organized along a main dirt road, Crazy Horse Avenue, lined with some 300 flags from tribal nations that have pledged their support in the pipeline battle. Along the road on either side: a kitchen and mess hall; food and clothes donation tents; a medic tent; a direct-action training tent; a tent serving as a grade school. And at the center is the “Seven Council Fires” of the Great Sioux Nation, a kind of town square where announcements and prayers are shared beside the campfire.

Not since the 1876 Battle of the Greasy Grass (known to most Americans as the Battle of Little Bighorn) have the seven tribes fought together, Lakota and Dakota people told me. And perhaps never have some 300 tribes come together over a fight like this.

“It's a historic time, this event that is gathering our people and making others aware of the importance of the sacredness of water,” said Ivan Looking Horse, from the nearby Cheyenne River reservation. “A worldwide effort, a big rebellion against the government and the corporations from all over the world.”

“It's a whole bunch of people trying to figure out what it means to have this many human beings in the same place that have a common purpose,” Aseron told me as his crew raised the poles on the large tent. “But now, I have to figure out how we're going to be together to survive the winter. People are living in a way they haven't, and they're learning little by little. Me too, every day.”

For the coming harsh winter, tribes from as far away as Oregon and Canada are donating special animal-skin tipis and other materials made for winter living. Other supporters are planning to donate solar and wind-power technology. Aseron said camp structures will move closer to each other, huddling for warmth, or possibly relocate to reservation lands across the river.

“We're trying to figure out how to make it so that no one has to suffer more than is necessary, Aseron said. “But the message is to continue to have a peaceful, prayerful place that can take care of the people.”

On a windy afternoon just above the camp on “Facebook Hill,” about the only place you can get a cellphone signal, Tom Goldtooth gazed down at the tipis, tents and trailers from the shelter of his pickup truck. Goldtooth, from the Diné (Navajo) and Dakota peoples, is director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. The network is a vital native link to the climate change movement, having fought both the XL Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. But as Goldtooth gazed at the flags lining Crazy Horse Avenue below, he made it clear the fight is about something larger.

“We've been told that this is going to happen,” he said of the gathering of tribes. “That it’s part of an indigenous rising. The prophecies say that our people are going to come back around to revitalize our language and live those original instructions that were given to us.

“That's what's happening here,” Goldtooth said. “Five thousand people came here just a couple weekends ago. We’re getting support from all over the world. And they’re seeing something here that gives them inspiration to re-evaluate their own relationship to their communities and question this power construction called capitalism.”

Said Goldtooth: “We’re living by the fire, by the simplicity of our food. So that's how we're gaining strength here. It’s part of the prophecy.”

For some resisters, the challenge remains more basic: to keep the pipeline from crossing Highway 1806 and burrowing east on toward the Missouri. On a frigid night late last week, before I left Standing Rock, I drove north of the encampment to a collection of plywood lean-tos. A banner stretched across the length of one of them stating “Clemency for Leonard Peltier,” referring to the American Indian Movement leader who was convicted in the 1975 shootings of two FBI agents following the Wounded Knee uprising. Many believe Peltier was framed and consider him a political prisoner; Amnesty International has long called for his release.

It was a clear night. A near full moon was rising behind the lean-tos; I could see the sparks of a campfire and faintly hear the recorded sound of Native American singers and an Indian drum. A young man emerged: Nathan Yellow Lodge, from the Standing Rock reservation. “I’m a descendent of One Bull. And our occupation is to make sure the pipeline doesn’t go across.”

A few weeks earlier, at this very spot, the pipeline company's dogs attacked protesters. The incident was captured by Amy Goodman and her crew and led to the state charges filed against her. Yellow Lodge said, “This is where I belong. I’m doing this because my grandpa Steve did it. He was at Wounded Knee. And now I’m here. We’re going to take this to victory. We’re going to be champions.”

Yellow Lodge waited. Members of the pipeline crew is expected back soon, he said, and their route would take them straight through the rickety encampment that the young man and his crew have set up. But he appeared unfazed.

“The route comes through right where we’re standing now,” Yellow Lodge said, as the pounding of the Black Lodge Singers echoed behind him. “We’re going to make sure it doesn’t go any further than it is. We’re going to occupy it to the fullest. They could bring all the force they want. We’re still going to stand strong.”

"I feel awesome because we’re standing as one,” Yellow Lodge added.

By Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is author of the international bestseller "The Lemon Tree" and "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land." He has reported from more than 35 countries, and extensively from Native American country. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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Dakota Access Pipeline Native American Native Americans North Dakota Oil Pipelines