VOICES FROM THE PEACE FRONT—Water Protectors at Standing Rock
Fact Finding in North Dakota
by E. J. Tivona
I roll to a stop at a roadblock along North Dakota county road 1806; a camouflage-garbed youth, toting a semi-automatic, strolls up to my rental car.
“Do you know what’s happening 25 miles down the road?”
“Yes sir, I do.” He flashes a friendly smile, and cautions,
“Well, a lot of people are walking along the road so slow down; drive carefully.” The National Guard’s equivalent of “Have a nice day.”
I’m stopped a second time by Lakota security as I turn into the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) camp near the Standing Rock Reservation. An unarmed young man walks up to my rolled down window. Do I plan to camp? Yes, I do. He ties a yellow ribbon on my door handle and clears me to drive down an impressive roadway lined with flags from nations across the globe.
After parking, I stroll through the camp and connect with a number of proud, generous, and good-humored people. I also sense their suspicion, those whose hearts have been besieged by centuries of broken promises. The Hunkpapa Lakota and Yankonai Dakota people, who make their homes on the land spanning North and South Dakota, stand firm in the commitment to halt construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline, granted by permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Richard Smallteacher of CorpWatch reports, “The company did not consult with the tribes whose lands are likely to be affected, such as the Standing Rock Sioux, despite the fact that the pipeline will pass under the Missouri River a half-mile from their Reservation.”
The Army Corps of Engineers approved plans for the 1170-mile pipeline intended to transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily from fracking sites in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. In a public statement, Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says, “We have laws that require federal agencies to consider environmental risks and protection of Indian historic and sacred sites, but the Army Corps has ignored all those laws and fasttracked this massive project just to meet the pipeline’s aggressive construction schedule.”
I’m directed to Karen Antelope’s camp across the Cannonball River from the main Oceti Sakowin, where I find my longtime colleague and director of a sustainable homestead project on the Pine Ridge reservation. Christinia Eala is a Lakota elder, originally from Rosebud Indian Reservation, present at Standing Rock to protect safe drinking water into the future for her 13 grandchildren.
“This is not just for [Lakota] children, but for ALL the children. If the pipeline breaks and contaminates drinking water, everyone will be affected,” says Eala.
In fact, the original route planned for the pipeline was to run under the Missouri 10 miles north of Bismarck; however, the Army Corps concluded that the Bismarck route jeopardized municipal water supply wells. Standing Rock residents are left to wonder why the pipeline represents a risk for the people of Bismarck but not for the Lakota people.
I quickly settle into the cozy dome tent Christinia has set up with cots. I know she is eager to join the sweat lodge this evening. Even so, she has waited for my arrival and welcomes me with her unique brand of Lakota hospitality — a charming blend of glee and mischief, which I have grown to love about working together. She runs off to find a skirt so I can join her in the sweat lodge and returns with a XXL cotton print dress, which billows over my size medium body. I’m in undies, teeth chattering, and by the time we’re done rushing about, we are both reduced to belly laughs.
So begins my brief fact-finding trip. Over the next three days, I will take part in several direct actions along with water protectors. The first is the one that lingers.
Early on the morning following my arrival, I stumble from the warmth of my sleeping bag, piled high with quilts, and emerge into the nippy North Dakota haze. Once my blood gets moving, I intend to help organize the camp kitchen and sort through mountains of donations. However, I’m summoned by a call to action by Red Fawn, the daughter of Christinia’s longtime Lakota friend, Troylynn Yellowood. Red Fawn is urging us to jump in cars, drive over to the main camp and join the multitudes in an action at a DAPL worksite.
Except by the time we get to security across the river, the line of cars we were expecting is gone. Red Fawn knows the route to the worksite and so we drive. I don’t realize we’re headed nearly 25 miles across gravel, backcountry roads to intersect the slash in the earth delineating the path of the pipeline across the Dakotas. The cut is referred to among indigenous people as the black snake.
The ride takes over an hour and when we turn up the access road to the site, we are surprised to find we’re the only ones there: we joke that we are two old crones (Christinia and I), a mother (Red Fawn) and three maidens (three of Red Fawn’s young nieces, who are producing a documentary film for school). We turn the car around, park and continue walking up the access road, arriving at an active work site. We have no intention of violating law; there are no posted signs warning against trespassing. In fact there are no signs at all. We begin taking pictures.
At the top of a rise, we gaze out over several miles of disconnected pipe, laid end to end in a slash of rough roadway some 50 yards wide. About a half-mile away from where we stand, we watch a tractor grading the earth along one side of the pipes, pushing scoops of dirt across the hillside.
At one point, Christinia walks up to the nearest pipe, puts her head near the opening and begins to sing a ceremonial prayer. The sound of her voice spills out in ripples from the other end of the pipe, a haunting melody of supplication and strength. For those moments we all stand motionless and listen.
We move on, walking close to a different tractor parked in the road. Our proximity to the pipes and to DAPL equipment must have triggered alarm in nearby security forces, even though we were doing nothing more than recording video and taking photos.
We turn back and start toward the car, each of us lost in a tight clot of emotions. Two security trucks rush to the spot we just vacated and block any return access behind us. Two men get out of the truck, wielding smart phones, and for a while we snap dueling photos.
Then a lanky, balding man walks toward us, confronts the six of us, and reads the following statement.
Sir/Ma’am, We respect your first amendment right to assemble and protest. Due to safety concerns we ask that you leave the vicinity of our worksite as you are currently affecting the workflow of previously approved operations. If you do not leave the worksite, law enforcement will be called to remove you from the site.
He walks back to the truck and returns carrying two no trespassing signs. He pounds the first into one side of the county road, crosses over to the other side, and attempts to pound in the second, but it breaks in two. Undaunted, he hammers the puny half sign into the dirt and marches stiffly off. The Lakota women don’t even try to contain their laughter. We wander back and forth across the road for a short period; I continue taking photos while my friends jeer and shame these men for defiling mother earth. As we slowly make our way to our car, the two trucks advance steadily toward us. Apparently law enforcement has been summoned and the guards are heading to meet them. We know our safest course of action is to leave.
Two days later, a large contingent of water protectors return to that same worksite for an action. Their intention, much like our own two days prior, is to pray and conduct ceremony.
But that afternoon, as the crowd is dispersing and returning to cars, riot police march to the rear flank. Other authorities have set up a roadblock, preventing demonstrators’ cars from exiting along the access road. Helicopters circle ominously overhead. Red Fawn is the first to be arrested, followed by 20 others.
But five of us in that crowd (two elder women and three girls) bear witness: two days earlier the pipeline was just a string of scattered, disconnected pipe. Today it is a welded back snake creeping ever closer to the Missouri River and the Standing Rock reservation.
At the Oceti Sakowin camp, water protectors have prominently posted principles to guide indigenous people and allies involved in resistance to the pipeline. The principles detail specifics of engagements with authorities. Some statements guide practices for lawful and non-violent ceremony, deliberately free from criminal trespass. Other principles direct those intending to engage in civil disobedience to required training, including instruction on disciplined response and police liaison responsibilities. Veterans for Peace activists have volunteered as liaisons and also help demonstrators navigate the boundary between civil disobedience and lawful protest.
The lines are not always clear. Often, in the heat of action, people over-react. Sadly, over-reaction more frequently occurs on the part of police and military ordered to disperse crowds. As I observe, police and guards react out of fear and employ much greater force than is required. The blatant show of power rarely fails to incite and too often leads both sides to dangerous confrontation.
Regardless, the people of Standing Rock and their allies have reached the tipping point. They maintain an unwavering resolve to protect their first medicine—the sacred water of life.
Naomi Klein, in her book and film of the same name This Changes Everything, extensively documents the history of repeated victimization of native populations and wholesale extraction of natural resources on indigenous lands, solely for corporate profit. Klein points out:
“Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction of humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
How this war ends is up to each one of us. The indigenous people of Standing Rock, as leaders and stewards, point the way for all of us. However, survival will require our collective will to make the critical transition from reliance on fossil fuels to reliance on renewables.
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