Last Stand at Standing Rock

Photo by John Duffy | CC BY 2.0

Photo by John Duffy | CC BY 2.0

The names of towns and districts in North Dakota echo the violence of an earlier time, when the United States government pushed Native Americans off their ancestral lands onto reservations and, for many, to their deaths. One such town is Cannon Ball. It is in the heart of Sioux County on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. North of Cannon Ball, on the Missouri river, is the town of Fort Rice, and south of it is Fort Yates. These are two old military forts from the days of the wars against Native Americans, which were oases for traders and settlers. Across the Missouri, about three hours’ drive east, is Whitestone Hill, where, in 1863, the U.S. forces defeated the exhausted detachments of the Lakota Sioux. West of Cannon Ball is Little Big Horn, where the Sioux had their greatest victory against the forces of General George Custer (the battle is known as Custer’s Last Stand). South of Cannon Ball is Wounded Knee, where the Sioux armies were fatally defeated in 1890. War and conflict surround the little town of Cannon Ball, itself named after the technologies of destruction that brought such grief to the Sioux and to other Native Americans.

Cannon Ball is now ground zero for a major fight between Native Americans and private energy firms —such as the benignly named Energy Transfer Partners—over the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is part of an immense project to move fracked natural gas and crude oil to the major population centres of the U.S. It will run from North Dakota’s Bakken region to Illinois. Native Americans complain that the pipeline runs through their sacred lands, desecrating burial grounds and other cultural monuments. They worry that the pipeline will likely damage the Missouri river, the lifeline of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation.

Even the government’s investigators recognise the hazards of this large pipeline. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reports that since 2010 it has recorded more than 3,300 incidents of leaks and ruptures on such pipelines. The effluent from these leaks would poison not only the Missouri river but also the Mississippi river, which flows further east. Petitions against the pipeline bore no fruit. It was to beat back against the intransigence that LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a local historian and activist, created the Sacred Stone Camp on her land as a protest headquarters and a centre for cultural and spiritual preservation. The camp takes its name from the Native American name for the Missouri river—Inyan Wakangapi Wakpa, River that Makes the Sacred Stones.

Water Protectors

Set up in April 2016 to help block the pipeline, the camp drew in thousands of anti-pipeline activists from over 300 Native American tribes and the environmentalist movement. They call themselves the “water protectors”. The protest remained peaceful through the summer. Pressure from the camp moved the U.S. government to call for an Environmental Impact Statement. President Barack Obama’s views on the pipeline, as with so much else, remain ambiguous. In September, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama said: “I know many of you have come together, across tribes and across the country, to support the community at Standing Rock and together you’re making your voices heard.” It is one thing to make your voices heard and another to know if the government agrees with what you are saying or not. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have said that they share the concerns of the protesters. That is why the Environmental Impact Statement has been ordered. The pipeline construction was temporarily blocked. But it was not cancelled. A federal court, in the interim, intervened to allow the pipeline construction to proceed. Obama’s administration remained silent. Beyond meek statements of support, it was unwilling to go against the energy industry.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.78 billion venture, which will run over a thousand miles across four States. Its owner, Energy Transfer Partners, is a major conglomerate with pipelines that criss-cross the U.S., carrying crude oil and natural gas to its various customers, including its own retail Sunoco petrol stations. Energy Transfer Partners’ chief executive officer Kelcy Warren said in September that his firm would pressure the government to allow its project to be completed. “We intend to meet with officials in Washington to understand their position,” he wrote in a memorandum to his employees, “and to reiterate our commitment to bring the Dakota Access Pipeline into operation.” Warren’s personal wealth stands at $4.2 billion. The median household income of the residents of Standing Rock Indian Reservation is a mere $21,625. Wealth and power divide the water protectors and the pipeline promoters. Given the way the government works, it is likely that the company will prevail over the protesters within the year.

The protesters are aware that they cannot ease up on their vigil. They have pledged to remain through the winter. This is a dangerous proposition. In North Dakota, temperatures drop below 17.8ºC on average. This is brutal weather. Their largely open-air camp will be ravaged by the wind. If they leave their encampment, they fear that their struggle will be forgotten and that work on the Dakota Access Pipeline will proceed in the shadows. Trust in the government is low. There is a good reason for this. The Army Corps of Engineers gave the initial go-ahead for the project. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple sent in highway patrol officers and closed the road to the encampment. He suggested, without much evidence, that the protesters were a danger to public safety. Warnings of immense violence have marked these past several months.

Enter the National Guard

In late October, the water protecters moved closer to the site of the pipeline. They blocked two public roads. Signs that the company had restarted construction of the pipeline alerted them to the urgency of the situation. There was no evidence of anything other than peaceful civil disobedience. The land that the water protesters entered is land that Energy Transfer Partners had recently purchased. The Native Americans say that this is tribal land. They declared “eminent domain” over land that they say had been granted to the Great Sioux Nation in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, but then was seized from them by the government. They named this camp Treaty Stronghold Camp, an echo of another treaty signed by the Native Americans with the U.S. government which had been betrayed. Betrayal is part of the history of the Native American experience with the U.S. government. Such betrayals led to the Trail of Tears, when Native Americans lost their land and marched sorrowfully to their reservations. The act of standing firm at Standing Rock seemed a miniature repudiation of that history.

Governor Dalrymple sent in the National Guard to clear out the protesters from what he said was private property. The government claims that the protesters fired shots at the police and lobbed Molotov cocktails at them. The National Guard came in as if they were on a military operation. A sound cannon was their soundtrack as pepper spray filled the air. The authorities arrested 140 protesters. They treated them with great brutality. Veteran Native American journalist Brenda Norrell reported that Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier “caged Standing Rock water protectors in dog kennels and wrote numbers on their arms, as was done in concentration camps”. The situation is so bad that Amnesty International has now sent monitors to observe the protest, which has moved to a secondary camp on government land. The police and the National Guard have not yet removed them from this camp.

“Hopefully, we have persuaded these protesters that our State highways and county highways, and private property, is not the place to carry out a peaceful protest,” said Dalrymple. The use of the phrase “peaceful protest” is important here. It means that Dalrymple agrees with the water protectors that there was no violence from their end. The violence came from the National Guard. “We have repeatedly seen a disproportionate response from law enforcement,”, said David Archambault, who is the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

History repeats itself once more along the Missouri river. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, a respected elder of the Native American community, wrote an impassioned letter to Obama on October 28. He had met Obama during his presidential run. Obama had told Chief Arvol Looking Horse then that he was a lawyer who understood and respected treaties. “This was your word,” wrote Chief Arvol Looking Horse to Obama. It is a word that has been frequently broken, treaty after treaty made and then discarded. Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s emphasis on the idea of the word—Woope, in his language—is not accidental. He writes with pain not only about the breaking of the word, but also about what he says are the lies about the water protectors. “We had no weapons,” he wrote in his letter, “but we were met with an army of lethal weapons.”

Chief Arvol Looking Horse ends his letter with an extract from a statement by the Traditional Elders Council. “We respect and honour our spiritual relationship with the lifeblood of Mother Earth. One does not sell or contaminate their mother’s blood. These capitalistic actions must stop and we must recover our sacred relationship with the Spirit of Water.” The Missouri river flows by the water protectors. Earth-moving equipment tears up the land behind them. There is resilience amongst the Native Americans, but also bitterness. This generation has heard stories of the betrayals. This is their experience of it. Betrayal, like the land itself, is a link to their ancestors.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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