Temporary Victory Against the Dakota Pipeline: Report From Standing Rock

Photo by UR_Ninga | CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

Photo by UR_Ninga | CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Since last spring, volunteers from 280 Native tribes and countless other folks have been pouring into the various camps of the Standing Rock Sioux – ultimately up to 25,000 people, some for short stays and others “for the duration.” Their mission: to help the Sioux tribes stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from drilling under the great Missouri River, befouling the water supply for 17 million, desecrating sacred sites and trampling on Native lands and sovereignty. Native fighters had already employed an array of militant tactics to stop the pipeline, including chaining themselves to construction equipment.

Then on Nov.25, the Army Corps of Engineers, backed by the state governor, issued an ultimatum, ordering all 7,000 people then living in the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation) camp to pack up and leave. Basically saying, “Everybody out, or we’ll bulldoze the place.” Can you believe this? The evacuation deadline was December 5, and “any person who chooses to stay does so at their own risk.” Tribal leaders refused, demanding respect for their community and territorial treaty rights.

The evacuation order, in addition to ongoing vicious police repression against the water protectors, prompted a howl of outrage from all over, as military veterans, youth and the elderly, individually and in groups, dropped whatever personal plans they may have had and headed for Standing Rock. Social media definitely helped.

Some 4,000 Indigenous people from tribes from all over — Arizona, Wisconsin, Peru, Mexico, Samoa, Hawaii and Alaska, to name a few; students foregoing important exams; a vet in pain from surgery on both knees; another vet waiting for a kidney, who told his doctor to put it on ice, he’d have to wait; people with asthma violating doctor’s orders but bringing all their equipment with them; pensioners who took out payday loans so they could come. Some came on bicycles, or walked hundreds of miles to get there. They stayed in tents (with deadman tent-stake anchors), tipis, campers, yurts, old school buses, Winnebagos, or hastily-built wood structures.

It seems that Standing Rock struck a powerful chord with many people, willing to make a sacrifice at a moment’s notice, because Standing Rock needed them and they desired to come – anything to stop that miserable pipeline … anything to prevent the eviction of the heroic Sioux water protectors from their own treaty land. Some came prepared with body armor, gas masks, and spray-bottles with diluted Mylanta to minimize the effects of tear gas.

Decision time

So by the time Dec. 4 rolled around, eve of the threatened police eviction, many thousands were arriving at the camps – determined to put themselves on the line to defeat the “eviction,” prevent the drilling and stop the “Big Black Snake,” as tribal leaders call the toxic oil pipeline.

The line of stopped cars waiting to get in to the Oceti Sakowin camp stretched for three miles along Highway 1806. Listening on your car radio, you could tune in to the Native radio station 89.5 and hear updates on the struggle, along with recordings of powerful, emotional singing and drums by Native artists, and country songs that told a story by Freddy Fender and Conway Twitty.

Then over the radio came the surprise news. The Army Corps had refused to “grant an easement” to allow DAPL to drill underneath Lake Oahe on the Missouri River to pursue their pipeline ambitions. The Army Corps statement mentioned exploring possible alternative routes for the pipeline, and the need for an Environmental Impact Statement, all promising months of delay.

Celebration time

That Sunday night everyone celebrated this important temporary victory, gathering around the Sacred Fire at the Oceti Sakowin camp while fireworks lit the clear sky. Nearby the flags of over a hundred tribes lining a dirt road flapped in the wind.

Tribal leaders welcomed their “relatives” – allies who had come, and introduced young Native runners who had run across many states to call attention to the dire situation at Standing Rock. These young warriors expressed defiance at the encroachments on Native land and water rights, but also sorrow about the recent suicide of a teenaged friend and member of the tribe.

The next morning, Monday at 6 a.m. tribal elders convened an assembly at the Sacred Fire, with chanting, drums and prayer. A Native woman from Washington state said she came with two gifts. The first was traditional medicine from her tribe. The second gift was music, performed live by a young singer and drummer from her tribe. She said that back home Indigenous people were fighting a similar struggle to stop a toxic oil terminal.

An elder who identified himself as Dull Knife, had this to say about the unexpected Army corps decision: “Of course we welcome any delay in this pipeline. But we know they lie. They always lie, the government and the police. That’s why we’re here, standing strong here at Standing Rock. We’re here and we’re going to stay here until we stop the Big Black Snake!”

Confrontations on the bridge

This was December 5th – the day the Army and the state had threatened to evict everyone from the Oceti Sakowin camp, by now numbering at least 10,000 people. Someone commented, “I don’t think they have enough jails in all North Dakota to accommodate that many.” A huge march of defiance, led by military veterans, left from the camp to the bridge near where DAPL had planned to drill under the Missouri River. By now it was snowing, soon to become a blinding blizzard, whipping people with 25 mile-an-hour winds as they approached the Backwater Bridge.

This was the same bridge, occupied by militarized police and the company’s private mercenaries – outfitted like they were ready for war — where on Nov. 20 water protectors were hosed and soaked for six hours by water cannons at close range, in subzero temperatures, beaten, arrested, pepper sprayed, maced, tear-gassed, strip-searched, hit with flash grenades, rubber bullets, and beanbags filled with lead pellets.

Some had numbers marked on their bodies, others were caged in dog kennels. A Native elder suffered cardiac arrest. A young woman, seriously wounded by a concussion grenade, a weapon of war, was airlifted for treatment in Minnesota. As journalist Jeremiah Jones wrote from Standing Rock, the law enforcement officers who committed these atrocities “are nothing more than a militarized security force for Billion dollar energy corporations.”

The Veterans who came, the Native people who came from other places

Nearly 4,000 Indigenous people came from tribes in most every state, and many have put in extended stays at Standing Rock. Together with folks from the Sioux and nearby Cheyenne River nations, this was described by one participant as the largest Indigenous gathering in living memory. Relationships were built between the different tribes, bonded in their common struggle. The slogan “Decolonize – Indigenize” was sewn onto jackets.

The extraordinary number of veterans who came may have played a decisive role. The largest contingent — Veterans Stand with Standing Rock — was organized by Wesley Clark, Jr. son of the famous general, together with Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock councilwoman. Brenda White Bull, who is a 20-year Marine veteran and also a direct descendant of Chief Sitting Bull, also played a role. Clark told me they’d expected 1,600, but 4,000 veterans showed up, in three campsites.

In addition, Veterans for Peace had a strong presence, organizing and putting to use the large amount of medical supplies that had been donated. Others came from Iraq Veterans against the War and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Some identified themselves as Jewish American veterans, African American veterans, Italian American veterans. It was about 60-40, men to women. Plus, hundreds of vets just showed up on their own, ready to work, ready to “fight for peace and justice,” as one vet put it.

One vet said Standing Rock was also a historic gathering for veterans, with many more vets coming to North Dakota than had come to the major Vietnam Veterans against the War action in Washington DC in 1971. “In the era of Trump,” he said, “it’s encouraging that 4,500 or more veterans dropped everything and came to North Dakota in the harsh Great Plains winter to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters here in Standing Rock.” By mid-week, forecasts were calling for winds up to 39 mph, wind-chill as low as 40 below.

Many of the vets who answered the call are Indigenous, including Navy veteran Remy, member of the Navajo Nation from Arizona and the Indigenous Veterans Council at Standing Rock. Remy told Democracy Now (12/5/16): “This pipeline must end, and we should be able to respect Indigenous sovereignty. This is our land originally. Land and the water are life-giving elements. So we’ve been out here in solidarity not only with the Standing Rock people, but with Mother Earth itself.”

The tribe was also happy to welcome the presence of Labor for Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, St. Louis Copwatch activists (who came with a months-long commitment), and solidarity visits from a collection of celebrities, including Jesse Jackson, Congresswoman and veteran Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Jackson Browne, Naomi Klein and Jane Fonda. Joan Baez and Willie Nelson offered key support.

This whole-hearted response contrasts sharply with the pathetic letter of “support” from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, belatedly issued on Dec. 4, the same day as the Army Corps permit denial — after months of silence from the senator. The senator – and her mealy-mouthed letter — are deftly dissected by YouTube personality Jimmy Dore.

Is Dakota Access in financial jeopardy? Will DAPL become a “stranded asset”?

Ominously, Energy Transfer Partners, co-owner of the pipeline project, issued a statement Dec.4, saying it would ignore the Army Corps permit decision and go ahead with drilling anyway under the Missouri river. They could decide to drill and just absorb any fines or penalties. Then the question comes: Is the Obama Administration ready to use force to stop the company from drilling without a permit?

Certainly, there’s no sign so far that DAPL is backing down. The main highway going north from the camp (1806) is still blockaded, with military-style checkpoints. The bridge is still guarded by police and DAPL mercenaries, who recently arrested three water protectors for “trespassing.”

However, there is some evidence that DAPL may be pressing ahead more out of desperation than anything else. ETP admitted in court that it has a “contractual obligation to complete the project by January 1.” If it misses the deadline – which now appears likely — companies with long-term commitments to ship oil through the pipeline may cancel, according to a Nov. 2016 report by Sightline Institute.

As a consequence of the global oil glut, oil prices have dropped sharply since ETP began the project in 2014. “Production in the Bakken Shale oil field has fallen…creating major financial hardships for drillers.” Moreover, if oil prices remain low, “Bakken oil production will continue to decline, and existing pipeline and refinery capacity in the Bakken will be more than adequate to handle the region’s oil production [and] DAPL could well become a stranded asset,” the  Sightline report said.

The struggle at Standing Rock and nationally, where 300 cities have mounted actions against the financial backers of this toxic pipeline – Citibank, Wells Fargo, TD Bank and 15 others – has clearly had an effect. Norway’s largest bank, DNB, under pressure from Greenpeace Norway, sold its stake in the pipeline project and is reconsidering its outstanding loans to the project. Wells Fargo has apparently experienced a drop in deposits, following the divestment campaign.

Standing Rock has caught the imagination of the world – a resurgent Indigenous movement, which has been leading many battles in the US and Canada …. a fighting Veterans movement, re-emerging as a powerful force …. a large contingent of young people from all over, selflessly devoting themselves to the struggle …. networks being activated around the country and the world — coming together in a coalition that, in the context of the global economic and financial crisis, just might be able to take on a powerful oil company that is threatening to poison the water, and defeat it.

The author, an Army veteran and retired letter carrier, stayed at the Oceti Sakowin camp in early December, working in the mess hall and kitchen, which provided three meals a day to hordes of water protectors. Many thanks for the information and insights of Maurice Martin of Veterans for Peace, who worked tirelessly at Eagle Butte to provide medical support for the tribes and the huge contingent of veterans.

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