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Opposing World Views Meet Where Proposed Dakota Access Pipeline To Cross Missouri River

Lee Strubinger

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion, 1,200 mile long pipeline that will carry Bakken Crude Oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Construction of the pipeline is nearly complete.

Those against the pipeline are making a stand at several camps now established near the construction site in North Dakota. Local law enforcement have made several arrests of activists who are attempting to stop the pipeline. 

A full moon rises through a clear sky over a ridge on the Missouri River banks while a group of about thirty Lakota teenagers march up North Dakota State Highway 1806 to the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannonball, North Dakota.  

The is the largest camp established against the Dakota Access Pipeline.. Roughly 1,500 self-described water protectors are occupying several sites near where the pipeline is set to go under Lake Oahe,  just north of the Standing Rock Reservation. The result is a three-way conflict between the water protectors, the local police force and the pipeline workers.

Those at this camp say their actions are primarily about one thing… water.

Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB
A full moon rises over Oceti Sakowin camp

The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally intended to run north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but was moved south of the city to cross the Missouri river  just above the Standing Rock reservation. The Army Corps concluded that the pipeline would have crossed too close to where the city of Bismarck draws its water.

The company backing the project, Energy Transfer Partner’s awaits an easement from the federal government to drill a pipeline under Lake Oahe.

Craig Stevens is a spokesperson for Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now. That group is in favor of the pipeline. Stevens says the actions taking place along parts of the pipeline are creating a less than desirable atmosphere for workers. He says some workers are concerned for their safety and there is anecdotal evidence of worker harassment.

"Certainly verbal assaulting is going back and forth," Stevens says. "I think that’s really an atmosphere for work that nobody wants to endure. So, some workers have been harmed some have been injured and many just fear that in an emotionally charged and escalating situation that that isn’t a place where they want to be.”

Stevens says workers are furloughed when jobsites are shut down.  Stevens says tribal  worries over pipeline leaks are unfounded. He says the pipeline is double walled and will pass anywhere from 90 to 115 feet below Lake Oahe.

“It will be monitored 24 hours a day and can be shut down within three minutes of any detected leak, and it can detect a leak as small as one percent going through," Stevens says. "Additionally, where the tribe is going to get its water is moving about 50 miles south of where it currently is. So, ultimately it’ll be 70 miles south of where the pipeline will cross the—will cross Lake Oahe.”

But for many camping on near the pipeline route,  that’s too close.  Unpa Nunpa is from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Nunpa says he lives 100 miles south of the Oceti Sakowin camp and has close ties to the river.

“My grandson bathes in that water. We’ve lived along this river for more generations than can be known for sure,” Nunpa adds.

Nunpa says pipelines are fallible and the camp is trying to prevent a major catastrophe, like others that have occurred around the country.

“To our immediate south here we have the Cannonball River, an alleged freshwater source," Nunpa says. "To the east of us we have one of the major rivers of the world, the Missouri River. Yet, what are we doing? We’re bringing in bottles of water so that we can drink, so that we can cook, so that we can clean ourselves. Why is this? Because the water is already poisoned. Any one of those guys who are on the other side of the police line defending the billionaire’s rights to their pipelines and profits—let them drink freely from that water. Go down there are start feeding that to your family on a daily basis. It’s already poisoned, you’ll be sick within weeks.”

Nunpa says he plans on staying at the camp through the winter. He also sites tribal treaty rights in this area.

“Yesterday I was at the police line reminding the officers that they took an oath to defend and uphold the constitution of the United States," Nunpa says. "And I reminded them that ‘Treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.’ Well, they were on the wrong side of the police line.”

Demonstrators at the resistance camp contend they are holding prayerful and peaceful, non-violent demonstrations.

Bruce Ellison is an attorney from Rapid City who is helping with legal representation in Standing Rock. He alleges there’s an effort by the company and law enforcement to incite a reaction from demonstrators.  

“Law enforcement and the company are always the ones talking about threats of violence and the fears of violence and they are the only ones who are actually engaging in it," Ellison says. "When you approach unarmed people engaging in a prayer vigil and you approach them pointing assault rifles at them after putting a round in the chamber—people have seen that happening. That becomes a very dangerous—what are the law enforcement being told that is going on? And the people are praying and they’re approaching as though they’re going to get into a gun fight.”

Ellison says that pipeline demonstrators are getting charged with questionable offenses, like trespassing when they’re on public roads.

The 34 officer staff of the Morton County Sheriff’s office is tasked with keeping the peace between construction and demonstrators.

Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier says safety is his office’s main concern.safety

“We just want to maintain safety as we go through this and that means everyone involved… that’s saying the Morton County residents that live in my area, and the protestors in the area, and that’s why we’ve done many things we have done like closing down 1806 at times because of traffic and blocked roads," Kirchmeier says. "We don’t want anybody hurt or run over down there. We just want to make sure commerce can continue as it should.”

Kirchmeier says protestors are being charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, rioting and terrorizing. He says activists who are attaching themselves to construction equipment charged with felonies. When police are met with an action, he says protestors are advised about what they can and cannot do.

“They can’t block public roads," Kirchmeier adds. "And they cannot criminal trespass on other people’s property or commit any vandalism. So, that is what they are told. They are given, at certain times, a warning to leave the area, and if they do not respond to the warning at that point they are subject to arrest.”

Kirchmeier says with the help of outside law enforcement they are patrolling the area twenty four hours a day and try to monitor the camps as best as possible.

Activists contend this type of police response against an indigenous action is not unprecedented in the northern Great Plains. Over four decades ago an armed conflict between the American Indian Movement and local law enforcement took place in the South Dakota village of Wounded Knee.

Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB
Dennis Banks

Dennis Banks is a co-founder of AIM, he was a leader during the Wounded knee Occupation.  But Banks says there’s a major difference in the No DAPL movement in Standing Rock and Wounded Knee. Banks says the Oceti Sakowin camp is an unarmed resistance that has deep spiritual roots.

“That spirituality is what we’re about right now," Banks says. "It’s not a religious camp. But there’s a lot of spirit in here, and that’s what makes it a lot different. We were worried about getting killed every day at Wounded Knee, but we’re worried about not feeding enough people. We’re worried about those things.

"I think we are going to be victorious," Banks says. "We will have shown America and countries all over the world that we are still here, that we haven’t given up, that we haven’t given in, and we won’t give up. That’s not part of our agenda. I think this pipeline better brace itself for a long fight.”

Many of the self-described water protectors are bracing themselves for that long fight. North Dakota winters are cold and harsh. When the federal mandate to halt construction under Corps land came down, some thought the occupation would subside.

But the weather and the temporary halt hasn’t convinced Leigh Shangreaux.  She is an Oglala Lakota who came here from Manderson, South Dakota.  Shangreaux  says the pipeline resistance isn’t just for North Dakota, but South Dakota and all the states downstream from Cannonball.

She says she and her family are getting ready for winter.

“Everbody moved from tents to teepees. And then we have this little shack" Shangreaux says. "If you’re scared [of winter] go home. So we could see our grandkids grow up and have their water. So that’s what it’s about, fighting for the children… our future.”

The entire standoff at Standing Rock could be described as a clash of two opposing world views.
Officials at Energy Transfer Partners say they are doing their part to move the United States towards an energy independent future.  Proponents argue that pipelines are the safest mode of transportation for crude oil, especially when compared to trucking or railcar.

The camps near the Standing Rock Reservation are among the largest gatherings of indigenous tribes in a generation.  Many of those who have come together  near the Missouri River say this is about more than just this pipeline.  They are calling for a shift toward a more sustainable and equitable global future that protects water over oil.  

The Army Corps’ permit allowing the DAPL to cross under the Missouri River expires in March 2017.  The pipeline company continues to build and complete sections of pipe approaching either side of the Missouri.  Protestors say they’re ready for a North Dakota Winter.