BISMARCK, N.D. (CN) — Sitting Bull would be proud. Two weeks ago, members of the Dakota, Lakota and Yankton Sioux set up tipis in camps on a tributary of the Missouri River — a Spiritual Camp and a Warrior Camp — to fight a crude oil pipeline they fear will poison the Missouri River. For the moment, they have stood off the pipeline company and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Two hearings are set in North Dakota Federal Court this week: on Wednesday, the court will consider the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s July 27 lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe challenged the Army’s approvals of the pipeline on environmental and procedural grounds.
“The construction and operation of the pipeline, as authorized by the Corps, threatens the tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the tribe,” the tribe said in the lawsuit filed by EarthJustice.
Dakota Access sued back last Monday, seeking a restraining order against the protesters, who had prevented its workers from entering the work site.
On Tuesday, Aug. 16, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland granted Dakota Access the temporary restraining order. Hovland will hear arguments Thursday, Aug. 25, on whether to make the order permanent.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirschmeier warned the public last week to stay away from the site, saying Sioux protesters were carrying weapons, including pipe bombs, and that visitors risked assault.
A Thursday afternoon visit to the protest site, 30 miles south of the state capital, revealed no indications of threats or violence — just the opposite.
Residents of the Sacred Stone Spiritual Camp and Red Warrior Camp were celebrating the sheriff’s announcement, on Prairie Public Broadcasting, that “construction of the Dakota Access pipeline south of Mandan, has been stopped — for safety reasons.”
A spokesman for Energy Transfer Partners, the corporate parent of Dakota Access, which is building the 30-inch-diameter pipeline, told The Wall Street Journal that “construction has been halted at the protest site,” pending the Aug. 24 court hearing, but that work on the pipeline “continues elsewhere.”
Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners wants to pump 470,000 barrels of oil a day, from the Bakken Oil Fields in western North Dakota, 1,168 miles to a terminus in Southern Illinois, to be shipped on other pipelines to the Gulf of Mexico.
Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault, lead defendant in Dakota Access’s lawsuit and one of 28 protesters arrested last week, denied the pipeline company’s and the sheriff’s allegations of threats and violence.
“The position of our tribe is clear: There’s no place for threats, violence or criminal activity,” Archambault told Prairie Public Broadcasting. “That is simply not our way.”
Historians might raise an eyebrow at that — without questioning the claims on either side of this story.
The Standing Rock Sioux
The 3,572-square-mile Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is the sixth-largest Indian reservation in the United States. Had the United States honored its treaties, it would be four times larger. All of Sioux County, N.D., and Corson County, S.D., are contained within the reservation.
As is the case with most Native American history, the history is muddled.
There was no Standing Rock Sioux tribe until the U.S. government forced members of the enormous Sioux nation onto a reservation and gave them that name.
Sitting Bull, perhaps the most famous “Indian” in U.S. history, for his role in defeating George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn (which the Sioux call the Greasy Grass) on June 25, 1876, was a Hunkpapa Sioux, a branch of the Lakota Sioux.
About 9,000 Dakota, Lakota and Yankton Sioux live on the Standing Rock reservation today.
Chairman Archambault says that a leak on the Dakota Access pipeline, to be built less than half a mile from the reservation, could have a catastrophic effect on the Sioux, as it could poison the entire Missouri River, the main tributary of the Mississippi River, the Father of Waters.
Other Sioux tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux, say the pipeline will surely encroach upon their lands, and may contaminate them, in violation of treaties.
The Sioux say they are not fighting only for themselves. In statements on social media, the Sioux and their supporters say the Missouri River provides the water of life for all the farmers and ranchers and many of the cities and towns downstream.
In its Aug. 15 federal lawsuit, Dakota Access claims that “15 to 30” protesters turned out to prevent its workers from entering the construction to work on the pipeline on that Monday. By that afternoon, the number of protesters had grown to about 100.
(Last week’s standoff came after months of legal skirmishing. Dakota Access filed three eminent-domain lawsuits against coal companies this spring, for rights of way; and in April tribal members filed a lawsuit accusing Dakota Access and the Corps of Engineers of torts to land.)
Faced with the incipient, growing protest, Dakota Access left the site on Monday, Aug. 15, and returned the next day, to find the protest had grown to 200 people, watched by 45 law enforcement officers.
One protester had “a knife in his hand,” and was arrested after “some resistance;” others were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, preventing arrest, criminal trespass or fleeing a police officer, according to the company’s lawsuit.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Office told Courthouse News in an email that it “could not speak to the specifics of each arrest,” but that “unlawful actions that led to their arrests included breaching law enforcement lines, charging at officers with their horses and throwing objects at officers.”
“Our goal is to keep this situation peaceful and lawful, if at any time the protests become unlawful, law enforcement will take appropriate actions to mitigate the situation,” the Sheriff’s Office said.
When Judge Hovland granted Dakota Access its request for a temporary restraining order last Tuesday, to prevent unlawful actions from interfering with pipeline construction, it was more of a standoff than a victory.
Sheriff Kirschmeier said, and Energy Transfer Partners confirmed, that Dakota Access would stop work at the protest site, pending this week’s hearing.
Dakota Access did not respond to requests for comment.
The Standing Rock Sioux at the protest camp said they did not have an official spokesman.
Oil Boom and Bust in North Dakota
The standoff has been a big story in North Dakota, whose economy got a healthy jolt when tens of thousands of oil workers poured in when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made it economically feasible to extract oil from the Bakken Oil Field.
The boom, which began in 2006 and lasted until oil prices collapsed last year, gave the North Dakota treasury a rare $1 billion surplus as states nationwide faced growing deficits as a result of the great recession and tax-hating politicians.
Estimates of the value of the oil in the immense Bakken Oil Field vary wildly: from an initial estimate of 3.6 billion barrels, to a U.S. Geological survey estimate of 7.4 billion barrels, to fracking enthusiasts’ predictions of up to 24 billion barrels.
But the drilling bonanza made possible by fracking contributed to the collapse of oil prices worldwide, sending thousands of the transplanted oil workers back home from North Dakota, and leaving the oil industry, and economists, guessing.
Fracking is more expensive than traditional oil drilling, and the break-even point for oil fracked from the Bakken field has been estimated at $38 to $62 per barrel.
Brent crude, the benchmark for the oil market, was going at $50.72 per barrel on Friday.
A Visit to the Sioux Camp
The Sioux camp on the Cannonball river is a 200-mile drive from the state’s largest city, Fargo, a straight shot on Interstate 94 through flat farmland with little to look at but the state of the crops and the horizon.
When a leaky, dying battery forced a reporter into an auto shop in Mandan, the closest sizable town to the protest site, the cashier asked if the visitor had been questioned by police yet.
“Well, it’s all them Indians! I have cop friends on Facebook and they said they are going to start going door to door to make sure everyone is safe from these stupid protests. You know they got weapons out there and they are blocking the roads and assaulting people who come close to them.”
Have there been protests?
Yes, indeed, the young woman said.
“We don’t need the blockades out there. What we ought to do is just run them frickin’ Indians over if they want to stand on the highway!”
Six miles south of Mandan, police in body armor stood by a jerry-built concrete barrier stopping southbound traffic. An officer instructed the reporter how to get to the protest site, by a 50-mile detour.
The long trip led through the reservation town of Solen, pop. 83, according to the 2010 Census. A few mobile homes, a gas station, an auto shop, and on this day, a single horse munching grass near the highway: a real one-horse town.
Here the land rises in cliff and peaks, separated by valleys: a world apart from the featureless flatlands of Fargo. A high spot on Highway 24 grants a view of thousands of square miles: the land the Sioux have fought to keep, for centuries.
The Sacred Stone Spiritual Camp is a village of tipis, camping tents and horse trailers. A speaker system amplified ancient songs sung by young and old Sioux singers. Groups of men kidded one another over games of horseshoes. Little children with painted faces ran around, laughing and playing.
At the entrance to the camp, a man named Terry Phillips greeted an Anglo visitor: “Hi, parking is on the right.”
No one minded the visitor as he took an hourlong walk around the camp. Everyone at the camp seemed to be enjoying the afternoon.
“I’ve been out here since the beginning,” said Vivian Johnson a Standing Rock Sioux, as she watched her little granddaughter struggle to fix the flaps of their tipi. The poor little thing was too small to set up such a large house. But she was smart enough to tell a visitor how to do it.
Johnson said she appreciated the assistance.
“Everyone out here is related; we are all from the same people,” Johnson said. She pointed at the visitor’s pale, German-Irish face. “Even though some of the people are not the same color, we share the same cause and we are glad they are here.”
That was the mood that prevailed.
“Rumor has it we are all out here with rifles and pipe bombs,” Terry Phillips, the traffic director, said. “That’s just ridiculous. The closest thing I have seen to weapons out here is this.” He chuckled as he shook a Sioux coup stick, an ornamental stick decorated with feathers.
A passerby scoffed in a joking tone and said, “Pipe bomb? Every Indian out here could barely afford the bologna sandwich they came with.”
Elsewhere in the camp, a young Sioux man named Wahwala Mani (Walks Silent), said: “Everyone out here is here to protect the water. I am out here because it is my responsibility to do what I can for my family, because I love this way of life. These rumors about the weapons are just unreal. We wouldn’t be out here with our children, our families, if that were the case.”
As the sun set, a light rainstorm picked up, but did not disperse the peaceful crowd. Some gathered around the singers’ and speakers’ platform, where Mekasi Horinek, from the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, took the mike for an impromptu speech.
“Like Custer’s last stand, this is Dakota Access’s last stand, because we as a people are united,” Horinek said, to applause.
After his brief speech, Horinek said his Custer’s last stand comment had a point to it. The police blockade had fallen back north from the protest site to Fort Lincoln, along the 1806 highway, a plot of land occupied by Custer’s home.
Horinek said the pipe bomb rumor came from a remark made by some elders, who said as the protest began that it might be time to load the chanupa — the ceremonial pipe — a well-known and sacred object to many Native Americans.
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