On the evening of November 20, near Cannon Ball, N.D., members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters, some 400 in all, tried to cross the Blackwater Bridge on Highway 1806, protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. If completed as planned, the pipeline would carry oil beneath the tribe’s sole source of drinking water, Lake Oahe, on the Missouri River.
According to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the bridge had been closed owing to safety concerns arising from the fires set by protesters in late October. Indeed, two burned vehicles obstructed the crossing. Protesters said they simply wanted to clear the bridge to give emergency vehicles a direct route onto the reservation. They also feared that authorities were trying to lock them out of the construction site, located on private property just off the reservation’s northern boundary.
Distrust between protesters and police had been building since April 1, 2016, when LaDonna Brave Bull Allard formed Sacred Stone Camp as a center for resistance to the pipeline. Two overflow camps were established near the construction site as the number of protesters swelled toward 4,000. Many of these were Native Americans of other tribes who’d traveled to show support. Others were environmental and social-justice activists. Over Labor Day weekend, protesters entering the construction area were confronted by private security forces with guard dogs and pepper spray. Afterward, at least six people were treated for dog bites.
In late October, police in riot gear cleared a fourth camp established directly in the pipeline’s path. By early evening, the temperature had dropped into the high 20s. Protesters had started several fires, for warmth or in protest or both. Tensions escalated. Officers tried to clear the demonstrators with fire hoses, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Several protesters suffered minor injuries and were treated at a local hospital. A thrown rock sent one officer to the hospital with a substantial head injury. A young woman suffered a serious arm injury that some witnesses blamed on a concussion grenade. The sheriff’s department denied the use of any such device and reported that protesters threw expended propane canisters at officers.
As in every prior case, officers claimed they acted appropriately to protect themselves and property against aggressive protesters; demonstrators charged the “militarized” police with a disproportionate response.
Well, yes. Outnumbered working stiffs who’d rather not get brained by rocks or propane canisters might be forgiven for using such protective gear as is available. And the Standing Rock Sioux, worried about crude oil leaking into their water supply and outraged about the desecration of sacred places, had limited legal means of resisting the project, which was designed to bring billions of dollars in oil to market. Unbiased witnesses tend to be rare on the front lines of a conflict like this.
Every large group of protesters has its hotheads and dedicated activists willing to take one for the cause. Images of fire hoses, dogs, and overpowering force set against unarmed resistance forever freshen old national wounds. Naturally, activists compare this conflict to the civil-rights battles of 1963. The Standing Rock Sioux need money and moral support for their battle, and nothing spurs donation like international outrage stoked by constant media coverage. Protest groupies and preening celebrities come with the territory and may even be put to good use. Since their earliest contacts with the United States, both armed resistance and resigned cooperation have proven disastrous to Native Americans’ sovereignty and material wellbeing.
Yet American attitudes have changed radically since 1973, when American Indian Movement activists exchanged fire with U.S. Marshals at Wounded Knee, S.D. In September, President Obama praised the protesters for making their voices heard and promised to support resolving the conflict in a way “properly attentive to the traditions of First Americans.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch refused to meet with Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, to discuss the challenges faced by officers on the scene, while the Department of Justice ordered the local U.S. Attorney not to intervene in support of North Dakota Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier.
When completed, at a projected cost of $3.7 billion, the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry some 450,000 barrels of hydrofracked crude oil per day from the Bakken fields in northwest North Dakota, heading southeast to tanks near Patoka, Ill.—about 1,200 miles. In late November, the primary contractor, Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, announced that the project was 87 percent completed.
When the pipeline approaches the protested site at Lake Oahe, near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers, it will have already crossed beneath five important waterways: the Little Knife River, the Missouri River, Cherry Creek, the Little Missouri River, and the Heart River. The 12- to 30-inch steel pipe must be laid a minimum of 60 inches beneath roads and streams and would run 90 to 150 feet beneath Lake Oahe. The likelihood of oil leaking into water supplies is extremely small.
Yet pipelines do rupture, and the risk is sufficient that the Army Corps of Engineers, in an environmental assessment, rejected an earlier proposed route that crossed the Missouri River ten miles northeast of Bismarck and continued well east of the Standing Rock reservation. Perhaps population density figured heavily in the Corps’ decision, or the rejected route—about ten miles longer than the protested route—posed unique engineering problems. From the Native American standpoint, the plan must have reflected environmental racism, or at least the assumption that poor, rural people can’t fight.
Understandably, environmental activists have been eager to associate their causes, especially climate change, with the Standing Rock fight. No doubt some of the better-funded organizations have provided advice and legal assistance. Outside of environmental-justice concerns, climate activists oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline for the same reason they oppose Keystone XL: it will bring fossil fuel to market to be sold and consumed, thus producing greenhouses gases that contribute to climate change. Easy abundance drives down prices and lowers incentive to conserve and innovate. Yet this oil will get to market one way or another, and a modern pipeline provides the cleanest, safest route while, hopefully, we transition to cleaner technologies.
At its core, this fight seems about old issues of sovereignty and respect. While the protesters called themselves “water protectors,” much of their fury involved the possible desecration of graves and other ground sacred to the Sioux.
The planned pipeline didn’t encroach on the reservation. Rather, it crossed the Missouri half a mile upriver of the reservation’s northern boundary. When they moved beyond that boundary, the protesters were trespassing on private property—part of the same land deeded to the Sioux by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, only to be ceded 11 years later, along with the Black Hills of South Dakota, during renegotiation after the Great Sioux War.
On July 27, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Corps of Engineers, seeking to halt construction of the pipeline. On September 2, to support their request for a preliminary injunction, the tribe’s attorneys submitted documents purporting to show that the pipeline would destroy Sioux burial sites and other sacred places missed during the prior archeological survey. However, the tribe’s legal team claimed that those sites may have been preemptively destroyed by continued construction.
Pipeline supporters argued that the route lay along an existing energy corridor that already had wiped out all archeological sites in its path. In any case, following a September 9 hearing, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg denied the motion.
Nevertheless, the Corps of Engineers and the Departments of Justice and Interior halted the project on federal land bordering Lake Oahe and requested a voluntarily halt to all construction in the area to allow time for further study. Citing onerous, unrecoverable financial losses, Energy Transfer Partners rejected the request.
On December 4, to great celebration by Native American activists and their allies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant the easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River beneath Lake Oahe. Alternate routes must be considered.
Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners vow to complete the project with no reroutes. No doubt they’re counting on help from a friendly Trump administration. Yet, while the president-elect supports completion of the pipeline, “completion” doesn’t necessarily mean the pipeline must run beneath Lake Oahe. Donald Trump has a keen sense for shifts in public mood. Perhaps a dealmaker—as opposed to a policymaker or idealist—can help craft a solution agreeable to the Standing Rock Sioux and acceptable to all other parties, except for climate activists, who’ll decry any agreement that allows the project to continue.
The Sioux have every reason to remain wary. In Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Sioux writer Vine Deloria Jr. wrote this of American presidents’ excoriating Cold War rivals for treachery and preaching the importance of keeping international commitments: “Indian people laugh themselves sick when they hear these statements. America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement despite the fact that the United States Government signed over four hundred such treaties and agreements with Indian tribes. It would take Russia another century to make and break as many treaties as the United States has already violated.”
With the Corps’ order of a construction halt, the Native American protesters have won a skirmish. Their people have been here before. Their powerful opponents are regrouping. The deadly North Dakota winter is settling in. Groupies who’ve been accused of treating the demonstration like Burning Man will clear out. Protest veterans will return to jobs, school, and family. Media focus and public attention will shift.
But the members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are at home. Their most committed protesters have vowed to maintain their protest camp. Perhaps in our age of social media and endless news coverage—however partisan, superficial, and lacking in context—broadened sympathies and honest reckoning with past sins might accomplish something more durable than did the Sioux victory at Little Bighorn.
Henry Chappell’s latest novel is Silent We Stood (2013). He lives in Parker, Texas.
Editor’s note: In one instance, the spelling of Lake Oahe has been corrected since this article was posted.