At Standing Rock, the battle for Backwater Bridge


Joseph Bullington

Water protectors gather at the barricade on Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806, a half mile north of the main Standing Rock resistance camp Wednesday night.

January 19, 2017

Oceti Oyate, Cannon Ball, N.D. — A half-mile north of the main encampment at Standing Rock lies a small highway bridge over Cantapeta Creek.

Here on this bridge the police and National Guard have made their line—a stack three high of concrete highway barriers, flanked by liberal amounts of razor wire and backed by floodlights and military vehicles. On Tuesday, the Daily Beast reported that among the vehicles deployed by the North Dakota National Guard were two surface-to-air missile launchers. The National Guard removed the missile launchers the day after the report.

The barrier, which blocks Highway 1806—the main northern route to the camps and to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation–and prevents water protectors from getting near the path of the pipeline, has been the focal point of protest since the road was closed in early November.

It was here, on Nov. 20, in freezing temperatures, that police turned a water hose against water protectors after they tried to open the road by dragging away the old, burned-out Army trucks that blocked the bridge.

After a month-long hiatus on actions and the apparent failure of negotiations to open the road, the battle for the bridge has resumed. Every night for the past three, more than 100 water protectors have gathered at the barricade to pray, sing and hold the space. Last night police repeatedly shot water protectors with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper balls and pepper spray in attempts to drive them back to camp. In the chaos that followed the police charges, several people were arrested and many were injured.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has said that the bridge is closed because of concerns about its structural integrity after water protectors lit fires on its surface. When you read it online, this explanation sounds plausible. But on the ground, when you look at the geography, it is clear that the barricade at the bridge is but part of the police line that guards the pipeline route for over a mile to the east and west.

The timeline does not make sense either: the bridge did not become a point of conflict, a place where people would have built fires, until police closed the highway.

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When I got to the bridge last night about 10, water protectors bearing plastic shields were sitting and standing on top of the concrete barricade. Behind them, drummers and singers kept up a constant rhythm of Lakota songs and people danced and prayed. Still others worked at the coils of razor wire on the flanks, snipping and pulling it down into huge thorny piles.

Several volleys of tear gas hit the front line, but most wore gas masks and stood their ground. Some tossed the canisters back across the barricade into the police ranks, and others yelled at them not to do this, that this was a prayerful gathering. Aside from seeing a native kid throw a snowball later, this was the only act of retaliation I saw from the water protectors that night.

Lines of riot police materialized from behind the razor wire on the flanks and charged the bridge from both sides, firing rubber bullets into the crowd. People stampeded backward, screaming in pain, falling over one another, afraid of being trapped on the narrow bridge. People yelled for medics and water.


Joseph Bullington

Tear gas mixes with smoke from a sage smudge behind the barricade on Backwater Bridge.

A man bent over gasping for breath, vomiting–hit by tear gas. Pushing through the crowd with one arm, carrying in the other the slumped figure of his unconscious friend, a young native man made for one of the ATV ambulances already busy carrying the wounded back to the medic station in camp.

Again and again the shields tried to form and hold a line, and again and again they were driven back by a hail of rubber bullets and exploding pepper balls. Police on snowmobiles sped alongside the retreating crowd on the bridge and fired at targets behind the shield line–including a man with a spotlight and camera who was filming the incident.

When the police had pushed the water protectors off the bridge and up the road, they began slowly to pull back. They extinguished the warming fires on the road and took with them those they had arrested. The water protectors rallied then, and, to the driving sound of drums and singing, they pushed back toward the police line and drove them back across the barricade.

A few minutes later, it all happened again.

It was 3 a.m. before I got back to my tent, and 4 a.m. before I could go to sleep.

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When I arrived back at Standing Rock two nights ago and began unloading the car, I noticed a low droning sound and searched the star-filled sky for sign of some aircraft. There was none. The noise grew louder, roaring right overhead. Then I saw it, a darker shadow swimming across the dark sky: a small plane flying low over camp, lightless except for a faint glow from the cockpit.

The plane circled for hours. This phenomenon–which doesn’t sound that strange until you observe it yourself and realize you’ve never before seen anything like it–has become a nightly terror.


Ariety Fried

Tear gas canister found on Backwater Bridge after the first police charge Wednesday night.

This is a frightening and uncertain time at Standing Rock. What is happening here has mostly disappeared from news reports and hence from the sight of most of the country. The main camp, Oceti Oyate (formerly Oceti Sakowin), is in the throes of a major transition. The Standing Rock tribe and the camp leadership have agreed that the camp should move off the floodplain of the Cannonball River and to a new site near the town of Cannon Ball on the reservation.

The evacuation is set to begin tomorrow, Jan. 20–inauguration day for a president who has called climate change a “Chinese hoax,” promised more resource extraction and more pipelines, said he will resolve the standoff at Standing Rock “quickly,” and received large campaign contributions from the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline; a president who until recently was invested in the pipeline, who’s pick for Energy secretary sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, and who has chosen an ardent critic of the EPA to head that agency, which will oversee the newly required environmental impact statement for the DAPL project.

At Standing Rock, as in much of the rest of the country, people are unsure what is coming next. But at Standing Rock there’s a good chance they’re already standing on the front line.

Joseph Bullington grew up in White Sulphur Springs. He worked as a freelance journalist and editorial intern for He has been camped in the Standing Rock resistance camps for more than a month. He can reached by email at, on twitter @aDeepSpaceAlien, and at his blog

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