The dramatic footage from Amy Goodman’s Sept. 3 “Democracy Now!” show brought up images of 1963 Birmingham, Ala., when deputies under the orders of segregationist Sheriff “Bull” Connor attacked civil rights protesters with dogs and fire hoses.
“To many people, the military tactics being used in North Dakota are reminiscent of the tactics used against protesters during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago. And I believe that there are similarities there,” said Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II.
There were no fire hoses and the setting was a remote North Dakota prairie south of Bismarck near a town called Cannon Ball, not the streets of Birmingham. But there were non-violent protesters with arms in the air being sprayed with pepper spray and bitten by attack dogs under the control of private security contractors.
So how did peaceful and prayerful protests rise to the point of those tensions on that sunny September day? Since then, demonstrations have only escalated, with hundreds of arrests and people being sprayed with mace and being shot with rubber bullets and exploding bean bag rounds. In late October, a protest camp was dispersed and 141 people were arrested.
Forum looks at sovereignty
This Saturday, starting at 10 a.m. in the Billings Public Library, there will be an all-day symposium to further discuss the impacts of the Standing Rock pipeline protests and other issues surrounding tribal sovereignty and rights. Discussions will focus on finding a positive way forward regarding nation-to-nation tribal and U.S. relations.
Although “Water is life!” and “Mni wiconi!” are mostly chanted in regards to wanting to keep the Missouri River and the Lake Oahe reservoir free of an oil pipeline, it was a paperwork filing made to the State Historic Preservation Office on Sept. 2 that has been overlooked in the media. “Mni” means water or “it gives me life”; combined with “wiconi” it means “water is life.”
The filing explains, perhaps, why Dakota Access pipeline workers decided to drive bulldozers 20 miles from where they were during Labor Day weekend to dig in that specific area a half mile away from what is called the Sacred Stone protest camp, which has seen at times thousands of protesters.
After obtaining permission from a private landowner to survey the course of the Dakota Access pipeline, archaeologist Tim Mentz Sr. detailed descriptions of sites that could be protected under the National Historic Preservation Act in the Cannon Ball Ranch area. The pipeline route had been fast-tracked to be built near a natural-gas pipeline built in 1985, after it was determined that the route north of Bismarck would—among other impacts—pose a threat to the municipal water supply.
Among a bevy of previously overlooked unique find in the area, most striking to Mentz was a large stone formation of Iyokaptan Tanka (the Big Dipper). The placement of those rocks would have been made to honor a chief who had made the rare commitment of obtaining the seventh level of leadership to his tribe.
“This means there is a very important leader here, what the elders would say of him was ‘he was beyond reproach,’” Mentz wrote. “This is one of the most significant finds in North Dakota in many years.”
Because his filing was on the Friday afternoon before the Labor Day weekend, no one was available in the State Historic Preservation Office to confirm Mentz’s findings. Then, in a scene of extreme coincidence—or cartoonish villainy—the day after Mentz delivered his assessment, his findings and maps apparently were used to start digging up and targeting the very grounds he’d described before they could be verified for historic protection.
Mentz filed a letter on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in support of a motion for a temporary restraining order against the pipeline workers a couple of days later, after violence erupted against protesters. He said, in part:
While initially Water Protectors—as protesters call themselves—at the nearby Sacred Stone Camp prayed and yelled that the bulldozers should cease their work, it was decided direct action would have to be taken to confront the pipeline construction/destruction.
With their fists raised in defiance, Native American women led the way as they crossed over onto the disputed land and confronted private security guards blocking the way to the bulldozers. Other protesters followed on foot and on horses in a brief but hectic standoff that had protesters yelling at security and attack dogs running loose.
In their strong showing of unity, Water Protectors were able to get the DAPL construction crews to stop working, and they celebrated their victory with cheers when they left. However, the damage had already been done as the archaeological sites were singled out with prejudice.
Mentz wrote, “I note that normally grading a site like this for utilities or a highway would result in a relatively shallow grading and berms on one side of the right of way of around 2 feet. Here, it appears that the DAPL dug substantially deeper than normal, as I saw berms of 8 to 10 feet on both sides of the right of way. In my experience this is unusual.”
Besides the footage from “Democracy Now!” and limited firsthand media coverage in the area, most information regarding the protesters has been recorded by citizen journalists and the Water Protectors themselves and transferred onto the likes of Twitter and Facebook. In the rural area with roadblocks controlled by police, Natives like Dallas Goldtooth, Kandi Mossett and Dean Dedman told Vice News that their struggle was trying to get their voices out while the Morton County Sheriff Department was issuing often-contradictory press releases.
Last week, activist and journalist Erin Schrode—a 25-year-old Jewish woman who ran for a congressional seat in California this year—was shot on camera by a rubber bullet as she stood on the other side of a river interviewing a Native American Water Protector. Despite numerous witnesses, Shrode said the sheriff’s department denied the incident even took place.
As Shrode described in a Facebook post, “I was standing innocently onshore, not making any aggressive gestures, never exchanging a single word with the police who fired at my lower back from their boat. Peaceful souls were seeking to cross the river to hold a prayer circle on Army Corps public land, but halted by over one hundred hostile military police armed with and deploying tear gas, pepper spray, batons, and rubber bullets, as well as assault weapons and the threat of jail, only one week after 141 individuals were brutally arrested.”
In other pictures taken during that day, Water Protectors can be seen in defiance being sprayed by large canisters of mace as they hold up a tarp as a shield from the toxic cloud of mist.
Five days after her controversial footage aired, an arrest warrant was issued for Amy Goodman, for “engaging in a riot.” Her case was thrown out by a judge. Goodman claims it is a part of a process of trying to intimidate those speaking out against the pipeline—especially the best-known people.
“Look, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dave Archambault, he’s arrested and strip-searched,” she told New York Magazine. “The pediatrician on the local reservation, Dr. Sarah Jumping Eagle, she is brought to jail on a low-level disorderly conduct charge and then strip-searched. Shailene Woodley, the actress, who was here in support, she was asked by the authorities, ‘Are you Shailene Woodley?’ When she said she was, she was taken to jail and strip-searched. This is humiliation and intimidation, and it’s to send a message: Do not come to North Dakota.”
Tara Houska, an Ojibwe and a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, told Al Jazeera on Nov. 3, “These police officers are trying to hurt people. They weren’t trying to subdue the masses or push back the crowd. It was me going out there and telling the police officers, ‘Did you sign up to hurt Native American women and children? Because you just maced teenage girls in the face.’ That happened,” she said.
“And when I was saying those things I could see eyes cast aside, and then I saw a police officer take aim directly at my head. I ended up being pulled back and the round exploded directly in front of my face.”
As the protests stretch out, so does the tension, as many people are willing to go to jail for their cause. Online and public rhetoric is often based on misconceptions, like the claim that the Standing Rock Tribe didn’t start protesting on behalf of their rights until only recently.
Because Native American tribes deal primarily with federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers had emailed the Standing Rock Tribe on Feb. 12, 2015, about preliminary bore hole testing and claimed that no historic properties would be affected. The Corps said it would be eager to work with the tribe in a “good-faith consultation process” as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.
Waste’ Win Young wrote back to the Army Corps, disputing its claims and asking that it work with the tribe before doing the bore hole drilling. Additional letters of concern were sent in the coming weeks and months with no response from the Corps.
Young even had prefiled rebuttal testimony notarized on behalf of the tribe on Aug. 14, 2015, to prove that in spite of her efforts to maintain contact with the Army Corps of Engineers, she had repeatedly been ignored.
She stated, “Energy Transfer and Merjent archaeologists have not conducted proper identification in accordance with the NHPA. The email communication shows the (Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Office) made a good faith effort to meet with the companies. Energy Transfer and Merjent gave us copies of the maps of the Missouri River crossing. Ms. Howard said she would follow up with us regarding participation in identification efforts but did not. It is apparent that there have not been adequate surveys with proper Tribal involvement.”
When the Corps finally contacted the tribe, it was in a letter dated September 2015, saying the initial letter for the proposed work to be done had already been done on Jan. 18, 2015—nearly a month after the initial request for cooperation was sent.
After an environmental assessment was produced by the Army Corps in September 2015, the tribe said it had objected to the assessment and sent three detailed letters describing how the National Historic Preservation Act was ignored. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Interior Department sent letters expressing concern about the Army Corps’ apparent ignoring of the tribe.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said it “not been provided evidence that the Corps has met” the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act, accurately predicting “there is likely to be significant tribal interest” and that “the Corps’ approach to meeting its government-to-government consultation is extremely important.”
After a preliminary injunction filed on behalf of the tribe was rejected on Sept. 9, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior immediately stepped in and ordered a restraining order against the pipeline.
Blackfeet Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Montana-based writer, went to the Sacred Stone camp last month. In a recent piece for ESPN he wrote about the irony of people claiming that the Sambo-esque Cleveland Indians mascot supposedly honored Native Americans while actual Native Americans were all but overlooked when real protests took place and Natives were being arrested and sprayed with mace for standing up for their treaty and constitutional rights.
““These latter Indians are the ones I know,” he wrote. “The ones who assert their sovereign rights even when those rights are not recognized. The ones who travel from all over the country to support a particular tribe’s cause because, though we are all distinct peoples, we are nonetheless all in this together. The ones who will laugh, as we American Indians tend to do, even in the darkest of circumstances.”
Despite Goodman’s dire warning of the authorities’ unspoken message of intimidation to “Stay out of North Dakota,” protesters at Sacred Stone camp appear ready to dig in for the long haul even in defiance of the upcoming North Dakota winter—and the forces being summoned to defend the $3.8 billion pipeline: ever-more militarized police officers with camouflaged riot gear, SWAT team guns, snipers on the high ground, armored vehicles, and drones, planes and helicopters in the sky.
“To us,” said Tribal Chairman Archambault, “there is an additional collective memory that comes to mind. This country has a long and sad history of using military force against indigenous people—including the Sioux Nation.”
The Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 are most often cited by Water Protectors as creating their legal right to protect indigenous lands. Recalled more recently by Standing Rock elders today, however, is the trauma of when Lake Oahe Dam was created.
In 1958, 200,000 acres of prime Lakota ancestral, farming and grazing land along the Missouri River were lost under the authority of eminent domain. Elders alive today had lived in those areas and witnessed entire towns they’d grown up in become submerged with no regard to their protests or what Native people had to say.
While most whites and even Natives themselves may not know the complex issues surrounding tribal sovereignty and rights, standing with Standing Rock has become a symbol of resistance not only for the sake of protecting water, but for not allowing those whose ancestors’ voices were first heard across this land to be silenced.
Adrian L. Jawort is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who grew up in Lockwood. A Northern Cheyenne, he’s lived on various Indian reservations and is the founder of Off the Pass Press LLC, which “aims to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.”