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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dakota Pipeline High Stakes

Air Date: Week of

Two Standing Rock demonstrators take to horseback, a homage to the ride to Cannonball River in April that sparked the movement. (Photo: Robert Wilson)

The movement led by the Standing Rock Sioux to stop the final link of the Dakota Access Pipeline, construction of a tunnel under the Missouri River, is standing firm, but DAPL supporters are equally determined. Sandy Tolan has followed the evolving and increasingly contentious protests since April, and reports on what’s at stake.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed a decision to allow the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline to tunnel under the Missouri River, pending more discussions with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. But the companies behind DAPL immediately went back to court claiming the delay was based on politics. They may be looking to the incoming Trump Administration for a more sympathetic regulatory environment. Thousands of Native Americans and supporters have squared off for months against the builders, led by Energy Transfer Partners, over the $4 billion oil pipeline. Work is nearly complete, but the Native Americans say the risk to their sacred sites, and to the water supply for the Sioux and 17 million other Americans, is too great to allow the pipeline to cross the river. Reporter Sandy Tolan has been following this standoff in North Dakota and has our story.


TOLAN: It started on horseback, early last April on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Four hundred Native American riders headed north through the snow toward the banks of the Cannonball River. There, a few people set up teepees, foraged for wood, built campfires and prayed for allies in their fight against the “black snake,” the massive, half-million barrel-a-day oil pipeline.


TOLAN: Within weeks, Native people began arriving from across the United States and Canada. Supporters came, too: environmentalists, racial justice activists, pro bono lawyers, medics, volunteers.


TOLAN: By August, some 6,000 people had planted tents and teepees along the Cannonball. Today, the flags of 300 tribal nations flap in the wind along the long dirt track called Crazy Horse Avenue. Some called it the largest gathering of tribes in North American history. It’s the first time the Great Sioux Nation has banded together against a common foe since the defeat of General George Custer in the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.

PHYLLIS BALD EAGLE: This was prophesied by our people, that we were going to wake up.

TOLAN: Phyllis Bald Eagle came from the nearby Cheyenne River reservation.

BALD EAGLE: Seventh generation prophecy, it's my children. And when my son made that commitment, I knew then that the prophecy has come true. The seventh generation is going to wake up the sleeping giant.

TOLAN: The sleeping giant is Native solidarity. At Little Big Horn, members of the Crow nation were scouts for General Custer. Today, Phyllis Bald Eagle says, they’ve come to join the fight.

BALD EAGLE: When that happened, when the Crow nation came down, it’s almost like, the tension that had always been there between our nation and their nation had disappeared when they came. I was here when they came. Everybody was crying, [LAUGHS] yes, because it’s never happened before.

TOLAN: Emboldened by their common cause to defend the land and water, Bald Eagle and fellow pipeline opponents set up their teepees on lands granted the Great Sioux Nation in an 1851 treaty. With the coming of the railroads and new waves of white settlers, the treaty was later abrogated. Now the Fortune 500 company, Energy Transfer, holds the title to this land, which lies directly in the path of its pipeline.


TOLAN: As we spoke in late October, a few people unloaded teepee poles from the back of a Penske truck. Bald Eagle’s husband, Black Horse, raised his teepee exactly where the company planned to lay its pipe. They call it their treaty camp.


BALD EAGLE: We’re using those rights. We’re exercising those treaty rights. We’re gonna stay here and stop the pipeline.

BLACK HORSE: The only weapon that we’ve got is prayer. That’s why there’s a lot of praying people from other nations. You know, white, red, yellow, black. They are all here. And what we as a Lakota people know is that this is our land and we can and will win.

A collection of tribal flags line the perimeter of the campground. (Photo: Jacqueline Keeler)

TOLAN: But supporters of the Dakota Access pipeline are just as determined.

DALRYMPLE: And this particular project, no matter what, needs to go forward.

TOLAN: That’s North Dakota’s Republican governor Jack Dalrymple. His campaign war chest has been largely filled by oil industry contributions. A few years ago, North Dakota was all in on fracking, before oil prices plummeted and the industry went bust. But now Dalrymple says nothing is going to stop the Dakota Access pipeline.

DALRYMPLE: As far as this particular pipe is concerned, this has already gone through the process. It’s done. It’s finished. It has, according to federal judges, all of the proper documentation.

TOLAN: And the pipeline company is under serious pressure to get the oil flowing soon, or risk losing its lucrative contracts with oil companies. Under glaring flood lights, work crews labor late into the night, laying pipe until they arrive near the edge of State Highway 1806, and the Treaty camp where Bald Eagle and Blackhorse have set up their teepees.

[TV newscaster: “This, as hundreds have joined in the protests in solidarity with the Sioux tribe, camping out along the highways and disrupting construction..."]

TOLAN: Energy Transfer called for an end to the “lawless behavior,” saying the protestors should be evicted and prosecuted. That same day, an armed force of state and county police and the National Guard began forming behind a ridge just north of the Treaty camp, shutting down the highway. The next morning, just before dawn, a lone pipeline opponent sat in the cab of his pickup truck.

CAMP-HORINEK: So I’m posted up here, north of the blockade...

TOLAN: Mekasi Camp-Horinek wore a backwards baseball cap and a ‘no pipeline’ tee shirt. His eyes were fixed on the glow of the police barricade, two miles north.

CAMP-HORINEK: From where I'm sitting here I can see the floodlights where the military camp is set up at...

TOLAN: He’s parked in the middle of the darkened highway, looking toward Fort Rice. From there, 140 years ago, the Cavalry dispatched troops to join General Custer at Little Big Horn. Mekasi’s a member of the Ponca nation, from Oklahoma. His uncle was a founder of the American Indian Movement and took part in the siege at Wounded Knee. His mother is a respected Native rights activist. And Mekasi, like the others who’ve come here, calls himself a water protector.

CAMP-HORINEK: We lived along the Missouri River for thousands of years. This river sustained our life and sustained the life of my people and I owe it to this water to protect it. I do environmental work fighting the fracking industry, fighting pollution, environmental racism. My reservation has the highest cancer rate in the state of Oklahoma. You know we’re the pipeline crossroad of the world as well as the earthquake capital of the world. Where I live it’s an everyday fact that our people are dying from the environment around us.

TOLAN: Dawn breaks, and we can see a few police vehicles pull up in the middle of the shut-down highway.


TOLAN: Sheriff Paul Laney leads a group of uniformed officers toward Mekasi, who gets out of his truck.


TOLAN: Tensions rise quickly.

Native American tribes from across the country and the world have made the trek to Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota. (Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

DEMONSTRTORS: I’m not done...
If that happens...
I’m not done...
OK, I let you speak than you let me speak...

TOLAN: The police engage Mekasi and a couple of other protestors...

DEMONSTRATORS: I’m here to uphold traditional law. I’m here to uphold treaty law which is the supreme law of this land.

SHERIFF: You really believe that? So you should just take anybody's house you want because you know it's yours.

CAMP-HORINEK: No. No, I should be able to take back land, that the United States government broke the treaty. We didn't break the treaties. Our people didn't break the treaties, the government broke the treaties.

SHERIFF: We have to enforce private property laws.

CAMP-HORINEK: OK, well you’re gonna have to because we’re not moving.

SHERIFF: You’ll be arrested if you’re on private land. We’re here telling you. It is a private property and you have to leave. Mekasi, we don’t want a confrontation.

CAMP-HORINEK: I understand that, but listen –

SHERIFF: Please, stand your people down, and go back to the main camp and let’s talk.

CAMP-HORINEK: Highway 1806 is now a no surrender line and that camp is no retreat!

SHERIFF: That’s your final word?

CAMP-HORINEK: That’s the final word.

SHERIFF: Take care gentleman.

TOLAN: The officers walk back to their vehicles, and sense of tense anticipation settles over the treaty camp. The next morning, October 27, the police return – with hundreds of reinforcements.


POLICE: If you’re on that property you will be arrested…

TOLAN: I’m looking at a line of about... at least 100 officers dressed in black and National Guardsmen dressed in camouflage and then county officers dressed in khaki, forming three flanks on either side of military-style vehicles including a mine-resistant vehicle that has been designed for use against IEDs in Iraq and is being deployed here against very raucous – but so far unarmed – peaceful resisters.


TOLAN: The military line advances slowly, firing pepper spray. On the protesters' side, someone douses a barricade of loose tires with kerosene and sets it ablaze.

PROTESTER: America’s built on stolen land!

TOLAN: A thick column of black smoke rises over the highway. The militarized force of hundreds advances. Rubber bullets knock one young man off his horse. The horse is hit, too, and has to be euthanized. Police fire beanbag rounds, and tasers.

In the midst of the chaos is a slight, elderly Lakota woman in a red tee shirt, sitting on a stump, watching. Her name is Helen Redfeather, a grandmother from Wounded Knee.

REDFEATHER: History repeats itself. But you know what, right now is right now. We can’t let this pipeline through. I’m here to kill the snake. Come on people, wake up. Wake up people. But you know what, right now is right now.

TOLAN: Moments later, Helen Redfeather rises and walks to the front line to confront the police who arrest her and then 140 other people, including Mekasi and a group of elders praying beside their teepee. They’re all cuffed and taken to jail. Many are charged with felonies.


TOLAN: The next day, Mekasi told me what happened.

CAMP-HORINEK: We were given numbers with permanent magic marker, we were marked with a number on our arm. And then put on buses and taken to an underground parking lot. And when we got off the bus, we saw dog kennels there, and they put us in chainlink fence dog kennels on bare concrete floors, no bedding. The floors were really dirty and cold. The men and women were put into these kennels at about 20 people per kennel.

TOLAN: As he spoke, the authorities were dismantling tents, teepees, and a sweat lodge in the Treaty camp, forcing Bald Eagle and others back into the main camp and clearing the land for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Drone footage taken a few days later by pipeline opponents showed crews laying pipe all the way to the Missouri River.


TOLAN: But the pipeline opponents are not deterred. Soon, new clashes take place as water protectors wade across a cold shallow tributary of the Cannonball River.

Reporter Sandy Tolan witnessed authorities dismantling tipis and tents to clear land for pipeline construction. (Photo: Jacqueline Keeler)


They said they want to pray on sacred lands near the pipeline, but more clouds of pepper spray drove they back. Despite losing the Treaty camp, again and again the protestors pushed back against the pipeline company and the state militia protecting it.


TOLAN: Mekasi Camp-Horinek.

CAMP-HORINEK: It's never over and we’re never defeat and we’re never conquered. We’re going to always move forward. We’re going to always keep our faith and we’re going to continue to fight against this pipeline. When our backs are against the river, we’ll be standing there to protect that water and to protect that river.

TOLAN: The story of the fight at Standing Rock is being kept alive mostly by social media, aided in part by appearances from Jesse Jackson, actors Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo, and the musician Neil Young. For a while, the camp dwindled to about 1,200, but now, as word of the protests and the militarized response spreads, the numbers are up again – by several reports closer to 5,000 – as winter approaches.

ASERON: Next thing you guys, everybody on a pole, we have to ensure...

TOLAN: Here in the northern plains it can reach 30 below zero. Yet several hundred of the water protectors are planning to stay here, on the land.

ASERON: One going to the left side of that pole, one going to the right. After you get that...

TOLAN: Lakota organizer Johnny Aseron leans over a large military tent, leading a crew that is trying to help everyone get prepared.

ASERON:And when that snow and sleet comes they going to need a place to get into, you know. A lot of people not prepared living in summer stuff. So we just want to make sure they get a place to go.

TOLAN: Opponents meanwhile are pushing the Obama administration to deny the pipeline company the right to drill under the Missouri River. They received good news on November 14th when the Army Corps of Engineers called for more study and tribal input on the river crossing. Energy Transfer pushed back, suing in federal court to complete the project. Its billionaire CEO, Kelcy Warren, blasted what he called a “sham process,” and said his company has done “nothing but play by the rules.”

Pipeline foes say they’ll remain vigilant. Despite the fact that President-elect Donald Trump is a backer of big oil and an investor in the Dakota Access project, opponents say they’ll stop the “black snake” one way or another. This is Linda Black Elk.

BLACK ELK: The oil companies will not stop until they have literally squeezed every last drop of blood that they can out of our mother. And we’ve stood and sat idle for way to long. It’s already gone too far.

TOLAN: Black Elk is an ethnobotanist who teaches at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock reservation.

BLACK ELK: I get Goosebumps just thinking about it because it’s really incredible to be able to say that you were there at a time when everybody came together to stand up and say ‘we’re not going to let this keep happening. People from all over the world have kind of been looking out of the corner of their eye and then looking away in shame. They’re not looking away anymore. They’re looking at head-on and they’re coming to stand with us.


County police and the National Guard shut down part of the highway leading to the campground. (Joe Brusky, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Tolan along the banks of the Cannon Ball River, North Dakota.




Bismark Tribune: Anti-DAPL Protests Across U.S.

Army Corps of Engineers announcement to halt construction

Pipeline company response to Army Corps decision

Sandy Tolan’s previous DAPL report

Sandy Tolan’s Website


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