Inside the Battle Over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Named to its “Best Stories of 2016” and “Best Social Justice Stories of 2016” lists by Pacific Standard Magazine.
Front Line Camp, Highway 1806, Outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota, October 27th, 2016
A woman’s voice cries out: “We cannot let them cross! For our children and our grandchildren!”
“Stand in prayer!” a man warns, as a call and response rings out: “Black Snake Killers! Black Snake Killers!”
“We are going to stop this pipeline!” a youth boldly declares.
A female elder proclaims firmly in Lakota: “Mni Wiconi!” Water is life.
The voices of hundreds of Native Americans and their allies, punctuated by the high pitched “lilili” ululations of women and the deeper whoops of men, echo out across Highway 1806 and the adjacent field that they have dubbed “Front Line Camp.”
It is high noon, October 27th, and the self-proclaimed “water protectors” are refusing to yield what is virtually the last bit of ground remaining in the construction of the 1,400-mile Dakota Access Pipeline. Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind what has emerged as the most controversial oil pipeline project in the United States’ history, has just 9,000 feet of construction on the pipe remaining before it reaches the Missouri River.
Arrayed against the protectors on this day is a vast phalanx of police from multiple states and agencies, National Guardsmen, and armed private security forces working for Energy Transfer Partners. This patchwork force — numbering well into the hundreds — have formed a human-and-machine chain fanned out across road and field. The equipment, weapons, uniforms, and tactics they deploy immediately bring me back to my 2011 and 2012 reporting trips to Afghanistan. In order to report on what I’m seeing here, in fact, I turn to a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, including several who are themselves water protectors. The similarity to the wars is no coincidence; James Reese, CEO and founder of TigerSwan, the company “in charge of Dakota Access intelligence and which supervises the overall security,” served as the lead advisor for special operations to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency for planning, operations, and integration for the invasion of Afghanistan and as a “High Threat Security Services” director for the Department of State in Iraq and Afghanistan.*
“We’re at that age where we won’t be here long, but our children and our grandchildren will,” Linda Bullbear, 65, of the Oglala Sioux Nation says from her seat in Front Line Camp. She believes it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the pipeline ruptures, that the children “will get sick with their water polluted by oil. Do these people standing there with batons and Taser guns understand that? I wonder if they have families, if they have grandkids, to be enforcing this oil company’s will to come through here and pollute our water?”
And while it may seem unlikely for such events to unfold in rural North Dakota; the objective is all too familiar: oil.
Over the last seven months, thousands of people, including members of over 280 tribes and First Nations, have joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which passes half a mile from its reservation. They’ve established two makeshift camps, “Oceti Sakowin” and “Sacred Stone,” near — but not in the path of — the pipeline route. They cite the pipeline’s threat to areas of cultural, spiritual, and environmental significance, including the Missouri River, the Tribe’s primary drinking water source. They’ve used spiritual, legal, political, social, and physical tools to try to stop the pipeline.
Their concerns over its construction were reinforced in August when a former crew member testified that a pipeline to which the Dakota Access will connect and which runs under Lake Sakakawea, the drinking water source for North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, was not properly constructed or inspected and is “an accident waiting to happen.” Multiple oil and gasoline pipeline ruptured across North America during the same period, and as recently as October 21st involving Sunoco — a Dakota Access Pipeline company.
A victory for the Tribes came on September 9th, when the Army Corps of Engineers denied permission for the pipeline to pass under the Missouri River while it conducted a more thorough review. The Obama administration then requested — twice — that Energy Transfer Partners voluntarily cease construction in a 20-mile corridor leading to the water in the interim. Energy Transfer Partners flatly refused.
“I wonder if they have families, if they have grandkids, to be enforcing this oil company’s will to come through here and pollute our water?”
Just four small areas remain for the laying of the pipe: the land immediately to the west of Highway 1806; Highway 1806 itself; under Front Line Camp on the east, which will also serve as a staging ground for the final step; and passage below the Missouri River, a little over a mile away.
On October 23rd, a group of hundreds of protectors claiming eminent domain over the land as its rightful owners under the 1851 Laramie Treaty, decided that their bodies would have to act as the final buffer between the pipeline and the water. They established the Front Line Camp directly in its path, blocking Highway 1806 in several locations as well.
Two days later, Energy Transfer Partners warned that if the land was not immediately vacated, trespassers would be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and removed from the land.”
On October 27th, the police made good on the company’s threat.
On almost any other day, in any other year, the site of the protest would simply be a lonely stretch of two-lane highway reaching out across prairie fields barren but for waving yellow strands of grass, some corn, and the occasional bale of hay. Keep going north 50 miles to reach Bismarck; half a mile south to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Reservation.
North Dakota’s beauty lies in its vast open spaces dotted with majestic red buttes, winding rivers and lakes, wild mustangs, and limitless blue sky. This beauty is under attack. As I detailed in November in an article from North Dakota, in 2006, the onset of a highly unexpected and equally unregulated oil fracking boom from an underground deposit known as the Bakken Formation introduced an economic bounty for some, but also toxic flares, fracking fluid spills, pipeline ruptures, and an economic roller coaster for many more.
Flares, which emit carbon dioxide, methane, and a slew of other pollutants linked to serious public-health effects, are so numerous and bright in the state that they’re visible from space. Nearly 1,800 oil- and gas-related accidents, fires, blowouts, leaks, spills, ruptures, and other problems were reported here in just the 12 months from November 2014 to November 2015. There’s been so much production that the state, moreover, that it has helped drive a global oil glut, contributing to collapsing prices and a catastrophic economic bust in many areas.
The massive increase in oil production could not stay put for long, and trains and pipelines were increasingly employed to carry the bounty outward to faraway refineries and terminals for overseas export. As with so many locations where oil is produced, few are more harmed here than the Native population. The heart of the Bakken boom lies beneath Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which is also the site of the majority of its associated harms described above, while its pipelines pass near and through ever more Native land. All of which helped lay the groundwork for a historic moment of resistance.
October 27th, 12:40 p.m.
Acrid black smoke billows skyward from tires set ablaze, part of a blockade across Highway 1806 devised by the protectors, aimed at keeping the police forces from advancing and taking Front Line Camp.
As the day progresses, the constant buzz of a helicopter circling low overhead, combined with the rumbling of a small plane occupying the air above it, is abruptly overtaken by the crushing boom of an exploding concussion grenade, forcing hundreds of bodies to instinctively contract inward as one. With a quiet swoosh, a Taser releases its electrified metal barb into the cheek and hip of a young man; inches away, the liquid flush of pepper spray is felt long before it is seen; a searing and biting sting that forces eyes and throats to immediately lock shut. Rubber bullets smack into flesh; and a burst of police tackle a youth causing skin and bone to whack and tear against pavement. Shouts of fear, pain, anger, and resistance follow, interspaced with periods and areas of a relative calm that is balanced on a pin waiting for the next prick.
“This camp is the frontline,” says Kandi Mossett of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, and a native of Fort Berthold. “This is all that’s protecting the Missouri river a mile away,” she says, pointing to the east, where the water is clearly visible. She then points to the west, to a field on the other side of the highway, where construction of the pipeline is actively underway. It is an area of land deemed a sacred burial ground by the Standing Rock Sioux and where, on September 3rd, a violent confrontation between Dakota Access Pipeline private security guards using dogs and pepper spray against protectors was filmed by Democracy Now!
Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle, a pediatrician on the reservation, stands nearby wearing her white doctor’s jacket and holding a banner reading: “We are here to Protect. Water is Life.”
“In this state, our health has already been subjected to the consequences of fracking and flaring,” she says. “A rupture of the pipeline could release Benzene, which is cancer causing and impacts reproductive health.”
As we watch, a group of protectors takes to this field. Just as quickly, an armored Humvee and line of police fill the area, pepper spray canisters as large as fire extinguishers and batons at the ready, repelling the protectors with intimidation and arrests.
“They’re treating us like we’re at war, like we’re in Iraq right now. We’re in the United States of America. We’re in Indian country. And it’s not right.”
Medics pass out bright orange ear plugs. I later learn from Lyle Jeremy Rubin, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan, that the source of the high pitched screeching siren occasionally blasted at us is a Long Range Acoustic Device. He wrote about the device after it was deployed against protests in Ferguson, Missouri: “It is sonic weapon that my psychological operations (PSYOP) friends could probably discuss more intelligently,” he writes. The shrill sound, also used to keep pirates at bay and regulate the movements of wildlife, can over-stimulate the heart, resulting in agitation among those targeted.
Today, the LRAD is fitted to a massive tan armor-plated International MaxxPro Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) designed to withstand Improvised Explosive Devices in war zones holding court front and center on the highway. A black counter-terrorism vehicle, the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck sits closely at its side. Numerous tan armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (a.k.a. Humvee) are arrayed here, throughout the fields, and on surrounding hill tops, where many remain to this day.**
“Don’t worry, the snipers have him in their sights,” I overhear a police SWAT member say. Photographs later confirm that the snipers are perched within Humvees, their heads poking out of turrets at the top, rifles pointed and ready. The SWAT teams carry M4 rifles, a standard issue for the army and marine corps, and are dressed in full camo “battle rattle,” approximately 50 pounds of gear, including a flak vest, Kevlar helmet, gas mask, ammunition, and weapons.
A force flanks to the right, moving into Front Line Camp. ATVs rush several protectors as the police begin a standard “sweep and clear” mission, lifting teepees and tents, securing, sweeping, clearing, and moving on. They are slow, methodical, and practiced.
Lorrena Alameda, a Dakota Sioux from South Dakota and an Army veteran who served 16 months in Iraq, saw pictures and video of the day’s events at home and immediately traveled with her mother to lend support and offer prayer and healing. With tears streaming down her face, she describes the hurt and shame she felt at seeing the exact same equipment used in Iraq deployed on her homeland. “They’re treating us like we’re at war, like we’re in Iraq right now. We’re not in Iraq! We’re in the United States of America. We’re in Indian country. And it’s not right.” “Eee ya ya” she and her mother say in Dakota: They should go. They shouldn’t be here at all.
Approximately 3 p.m.
Standing in the middle of Highway 1806, 68-year-old Casey Camp-Horinek’s head is bent low in prayer as her arms lift a prayer pipe toward the sky. The Oklahoma Ponca elder and Tribal Council Member is a figure of calm surrounded by a swirl of chaos. Several people huddle protectively around her, placing their hands on her back and head, using their bodies as shields. The prayer continues for several minutes as the police line encroaches, its movement unyielding, until it reaches Camp-Horinek — the chest of the closest officer virtually touching her small head and long braids. Unsure how to proceed, an order is given by police to “pass this group.” Camp-Horinek and the others stand impenetrable as the stream of police engulfs and then passes by them. They are arrested and jailed.
A larger prayer circle led by male tribal elders has gathered further south on the highway. When the police line reaches it; they too are arrested.
Approximately 4 p.m.
A group of about 50 protectors in a large circle on the ground in Front Line Camp, arms intertwined, praying, singing, and holding ground. Among them is Camp’s son, Mekasi Horinek, who has served today, and for several months, as the liaison between the camps and the police. He is pulled out of the circle, tackled, and arrested. The police then slowly encircle and arrest the remaining group, before continuing their steady forward crawl.
Approximately 4:30 p.m.
As if out of a mirage, a herd of buffalo appear to the east of the melee, streaming majestic across the hills. The nearby action freezes as one person follows the gaze of another. Shock turns to momentary joy. Whoops, cheers, and ululations fill the air. Two Native horse riders follow the herd, fists raised, only to be chased down by SWAT in ATVs. One horse is so badly injured by police that it is later put down.
As they are pushed back along the highway, groups of protectors stop and try to erect further barricades, using hay, logs, and even dismantling and locking themselves under a truck. Over the course of the day, perhaps five to 10 people throw water bottles, some rocks, and even an occasional log at police. Some even fight back.
“We do not condone such actions, but we certainly understand where the anger and fear comes from,” Camp-Horinek says after her release from jail on October 28th. It is a common sentiment. “We are a peaceful movement, and a prayerful people,” Ardyce Taken-Alive, 56, of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says. Her voice trails off as she adds, “but there is also much rage….”
But for most of those with whom I spoke, the worst violence committed on this day was not done by the protectors, nor the police; it took place to the west of the line where the construction equipment dug into the sacred burial ground, moving the pipeline ever forward, with an invading military force to protect it.
Approximately 6 p.m.
Front Line Camp is gone, and with it the barriers on Highway 1806. One-hundred-and-forty-one people were arrested, the others returning to the two main camps. During the night, three cars are set ablaze further down Highway 1806 in between the camps to the south, and the pipeline construction to the north; a barricade none admit to erecting behind which the Humvees, snipers, and police remain affixed on roadways and hills to this day.
The spirit of the resistance is clearly shaken, but it is not broken. Their commitment to remain through the winter and as long as it takes stays firm as new residents and supporters arrive daily, and new solar panels and wind turbines are erected. “Their oil can stay in the ground. We can do better than oil,” Mossett assures. “And we will.”
Thirty-one-year-old Vanessa Dunden, a member of the Navajo Nation, has never been involved in anything like this before. Her grandmother died recently and, she assures, “this is exactly where she would have wanted me to be. Protecting the water. Protecting the people. Protecting the Earth.”
*Update— November 1, 2016: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect James Reese’ role for the Department of State in Iraq and Afghanistan.
**Update — November 2, 2016: A previous version of the article incorrectly identified the MRAP and BEARCAT vehicles.