The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe announced via its Facebook page on Sept. 1 that 188 Tribes, or Native Nations, from across the United States and Canada have declared their support for the Lakota/Dakota Tribes’ fight to stop the US$3.8-billion Dakota Access Pipeline carrying heavy Bakken crude oil from crossing the Missouri River and threatening the sovereign nations’ main water source.
Protesters against the pipeline prefer to be called “water protectors.” Some even objected to a New York Times cover article that claimed they were “Occupying the Prairie”—since all of this land, even that north of the border of the reservation was originally treaty territory. Elders at the camp released a response (We’ve Always “Occupied the Prairie” and We’re Not Going Anywhere) to the New York Times that said, "We are Protectors not Protesters. Our camp is a prayer, for our children, our elders and ancestors, and for the creatures, and the land and habitat they depend on, who cannot speak for themselves."
On Wednesday, 38 “protectors” were arrested for nonviolent protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, eight in North Dakota and 30 in Iowa. Iyuskin “Happy” American Horse, 26, a young Lakota man among the arrestees, had chained himself to a digging machine for six hours in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
This 1,168-mile-pipeline extending across four states from North Dakota to Illinois has sparked a prairie fire of united Native American resistance not seen since Wounded Knee, and a return of the Great Sioux Nation. This is the first time since the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn that all seven council fires have camped together.
The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota are all members of the Océti Sakówin, the seven council fires, commonly known to most Americans as the “Great Sioux Nation.” Their dialects are distinct but they are all one people. The people of Standing Rock are known as Sitting Bull’s people (the Húnkpapa), but also include Ihánkthunwannaa (Yanktonai Dakota) bands.
According to the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie, the “Great Sioux Reservation” comprised nearly 60 million acres and was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The Standing Rock reservation is adjacent to another even larger reservation belonging to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Together, these two reservations equal in size to El Salvador or Israel span across two states and constitute the largest continuous land area left to the Océti Sakówin. Four more Dakota/Lakota reservations along the Missouri could also be impacted. This archipelago of reservations is all that remains of their former lands—now in the hands of often hostile state governments.
In July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which had granted the final permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline in federal court. However, on August 24, Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court from the District of Columbia delayed a decision for the Tribe’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction and promised a decision before or on Sept. 9.
The delay was met with disappointment by the 2,000 supporters at the Camp of the Sacred Stones near the site of the pipeline construction site at Cannonball, North Dakota. Thousands more, mainly Native Americans following the protest, registered their concern over social media under the hashtags #NoDAPL and #RezpectOurWater. Despite the huge encampment and an unprecedented intertribal unity unseen before on any issue, there has been little media coverage, especially when compared to the 24-7 CNN coverage of the Bundy family’s armed standoffs with federal authorities.
Sacred Stone Camp is owned by Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Ladonna Bird Bull Allard who is Yanktonai Dakota.
After a 2014 meeting with the Dakota Access Pipeline representatives, Allard recalled in a recent interview with KBOO Radio, “I remember at the end, I walked up to a young woman who was from Dakota Access and I said remember me. I just looked at your maps, I’m the closest landowner. Remember my face. I will stand there even if I stand alone, you cannot put this pipeline next to my home.”
Two years later, she is not alone. The camp is full of supporters averaging between 1,000 and 2,000 tribal members from across the country.
“What I see is healing of Native nations,” Allard told teleSUR. “What I see is an amazing event that I could never have imagined in my whole life.”
The Missouri River Tribes, like all tribes really, have a painful and difficult history with the federal government—and the Army Corps of Engineers in particular. In the mid-20th century the Corps built dams on the river almost exclusively on tribal lands, flooding hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farm land effecting 23 Tribes and displacing 1,000 Native American farmers, and of course to benefit white farmers.
The name of the camp stems from this historic of violation of tribal sovereignty and land and treaty rights, which yet again seems to be happening.
“When I was a child the river used to create this whirlwind and it created round sandstones,” Allard recalled. “And when the Army Corps (of Engineers) came with the Pick-Sloan (dams) and flooded us the river no longer made round sandstones but the people always called it the place where they made sacred stone. So that’s why I named the camp after the original name of the place.”
Today, environmental disasters in the form of oil spills await if this project is allowed to go through. Allard said that in North Dakota the Tribe has counted 200-plus pipeline breaks, including the Keystone Pipeline spill in 2011 that spilled 400 barrels of oil and a 2010 spill from an Enbridge Line 2 that released 3,784 barrels of crude oil with only 2,237 barrels were recovered, which foreshadows the environmental devastation awaiting the tribes if the Dakota Access Pipeline is allowed to be completed.
“Right now, because oil spills are happening north of us, we’re pulling fish out with tumors and sores and some really bad things coming out of the river,” said Allard. “But right where we live they’re planning on putting that pipeline under the Missouri River—underneath a burial ground because there’s an island right out there they have to cross. They are planning to go 82-feet down into the bed of the river.”
By the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s estimates, it will take less than two minutes for a pipeline break to bring heavy Bakken Crude Oil to the Tribe’s Early Head Start building and less than five minutes to reach an elementary school. Then 15 minutes to reach the Tribe’s water intake.
“We get all our water from the Missouri River and we will be without water. And I keep asking who is going to come to help us? Who will come when we have no water?” said Allard. “You go down and ask the Diné people (the Navajo Nation was downriver from the Gold King Mine spill last year) who came? They have had no water since it destroyed their water system. Who is helping them? You have to remember our bodies are 70 percent water everything in the world is water, water is life.”
This week, the Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez arrived on Allard’s land and planted their Tribe’s flag in a line of flagpoles representing Native Nations. The Navajo Nation is the largest Native Nation in the United States with about 350,000 tribal members and a land base the size of Ireland. At least 2,000 Navajo farmers were affected by the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River last year.
Despite the peaceful nature of the encampment, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple (R), Lieutenant Governor Drew Wrigley and Morton County Sheriff Kirchmeier have accused the protestors of being violent and unlawful. The sheriff actually claimed during a press conference that “water protectors” were armed with pipe bombs. None of these claims have been substantiated by observers including the ACLU who sent the governor a letter threatening legal remedies for First Amendment rights violations of nonviolent protesters. Chairman Archambault was himself arrested and has been hit with a temporary restraining order to stay away from the construction site. He issued a statement critical of the governor’s inflammatory language, noting that the only pipes were canunpas, traditional pipes used for prayer.
The state’s continued blockade of Highway 1806, the main road used by tribal members to reach Bismarck, North Dakota for shopping has been criticized as an undue burden on the Tribe. This week Amnesty International called for the U.S. government to protect the “protectors’” human rights to freedom of expression and assembly, while the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues called for a "fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process to resolve this serious issue and to avoid escalation into violence and further human rights abuses."
This stand by the descendants of Sitting Bull’s band has been both prayerful and political, a mix once explained by the late Vine Deloria, Jr., Standing Rock tribal member and a prominent historian and critic, famous for his landmark 1969 book “Custer Died For Your Sins.” In his book “The Nations Within,” he stated that “the people” for most Native nations had its origins in “religious events such as the coming of a primordial holy person who gives ceremonies, rituals and prophecies contributing to tribal identification as a distinct people.” This origin gave even "the idea of the treaty”—seen by Europeans as merely a legal, political instrument of International Law—a sacred basis.Archambault encapsulated this when he said:
“Opposite is the Ihanktonwan camps, my people’s camps, and on the Cannonball side, we have the Mandan camps … there are also ceremonial sites and burial sites and medicine rocks and origination of people sites. There's so much history right there that I can't understand how the state and the federal government doesn’t understand how important these areas are to Native people—they are the center of who we are. Our footprints in the land. Our hearts are in that land. We can tell you the history of all of these sites, who put them there, how they got there, why they are there, why we go there to pray.”
He went on to tell tribal members that he plans to continue to build on the traditions and unity the fight stop the Dakota Access Pipeline has brought about. And Allard plans to keep the camp going and to create a culture camp for kids.
”Once we win the pipeline we have a camp where kids can learn about culture, tradition and language,” she said. In the meantime, “We are asking everyone to come stand with us and every prayer is welcome. We protect the water.”
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon. She has been published in Salon, Indian Country Today, Earth Island Journal and the Nation. She is finishing her first novel "Leaving the Glittering World" set in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State during the discovery of Kennewick Man.