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I Needed to See for Myself What's Going on at Standing Rock. Here's What I Found.

North Dakota South Dakota Travel
by Matt Koller Nov 30, 2016

CANNON BALL, NORTH DAKOTA — Pulling into Oceti Sakowin camp just after dark, the scene resembles an apocalyptic Burning Man, but instead of being welcomed by a dusty, bearded hippie in a banana hammock, my greeter is a young indigenous security guard with a tear drop tattoo who kindly informs me that firearms, alcohol, and drugs are not permitted in camp.

The aura is surreal: headlights cutting the dusty air as cars circle in indistinct patterns. The distinct whirr of chainsaws and the low, monotonous rumble of generators. The guard nonchalantly points towards the left side of camp. “There are probably still camping spots off that way,” he says.

Having driven for the better part of two days to get here, I was eager to get out of the car and stretch my legs. My main prerogative was to find a spot close to the Sacred Fire, the main gathering space for campers at Oceti Sakowin. While everyone appeared welcoming and friendly, I was hardly keen on setting up camp anywhere dark and isolated; proximity to others was paramount. I chose a spot off the “main road”, a dusty byway lined with flags from the hundreds of organizations that have visited Oceti Sakowin to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

These flags, representing groups from “Veterans for Peace” to the Oglala Lakota Sioux, Crazy Horse’s tribe, make a crackling sound as they whip in the relentless, driving wind. Perhaps camping out right next to them was a poor idea, but in the end the flags had little to do with why the sleeping situation was uncomfortable — single-digit frost is a rough thing to wake up to; one night I left a gallon jug of water outside and woke up to a cubic foot of solid ice.

The Water Protectors prepare for winter

The Water Protectors, as the individuals gathered on the small plot of private land across the Cannon Ball River from the northern border of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation are known, are currently “winterizing” their camps, preparing for the ensuing mayhem that a North Dakota winter will bring. However, this is a problem because the protectors are camped out on federal land, leased to them by the Army Corps of Engineers via a Special Permit for the express purpose of this protest. Winterized structures are a violation of the original terms to which the protectors agreed, when they assured law enforcement officials that were they to camp through the winter they would survive on increased layers and heating stoves, without the building of permanent structures.

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Yet the building is taking place. It is one of the collective missions of the camp to prepare for winter in any way they can, and the protestors are eliciting help from anyone willing to give a hand. This building of winter structures is one of the many issues at camp that is unclear and uncertain, wherein actions may be encouraged, but the rationale is never quite clear. Obtaining definitive, hard facts about the situation at Standing Rock has proven incredibly difficult to do, and that is largely because there are so many conflicting ideologies uniting under one banner.

Native Americans and Concerned Citizens Flock to Standing Rock

By many reports the Standing Rock protests have resulted in the largest gathering of native tribes in over a hundred years, with over three hundred individual tribes having come to show their support. For many of us unfamiliar with Native traditions, your correspondent included, this conjures up an image of tribal chiefs in war paint and ceremonial headdresses huddled around a fire, chanting in solidarity.

While this isn’t far off from the mark — sacred fires, which must be tended to in accordance with various Native traditions, are common — the camp at Standing Rock looks very much like any large gathering of individuals in the modern age. Mountaineering tents, people cooking dinner out of the trunk of their cars, and camp chairs circling fire pits are the name of the game. Teepees dot the landscape, but for the most part this gathering looks like any encampment you’d find at a four-day music festival.

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Oceti Sakowin, or the Seven Fires Council, is the traditional governing body of the Sioux Nation and is gathered in unity to pray for the stopping of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There are a number of camps — (the other large ones are Sacred Stone and Red Warrior) but Oceti Sakowin is the unofficial official camp of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Water Protectors take precautions to avoid self-incrimination

The forbidding of drugs and alcohol is not an exclusively spiritual requirement; they are making every reasonable effort not to give law enforcement a reason to raid camp. Though there is no imminent threat of that happening (it’s generally agreed that the Army Corps of Engineers would give a thirty-day eviction notice to the protectors), the protectors are taking no chances.

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Volunteer security officers, usually young men of indigenous origin, guard the entrances and exits to camp. Journalists are requested to refrain from taking photos of anything inside permanent structures, of large gatherings of people, or of anything that might end up incriminating the protectors. Law enforcement knows about the building of “permanent structures” — in this case, from photos taken via aerial surveillance, but it could just as easily have been from a publicly displayed Instagram photo taken by a protector. You must be careful about the information you share.

While there are significant precautions taken to avoid this kind of interference from law enforcement, there is also a good deal of sought interaction with the police, and this is where the Standing Rock situation becomes complicated and fraught with tense energy on both sides.

Now is probably a good time to give a quick overview of the situation at Standing Rock. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), a Dallas-based oil & gas company, is attempting to build a 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to its refineries in southern Illinois. In order to complete the project, the pipeline must, at some point, cross the Missouri River. Almost all of the pipeline is already built, except for the contested crossing where the proposed plan is to drill a minimum of sixty inches below the river to put the pipeline in place.

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This proposed drill site is about a mile north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and upstream from where the residents get their drinking water. Needless to say, they are concerned about a possible spill, regardless of ETP’s assurances that they have enacted numerous stopgaps to prevent the contamination of their drinking water.

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Over the past few months, thousands of individuals have streamed into the protest camps to stand in solidarity with the Natives who oppose the construction of the pipeline, including environmentalists and other Native American tribes.

There are a considerable amount of non-indigenous folks that have turned up at Standing Rock, and there is a concerted effort to educate these non-indigenous protectors on the plight of the Native Americans. This includes checking your white privilege in an effort to view this issue through the lens of the Natives, a process referred to as decolonization.

These individuals who are protesting the completion of the final leg of this project are adamant that they are not protestors, but Water Protectors: it is their duty as Native Americans to protect the water. I’ll be referring to “protestors” as “protectors”, in accordance with their wishes. Protectors are simply those on “one side” of the battle, but this does not imply that they are indigenous, acting on behalf of the indigenous people, or associated with a particular camp.

On the other “side” is law enforcement — for the most part this means the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, though there are numerous other government agencies involved in the standoff: the EPA, the Justice Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get back to examining the standoff between the protectors and law enforcement. In order to understand the conflict, it’s important to understand what it is the protectors are trying to do on a daily basis, which is embark on actions designed to advance their cause.

What is an action, and how does it advance the Water Protectors’ cause?

An action is a gathering of Water Protectors that generally culminates in peaceful acts of civil disobedience, that can, and usually do, result in arrest. It’s requested that all Water Protectors attend non-violent direct action training before attending an action, at which protectors are instructed on how to deal with police presence, how to deal with being pepper sprayed and maced (take out your contacts, bring silicone goggles to protect your eyes, and a wet bandana to protect your mouth), and what steps should be taken beforehand in anticipation of legal action (bring your ID and $20 for a calling card with you, should you be arrested these will result in a quicker processing and release; you’re allowed one phone call, but that doesn’t mean it’s free). It must be stressed that the overarching theme of this training is to maintain a peaceful posture when protesting.

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Each morning there is a 9AM action meeting, where vague details are given about that day’s action — where to muster, what to bring, and what to be prepared for. No further details are given, because it’s known that there are various infiltrators around camp, trying to gain as much information as possible against the protectors to undermine their cause (it’s not clear whether these infiltrators are working on behalf of the police or the pipeline company).

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What it means to be an arrestable Water Protector

A question you will be asked time and again at Oceti Sakowin Camp is whether or not you are “arrestable”. Here, people get arrested like it’s no big deal; they wear it like a badge of honor. There are folks hungry for action — not necessarily conflict, but action. Oceti Sakowin is a prayer camp, but that does not mean that all are praying here day in and day out: there are troops to muster, and confrontations to be had. If you’re gathering for an action, you must be prepared to be arrested for charges ranging from civil disobedience to various felonies.

There have been numerous calls issued, mostly over social media, for individuals to come and Stand With Standing Rock. This has resulted in a flood of non-native campers streaming into camp, each with their own agendas and preconceived notions of what it means to protect water, and how they can help. We’re instructed in our orientation to be of use, and to be OK with the fact that what we might consider useful is not necessarily what camp might consider useful. The need to “decolonize” ourselves, check our white privilege, and view this conflict through the lens of the oppressed indigenous peoples is paramount, and gets many of the protectors fired up about doing whatever they can to help.

Many of those who answered this call to Stand With Standing Rock are arrestable, and Oceti Sakowin has suddenly found itself with a small army of dedicated troops, willing to put themselves on the front line and sacrifice the cleanliness of their background checks for this cause. They have come to stand in solidarity against the completion of this pipeline, and each person, in one way or another, is used to advance that cause.

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Your correspondent attends an action

The one action that I attended was a march from Oceti Sakowin camp to the banks of the Cannonball River, where hundreds of people were arranged in formation to take a drone photo in protest of the arrest of Red Fawn Fallis. Red Fawn is a water protector arrested by the police on charges of attempted murder after a controversial incident in which she allegedly fired a revolver into the air/at a police officer, and was subsequently found with marijuana and metal knuckles on her person after being detained. The family of Red Fawn disputes this version of events.

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​Protectors gathered in formation to take this photo, which I have yet to find, chanting Free Red Fawn the whole time. I had mixed feelings about this protest, and found myself hesitant to chant Free Red Fawn, mostly because I had no idea who Red Fawn was, what she did, or why she was arrested. Little context was given to the protectors during this protest, other than that Red Fawn was being charged with 20 years to life, and was sitting in her jail cell, each and every night, for all of us. I’m in no way suggesting that Red Fawn’s arrest was legal — the facts are far too slippery to be able to make judgments about what happened that day — but in my opinion, if you want people to demonstrate on behalf of your cause, you must give them context as to what someone did, why they were arrested, and why this arrest was unlawful. It’s a disservice to the protectors to leave out this information.

The photo op was followed by a march to the police blockade on the north end of the bridge spanning the Cannonball River where the protectors, with an emphasis on women, sat down and prayed. I was told that the goal of this particular action, and the ones that followed, was to “fill the jails of North Dakota with white people”, in advance of a Day of Forgiveness, an alternative celebration of Thanksgiving. Protectors taken into custody are first booked into the Morton County Jail, but there is limited space, and as more people are arrested they are sent to jails as far as Grand Rapids and Fargo until bail is posted.

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It was the express purpose of this action to get as many people arrested as possible. Fortunately I had procured a press pass, which gave me the credentials to be treated as a neutral observer. Unfortunately, the word on the street was that the police have been targeting journalists, medics, and natives, placing me in the unholy trinity of those more-likely-to-get-picked-up-by-the-police. While this was the scuttlebutt around camp, I never found any concrete evidence of law enforcement targeting medics and journalists, however rumors of indigenous folks being picked out of protests and arrested while white folks remained untouched are countless.

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During this action (the only one I was able to attend during my time at Standing Rock), law enforcement carried themselves with the utmost respect. The protectors sat down in front of the barricade to pray, and law enforcement notified them, with a bullhorn, that they were violating the no trespassing signs posted on the bridge, and asked them to please return to the south side of the bridge. The protectors continued to sit in solidarity, praying. Additional admonitions that the law was being broken were made, as were requests to return to the other side of the bridge. After twenty minutes, law enforcement notified the protectors that they had been given ample time to finish their ceremony — would they please return to the other side of the bridge. This ended the standoff in a peaceful manner, with the protectors returning to camp.

The interaction was a success on both sides — no violence was used, and a demonstration was made. Yet I can’t stop thinking about the fact that even though no one was arrested that day, the express goal of that action, while peaceful, was to fill the jails with white people. I understand that this action is non-violent, but it’s certainly not non-confrontational if the stated purpose is to spend the night in a jail cell.

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While the officers shouldered their duties soundly and with respect to the protectors, it must be noted that they were standing on the other side of two charred transport vehicles, tires blown out and everything, and behind concrete barriers and barbed-wire fencing. The man on the bullhorn was polite, but no one could see his face, as it was masked by these barriers. It’s not clear exactly where the trucks came from — there are late-October reports of a “riot situation” where the protectors lit aflame multiple vehicles after attempting to create a road block, but like everything with Standing Rock, the facts are hard to come by.

Regardless of who put the blockade in place, one thing is clear: the police have taken no steps to remove the trucks, and have fortified the blockade. “I can’t stress it enough, this is a public safety issue”, said Kyle Kirchmeier, Sheriff of Morton County, in response to protectors’ blockades. “We cannot have protesters blocking county roads, blocking state highways, or trespassing on private property.”

This is reasonable because they need emergency vehicles to be able to pass through in the event they’re needed, but it also raises the question: why has law enforcement kept the current blockade? Surely emergency vehicles would need to pass this chokepoint in case of emergency.

Why do we need to fill the jails with white people?

For a litany of reasons, what is happening here is important, but I failed to find a reason why any of the actions that were taking place were meaningful towards the accomplishment of everyone’s stated goal: the ending of the drilling of the pipeline. Acts of civil disobedience are encouraged, but only within the strict framework of the indigenous values: at prayerful, peaceful protests at which no property is destroyed, no one is hurt, and no one is provoked.

It’s dubious as to whether peacefully provocative actions are effective tactics: by putting people on the front lines who are willing to be arrested, you will inherently create situations where they will be arrested, and these situations will be high tension. If those arrested are of non-native origin, this will admittedly draw increased coverage from various forms of media, and in this sense can rally more people to the cause. The one question that bugs me is, what are these people so willing to be arrested for?

But the answer really is quite simple: they stand together, in solidarity, to say no to the completion of this pipeline. I asked everyone that I spoke with why they came to Standing Rock, what drew them here. By far, the most common response was that everyone felt compelled to be here for one reason or another: whether it was making a stand against Big Oil, advocating on behalf of the indigenous population, or a calling to stand up to militarized law enforcement tactics. People felt that they needed to be a part of the Standing Rock Protests.

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Who constitutes “Law Enforcement” at Standing Rock?

The conflict at Standing Rock is coming to a head, and neither “side” has any much of a solution. It’s easy to group the “sides” into two camps: The Government and The Protectors.

The protectors, at this point, are a grouping of many different indigenous tribes, environmental activists, and citizens compelled to stand against injustice.

The Government is a mishmash of federal, state, and local agencies, which don’t necessarily coordinate with each other. The federal government runs the “approval” side of business — the EPA investigates claims regarding the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers administers the lease to allow protectors to camp at Oceti Sakowin as well as the permit to drill under the Missouri, the Department of Justice handles the lawsuits being slung back and forth, and the Obama Administration is allowing the situation to “play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that [they] think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans”.

Caught in the middle of it all is the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. It’s easy to look at Facebook live videos and immediately jump to conclusions about the brutal tactics the police are using — which they are. Shooting a water hose at anyone in freezing temperatures is brutal and inhumane, but there needs to be some context given for the actions of the officers.

Considering the Law Enforcement point of view

Imagine the Obama Administration says, we’re going to give this a few more weeks. The reaction of Morton County is unsurprising: Really? You’re going to wait a few more weeks? That’s a few more weeks that we have to serve as a barrier in between the protesters and the pipeline workers, and this puts lives in danger.

Dragging this out any longer is ensuring this conflict will come to a bloody head. The police are not in a position that I’d want to be in — they literally can’t win, regardless of which way this ends up going. On a daily basis they are dealing with peaceful protectors, but peaceful protectors whose stated objective is to get arrested.

Sure, most of them will remain peaceful, but take a moment to think about it from the cops’ point of view — here you are, protecting this barricade (which is, of course, sketchy in its origin), and you have thousands of people marching towards you. They fly under the banner of peace, but they are angry, and you certainly have no way of knowing how committed all of these people are to remaining non-violent.

I’m in no way condoning the use of rubber bullets against the protectors, but when we are asked time and time again to check our white privilege and see things through the lens of the indigenous folks, well, isn’t it only fair that we check our protector privilege and try seeing things through the lens of the cops?

This doesn’t mean you should support police tactics such as macing protectors, but it does mean that you should understand just how on edge they are. They are cops in North Dakota — they didn’t sign up for this sort of riot work, and certainly didn’t intend to work under intense national scrutiny.

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This isn’t to say that they’ve acted in strict accordance with the law. The blockade is clearly being protected by the police, and at the very least they are not removing it. These actions are in a legal grey area, but one can hardly believe that two charred trucks in the middle of a county highway is in the interest of the public good. It’s also difficult to be sympathetic to the police tactics when they were called in by the DAPL workers for protection, and responded willingly. This issue might have originated as a police protection against a few rogue, violent protectors, but it’s escalated into a full-on standoff, and very few on either side have sympathy for those on the other side of the fence.

The police are using heavy-handed tactics, that much is for sure…what is unclear is if they have had reason to do so. The vast majority of protectors do use peaceful means of expression, but there will always be a few who get carried away, and the police must be prepared to deal with that minority. A few nights ago, there were reports of police shooting a water cannon at protectors in sub-freezing temperatures. It’s unconscionable to do that to another human being in those conditions.

Yet we must look at the police state of mind in order to put these actions into context — not condone them, but put them into context. The police shot the protectors with a water cannon in the middle of the night…the obvious next question is what were the protectors protesting about in the middle of the night? As best as I can gather, they were removing the blockade on the north side of the bridge, separating the protectors’ camp with the pipeline construction a mile north of the barricade. That’s not exactly an action that you can engage in and reasonably expect the police to respond without a certain degree of aggression.

The protectors say a water cannon was used on them. The police say it was a fire hose. The protectors say that they lit fires behind their lines so that they could warm up people who were shot with a water cannon. The police say that they brought firehoses to the scene because they saw fires (rogue protectors have set fires during actions in the past). Every single issue that you examine at Standing Rock unpacks to this degree of complexity.

Facts are hard to come by, and whoever is right or wrong is all a matter of perception. I’m trying as hard as I possibly can to be unbiased about this issue, and it’s proving difficult. There are reasonable viewpoints from each side, and I’m trying to honor all of them before passing any judgement, but if there’s one thing that is clear it’s that neither side appears to have a proposal for a mutually agreed upon piece of closure for this matter.

An attempt to understand the way Native Americans view the world

I met a group of elders at the Red Warrior camp, who told me that drilling for oil, in any form, is disrespectful to Mother Earth. Time and again, this “clash of cultures” arise — red-blooded Americans see the world through one lens, and the Natives see the world through a completely different lens. It’s why an attempt to understand the indigenous view of the world is essential to understanding why they are so vehemently against drilling.

Everything that lives on Earth is part of the same circle of life — the earth, the river, the water, the people, the animals, and the oil, and it must all be respected, not abused. I broached the subject of whether or not they saw an alternative solution to the pipeline, and Mike (the Native elder’s English name) was adamant that there is only one solution — the cessation of all oil drilling. It is an affront to his people and his way of life, and it should be stopped immediately. He does not see an alternative solution, and was respectfully offended that I even proposed that one might exist.

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Land belongs to no one — not me, not you, and not the U.S. Government — and it needs to be preserved for generations to come. The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty dictated that the U.S. Government would allow the indigenous people sovereign reign over a large swath of southern North Dakota, northern South Dakota, and eastern Wyoming, if they agreed not to attack white settlers moving west. The Sioux agreed, and a key provision was that white folks wouldn’t settle in the Black Hills region (which encompasses the Standing Rock area), or else the treaty was null.

The U.S. Government eventually broke the treaty after gold speculators set their sights on the Black Hills, and it has been an issue of contention ever since, finally being settled in a 1980 Supreme Court case (United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians). The court ordered the U.S. Government to compensate the Sioux Nation for the breaking of the treaty, the use of their land, and the interest accrued. The Sioux Nation refused to accept the payment, and to this day the funds sit in a U.S. Treasury account, accumulating more interest. That is how entrenched their belief is that the land does not belong to anyone.

Once elders pass on to the next life, they are buried in the hills where they came from, and it’s believed that this keeps the circle of life going. You come from the land, you return to the land — it’s akin to the old ashes-to-ashes theory the Catholic Church promotes every spring. These burial sites are all over the place, and natives retain a legal “right to be consulted” before any development or encroachment is made on these burial sites, even if they are not technically on an Indian Reservation.

The proposed drill site sits on an Indian Burial Ground, and by many accounts, DAPL workers have already disturbed sacred resting places by breaking ground for the pipeline’s completion. By some accounts, the skulls, bones, and prayer rings were unearthed during the bulldozing process, but there is no documentation that can confirm this. Not only is the precious oil from the ground being disturbed from its peaceful resting place, but the circle of life is being disturbed. It’s unclear as to whether the right to be consulted was honored here.

Now, let’s back up a bit, and remember that the Sioux were originally given sovereign reign over the lands surrounding the Black Hills in the 1851 Treaty, and that the U.S. Government broke this treaty and ran them onto Indian Reservations with the help of General George Custer, (before he was defeated by Crazy Horse and the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand).

Private interests came in and took this land for themselves, seizing it and declaring ownership. Yet to this very day, the Sioux have not ceded original ownership of that land. When it’s said that the proposed drill site for the underwater pipeline is on private land, it must be remembered that this is private land as dictated by title recognized by U.S. law.

But the indigenous folks do not recognize our law the same way we do. It’s one of the many reasons this is such a controversial issue: yes, it is technically private land as recognized by the U.S. Government, but if we really want to dig deep, the original “bill of sale” for the land doesn’t hold much water. The Sioux remain the stewards of the land.

For the Natives, this is far more than an issue of environmental stewardship: this is the simply the latest conflict in a centuries-long series of oppressive actions leveled on them by the U.S. Government.

Is Standing Rock a government land grab?

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The general public has the idea that this is a federal land grab from the Natives, and in many ways it is — but it is a nuanced issue. This isn’t exactly a case of the federal government exercising domain over Indian land. Rather, this is a case of the federal government failing to acknowledge the exercising of Indian jurisdiction over their own land.

It is a private company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), that has gone in and violated the terms of the treaties. The government is now complicit in this attempt, because they are providing a private company with law enforcement protection — and is failing to protect and enforce the native treaties, the basis of which would not allow the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the ETP request to drill under the Missouri.

We must acknowledge that we depend on oil

The Natives believe that oil belongs in the ground, a sentiment shared by many of the white protectors. It’s an overarching belief among those camped out at Standing Rock that our dependence on oil is an unsustainable travesty to humanity’s existence here on earth. We have a duty to protect our earth and live in accordance with sound ecological principles; this includes the rational consumption of resources.

However, I find the argument that drilling be stopped altogether a difficult pill to swallow — I did, after all, spend $200 in gas on my way to and from Standing Rock, as did many others…and even those at Standing Rock braving the cold and not idling their cars in the middle of a field when they wake up, choosing instead to start a campfire — well, that firewood gets to camp somehow, and it’s usually in the bed of an F-250, running on diesel fuel.

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We are all currently benefitting from oil, and simply halting its extraction now is unrealistic, and in my opinion does damage to the cause because it is an unrealistic demand. It’s a war to fight, but it will not win this battle. The goal of this battle is to stop the DAPL, and that is a decidedly different goal from moving to a world that is free of dependence on oil and gas. These fights are intertwined, but they cannot be confused.

Examining the efficacy of a pipeline as the preferred mode of transport

I think most Americans have this image in their head when they think of “the drinking water of Standing Rock”: a pigtailed Indian Chief with war paint on his face, kneeling down, cupping his hands and slaking his thirst from the river. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Those living on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation get their water just like you and me: it’s pumped from the river, sent to treatment and purification plants, and routed through pipes that eventually end up coming out of your faucet. Ask yourself:
How would you feel if an energy company was dead-set on building an oil pipeline that would threaten your ability to drink from the tap?

Now, if routing the pipeline under the Missouri River is a threat to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s drinking water, is there an alternative? Here lies another complicated, layered issue: there doesn’t appear to be another forthright, reasonable alternative to getting the oil from A to B.

A few facts about the project: the technique used to access the Bakken Oil Reserves in northwest North Dakota is fracking, a complicated, controversial drilling technique which involves drilling down into the ground until pockets of oil are found, pumping water into these pockets, and pressurizing the water to extract oil. The oil that is pumped from these wells is less pure than traditional black gold, containing various impurities that make the unrefined oil more viscous.

Additionally concerning is the fact that the drilling techniques used in fracking have caused recorded instances of earthquakes in Oklahoma, (which now exceeds California’s rate of quakes) further damaging the sanctity of the environment.

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This viscous oil must be transported — in this case, over a thousand miles — from the fields in western North Dakota to the refineries in Illinois. The oil could be transported by railroad from the oil fields to the refineries, though that would entail building new tracks to connect to the existing Santa Fe line. In addition, it be more expensive than a pipeline, and by many reports, presents a much higher risk of a spill. Fuel is required to power the railroad cars that would transport the oil, resulting in increased CO2 emissions.

Let’s say that a single semi can truck 10,000 gallons of oil at a time. The DAPL is capable of transporting 500,000 barrels of oil a day. That means you’d need to send 50 trucks per day to transport the same amount of oil — and those 50 trucks need to travel 1,172 miles to get to the refineries. Assuming each truck gets 20 miles to the gallon, that’s about 60 gallons of gas for each truck, and 3,000 gallons of gas, per day, just to keep up with the proposed flow of the pipeline. It’s just something to keep in mind when weighing the environmental impact of alternative routes.

Now if you are going to build a pipeline, the easiest way to do it is a straight line between the Bakken reserves and the refineries in Illinois.

The original proposed route of the pipeline was supposed to go through Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital. That is, until the (white) citizens in town caught wind of the plan and quickly struck it down — it would have threatened their drinking water. Energy Transfer Partners figured the next easiest thing to do was to route it south of Bismarck, just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Monitoring a pipe a hundred feet underground is a difficult task; plugging a leak is considerably more difficult. Fracked, unrefined oil is far less liquid than refined oil, and requires far more pressure to pump it along a pipeline. This increased pressure increases the chance of the pipeline bursting.

Many environmentalists are firm in their belief that it is only a matter of time before the pipeline bursts. It’s not a foregone conclusion where a leak will happen — it could be in the middle of a field, far from the water supply — but were a leak to occur underneath the river, the effects would be disastrous.

It also needs to be made clear that the Missouri River is a tributary of the Mississippi. In a worst-case scenario, a leak or a spill could have ramifications far beyond the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The search for a reasonable solution

One thing I struggled to find over my four days camped out at Standing Rock was a reasonable solution to which both parties could acquiesce. I think, in a sense, it’s one of the reasons that law enforcement has gotten so heavy-handed with their tactics — they are backed into a corner, and they simply don’t know what to do. No one has offered the other side a reasonable solution to the problem upon which both can agree.

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The battle is being fought out in the courts, an unfortunate fact that will result in only a fine for DAPL if they continue to build, a fine which they are most willing to pay. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they stand to make if this pipeline is actually built. Yet for the protectors to expect that such powerful interests (President-elect Trump has at least $115,000 invested in the project) are going to abandon this project because they are traipsing over native lands, they are simply dead wrong. That’s not the way the world of finance and business works: if ETP cannot have the DAPL up and running by January 1, 2017, then they risk companies contractually obligated to ship oil through the pipeline pulling out of the deal.

A lot of money is at stake here.

Energy Transfer Partners is committed to building The DAPL

There is no morally superior argument on either side. Both the law enforcement officials and the protectors have dug their heels in, and the reality is that it’s simply likely that the pipeline is going to be built. When asked whether he thought that Trump’s presidency would increase the likelihood of the pipe being built, Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, said with the utmost confidence that the pipe would be built.

Energy Transfer Partners hired a top-notch security firm, TigerSwan, to protect the pipeline workers. Founded by former Delta Force members, TigerSwan has connections to Blackwater and extensive experience working in Iraq and Afghanistan for the U.S. Military. ETP is sparing no expense to keep DAPL on track. The CEO of TigerSwan, James Reese, was the “lead Special Operations Advisor for the U.S. Government’s Interagency planning, integration and operations for the invasion of Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom.” These guys are the real deal, and when the shit hits the fan, they are there to ensure that the pipeline is built.

It must be noted that TigerSwan is not the firm that used dogs on protectors back in September, that is a separate entity, Frost Kennels (it’s also notable that this was not the government which used dogs on protestors, and that Frost Kennels was investigated for operating without proper licensing).

In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of injunction the U.S. Government hands down and when: ETP is going to finish this pipeline the first chance they get. They might be fined for it, but it’s a fine they’re happy to pay. It’s a cost of doing business. By some estimates they’re losing eighty million dollars each month the pipeline isn’t completed, so whatever the U.S. Government is going to require them to pay is a drop in the bucket considering what they stand to make.

Each side feels backed into a corner

These two “sides” are locked in a centuries-long battle of Colonists vs. Indians, and each feels backed into a corner. The indigenous folks are making what seems to many like their final stand—it was prophesied that the seven tribes of the Lakota would one day unite to oppose a great enemy known as the Black Snake — and the police are stuck between angry protectors demonstrating daily and a federal government dragging its feet on making a firm decision about the pipeline.

The Water Protectors are against the pipeline, and want the world to stop drilling for oil, but neither of these desires serves as a reasonable bargaining chip when sitting across the table from an oil company. You need to negotiate with their bottom line in mind, and that doesn’t appear to be happening on any level.

Things will only move past the current standstill if the conflict is elevated — and at this point, it can only be elevated by a loss of life on either side. I hate saying it, but that is the direction things are going, and it’s the only way the public is going to take this issue seriously.

Why has Standing Rock captured the psyche of Americans

Construction is currently at a standstill due to a stay in the approval process by the Army Corps of Engineers, but the protectors are hunkering down for the winter. They see it as their sacred duty to protect their water — it is piped to purification facilities and dispensed through their tap, the same way we get water in any American city. But the Missouri River also feeds the Mississippi River. Were a catastrophic oil spill to happen above the Missouri, the oil could potentially make it all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. That will get people’s attention, as it should. But it’s also what complicates the issue: does it suddenly matter because it might contaminate the white’s drinking supply? Shouldn’t it be an issue of native rights being trampled?

Photo by author

Photo by author

It’s a complicated matter, largely because Standing Rock has captured the psyche of the American people. A private company is being protected, overtly, by law enforcement, and protected, covertly, by the legal system which fails to honor their treaties, in favor of profit, of a bottom line.

We can’t have dirty water. The fight at Standing Rock, while unclear for what purpose at times, is most decidedly the good fight. You see people from all walks of life gather under the frigid white clouds of the plains because they, for one reason or another, called to be there. They felt called to stand in solidarity with the natives, who have been oppressed for so long. They felt called to protest a clear-cut violation of environmental conscience, that is so important in our culture today. They felt called to stand against a government that implicitly stands with private corporations out to make a buck.

My experience with white privilege

A descendent of Crazy Horse told me that on his way here, he was driving a van full of indigenous boys, and they stopped at a hotel for the night in Wright, Wyoming. Intent on getting something to eat, he approached the proprietor to find out if they could dine in the adjoining restaurant. The proprietor told him that they didn’t want any trouble here — didn’t they know this was oil country? They were welcome to eat, but they’d have to do so after six o’clock, when the oil workers left.

With my photographic license restricted around Standing Rock, I wanted to make a quick stop in Wright on my way home. I was pulled over for speeding about a half-mile away from town (considering the speed limit in most of Wyoming is 80, doing 81 in a 75 isn’t the most egregious offense). Yet I was let off with a simple warning and a handshake — and the officer knew that I was coming from Standing Rock; I told him. White privilege at its finest.

It certainly gave me something to think about on my 1-mph-over-the-speed-limit drive home. White privilege is alive and well, and it’s people with white privilege and a conscience to whom the burden now falls. To take action against the federal government’s indifference to legal, binding treaties signed with indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago that have never been honored, and who as a result of their legal muddiment have been oppressed for hundreds of years.

Now is your time to take a stand against the government protection of a private company, and the militarized tactics they are using. Now is your time to take a stand again the placement of an oil pipeline, coming from a fracked oilfield no less, under the drinking water of these oppressed people.

I’m not urging you to go up to Standing Rock and fight on the front lines, and be arrested for it — I’m urging you to further educate yourself. Educate yourself about fuel extraction techniques that can potentially destroy our environment, education yourself about the cozy relationship between the oil and gas industry and our political leaders, and education yourself about the long history of oppression of Native Americans by Colonialists.

The only way to truly take a stand for something you believe in is to educate yourself as to why these issues are so important. Informed opinions will hopefully result in a national conversation about how we want to resolve issues such as the Standoff at Standing Rock, and prevent conflict like this in the future.

This story first appeared at Verse America and is republished here with permission.

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