On Friday, as I prepared to say goodbye to my daughter, Amanda Myhre, and her traveling companion, Kaitlyn Huss, after spending the day at Sacred Stone Camp outside of Cannonball, N.D., and later at the state Capitol in Bismarck, I said, “I only wish your mother had been alive to see this day.”
Amanda’s mother, Benedicta “Bennie” Callousleg, a full-blood Lakota from the Hunkpapa Band, had been an activist with the American Indian Movement post-Wounded Knee. “She would have been so proud of you.”
When I was dating Amanda’s mother over three decades ago, Bennie had been living in a tipi at Yellow Thunder Camp, a protest site, outside of Rapid City, S.D. Bennie would have liked what had happened today — the Natives had won.
After all these years, most people have forgotten the racial tensions in South Dakota about four decades ago. In those days, AIM was considered to be a domestic terrorist organization. In fact, after every time I had gone to pick Bennie up on a date, I had received a telephone call from the United States Marshals and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to interview me. It’s tough enough to be interrogated by your date’s father. Imagine what it was like being interviewed by the feds after every date.
Now, almost four decades later, I was sending my daughter back to a protest for Native causes. I hugged Amanda. We talked about the events of the day and the sudden reversal and apparent support by the Obama Administration.
“It’s a good day to be indigenous,” Amanda said.
The Prelude: What we have here is a failure to communicate
By now, everyone who cares about the story about the Dakota Access Pipeline pretty much knows what happened on Sept. 9, 2016. Something like 5,000 people had gathered Friday at the mouth of the Cannonball River at an impromptu campsite called Sacred Stone Camp to protest the proposed plan to run the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River. Sacred Stone Camp is located just north of the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Reservation, the home of some 8,000 enrolled members.
The protesters who had come to Sacred Stone Camp represented more than 200 tribes from all over the North American continent, joined by a few non-native environmentalists, a smattering of old hippies, some independent filmmakers from New York in super-skinny jeans and ranchers who oppose the pipeline. There were also projected to be an additional 25,000 attendees at the United Tribes International Powwow just up the Missouri River in Bismarck that weekend.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had filed a federal lawsuit and were requesting an injunction to halt the pipeline. The judge’s decision on this lawsuit was due Sep. 9. Tensions and anxiety were running high.
Up until this time, North Dakota officials had been especially ham-handed in the way they had dealt with the protests. It was as if North Dakota officials had taken notes on every protest in American history over the past 60 years that had gotten out of hand, from Bull Connor to John Daley to the recent protests in Boston and other cities, and tried to apply those failed tactics in North Dakota. It was as if North Dakota officials were ready to make the same blunders that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer had made when he ignored the advice of his Indian scouts that there was a tremendous village along the Little Bighorn River. Everyone could see the potential disaster shaping up. Everyone except for those in charge of state government.
North Dakota is not especially prepared for a race riot. It is a fairly homogeneous state, generally conceded to be populated by mostly the descendants of German and Norwegian immigrants. Perhaps the closest North Dakota has ever come to a race riot occurred when a Norwegian Lutheran Church and a German Lutheran Church in a small North Dakota town mistakenly scheduled their annual potluck dinners for the same Sunday.
By any measure, this situation was a disaster waiting to happen.
In response to the growing protest, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had declared an emergency and called out the National Guard. Some thought this was an overreaction to the situation and only served to increase the tension of the situation. Then, to add flames to an already explosive situation, local SWAT teams were called up and staged, while law enforcement agencies from all over the state were asked to mobilize and provide additional support.
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a former federal prosecutor, had apparently dug out some 40-year-old intelligence reports about Taking this out-of-date intelligence to heart, Wrigley repeatedly called the protest over the pipeline “unlawful” and called on tribal leaders to halt the increasingly dangerous protests.
Local authorities matched the dangerous rhetoric of the state officials. Morton County Sheriff, Kyle Kirschmeier, called the protests more of a riot than a protest after the construction company bulldozed lands considered to be sacred burial sites the day after the tribe had publicly identified these lands in its federal lawsuit.
To destroy the evidence and the burial sites, the construction company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, ordered those sites bulldozed in an effort to destroy the evidence. They were expecting trouble and had hired a private security company to accompany the bulldozers.
When the construction workers were confronted by outraged Native protesters, the privately hired guards unleashed attack dogs and used pepper spray against this small group of protesters and in the process created a situation reminiscent of the racial strife of the early 1960s in the Deep South. The images captured by the independent media were graphic and disturbing and went viral on social media. In a more recent disturbing development, Morton County has presented criminal charges against the reporter who documented these attacks on video.
From a Native perspective, these statements from North Dakota officials demonstrated that the state of North Dakota had no intention of de-escalating the situation. There was no serious official effort to tamp down these growing racial tensions. Instead, the tensions were ramped up in with statements through an all-too-complying mainstream media.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple should be saying, “Thanks, Obama”
So this was the situation Sept. 9. It was a total formula for disaster. Perhaps the largest gathering of Natives since the days leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Greasy Grass) were located south of Bismarck. They were potentially augmented by thousands of Natives attending the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck.
Despite the indications that a spark could set off this powder keg, state governmental officials uniformly remained tone deaf. Instead of de-escalating the situation, it was intentionally heading for a showdown.
However, that spark was averted when the Obama Administration unexpectedly stepped in just minutes after this adverse court decision was issued. A joint statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior was issued to pause construction of the pipeline. As Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault noted, a public policy win is a lot stronger than a win in the courts.
The Obama Administration’s last-minute decision, coming after the defeat in federal court, extinguished the conflict, at least for the time being.
The fears of state officials that the situation would explode out of control would not happen. There would not be 5,000 Natives at Sacred Stone Camp, joined by possibly two or three times that number from the Powwow and from surrounding reservations joining the protests. There would not be a possible overreaction by the National Guard or law enforcement. There would not be any disturbing videos in the media and on social media of horrific clashes with protesters.
Dalrymple should be saying, “Thanks, Obama.” He can retire from public office without having to deal with a riot to mar his record.
What really happened?
While greeted as a victory by the protesters at Standing Rock, this decision by the Obama Administration merely kicks the can down the road. Obama, Dalrymple, and Wrigley will all be out of office when any decision is made about whether to continue construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline or whether the route should be changed. The oncoming winter will dissuade all but the most hard-core of protesters from remaining on the site of Sacred Stone Camp.
But there is another side to this story. It is the story of an evolving political awareness by North Dakota’s Native tribes and tribal governments. Just a few years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was instrumental in removing the Fighting Sioux logo as the University of North Dakota’s athletic teams. Now, Standing Rock has halted a major pipeline, at least for the time being.
Where this newfound political awareness will lead remains to be seen.
NEXT: Traveling to Sacred Stone Camp with Memories and History