Tony J Bender: That’s Life — Protesters Force Bulldozers Off Sacred Site

The following is a report on the events that are unfolding south of Mandan, N.D., near the boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The story is by Tony Bender and his son, Dylan, and appeared today in the Ashley (N.D.) Tribune and Wishek (N.D.) Star. The accompanying video was shot by Dylan, who is a student at Bismarck State College.

An estimated 300 activists halted construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline during a Saturday protest. Six bulldozers and other pipeline workers retreated in the face of marchers who breached a fence at the worksite. One protester narrowly escaped being crushed by heavy machinery.

The conflict took place at what Standing Rock Sioux tribe officials said is an ancient burial site. They reported significant artifacts had been destroyed by bulldozers, including ancient cairns (stacked stones used as burial markers) and stone prayer rings, an act that might be compared to running a bulldozer through a community cemetery.

Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II said the desecration was intended to provoke protesters. The bulldozers destroyed the site one day after the Standing Rock tribe identified the site’s cultural significance in court documents.

With a DAPL helicopter and an unidentified plane circling overhead, 14 private security officers, most clad in black, confronted marchers with attack dogs and mace.

Several people reported being bitten by the dogs. One handler was also bitten by the excited animals. Some protesters fought off the dogs with sticks. While those maced were attended to, the rest of the protesters, which included four young horsemen riding bareback, refused to back down.

Security team members later told Morton County officials that protesters had eight large knives. Available video footage did not bear that out. Law enforcement was on the scene, late, after the action had subsided.

The $3.8 billion pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, is to be horizontally drilled some 90 feet under the river, on its way from Bakken oilfields in northwest North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Ill.

From there, the oil will travel to Nederland, Texas. In Iowa, protests from farmers about the use of eminent domain for private enterprise have further complicated the project.

The 30-inch pipe will have the capacity to transport 500,000 barrels of crude a day, about half the production of the Bakken. Railcars will continue to transport the rest. The site is located just north of the Standing Rock reservation, near the South Dakota border.

The reservation sprawls across both Dakotas. The pipeline has received approval from the Public Service Commission in North Dakota.

The Sacred Stone Camp lies at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. It includes the Strong Heart Camp and the Red Warrior Camp, on the north side of the Cannonball River, and the Sicangu and Sacred Stone camps, on the south shore. Before the protest, three boys splashed in the water on the south shore. Canoes glided past silently. One man erected a tipi.

The two-mile uphill protest march was comprised of men, women of all ages and even toddlers, whose parents carried them when they tired in the 90-degree heat.

Pickups loaded with bottled water provided a reminder of what this fight is about.

Pipeline opponents say all pipelines leak and worry a spill would devastate their way of life and those of future generations. Signs read, “Water is life,” or “Mni wiconi,” in Lakota. One mother walking with her young daughter cheerfully repeated the mantra.

The group was comprised of indigenous people from North America — including two Canadians who had promised a husband and a daughter, respectively, not to get arrested. There was at least one representative in the march from Mexico, women in flowing skirts, someone with a Grateful Dead T-shirt and a number of gray-bearded men moving slowly up the hill. Non-natives from around the country made up perhaps a third of the marchers.

The protest began April 1. There have been dozens of arrests, mostly for trespassing. The construction site is on private property. A couple of activists, one of them Dale American Horse, attached themselves to heavy equipment to delay construction. Not everyone agrees with those tactics. Most tribal elders favor a peaceful, nonconfrontational, spiritual protest.

Paula Antoine, an organizer of the Sicangu Camp for Rosebud reservation members and friends, was a central figure in stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline in South Dakota. She reported at least 120 letters of support from tribes around the world. It is difficult to guess how many were physically represented at the camps.

Gifts and supplies have poured in to the campsites. One tribe sent more than 700 pounds of buffalo meat. Another sent a totem pole. Firewood, batteries, water and bathroom tissue came in.

Tipis, conventional tents and other camping equipment are spread over acres. Cooking smells waft through the camps.

Each day is punctuated with prayers and ceremonies. There are sweat lodges. Calvert Swallow, from the Rosebud reservation, helps organize spiritual activities at the Sioangu Camp. “We pray for seven generations,” he said. Schoolchildren and a teacher from the Lower Brule reservation were there to support the movement.

Some youthful protesters provide security. Dirk Wells, 17, from Lower Brule and his cousin, Wyatt Flury-Wells, 20, from the Crow Creek reservation, were already bone tired at the start of the day Saturday. They had been there for two weeks, inspired to join the cause by Dirk’s father, Bill Wells, who proudly counts a number of chiefs among his ancestors.

Wyatt had gone 26 hours with no sleep. Kirk, in his trademark leather fisherman’s hat, was coming off a 20-hour day. Tasks include efforts at the gates to keep out alcohol, drugs and weapons. (Before the march, gatekeepers reported turning away suspicious visitors.)

Peacekeeping was the highest priority. “Every now and then, things get dicey,” Wyatt said. But, he noted, they had not once had to resort to force to break up a dispute.

As they see it, the bigger fight is for the future. Wyatt imagines a time when he might be a father. He wants the river to be there. “I grew up living next to the river — fishing, swimming, tubing. When I heard this pipeline was coming, I had to take a stand.”

Pipeline officials tout the importance of the pipeline for energy independence. Skeptics wonder how serious politicians and oil companies are about that, especially since a 40-year ban against oil exports was lifted in December.

“This is all about money and greed,” Archambault II said. Archambault II, who was arrested Aug. 12 for disorderly conduct during a protest, is frustrated by the politics of the pipeline. A route north of Bismarck was considered before being sited near Cannonball, just a mile north of his reservation. He said, “If it’s so safe, why don’t they put it in Bismarck?”

Proponents say putting the pipeline 90-feet below the river will ensure safety. Archambault II counters by pointing out hydraulic fracking has caused manmade earthquakes in Oklahoma. If it happens here, he warned, “Who’s going to be impacted — the people downstream.”

He is a strong advocate of renewable energy. As the original caretakers of the land, he said this protest is about preserving the earth for everyone.

It’s not just Native Americans who stand to lose if the pipeline fails. The Missouri River supplies water to numerous districts, including the South Central Rural Water District, based in Linton, N.D. The rural water district is covered by North Dakota’s Source Water Protection Program. Inexplicably, the pipeline crosses into the protection zone. If completed, 360 miles of pipeline will pass through Mountrail, Williams, McKenzie, Dunn, Mercer, Morton and Emmons counties.

Pipeline supporters say the tribes should have contested the pipeline during North Dakota PSC hearings — something Paula Antoine and others did successfully with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.

She points out tribes are sovereign nations and under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, it is the U.S. government’s obligation to consult tribes regarding traditional Indian lands. Of course, the treaty also guaranteed the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills — until gold was discovered.

Critics who say Big Oil always gets rubber-stamp approval from North Dakota officials argue the PSC should have reached out to tribal officials. Activists have been critical of what they see as an overreaction by Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s declaration of a State of Emergency on Aug. 19. A roadblock on N.D. Highway 1806 between Bismarck and the protest site remains in effect.

Law enforcement officials reported Aug. 22 that someone directed a laser into the eyes of a pilot surveilling the camps, something organizers dispute. “We have had incidents and reports of weapons, of pipe bombs, of some shots fired,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said. Organizers are convinced an announcement for (peace) pipe holders to gather to load their ceremonial pipes was misconstrued.

For government officials, the buffalo in the room is the echo of the 1972 American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee standoff with the FBI. Although tribal officials say they are committed to a peaceful, prayerful protest, the presence of AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt, now 80, served as a reminder of the continuing conflict between two nations.

The divide between cultures is wider than the Missouri. The narrative on conservative radio and websites is decidedly pro-pipeline. Some support calling out the National Guard. Others point to the oil-rich Fort Berthold reservation as evidence of hypocrisy.

Joseph Marshall III, a pre-eminent Lakota author and scholar from the Rosebud reservation, said traditionalists are driving the pipeline opposition, while progressives favor a more modern mainstream approach. “There’s always that divide,” he said. “There’s always going to be that. The progressives think the traditionalists are stuck in the past.”

Marshall said Manifest Destiny is alive and well in America. “It comes with a sense of impunity, the powers that be can say and do what they want to and with us (natives) because they know no one cares, and they break the law to do that because no one, not even the feds, are going to hold them accountable,” he said. “It’s always been an uphill battle for us.”

For traditionalists, one thing has not changed. They are still fighting to save their land. An old Lakota prophecy warns of a black snake that will bring great sorrow and destruction. Many believe the pipeline is the black snake.

Bill Wells gazes thoughtfully at the sunny sky and the helicopter hovering above. “I had a call from my oldest son,” he said. His son told him, “I had a dream that the river was all black.” It is a premonition Wells does not take lightly. He talks about the many unrecorded atrocities suffered by his predecessors. He feels their energy. “There’s more than you see here,” he said. “There’s a spiritual battle going on.”

At the construction site, where the prairie was scraped bare, the air was filled with celebratory whoops and cheers when the security guards and their dogs retreated. It was not the sound of a conquered people.

There is some unfinished legal business. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not issued a formal written easement to build the pipeline on corps property — the river.

All eyes are on federal Judge James Boasberg, who has delayed a decision on the Standing Rock tribe’s injunction request until Sept. 9. Appeals are already planned. This fight appears far from over.


• The Department of Justice issued a temporary restraining order against the pipeline Monday, saying concerns about the company “engaging or antagonizing” resistors warranted the order.

• A photograph issued Tuesday by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department showed a security guard pushed up against his truck by protesters. At least one of the protesters was attempting to protect the man. The photo appeared to show someone trying to poke the guard with what appeared to be a lathe board. A protester was visible in the bed of the pickup holding a steel fencepost.

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