It’s a long way to North Dakota at 40 mph. We found that out last Thursday evening, Nov. 17, when a carload of journalists — including three of us representing Boulder Weekly — headed to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest. We slid north on a 638-mile-long sheet of black ice that stretched from just outside Longmont to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
We made this first of what we intend to be several trips to the DAPL protest to gain a better understanding of all the issues being raised by the protesters — who call themselves “water protectors” — and to see how the camps were preparing for the coming cold. We also wanted to find out firsthand how the election of Donald Trump as president is being perceived on the ground. Has it spurred the protesters on with a new sense of urgency or has it disheartened them?
Trump and winter seem to have the same effect on some people.
North Dakota winters tend to be merciless and this year’s installment arrived with that intent. Like Boulder County, North Dakota had been experiencing a very mild start to the season, but that all ended Thursday.
We pulled into camp in 25-degree temperatures with 30-mph steady winds accompanied by even stronger gusts. I don’t know what the windchill was but it felt incredibly cold. It cut right through all four layers I was wearing. It made setting up our tents at the main Oceti Sakowin Camp — the largest of the water protector encampments at approximately 135 acres — challenging as the gusts threatened to send our yet-to-be-staked-down shelters flying into the river below. Every time we pulled our gloves off, it took only a few seconds for the numbness to set in.
And then it hit us; these folks, perhaps 2,000 of them, were planning to be here on the high plains, camping out, all winter long if that’s what it takes to stop the pipeline. It was humbling, inspiring and, looking around, pretty alarming.
The fact that a good number of people are already sheltering in their vehicles because their tents and sleeping bags or blankets are inadequate meant a lot of them aren’t yet ready for the inclement weather. And time is running out, fast.
The good news is that the camps are incredibly well organized and winter preparations are going on literally around the clock. Several stove-heated, large canvass shelters that can sleep dozens have been erected, and tent campers are being encouraged to move into these group shelters at night. I suspect it doesn’t take much encouragement at 10 degrees. Wooden shelters that can be more safely heated and keep out the wind are springing up all over the camps. The whole place looks and sounds a bit like a construction zone.
The DAPL protesters have come from all over the nation — and the world, for that matter. Our three-tent BW camp was sandwiched between a Vermont contingent that included a 60-something-year-old gentleman on one side and a young couple who had traded their warm apartment in Kauai, Hawaii for a tent on the North Dakota plains in winter on the other. Both camps said they just felt like they had to be here for the duration to support the cause. We heard that a lot. It is extraordinary how many people are planning to stay all winter long.
Although no one seemed to have a master list of all the indigenous groups represented at the camps, we were told on several occasions that the number has surpassed 300. While we can’t verify that number, it seems a reasonable estimate based upon the various tribal flags that have been erected by each group upon their arrival. During one 25-minute span at the media tent, a contingent from a Norwegian clan, dressed in wildly colorful traditional garb and carrying their flag, checked in, as did three young women representing a tribe from Illinois.
The DAPL protest camps have become the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in well over a century. And I must say it’s an extraordinary sight to see as the sun rises over the ocean of colorful flags, teepees, tents and other handmade structures, wood smoke rising from morning fires until it blends into the low-hanging frozen fog. It really does feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
But the massive banks of floodlights eerily lighting the hills beyond the camp are a constant reminder that this is a scene with a purpose, or rather a few purposes. The lights illuminate the pipeline route so the massive law enforcement presence in the hills can guard their corporate charge from those who desire its demise.
One of the reasons the protesters call themselves water protectors is because the controversial pipeline, which they refer to as the black snake, is a direct threat to the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The 10,000 residents of the Reservation get their drinking water from the Missouri River, which feeds into Lake Oahu.
DAPL is a $3.78 billion, 1,172-mile-long project designed to carry as much as 570,000 barrels of crude oil every day from the Bakken Shale oil fields of North Dakota to terminals and refineries in central Illinois.
For all intents and purposes, the North Dakota portion of the pipeline has been completed with the exception of the short section that is proposed to be laid under the Missouri River, traversing land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Because of the protests, the Corps has delayed issuing the necessary permits, which is its responsibility according to the Clean Water Act. The Corps “has determined that additional discussion and analysis are warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands, the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe, our government-to-government relationship, and the statute governing easements through government property,” according to a Nov. 14 press release.
There appear to be three primary agendas playing out at the DAPL protests. One is to stop or reroute the pipeline in order to protect the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux people.
The second is to stop the completion of the pipeline, period. The more money we spend on oil and gas infrastructure — it is estimated we will spend more than $10 billion this year alone — the more committed our corporations, banks and therefore government will be to the continuing use of fossil fuels for several decades, a practice that will, according to most scientists, destroy the planet via climate change.
And the final agenda? The land said to be owned by the Corps, as well as much of the privately owned land that the pipeline has already crossed, is still claimed by the greater Sioux Nation based upon the 1851 Treaty of Laramie that conveyed it to the tribes in perpetuity.
Without going into too much detail at this point in our ongoing coverage, a later treaty in 1868 moved the reservation borders further to the south, but it never vacated the original treaty. The federal courts have found that the U.S. government did, indeed, improperly take the disputed lands and therefore ordered the federal government to compensate the Sioux and other tribes for the lands. The government tried to pay for the lands but the tribes refused to take the money, saying that the lands were not for sale. The money is still sitting unclaimed in a trust account.
The Native Americans taking part in the DAPL protest camps have made it clear that while people have gathered together in support of a number of causes, including protecting the water and the overall environment, every person in the camps is also helping to nation-build, reclaiming what are rightfully Sioux lands.
Considering all of these agendas and what’s at stake, it seems unlikely — even if President Obama were to order the rerouting of the pipeline by a few miles in his last 60 days in office — that the protesters would be satisfied and simply go home.
DAPL, like the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline before it, has become much larger and more significant than a protest over a pipeline.
It represents the point on a pencil in the hand of a global movement ready to write a different future for our country and planet. Now more than ever, thanks to Trump’s election, activists have been energized to fight against global warming and racism. The protesters in North Dakota are doing just that, but at great cost to themselves.
There have been several violent confrontations with law enforcement thus far, wherein protesters have been subjected to dog attacks; shot with rubber bullets and bean bags, which can and have caused serious injury; sprayed with water cannons and hoses, mace and tear gas; and subjected to concussion grenades and ear rupturing high frequency sound blasts designed to disrupt and disorient crowds.
On Sunday night, Nov. 20, as we were driving home, we watched live-streaming video of the most recent clash between protesters and law enforcement taking place on the bridge just north of the Oceti Sakowin camp.
It was difficult to watch as we knew that some of the people we had just left were being blasted with water in freezing temperatures, not to mention being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters as well as being sprayed with mace and subjected to concussion grenades.
The use of water as a means of crowd control in freezing winter conditions is beyond disconcerting. It can literally translate as using lethal force against unarmed protesters. Several people became hypothermic that night, requiring hospitalization. A total of 17 protesters were taken to the hospital with a variety of injuries from the confrontation at the bridge. In total, 167 people were injured, including one member of law enforcement who was hit in the head with a rock.
Protesters crossed the bridge to remove the burned out remains of several cars that law enforcement had chained together and left as a roadblock on Highway 1806, the most direct route to Bismarck. The action was intended to open the highway so that people could get to the pipeline construction area as well as to make the route open to emergency vehicles.
On the day before the bridge confrontation, a person in the main camp was hit by a vehicle and required emergency care. At least in part because of the burned out roadblock, it took an hour and 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Under different circumstances such a delay could have meant the difference between life and death.
We weren’t the only ones watching the livestream video on Sunday night via Facebook. A couple of million other people were watching the same thing. It is time for the larger media organizations to get more involved in covering this story. It can’t be left to the likes of Facebook. As two million people were trying to see what was happening on the bridge that night, Facebook’s trending news subjects were Rachel McAdams, Mark Cuban, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kendall Jenner, Hannah Montana, Coldplay, George Takei and Aleppo, Syria.
Lord knows how that last one made it onto such an important list of “now trending” news stories, but the list does help to explain how people trusting their news gathering solely to social media, and in particular to Facebook, may now be struggling to understand what is happening to our country.
It is not enough for mainstream media to simply telephone the sheriff’s department after such violent confrontations to get a description of what occurred. There is no doubt that misinformation is coming out of both sides of this escalating conflict and more observers are needed.
Protesters have done an impressive job of remaining nonviolent for the most part under extreme conditions and in the face of increasingly hostile tactics being used by law enforcement. But as winter sets in and the final push to complete the pipeline grows nearer, as does the inauguration of DAPL pipeline investor Donald Trump — yes he actually has money in the pipeline and the pipeline’s owner gave more than $100,000 in support of his election — the chances of something going wrong and people being badly injured or killed increases.
The more light shined on what is happening in North Dakota by media, the safer all involved will be.
We at BW believe that what happens next at Standing Rock will go a long way toward determining what will happen to our planet, country and culture in coming years. There really is that much at stake on the frozen plains of North Dakota and that’s why Boulder Weekly is committed to making regular trips north, to do our best to provide explanatory and investigative journalism, as well as analysis, to further illuminate the DAPL protests and the people involved.