Since April, Native Americans from all over the country have been trickling into an encampment in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to block construction on the Dakota Access pipeline. The four-state, 1,170-mile pipeline is slated to cut through the ancestral home and burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The tribe portends that if the Dakota Access pipeline ever leaks, it would contaminate the water supply of some 8,000 members and their neighboring communities in the south central part of the state. They note that the pipeline was originally meant to be built just north of Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital and second biggest city, when state officials decided that a leak would be too catastrophic for the people living there.
In support of the Standing Rock Sioux, Indian nations from nearly every state in the union have sent contingents to the protest camp. The Lakota, Pawnee, Crow, and Minnesota’s Anishinabe from Red Lake, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, and Fond du Lac have arrived to help oppose Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas.
Last Friday, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting Standing Rock. At the same time, supporters of American Indian protest movement Idle No More caravanned from Duluth to the Twin Cities, then on to the Cannon Ball grasslands.
Reyna Crow of Idle No More Duluth hired a babysitter and drove to North Dakota on Friday afternoon with allies from Mille Lacs and the Rainey River reserve in Canada with cars full of blankets, cooking supplies, and warm clothes in case the encampment persevered into winter.
They arrived in the middle of the night on Friday to a grassy trail flanked by the flags of 200 tribes. In the morning there was a sunrise prayer ceremony, followed by a storytelling commemoration of the 150-year anniversary of the Whitestone Massacre, in which United States soldiers who were chasing participants of the Dakota uprising in Minnesota happened upon a peaceful Cannon Ball camp of Sioux and slaughtered some 300 men, women, and children before burning the survivors’ winter food reserves.
As the Whitestone Massacre commemoration carried on, the protesters noticed that construction workers had surreptitiously begun work digging a 150-foot wide, 2-mile long trench at the barricaded pipeline site.
The protesters were taken aback. In mid-August, the Sioux had filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for an emergency restraining order on construction, claiming that Energy Transfer and the U.S. Army Corps – which owns the land – violated federal laws when they failed to consult the tribe regarding engineering projects in their ceded territory.
The judge promised to have a response by September 9. Before then, they didn’t expect that Energy Transfer would proceed with construction that would destroy burial grounds, Crow says.
Impulsively, Crow and an indignant pack of protesters marched over the hills, linked arms, and advanced over the barricades to stand in the way of bulldozers. Energy Transfer’s private security responded with snapping attack dogs and a storm of mace, accusing the protesters of trespassing.
“There was a young man in front of me just getting a great deal of this caustic substance in his face,” Crow recalled. “I had it in my hair. The mace and sweat was running from my hair. Thankfully I had glasses, but at one point it really started getting bad for me, and I was sent back to get help. Those people had no control over those dogs.”
Later, reports surfaced that Energy Transfer’s hired security couldn’t prevent the attack dogs from chomping down on protesters.
Protester Candee Smith summarized the clash: “The tired thugs left when they realized these warriors were not scared of them or their dogs, and totally prepared to die. That’s when they turned and ran. They thought the water protectors were going to be some hippies singing and what they actually got were salty, rezzed out warriors that were made of the toughest survivor blood in the world.”
Saturday’s violence has since been quelled, with the chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe adding Energy Transfer’s dogs to a list of grievances that he planned to present during an emergency Washington D.C. hearing on the state of the pipeline protest.
“We’ve had amazing support from Minnesota,” reflected Waste Win Young, the former Standing Rock tribal historian. “Some of the girls that have been here at Sacred Stone camp from the beginning are from Minnesota. And then we had Clyde Bellecourt and a lot of the Indian community not only from Minneapolis, but the reservations, and they have been a tremendous support for us.”
Young, who has been fighting the Dakota Access pipeline since learning about it from a newspaper article nearly three years ago, says the unity among tribes in Cannon Ball is probably the closest thing that has ever come to realizing Bellecourt’s 1968 vision for the American Indian Movement, when he tried to unite all nations.
“That has never happened with the tribes. It’s unheard of,” Young says. “In my entire life we never had the unity to protect our water and our land and our sacred site.”