The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), also known as the Bakken Pipeline, spans 1,172 miles – from the Bakken oil fields in northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The $3.7 billion project boasts job creation, the safe and cost-effective transportation of oil, and environmental protection by reducing train and truck transportation.
A cursory internet search of the company Dakota Access, LLC, or its parent company Energy Transfer Partners, LLC, will show that they are responsible for a variety of pipeline projects, of which DAPL is only one. Highly disputed between Indigenous peoples, activists, and local government officials, the pipeline has become a battleground for environmental and civil rights. In the age of social media, transparency is the enemy of shady corporate deals with government officials.
Protests against the pipeline began in Bismarck, where the pipeline was to cross the Missouri river. Residents were concerned that the water supply might be threatened – the route was thus rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers, and was redirected south, near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The location of the crossing is close to the water supply for the reservation, and sits on land referenced in the 1851 Fort Laramie treaty. This treaty defined the Dakota and Lakota lands after much conflict, and serves as the foundation for the tribe’s claims that the land which the pipeline crosses was stolen from them by the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe claims that they allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to temporarily use the land for flood management of the Missouri river, but that they never returned it. The USACE has granted an easement for the DAPL to pass through the area, including under the Missouri river, all of which is classified as federal land.
The Standing Rock Sioux have opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline since it was initially proposed in 2014, and began to protest the pipeline with a Spirit ride in April, 2016. Acting as environmental protectors, the tribe began a prayerful and peaceful protest of the pipeline. Since then, the situation has escalated unnecessarily as various law enforcement entities, private security employed by Dakota Access, and the National Guard have become involved. Violence erupted for the first time on September 3, 2016, when private security forces unleashed attack dogs and pepper-sprayed protesters on private land. Authorities claimed that the protesters were aggressive, claims disputed by various videos and reports like that of Democracy Now!, which clearly show unprompted and vicious attacks on the non-violent protesters. After the photos and videos were released, those reporting and spreading their accounts were charged with rioting and trespassing, including Goodman who recorded the video for Democracy Now!. These charges were later dismissed, but the precedent for targeting reporters and journalists was set.
Bullying and Propaganda
After being denied a request for an injunction by a federal judge, three federal agencies — the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of the Army — intervened and requested that the company halt construction. This was to reassess the areas; ignoring the order, Dakota Access continued work, causing a slew of protests and direct actions, one of which involved actress Shailene Woodley. Her arrest, along with her account of brutality, brought national attention to the protest and to indigenous issues. Live feeds and personal accounts showed the brutality of the police toward the non-violent natives. The Morton County Sheriff’s department consistently claimed that officers feared for their lives, despite the protesters being completely non-violent. Videos of violent arrests, beatings, pepper spraying, shootings, and threats from police flooded Facebook and alternative news sites. Morton County continued to spread stories about violent protesters with weapons attacking planes, officers, and even the livestock of surrounding ranches. All of these claims have since been disproven. The local papers and law enforcement continued to spread false accusations, turning the population of North Dakota against the protesters.
Intimidation was the greatest weapon DAPL had against the protesters. Even without the brutality, the presence of heavily armed police, roadblocks, the National Guard, planes circling over camp against FAA regulations, floodlights, and paid infiltrators was an unprecedented show of force meant to dismantle the protest. Electronic warfare has been a key part of protest suppression since the beginning — cell signals were blocked, electrical failures occurred, and listening devices were set up just outside the camps by the BIA themselves, acting in federal interests. The unfortunate truth is that the winter is weeding out the elders, the children, and those who may fall ill. Especially with the use of water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, people are likely to die, martyrs for a cause that should be an indisputable human right.
ETP is flexing its muscles, showing its influence on the power structure within North Dakota and the federal government. Even the President-elect has financial interests in the pipeline, so it is no surprise that there seems to be a government interest in allowing the pipeline to be finished. After hundreds of years of dismissing Indigenous rights, lands, religion, and issues, the pipeline is likely to be added to the never-ending list of grievances. LEOs will continue to be for-hire as corporate security, and the result of the recent presidential elections will only make it easier to disguise corruption as a preservation of freedom. The citizens of Bismarck, and the people of the United States, have bought into the promise of money through oil — and the alienation and demonization of the Indigenous peoples as counter-progressive only increases the contrast between reality and corporate propaganda.
Despite all the injustices, the protest camps are places of peaceful prayer and appreciation of nature. Every day is started and ended with prayer. Together those at the camp, save for some freeloaders, work to split wood, distribute necessities, cook, and care for each other. The direct actions are only a part of the protest — but the focus is on prayer, as it has been since the beginning. No matter what you believe, when you are at camp you notice and experience inexplicable phenomena, and the repetition of the phrase “Nothing is a coincidence” turns from something you hear around the fire into your mantra. The power of their prayer, their protests, and their passion is undeniable. Their bravery in the face of an immovable force cannot be rivaled. It is evident that this land is truly sacred to the Sioux, as well as for the hundreds of other tribes joining them. They stand together once more as protectors of land that was once theirs but we have taken and ruined, time and time again, for the sake of profit.