Some things are sacred.
For the Standing Rock Sioux and the more than 250 tribes who joined them in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, water is sacred.
This deep reverence for water is shared by members of the Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk tribes, who have each fought their own decades-long battles to ensure enough clean water remains in the Trinity and Klamath rivers to protect the ecosystems regulated by the pulse of the rivers — seasonal runs of salmon, game and myriads of plant and animal species — that the tribes rely on for cultural and physical sustenance.
More than 150 North Coast residents —tribal and non-tribal, alike — have traveled to North Dakota over the past few months to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Hundreds more have donated supplies and money to the unprecedented resistance, which has gone from a steady simmer to a full boil in recent weeks as the pipeline approaches the Missouri River.
Dressed in riot gear, police from five states forcibly removed nonviolent protesters — water protectors, as they've dubbed themselves — with pepper spray and rubber bullets as a shocked nation looked on. Hundreds have been jailed, and protesters have been calling for reinforcements, readying for a final stand to keep the pipeline from reaching the sacred river.
And through just about every step of the pipeline protests, locals have been there on the front lines, standing with the Sioux.
If completed, the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline will transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day a total of 1,100 miles from the Bakken Oil Fields in west North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa and into Illinois, where it will connect with an existing pipeline distribution network.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, says increased domestic crude oil production is vital if the United States is going to become energy independent, pointing out that the nation still imports 7.7 million barrels of oil per day to meet consumer demand. And new pipelines are needed get that oil to refineries.
Further, the company trumpets the economic impact of the project, saying construction alone will create as many as 12,000 jobs, putting welders, mechanics, electricians, pipefitters and heavy equipment operators to work. And those jobs will have a reverberating effect, the company says, buoying local economies as workers spend money in local hotels, restaurants and stores.
But the pipeline has faced strong resistance for some time on multiple levels. Energy Transfer Partners originally planned to route the pipeline within 10 miles of North Dakota's capital, Bismarck, and to have it cross the Missouri River north of the city. But the city and residents objected, fearing a spill could poison the city's water supply, prompting the company to reroute the line.
The project has also drawn the ire of climate change activists, who oppose it under the belief that every barrel of fossil fuels extracted from the ground puts more carbon emissions in the air, furthering global warming and what scientists believe is a looming global crisis. The United States, they believe, should be investing in renewable energy sources, not building infrastructure that will continue to destroy the environment.
But by far the fiercest opposition has come from tribal nations as a direct result of Energy Transfer Partners' decision to reroute the line through tribal territory — the ownership of which has been long contested based on an 1868 treaty. Not only does the new route have the pipeline crossing the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, it also puts large stretches of the pipeline on private property that was unjustly taken from the tribe more than a century ago when the federal government reneged on a treaty and essentially threatened to starve out the tribe if it didn't agree to part with the land.
More than a century later, in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the government had cheated the Sioux and awarded the tribe more than $100 million in compensation for the land with a ruling that stated, in part, "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."
Now, tribal leaders assert the pipeline was carefully routed through private lands to avoid federal regulation, and that construction began without a completed Environmental Impact Statement and without adequate consultation with affected tribal governments. The alleged lack of consultation resulted in plans under which three of the pipeline's 200 water crossings stand to impact Standing Rock Sioux ceremonial sites, burial grounds or drinking water sources, and other stretches of the pipeline threaten village and sun dance sites.
The Lakota Sioux have an end-of-times prophecy, one that resonates with those protesting the pipeline and adds urgency to the resistance: "From the north a black snake will come. It will cross our lands, slowly killing all that it touches, and in its passing the water will become poison."
Sacred Stone Camp sits near the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers, hallowed ground for the Standing Rock Sioux. The tribe's origin story holds it as the place where they came into the world after a great flood, and where the two waters meet once created spherical sacred stones. (That was lost when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and flooded the rivers in the 1950s, changing the flow such that the waters no longer produce the sacred stones).
When the Standing Rock Sioux started the camp in April, it was 30 people strong. Within a few short weeks, the chair of the tribe sent out a call for support to all tribes in the country asking them to make the journey to stand in solidarity with his people. The camp grew to 3,000 seemingly overnight. Then to 7,000 people within two weeks.
There are now three distinct camps in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, set up to resist the DAPL, each with its own purpose and leadership. In addition to Sacred Stone — the official camp of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — there's Red Warrior and Oceti Sakowin.
Red Warrior Camp sits nearby but distinctly separated from Sacred Stone so the nature of its work doesn't interfere with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's need to maintain diplomacy in their government-to-government negotiations with state and federal agencies. Red Warrior is home to several direct-action groups, including the International Indigenous Youth Council, which has led much of the frontline resistance and has coordinated prayer circles, bank lockdowns and protests, both onsite and nationwide.
Oceti Sakowin, meanwhile, has become the main camp, which most of the self-described "water protectors" have called home for a day, a week or several months. Oceti Sakowin is the proper name of the Seven Council Fires — similar to states — that make up the greater Sioux Nation. Each of these council fires is made up of individual bands within the region. The Seven Council Fire's Lodge has only been erected three times in the past 100 years, and is reserved to unify the alliance in prayer during times of distress.
Joseph Marshall, a teacher at Hoopa Valley High School and founder of the Warrior Institute, a nonprofit youth mentorship, leadership and service learning organization in Hoopa, took 10 young tribal members to Oceti Sakowin back in September.
"I was invited to pray inside the Seven Council Fires Lodge," Marshall said. "I was honored to pray in the lodge, using pipes that are 18 generations old, used by Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, smoked in prayer and unity."
Within Oceti Sakowin, a group of Northern California Natives has set up what's become known as the Hoopa/Klamath Basin Camp and has come to house and feed most Californians who have traveled to Standing Rock. Formed with the support of True North Organizing Network and PICO National Organizing Network, the camp has at times fed more than 100 people breakfast and dinner daily.
At the Basin Camp, each meal is preceded by a prayer circle, where people gather around a fire to share as little or as much of themselves as they need. Some introductions last 30 seconds, others 30 minutes. Tears are shed, songs are shared. Those who have participated say a common thread is unity, the underlying feeling being harmony among hundreds of indigenous nations for one cause. Love permeates all discussion and prayers, they say, no matter how quietly or loudly they are delivered.
Long talks about acknowledging the evil within, the personal growth of those involved, the state of Mother Earth and her resilience, the prophesized unity among indigenous people and so much more surround the prayer fire. Started back in August, the fire continues to burn today.
The DAPL resistance led by the Standing Rock Sioux is unique, but similar in some ways to efforts to stop the U.S. Forest Service's G-O Road from desecrating sacred sites in the Six Rivers National Forest, the 1964-1971 movement, occupation of Alcaztraz Island near San Francisco and the Klamath Fish Wars in 1978. What's different is the unprecedented mass unification of tribes behind the Standing Rock Sioux's cause — never before have so many tribes united under the same banner.
Social media has played a crucial role in fostering that unity and support behind the cause. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, at least 1.3 million people have "checked in" to show support for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Facebook. Wasey Inong, a Yurok tribal member and senior at Hoopa Valley High School who traveled to Standing Rock with Marshall's Warrior Institute in September, was initially drawn to the protests through social media.
"What got me was seeing stuff on Facebook," said Inong, who has since returned to Standing Rock. "What caught my attention was a video of a man who locked himself to a piece of heavy equipment. I got emotional and felt a strong need to go there."
In recent weeks, due to scant mainstream media coverage, social media has been integral in protesters efforts to document and spread word about police use of force. Last month, as the pipeline approached the river, protesters decided to occupy the land in its path and the roads construction crews would need for access.
On Oct. 21, after setting up a new frontline camp and additional road blocks positioned directly in the path of DAPL on land once promised the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe under a now long-broken treaty, activists were met with a police force 200 strong dressed in riot gear. In addition to guns, officers brought in from five states carried Tasers, concussion grenades and shotguns loaded with rubber bullets.
The Morton County Sheriff's Office led a removal push complete with five armored vehicles, two helicopters, numerous military Humvees and eight ATVs that resulted in the arrest of more than 140 activists in a single altercation, with dozens more arrested in the ensuing days. Since August, more than 269 people have been arrested during protests, including Thomas Joseph II, a Hoopa tribal member who's been at the camp for much of the last three months. Joseph was jailed for three days on charges of trespassing and engaging in a riot before being released.
"They are false charges," Joseph said. "They told us all to leave, but they surrounded us so we could not. ... They say we are violent, but that is not true. We are peaceful and prayerful. Nobody is armed except the police."
Many have expressed shock and horror at what they've seen during the interactions between police and protesters.
"I went to the frontline in prayer for protection of the Missouri River and found myself in what I can only describe as a war zone," said Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "I was sprayed in the face with pepper spray, the guy next to me was shot by something that didn't break the skin but appeared to have broken ribs. Another guy beside me was randomly snatched violently by police. ... I'm still in shock."
Due to lack of space in Morton County jail, some of the arrestees were transported to correctional facilities in neighboring counties. Some claim they were strip searched, housed in groups in dog kennels without blankets and covered with tarps so they could not see out. Others said they were held overnight without clothing or sprayed with cold water.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier held a press conference on Oct. 20 at his office in Mandan, North Dakota, to address the public on his strategy to remove the activists.
Kirchmeier commended his officers and the more than 200 officers brought in from five additional states to help remove the protesters. He began the conference by saying that his office, assisted by several agencies, has tried everything possible to avoid confrontation.
"We've talked to everybody we could to get some tribal [representation] and some leadership to the table so we could do this by the rule of law and follow the rules of the court," Kirchmeier said. "With that not happening, and coming to an impasse yesterday — the protestors said, 'No, we're not going to move from this location' — it forced our hand to make sure the laws were followed."
Kirchmeier disputed the notion that officers' used excessive force.
"We are arresting individuals who refuse to leave on anything from public nuisance charges to engaging in a riot," he said. "Pepper spray has been used for people who don't obey law enforcement orders and is only used as a necessary force to be sure the situation is controlled. We are not using anything other than pepper spray. No rubber bullets. Not Tasers. Not that I'm aware of."
But a video posted by the alternative media outlet Unicorn Riot — as well as others — shows something different. The footage shows activists being sprayed at point blank range with high-powered pepper spray canisters that resemble large fire extinguishers; rubber bullets the size of 12-gauge shotgun shells being loaded and fired; the use of physical force on protesters who did not provoke confrontation; the destruction of protesters' camping gear and belongings. The video also shows a handful of protesters seeming to provoke officers by refusing to budge or, in a couple of cases, locking themselves to equipment or immobilized cars that were used to create blockades.
Leaders of the Sacred Stone Camp called the six-minute Unicorn Riot video the most accurate portrayal of the Oct. 20 events available.
A press release provided by Sacred Stone Camp said a young woman had her wrist broken during an arrest; teepees were recklessly dismantled; protesters were dragged out of a sweat lodge ceremony and arrested; at least six additional youth were pepper sprayed up to six times each and shot with bean bags; sacred items, including staffs and prayer pipes, were stolen; medics were hit with batons; people were yanked out of moving vehicles; one horseback rider was shot four times with rubber bullets and his horse was shot in the leg with live rounds; another horse was shot and did not survive.
Lauren Regan, an Oregon-based attorney with the Civil Liberties Defense Center volunteering through the Red Owl Legal Collective, often acts as a negotiator between activists and police, helping protesters to pray peacefully in areas where they would otherwise be arrested for trespassing, and advising those who have been arrested.
"Many of these officers are rural and have never dealt with a situation like this, so they are unfamiliar with the law," Regan said. "I will remind [the police] and interpret constitutional language. Sometimes they will concede and allow us to stay and do the prayer."
Regan is convinced that Native Americans in the area, whether they are involved with the resistance or not, are being unfairly targeted by police.
"Police are targeting Native American people in their vehicles for very minor infractions," she said. "For example, one person got arrested for going 1-mile over the speed limit. Another was cited for having a crack in their taillight."
She said that during a different incident, about 100 cars were leaving a site under police orders and the last 20 cars in the line were stopped, with all the occupants of those 20 vehicles arrested for trespassing. Each had to pay about $250 in fines and a $450 impound fee. "They did nothing different than the other 100 cars," she said. "So the county made up to $800 per vehicle that day."
Regan believes that officers are not simply enforcing the law, but instead are actively protecting a private company's pipeline.
"It happens all over the place — the collusion between corporations and the state is overwhelming," she said. "And, some of these corporations give money to the cops to support their policing efforts. In fact, in Texas during the Keystone XL pipeline construction, TransCanada would go ahead of the pipeline and do PowerPoint trainings for local police telling them what terrorist crimes they could charge activists with."
If heavy handed police tactics were intended to weaken protesters' resolve, they seem to have done the opposite.
"The Oceti Sakowin has enacted eminent domain on DAPL lands, claiming 1851 treaty rights," Oceti Sakowin Camp coordinator Mekasi Camp-Horinek said. "This is unceded land. Highway 1806 as of this point is blockaded. We will be occupying this land and staying here until this pipeline is permanently stopped. We need bodies and we need people who are trained in nonviolent direct action. We are still staying nonviolent and we are still staying peaceful."
But the DAPL is 88 percent completed in North Dakota and 90 percent completed overall, with Energy Transfer Partners working on a tight timeline, under contract to complete the project by January. An injunction ordered by President Barack Obama halted the project in September, but construction has proceeded full steam ahead since it was lifted. It seems another injunction or court intervention are the only things that could bring the project to a halt once more.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recently penned a letter to Obama, asking him to "urgently request intervention in the very troubling situation unfolding at and around the Standing Rock Sioux reservation ... ." In the letter, Sanders directly asks Obama to order the Army Corps of Engineers to stop construction within a mile between Highway 1806 and the Missouri River to help reduce tension.
Last week in a television news interview with MSNBC, Obama said, "We'll let it play out for several more weeks." The president's approach has bothered some.
"The contrast between the treatment of indigenous people protecting their water and sacred sites versus the so-called 'Bundy Standoff' of armed white folks taking over a federal building is stark," said Tara Houska from the nonprofit Honor the Earth. "We have seen elders arrested while praying, teenagers maced, unarmed protectors Tased and horses killed by police. ... This isn't justice. America should be in an uproar over what's happening to indigenous people and their allies within U.S. borders."
Meanwhile, the protest camps are bracing for the onslaught of winter and calling for reinforcements. In early October, numbers in the camps, including the Hoopa Klamath Basin Camp began to shrink from attrition, due to the length of the resistance and the onset of winter. But hundreds of news stories and videos have spread like wildfire online and the nation is now watching.
This week, another group of North Coast residents set off for Oceti Sakowin, with more planning to make the journey throughout the month of November. Since August, a small school has been established and more permanent campsites have been constructed to prepare for winter. Teepees and RVs have replaced basic camping tents, and woodstoves in semi-permanent structures will supplement heat from the outdoor fires.
For Joseph, the organizer from Hoopa who was recently jailed, he wouldn't be anywhere else.
"This is where we were called to be," said Joseph, whose mother, brother, sisters and some extended family members are also there, helping to prepare meals, leading prayer circles and standing in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux.
Those who have returned say Standing Rock has changed them.
"What I really took home was the understanding that water is the first medicine, and how the Seventh Generation is going to unite us through water," said Marshall, the Hoopa High School teacher. "Seeing the unity — coming together to back up the Standing Rock — it was special. We felt connected. The spirit is strong as indigenous people, as spirit people, as earth people."
For Inong, the high school senior who followed Marshall to the plains of North Dakota after becoming captivated by the movement on Facebook, the experience was life changing. "I'm out of words to describe it," she said. "It was the best experience of my life."
To many, this is what the protest is about. More than oil or a single pipeline, it's about nonviolent protection of what they hold sacred, about people peacefully demanding what they see as just and right, and about far-flung communities banding together to stand up to a corporate giant and the government.
Months ago, Nah-Tes Jackson led a prayer circle before a September meal in the Hoopa Klamath Basin Camp. Jackson, who traveled east from Hoopa and is of Karuk and Yurok descent, addressed those gathered around him.
"Mother Earth will fix herself," he said. "She will repair herself. What she's doing here is bringing us together. She's fixing us by bringing us closer to ourselves and each other."
Allie Hostler is a community outreach educator for the University of California Cooperative Extension and occasionally works as a freelance reporter for local media outlets. In September she traveled
from Hoopa to Cannon Ball, North Dakota with her family and a horse trailer full of supplies donated by north coast residents, farms and businesses.