Despite the volatile and violent standoff of the last few days, tribal members and their supporters vow to sustain their efforts to block construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
CANNON BALL, N.D. — As police in riot gear and a phalanx of armored personnel carriers faced off with tribal members behind their barricade of plywood scraps and still-smoldering trucks, Miles Allard, 68, walked alone into the fray.
His white hair blowing in the wind, he told demonstrators to take down their barricade and toss the rocks they’d stockpiled for throwing at police back into the water.
Allard, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa elder, felt he had to step in before someone got killed in the effort to block construction of a four-state, $3.8 billion oil pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux nation says the project threatens both the tribe’s water supply and sacred sites.
“The only way we’re going to win this is by prayer,” said Allard, who has lived here all his life. “If we use violence, we will lose.”
- Background stories: Here's a primer on the pipeline project, including the key players on all sides, a brief history of broken treaty promises and a closer look at the courtroom battle. And here's what we're reading related to the controversy.
- March 28: What the completed Dakota Access pipeline means for key players.
- Feb. 23: Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp closed; 46 holdouts arrested.
- Feb. 22: Preparing to leave, Standing Rock protesters ceremonially burn camp.
- Feb. 13: Judge rejects tribes’ bid to halt Dakota Access Pipeline; feds plan to shut down protest camp.
- Feb. 1: Hundreds rally as the Seattle City Council considers divesting from Wells Fargo because of its role as a Dakota Access Pipeline lender.
- Jan. 24, 2017: Donald Trump signs executive orders advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says it will push back.
- Dec. 4, 2016: Tribes celebrate as Corps rejects Dakota Access pipeline easement
- Nov. 21: Washington tribes urge that Obama stop, reroute Dakota Access Pipeline
- Nov. 12: Hundreds rally in Tacoma against Dakota Access Pipeline
- Live updates from from Seattle Times journalists on the scene Oct. 26, 27 and 28.
- Oct. 25: Tribes in Washington state call on President Obama to improve federal consultations over infrastructure projects
- Oct. 24: Citing treaty claim, protesters occupy land a rancher recently sold to pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners.
- See photos from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Slowly and firmly, he persuaded demonstrators, who call themselves Water Protectors, to move back from the brink. To fight the pipeline with prayer and nonviolent resistance.
“We are not going away,” he said.
Since the protests started several months ago, hundreds of people from around the nation, including many tribal members from Washington state, have converged in North Dakota. The scene had remained largely peaceful — until last week.
Opponents built an encampment on land owned by Energy Transfer Partners, directly in the route of the pipeline, claiming possession under the 1851 Treaty with Sioux nations. On Thursday, law-enforcement officers using pepper spray, beanbag pellets and concussion grenades, forcibly pushed demonstrators away from the property.
The conflict, which began Thursday morning, went on for nearly 24 hours. Protesters set fires and lobbed rocks and bottles, according to police. One woman fired a gun at officers, who did not return fire. She was taken into custody. Despite the violence, there were no serious injuries on either side.
Police made 142 arrests on Thursday and Friday. Demonstrators faced a range of charges from inciting a riot to reckless endangerment and were being held in various jails. Their names were not released.
For now, tribal members and their allies have regrouped at the Corps of Engineers land where most have been since last April. Corps officials have said pipeline opponents can stay as long as they want.
Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier of Morton County thanked tribal elders in a published statement Friday for helping to de-escalate tensions during the standoff on the bridge, and urged protesters to return to and remain at the camp “if they wish to continue lawful and peaceful activities.”
He praised officers too, for showing “patience and professionalism” during the standoff.
Violence “not welcome here”
But the battle to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is also being waged in court, is far from over. And the stakes have grown higher.
Energy Transfer Partners still needs a final easement from the Corps of Engineers to cross a piece of government land and build the pipeline under the Missouri River. The pipeline is planned to run from the Baaken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, for refineries.
The company is rushing to get the pipeline complete and moving oil by the end of the year, since oil-transport contracts written in 2014 before the drop in energy prices are set to expire in January. The company has stated in court documents that if the project is delayed into the new year, it could effectively be canceled.
The governors of Iowa, North and South Dakota wrote commanders of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Oct. 25 affirming the agency’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline so far, and urging the Corps to issue the final permit so the project may be expeditiously completed.
“It is now time for the Corps of Engineers to proceed with the last step of the process so that our states can begin to realize the benefits and opportunities provided by this important and vital piece of energy infrastructure,” the three governors wrote.
But the Obama Administration has said no easement for the pipeline will be granted until the Corps reviews its work on permits so far, to determine if it needs to reconsider them.
The administration has repeatedly asked the company to stop construction voluntarily within a 20-mile corridor near the Missouri River crossing while the project is under review. But the company has declined to do so.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and at least three federal agencies contend the Corps so far has not adequately reviewed risks to public safety, water quality and cultural resources.
Efforts by the tribe to stop construction with an emergency injunction have also failed so far. A lawsuit filed by the tribe to stop the pipeline is pending in federal court.
Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux with Earth Justice’s Northwest office in Seattle, said the U.S. Army Corps has the authority to stop work on the pipeline, and should do so to de-escalate the tensions.
Despite the turmoil of the last week, the scene in the camp often resembles a joyful reunion by tribes who have not gathered together in these numbers in North America in more than a century.
Some, such as Ella Mae White Eagle, a Muckleshoot tribal elder from Washington state who traveled here by Greyhound bus, found that once in the camp, she didn’t want to leave.
“It is so beautiful, so peaceful,” she said.
Many other tribal members from Washington have traveled here, viewing the situation at Standing Rock as a mirror of their own opposition to oil-train terminals, coal ports and increased oil tanker traffic in Northwest waters.
Violence, when it came, jolted the camp.
Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault II pleaded for federal help as fires burned on the bridge Thursday night, calling for intervention by the Department of Justice to restore peace and stand down the militarized response by police.
He pleaded as well with demonstrators to be peaceful. Violence, he noted, hurts the tribe’s cause, “and is not welcome here.”
The tribe is not against energy or development, he noted, but it cannot see the Missouri River, its water source — and that for millions of people downstream — polluted by a leak or rupture.
“If it’s as safe as they say, great, let them take it someplace else,” Archambault said of the pipeline. “Don’t bring it here.’’
Some tribal members in the camp said they felt a conflict coming the day before the situation blew up. Many see the pipeline fight in historical context: From the first contact with miners pushing into the sacred Black Hills nearly 150 years ago, the tribes have steadily lost land to someone wanting it for profit.
Tribe not consulted
A key issue is whether the Standing Rock Sioux were consulted on the pipeline route in any meaningful way.
This pipeline was initially proposed to cross north of the state capital of Bismarck. But the company rerouted it to cross under the Missouri less than 10 miles from the tribe’s drinking water intake and half a mile from the boundary of its reservation.
Environmental documents filed by the company show that during its permit application the tribe was not even listed in the entities consulted during a piecemeal, fast-track review of the project by the Corps.
Company contractors contacted the county weed board, the Audubon Society, county commissioners and more.
But not the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, permitting documents show. What consultation has occurred since has been only on the company’s terms, too late, and after it already started building the pipeline, according to Jon Eagle, tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux.
The company also depended on its own archaeologists to review the path of the pipeline for cultural resources. It found plenty in a four-state route alignment, and rerouted the pipeline around what was discovered more than 100 times, company documents show.
However, the company has not allowed the tribe’s archaeological experts to review the ground in the path of the pipeline as it comes toward Standing Rock.
The tribe’s expert, in just one review at the invitation of a private landowner, discovered some important artifacts, including stone effigies, burial sites and rare depictions of celestial constellations, Tim Mentz Sr., a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member and archaeological consultant to the tribe, declared in federal court filings.
Mentz documented the finds in federal court in early September.
The next morning, on a holiday weekend, Energy Transfer Partners’ contractors bulldozed the exact spot as its private security forces kept protesters at bay with dogs and pepper spray, according to court documents filed by Mentz.
The company has repeatedly said no archaeology was destroyed, but it never allowed tribal experts on the land in question for their own review. Archaeologists and historic preservationists as well from around the country have cried foul and demanded a full investigation.
In news releases, Energy Transfer Partners says it has acted lawfully all along and that using a pipeline is much safer than transporting oil by rail. Company spokesmen, citing litigation, have repeatedly declined to comment.
The pipeline is strongly supported by most officials in North Dakota.
The company says construction of the 1,134-mile pipeline has generated more than 8,000 construction jobs in four states. Construction alone was estimated by the company to generate $135 million in sales and income taxes, benefiting counties through which the pipeline passes. It is large enough to move as much as 575,000 barrels of oil per day, half of the Bakken’s current daily crude production.
In its construction documents filed with regulators, the company and its contractors have declared they have plans in place to manage every risk and pitfall. So confident was Energy Transfer Partners that its work would go smoothly, that it started building the pipeline last spring, long before it had all its last permits in hand.
Stuck pipes, inclement weather and unforeseen rocks in the ground: it had a plan for managing seemingly every risk — except running into 150 years of history, and the explosive reaction from tribal opponents and their supporters.
At least for now, that opposition has halted the project.
Nearly 1,000 people are still camped near the proposed pipeline crossing. New opponents, including an occasional celebrity such as Mark Ruffalo or the Rev. Jesse Jackson, keep arriving every day.
Roy Murphy, a Muckleshoot Indian Tribal member, has been here since last August to make his stand against the pipeline. Living with two others in a tent winterized with carpet remnants and a tarp, he vows to stay through the North Dakota winter if need be. Others have pledged the same.
Some tribal members here have had visions and dreams of this ending badly. During some of the conflicts some tribal members sang their death song as they walked to the frontline camp, to take their stand against police.
A member of a river tribe himself, Murphy, who was not arrested and did not take part in any of the violence, said he understands the meaning of water to the life of everyone, not just native people.
“I want to make sure they have their water protected,” Murphy said. “And I would like to see unity, not only of the tribes, but of all people. We will do this peacefully, prayerfully. I am here until they stop the pipeline.”