Water is Life: A Week at Standing Rock

From the November/December 2016 PNL #853

by Joe Heath


Native American on horseback facing line of police and trucks.


Editors’ note: The Standing Rock Sioux are in a historic struggle to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline—planned to be 1,166 miles long, run through what is now North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and carry 570,000 gallons per day of the explosive Bakken crude oil. It would cross tens of thousands of rivers, creeks, streams, lakes and wetlands and destroy innumerable sacred, cultural and historic sites. Thousands of people have joined the Sioux at multiple peaceful prayer camps, representing hundreds of Native Nations. They are the water protectors. On October 27, the Treaty Camp located in the path of the pipeline was attacked by militarized state law enforcement in order to clear the camp out of the way. 141 people were arrested and subjected to imprisonment conditions that violate human rights.

I arrived at the main camp on the Standing Rock Lakota territory on October 27, shortly before the shameful military assault on the smaller treaty camp that had been set up directly in the path of the pipeline.  I will never forget the trauma to the water protectors that I saw and heard. I went there with the backing of the Onondaga Nation, as another level of their support for the Standing Rock Lakota Nation, its citizens and their resistance to this black snake.

That morning, an overly militarized police force from seven states surrounded the treaty camp, and moved in to make arrests of Indigenous elders and their supporters as they prayed.  The same military force then moved down state highway 1806 and arrested scores more. Their objective was to move the water protectors far enough away from the pipeline route for the company to set up razor wire and bring in bulldozers and other equipment to immediately dig for the pipeline. 

This was the latest battle in the US Indian wars and on the same grounds where Custer and the 7th calvary attacked the Lakota people 160 years ago. When Indians are “in the way” they are simply forcibly removed. An Onondaga Clan Mother texted me that day: “Is this 1816 or 2016?”    

The amount of force used against the water protectors, and the military equipment and tactics were astounding: armored personnel carriers and humvees brought in a militia armed with rubber bullets, which were fired at close range; pepper spray in canisters the size of fire extinguishers, also used at close range; stun grenades, sound cannons, four-foot long batons and snipers on the hills.    

After the 141 arrests the protectors were strip searched, and numbers were written on their arms with permanent marker, reminiscent of the concentration camps. They were herded temporarily into chain link cages in the basement of the sheriff’s headquarters—no windows, concrete floors and no facilities. Eventually they were moved to four different jails, with some several hours distant. We were still working on securing their release on bail on Monday.

These are human rights abuses, and on Saturday, October 29, two United Nations rapporteurs arrived to investigate the violent activities of the law enforcement army. Their initial response was that there had been clear violations of international law.  

It is important to understand that all of this atrocious attack took place on treaty lands. This area was promised to the Lakota in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie—which has been repeatedly broken by two illegal acts of Congress and then by the Allotment Act.  

It is also important to understand that the Standing Rock Lakota consider the Missouri River a living relative, to which they owe a fundamental duty to continue their centuries old stewardship.  They have ceremonies to continue their gratitude and relationship, as it is the life blood of their people and their only source of drinking water.      

The original route of the pipeline had been proposed to run under the River about 50 miles north of its current path, but this was rejected because of the potential danger to the drinking water supply of the city of Bismarck’s 68,000 mostly white residents. As usual, the same protections were not considered or given to the drinking water supply of the Standing Rock peoples. This is just the latest occasion of environmental injustice to Indigenous peoples.    

I also learned that no Environmental Impact Statement has been completed, primarily due to the financial concerns of the pipeline company. Certainly no meaningful consultation was afforded the Lakota, in violation both of the United Nations principle of “free, prior and informed consent” before Indigenous lands and waters are impacted, and of federal law. Sacred sites and burial sites have been bulldozed, and even the North Dakota Public Service Commission has cited the company for not reporting when cultural artifacts were unearthed during excavation.

As with all fossil fuel “midstream” infrastructure projects—those between the wells and the refineries—this one is driven by the financial interests of Energy Transfer Partners and their financial partners and bankers, who have already made millions in fees by financing this $3.8 billion project. The company is in a financial bind because many of their contracts will expire at the end of the year, and the likelihood of renewals are shrinking as the Bakken fracked oil fields have already peaked, with production declining significantly.  The Bakken fields themselves are an environmental disaster, where the huge amounts of methane that also come up after the fracking is simply vented into the air—enough to heat half a million homes a day. Over a 20-year period, methane is 100 times more a potent green house gas than carbon dioxide.  

The Standing Rock Lakota leadership has called for all parties to sit down together and talk, while listening respectfully. They quote Sitting Bull, who said, “Let us put our good minds together and see what kind of life we can build for our children.”  Those of us who have listened to the Onondaga and the Haudenosaunee know that this is also a fundamental principle of the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace.

Just as with fracking here in New York, this insanity can be stopped if we educate, agitate and organize. I urge everyone to call, write or email the White House, which is beginning to listen, as President Obama can put an end to all of this. It is not too late. The army corps of engineers still must issue permits to allow the pipeline to go under the Missouri River. Call on the President to honor the treaties, stop the pipeline, stop the violence of the police and begin a healing process with the Standing Rock Lakota.    

I found it deeply inspiring to see the hundreds of other Indigenous nations, from across Turtle Island and far beyond, who had sent some of their citizens to join the Standing Rock Nation in the main camp. I am working on the process of getting admitted to practice in North Dakota, so I can return to handle at least one of the felony cases. As of this writing, there are over 400 criminal cases pending and at least 141 of them are felonies.