Lingering pipeline protesters plan long stay
Protest | Dakota Access has symbolic significance for those who remain encamped
by Sarah Schweinsberg
Posted 9/16/16, 11:13 am
CANNON BALL, N.D.—Brightly colored tents, campers, and tepees span nearly a quarter-mile along the banks of the Cannonball River an hour south of Bismarck, N.D.. Flags from tribes across the country flap in the wind along the dirt road through the camp. Horses graze on prairie grasses, children run, and smoke from campfires wafts into the cloudless sky.
The campers have come to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, an underground crude oil pipeline that is planned to cross under the Missouri River’s Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The pipeline does not bisect the reservation, but Native Americans and environmentalists argue it could contaminate the Missouri River, a major source of water for many communities, and that it will harm Standing Rock’s sacred sites and burial places.
Reann Waloke, her husband, and their five children have called the makeshift village home for over a month now. They sleep in a tent, keep their supplies in their white minivan, and cook on an open fire. For entertainment, the kids take turns riding on the family’s white and brown spotted pony.
“It’s like a second home because we have a lot of other Native American people here that we run into or we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Waloke, who would not name her specific tribe.
The camp began in April with a handful of protesters. When Waloke and her family arrived in early August, there were still just a few. By the end of the month, the number of people in the camp swelled to 3,000, much of the growth fueled by social media.
In August, the tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permit given to Energy Transfer Partners, the company that owns the pipeline, to build and to halt construction on the Missouri River section.
The pipeline will stretch from the oil fields of western North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa and end at an oil hub in Patoka, Ill. When complete, it will pump 470,000 barrels of crude oil to market every day. Energy Transfer Partners said the pipeline is nearly 60 percent finished.
On Sept. 9, a federal judge denied the Standing Rock tribe’s lawsuit, siding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but on the same day the Obama administration stepped in and stopped construction to review the pipeline’s permit to build on federal land around and under the Missouri River and consult tribes on the permit process. The administration also asked Dakota Access to delay construction within 20 miles of the section of pipeline on federal land.
Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren told employees in a memo released Sept. 13, “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded” and the company is committed to the project despite opposition.
Many protesters in the camp celebrated the executive branch’s interference as a major victory and returned to their homes. The number of people in the camp has shrunk to 1,200. Those left behind aren’t satisfied with a temporary halt in construction. They want no pipeline at all and increased control in the decision-making process surrounding infrastructure projects like it.
Many Native Americans in opposition say the pipeline is another symptom of government’s not respecting the desires of indigenous people groups. In this case, Standing Rock tribal leadership claims the Army Corps of Engineers did not adequately consult it, although the federal judge who ruled in favor of the U.S. government thought there was sufficient communication.
“When the Corps timely arrived for the meeting,” the judge said, “Tribal Chairman David Archambault told them that the conclave had started earlier than planned and had already ended.”
It’s clear in the camp that this is about more than the pipeline. Brandon McBride is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He has lived at the camp for two weeks now. For McBride and others in the camp, this is more than a protest. It’s a movement to reunite Native American communities from around the country. “It’s nice to live like this,” McBride said, “to help each other.”
And it’s a movement to defend traditional Native American lands from corporations and the U.S. government.
“I think a lot of indigenous people have disputes with their governments. Enough is enough,” McBride said. “They’ve taken a lot from us and now they’re still taking like we’re not going to do anything about it.”
Erika Lincango is indigenous and was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. Today, she lives in Eugene, Ore., and works as a journalist writing about indigenous issues. Lincango became interested in aboriginal relations with governments when the Ecuadorean government seized land from her grandfather to build a road.
“I’m native and indigenous, and even though the faces are different, the struggle is the same,” she said. Lincango said the pipeline controversy is another example of native people’s wishes being disrespected by the government.
Lincango and other protesters see President Barack Obama’s temporary construction halt as a ruse rather than a victory.
“I think they are trying to make us believe that we have won just to make us go back home,” she said.
The plan among those in the camp is to stay until the pipeline is stopped altogether. In the meantime, camp dwellers are trying to create a functioning community. There is already a school in the center of the camp with a few teachers so families can stay even as the school year is underway. Volunteers make meals to feed camp residents in a community kitchen tent. Young men chop firewood to fuel the kitchen’s ovens and light the camp at night. A few solar panels create power for electrical strips that charge cellphones. Portable bathrooms are scattered around the camp. People rifle through tables filled with donated sweaters, coats, hats, and gloves as cooler temperatures begin to set in. There is even talk of building permanent structures at the campsite.
“There’s a lot of people here that are willing to stay here through the winter,” Waloki said.