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Water, riots, and the Seven Council Fires - what is the Standing Rock protest?

It has been called the largest gathering of Native American tribes in a century.

FOR THE PAST four months, Native Americans, environmentalists and celebrities have been gathering in North Dakota against a decision to place an oil pipeline under the Missouri River and the man-made Lake Oahe.

The proposed 1886-kilometre oil project would shuttle half a million barrels of North Dakota-produced oil to refining markets in Illinois, and would cost $3.7 billion.

The Texas corporation Energy Transfer Partners is behind the ‘Dallas Access pipeline’ and with over 80% of the works already completed, they expected the entire project to be completed by 2017.

But because their planned route runs through the site of a Native American tribe called the Standing Rock Sioux who say these plans threaten their heritage and their water supply, the company’s plans have been stopped by huge opposition.

Oil Pipeline Protest _Acos (1) A satellite image shows the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline (top right), while hundreds of protesters fighting the pipeline gather (bottom centre). Associated Press / DigitalGlobe Associated Press / DigitalGlobe / DigitalGlobe

The Sioux tribe say that the land contains sacred historic artifacts, and that their health could be in danger if the oil pipe were to leak – a point that also has environmentalists worried.

The sit-in protest, which began in earnest in August, has gathered more than 100 Native American tribes to the campsite near Cannon Ball to protest against and try to stop the final leg of the oil project being implemented.

Former US Vice President Al Gore, Democratic presidential nominee Senator Bernie Sanders, Hollywood actors Murk Ruffalo, Shailene Woodley and Leonardo DiCaprio have all criticised the proposals.

The campsite

For several months, the government permitted the gathering of protesters at the Native American site, allowing its population to swell.

The camp, called Seven Council Fires, began growing in August as it took in the overflow crowd from smaller protest sites nearby.

It now covers a half square mile, with living quarters that include old school buses, fancy motorhomes and domelike yurts. Hale bales are piled around some teepees to keep out the wind. There’s even a crude corral for horses.

The number of inhabitants has ranged from several hundred to several thousand. It has been called the largest gathering of Native American tribes in a century.

Grandma Redfeather David Goldman David Goldman

Increasingly, more permanent wooden structures are being erected, even though the Army Corps of Engineers considers them illegal on government property. The Standing Rock Sioux insist the land still belongs to their tribe under a nearly 150-year-old treaty.


The protests were peaceful and unobstructed until mid-October, when local police moved in to break-up encampments on public roads and on private land.

Chaos ensued, with a clash in late October resulting in 117 arrests and two instances of gunshots – one person was shot in the hand after being “run off the road by protesters,” according to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

Last month, tensions came to a head again when local police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and a water cannon at protesters, who police say were engaged in a “riot” and had started a dozen fires.

Protest organisers said 167 people were hurt, including three Native American tribal elders, and that seven people have been hospitalised for severe head injuries.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department put the number of protesters at 400, and the Bismarck Tribune quoted the sheriff’s department as saying protesters threw rocks and logs at officers, and one officer was struck in the head.

“We have seen at least four gunshot wounds, three of them I know to the face and head, rubber bullets,” medic Leland Brenholt said in a video posted on social media, adding that police were also using water, pepper spray and tear gas on protesters.

Right now, we are trying to keep people warm, we’re trying to get them decontaminated, and treating all kinds of different wounds. People have been hit with (tear gas) canisters in the chest or the leg and that sort of thing.

Oil Pipeline Protest Jacquelyn Martin Jacquelyn Martin

Facebook friends

In November, over a million people checked-ins to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Facebook, in an attempt to shield protesters from allegedly being tracked by police.

Although the Morton County Sheriff’s Department denied tracking anyone’s whereabouts, calling the accusations “absolutely false”, the incident showed the massive amount of support the protesters have, and gave the movement a renewed sense of solidarity and momentum.

Neither sleet nor snow

Grandma Redfeather David Goldman David Goldman

Right now, camp dwellers are getting ready for the hardships of a long winter’s stay.

On Thursday, the camp became shrouded in snow, much of it compacted by foot and vehicle traffic – with temperatures hovering between -1 and -6 degrees celsius. Next week’s forecast could drop to as low as -12 to -17, and subzero wind chills are expected.

Mountains of donated food and water are being stockpiled, as is firewood, much of which has come from outside of North Dakota, the least-forested state in the nation. A collection of army surplus tents with heating stoves serve as kitchen, dining hall, medical clinic and a camp-run school. Many of the smaller tents have become tattered by the wind.

Thane Maxwell, a 32-year-old Minneapolis native who has been living at the camp since July, said North Dakota’s bitter cold will not deter protesters committed to fighting the pipeline, or “black snake” as they call it.

Tribes from the Great Plains states are adept at surviving brutal winters, he said. Others from warmer climes are being taught how to endure the frostbite-inducing temperatures that are sure to come.

“A lot of these people have been living in this climate for hundreds of years,” said Maxwell a member of Minnesota-based Honor the Earth Foundation. “It’s a skill set that can be learned. The danger is escalating from law enforcement, not the weather.”

Reddog said she has confidence in the camp community. “Everybody’s really stepping up and taking care of each other,” she said.

The latest

Oil Pipeline Protest Digging In David Goldman David Goldman

The latest development occurred last night, when the Army Corps of Engineers refused to grant the company permission to extend the pipeline beneath a Missouri River reservoir.

Hundreds of people at the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, encampment cheered and chanted “mni wichoni” – “water is life” in Lakota Sioux.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a news release that her decision was based on the need to “explore alternate routes” for the pipeline’s crossing. Her full decision doesn’t rule out that it could cross under the reservoir or north of Bismarck.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Darcy said.

The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.

US Representative Kevin Cramer said it’s a “very chilling signal” for the future of infrastructure in the United States.

Benji Buffalo David Goldman David Goldman

Despite the victory and a government’s deadline to leave the campsite before today, the tribe pledged to remain camped on federal land in North Dakota anyway.

“The whole world is watching,” said Miles Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux.

I’m telling all our people to stand up and not to leave until this is over.

Despite the deadline, authorities say they won’t forcibly remove the protesters.

North Dakota’s leaders criticised the decision, with Governor Jack Dalrymple calling it a “serious mistake” that “prolongs the dangerous situation” of having several hundred protesters who are camped out on federal land during cold, wintry weather.

Oil Pipeline David Goldman David Goldman

President-elect Donald Trump, a pipeline supporter, will take office in January, although it wasn’t immediately clear what steps his administration would be able to take to reverse the Army Corps’ latest decision or how quickly that could happen.

That uncertainty, Allard said, is part of the reason the protesters won’t leave.

Other reasons are much more personal. Carla Youngbear of the Meskwaki Potawatomi tribe made her third trip from central Kansas to be at the protest site.

“I have grandchildren, and I’m going to have great grandchildren,” she said.

They need water. Water is why I’m here.

Read: Over ’165 people injured’ as police and protesters clash at North Dakota pipeline

Read: Over a million people checked in on Facebook in solidarity with Indian Reservation protests

Associated Foreign Press
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