On the day a no-fly zone was lifted over Morton County and the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, Dean Dedman Jr. sent his drone into the sky and released some of the most dramatic aerial footage to come from the occupation. It was a shocking first look at the rapid advancement of the Dakota Access pipeline. For miles, the scraped and trenched earth extended all the way to a fortified drill pit, a strange and empty compound sitting practically on the edge of the Missouri River.
“What surprised me the most is how fast they got to that point, to the river,” Dedman said.
The next-day response from protesters, who call themselves water protectors, was to take action: They would try to occupy the undisturbed land resting between the compound and the river. The property belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an easement that the federal agency had designated for pipeline construction. As protesters approached the banks of Cantapeta Creek, they met police resistance. Militarized troops shot rubber bullets and dispensed pepper spray to drive the unarmed demonstrators away.
In the continuing battle over the Dakota Access pipeline, there is a sense that time is running out. And in this urgent fight, all sides— the state, the tribe, police, and protesters—have vowed to stand their ground.
And that’s fitting. This conflict has much to do with that ground they’re all standing on, and digging in. It’s also about the history that determines who controls the land.
When the airspace reopened, Dedman, 31, wasted little time in sending his Phantom 3 drone into flight. “I’m from here,” said the Standing Rock Sioux tribal member. “I remember we could go freely up to [Highway] 1806, no problem.” Since the raid, police have blocked the highway so that construction of the pipeline is now taking place without outside witnesses.
Dedman and his drone were the reason the airspace closed in the first place.
Sunday, before the Oct. 27 militarized raid along Highway 1806, Morton County Sheriff’s deputies took turns firing at the drone and finally hit it. The sheriff’s department complained Dedman was endangering the lives of surveillance pilots hired by Dakota Access.
The day Dedman’s drone was hit, several people had begun erecting tents and teepees on land sitting directly in the path of the pipeline. The site, over the course of the five-day occupation, came to be known as the “Treaty Camp,” a reference to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave the land to the Great Sioux Nation.
That piece of ground — particularly, the intersection at Highway 1806 — has become the most significant crossroads so far in the battle against the pipeline.
This piece of land
Across the road from the Treaty Camp, and beyond a bony, humble fence, are lands that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have, for months, declared to be culturally sacred. In early September, the tribe backed up these claims in court filings as a last-ditch effort to stall pipeline construction. The next day, Sept. 3, crews with Dakota Access began plowing there. Protesters scaled the fence and clashed with private security guards armed with vicious dogs—a tense confrontation documented by a crew from Democracy Now!. The video of the bloody dog attacks went viral and helped galvanize the movement.
Nearly two months later, that location at once defined as sacred, violent, and a pinnacle in the pipeline fight also has become crucial. Construction plans called for jumping Highway 1806 there in the pipeline’s path to the Missouri River.
Then on Oct. 27, shortly after 11 a.m., two aircraft licensed to Dakota Access circled above that piece of land. To the west, bulldozers idled. To the east, protesters prayed. Stretched across the prairie was an army of police ready for combat. “This is war!’’ yelled one protester as a nearby fire raged. A thick plume of black smoke cast an ominous cloud. Beneath its dark shadow stood a line of police loaded with weapons. Standing in the sun were a group of mostly Native Americans who insist they were unarmed.
“Leave private property,” ordered the police.
“Private property evidently wasn’t so sacrosanct when it was Indians who owned it,” wrote Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. His Nov.3 opinion in the New York Times criticized Morton County for what he described as excessive use of force along with a reminder that the pipeline crosses onto broken Treaty lands. “When water protectors put their bodies in front of the pipeline, they were standing on land that the United States promised to my people … only to take it away a few years later.”
Exhaustion and frustration
In the aftermath of the standoff, the mood at times turns to frustration, exhaustion, and doubt. There is also a rattling anger permeating the camps at Standing Rock.
It’s been more than a week since the raid, and the grounds are under routine police watch. Pilots hired by Dakota Access continue to circle the air space. The sound of their constant surveillance, for many, is psychological warfare. Bright fluorescent lights now shine in the distance beyond the encampment dotted with teepees and tents. The beams are part of a newly installed police staging area situated on the other side of the hill.
Meanwhile, tensions flared again after it became public that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had called on the Morton County sheriff to defuse the day of action at Cantaputa Creek. “The Corps of Engineers would consider these individuals to be trespassers,” read a letter from Col. John Henderson, the USACE district commander who supervised initial permitting of the pipeline project. “On behalf of the Corps of Engineers, as a property owner, I am requesting law enforcement assistance in this matter.”
Thursday evening, following closed-door talks with tribal leaders in Fort Yates, Henderson was ambushed with questions from protesters as he attempted to walk out of tribal headquarters. When asked why he sent the letter, Henderson replied that he did it at the request of Morton County.
“Our people are getting roughed up, and you have blood on your hands,” said tribal member Wasté Win Young. Henderson, looked down at his hands mockingly and shook his head.
“It’s unfortunate that anybody got hurt,” said Henderson, referring to images circulating on social media of protesters wounded from rubber bullets.
“What you did was oppression and genocide,” said Young. She was streaming the encounter on Facebook LIVE.
“That’s enough,” Henderson said, turning away from Young’s smartphone camera.
“You’re a political appointee, and you’re gonna be gone,” Young continued. “But we’re still gonna be here. We’re always gonna be here. We’ll never give up!”
A woman standing nearby lili’d in the moment, her indigenous cry echoing in the hallway as the colonel walked away.
Later, Archambault remarked, “Everybody’s protecting this company. And it’s a bad company.”
Questions about the land
The tribal chairman went on to discuss how Dakota Access officials failed to immediately report findings of artifacts unearthed from recent construction. According to the North Dakota Public Service Commission, stone cairns were discovered Oct. 17, along the direct route of the pipeline. But the company waited 10 days to reveal the findings to the commission, the day of the massive raid. The relics are under review, but state historic preservation officers say they could represent anything from trail markings to prayer objects and even human remains.
The issue of sacred lands, including the Missouri River, remains at the center of the stalled pipeline project.
A Sep. 9 executive order by the Obama administration—in conjunction with the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—called for a temporary halt to construction. The order remains in effect while the federal government conducts its review. The crucial land in question belongs to the Corps of Engineers.
The tribe and other opponents of the pipeline want the Army Corps of Engineers to deny Dakota Access a final permit required to complete its $3.8 billion project. They want a formal environmental impact statement to be conducted—a step the energy companies, Dakota Access and its operator, Energy Transfer Partners, were able to skip based on studies conducted decades earlier.
And now there’s the possibility of re-routing the pipeline, as suggested this week by President Obama.
“As a general rule, my view is that there is a way to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans,” Obama said in an interview with Now This News. Release of the video came late Tuesday, the night before the violence erupted at Cantaputa Creek. “So we’re gonna let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether this can be resolved in a way that is properly attentive to the traditions of the First Americans,” Obama said.
Despite the president’s connection to Standing Rock—he visited in June 2014—and, for that matter, all of Indian Country, his remarks were met with harsh criticism.
A Tweet posted by Honor the Earth organizer Tara Houska summed up the way many water protectors received Obama’s remarks: “@POTUS you’ve asked #DAPL to cease construction, but your administration is working w/police hurting Native Americans. #NoDAPL #Hypocrisy”
So much uncertainty
Meanwhile, the Morton County Commission Chairman Cody Schulz accused Obama of “creating further uncertainty” as the fight over the pipeline continues. Schulz issued a prepared statement, labeling demonstrators as an “out-of-state militant faction”: “Given the recent escalation of violence by protesters, letting the situation ‘play out’ is quite literally putting lives in danger.”
Certainly, there are many unknowns, the most influential of which may be the presidential election on Tuesday.
The critical contest is perhaps the sole reason behind the president’s kick-the-can approach: The political stakes of that race are too high. Trump holds investments in Dakota Access. Clinton’s supporters are divided on the issue of energy infrastructure. Any decision made by the Obama administration could tip the scales determining future leadership in the country.
Then there are these facts to contend with: Only 3 percent of the nearly 1,200-mile-long pipeline crosses federal lands. It narrowly escapes tribal jurisdiction by half a mile. Even so, the tribe is guaranteed by law opportunities for consultation.
The federal view, at least from the Army Corps of Engineers, is that the tribe has ignored many consultation opportunities to discuss the project. “The Corps has documented dozens of attempts to engage Standing Rock in consultations to identify historical resources at Lake Oahe,” said U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg in his Sep. 9 court order. That was the ruling that rejected the tribe’s motion for an injunction.
The tribe has repeatedly argued that it was not properly consulted, that decisions were made, and that the tribe was simply informed. “That’s not consultation,” Archambault said. “Consultation is having a seat at the table when these decisions are made.”
Another unknown is the risks of an oil spill disaster.
The tribe claims that the Army Corps has underestimated the probability of a spill and have ordered an independent assessment that supports its claims. Friday Archambault called for the agency to disallow the pipeline its final easement on those grounds. The North Dakota Petroleum Council contends the underground pipe is the safest way to transport its supply of Bakken crude, a market that has put North Dakota on the energy map.
The urgency is clear
At least with a view from the air, one thing is clear: The Dakota Access pipeline is in a race against time.
Winter is coming. Earlier reports indicate the energy companies wanted the pipeline to be carrying crude as early as Jan. 1. Across the four states it traverses, from North Dakota to Illinois, the project is around 75 percent complete; in North Dakota, it’s nearly done.
The one factor delaying the pipeline process is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s assertion of its sovereign right to protect the interests of its water.
“It makes me feel disrespected,” Dedman said, as he reviewed his new drone footage of the pipeline construction.
At one point, his lens fixated on the crossing at Highway 1806, where so much chaos had erupted a week earlier. Looking at the site now, muddy and gutted where people and teepees stood only recently, the rapid transformation seemed surreal.
“Everybody’s mad. Everybody feels hurt and broken,” said Dedman. “But we can’t let them break us. We just got to stand here and do what we can.”