Police violence meets spiritual resistance in the struggle over DAPL

An appeals court overruled the shutdown of DAPL, pending a full environmental review. The fight against a pipeline that provoked unprecedented resistance continues.

SOURCEYes! Magazine

Six years after Energy Transfer Partners began the project, its Dakota Access Pipeline for Bakken shale oil remains a fundamental affront to environmental safety and tribal sovereignty. A federal judge recently ordered a shutdown of DAPL while its permit is reconsidered, thanks to the legal challenge of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This week, an appeals court reversed that order. The pipeline remains in operation—for now.

The contest over DAPL came to the world’s attention in the autumn of 2016, when Native people and their allies created an encampment community of resistance at the path of the pipeline in North Dakota. Mni Wiconi/Water is Life: Honoring the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Everywhere in the Ongoing Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty is a collection of essays, interviews, art, and photos that memorialize the unprecedented phenomenon created at Standing Rock.

Excerpted here are accounts by photographer John Willis and Harold C. Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. They describe just one telling scene from Standing Rock: the violent attack on Water Protectors at Backwater Bridge on the night of November 20, 2016, when police deployed tear gas and water cannons, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. It’s one dramatic moment that illustrates how people resisted state-sponsored force over months to protect the water supply for the Standing Rock reservation and surrounding communities. They drew strength from movement solidarity, the wisdom of Indigenous culture, and deep spirituality. They’re still doing it.


The night of November 20th on the Backwater Bridge I never knew no negativity, no cussing, no swearing; nobody was violent on our people’s side. I did see a few water bottles thrown towards the cops, but, I mean, who wouldn’t? That night I could never forget, and to this day I never looked at anybody I didn’t know. I didn’t care whose color or skin, I didn’t care where they came from or their tribe, and sometimes I think about that night, and you know it’s emotional and upsetting at the same time. The cops had no right to do the harm that they did to our people, and for what? Nobody tried to cross the line. The cops inflicted a lot of harm to our people.

All of those things they said in the media are lies, and now I think the truth is coming out about what really happened that night. And it’s really upsetting as a tribal chairman to know that the Bureau of Indian Affairs knew what was happening that night, and they are the federal agency that is supposed to protect the people and their resources, and they did nothing. Even though I stayed there the whole time, till 3 or 4 in the morning they were still using that water hose, and it was crazy.

Facing the police line at Backwater Bridge. On the freezing-cold night of November 20, 2016, police used tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water cannons, and more on the Water Protectors. Photo by John Willis for Mni Wiconi/Water is Life.

I’ve been saying that all my life I never heard the word “trespass.” I always felt that God made me who I was, who I am. All these liberties that we are all supposed to enjoy in America, it’s
 just unreal how few could benefit and the rest of us can’t. That’s just not right. You know under 
the Declaration of Independence it says that all people are created equal. We have been saying that the American government has failed us, the American people have not. That’s why you [non-Native] guys are here, and I thank you guys, and we at the very least have to get our message out there so that people that do care can hear it and maybe help us.

People said if the Indigenous people can do this, we can do this, too. It was amazing to hear that courage and rebelliousness. It wasn’t a wild, dangerous rebellion; it was “We need to be proud of who we are and protect our Indigenous people and the environment, and we can do this.” There’s nothing that says that we can’t. I asked them what caused them and prompted them to get out of their comfort zone, and all of them said it was the Backwater Bridge incident.

We are going to fight the government and protect the environment.


I awoke unsettled, two days after the Backwater Bridge action in which more than 300 Water Protectors required medical attention due to clear overreaction by the police to prayerful demonstration. No police were hurt. The evening conflict began when a small group from Oceti Sakowin Camp took it upon themselves to begin unblocking the ND 1806 bridge. The police-supported blockade of the highway had been in effect since October 27th. More than three weeks earlier, the police said that the road would be kept clear and open, but no such effort was made. Not only was the roadblock affecting the “protesters,” as the authorities call them, but it also caused the entire community south of the roadblock to drive an additional 30 minutes or more out of the way to get to and from Bismarck. Even ambulances and emergency vehicles could not pass through the police barricade, which increased risk to people from across the reservation and the many communities living south of the barricade.

Non-Native allies encircle Native Water Protectors to protect them from possible arrest during a street action outside the Mandan County Memorial Courthouse in North Dakota. Photo by John Willis for Mni Wiconi/Water is Life.

Camp members tired of waiting for the police to reopen the road took a tractor-trailer to the bridge and towed a burned-out truck out of the way. Before they could manage to remove the additional barriers, the police began a barrage on the Water Protectors in a series of events that lasted more than 10 hours. Water cannons mounted atop armored vehicles were used to spray people almost continuously during the freezing-cold night. Tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbag ordnance, concussion grenades, and LRAD sound cannons were used repeatedly, as the crowd quickly grew to more than 1,000 people standing in opposition through prayer.

Of the more than 300 Water Protectors who were injured, six were immediately taken to hospital by ambulances. This included an elder who was in cardiac arrest. According to the camp medical providers, more than 100 of the injured had hypothermia from the water cannons. A female Water Protector had her arm severely injured when a concussion grenade thrown in her direction detonated. An Indigenous war veteran on the camp’s volunteer medical team brought this woman to the hospital. Her response to seeing the patient’s wound? “This clearly is a combat wound.” Another protector was still in critical condition after being shot in the head with “nonlethal” weapons.

Believing in communication to overcome controversy, I engage pro-DAPL people when opportunities arise. The intensity of the miscommunication I come up against is striking. While not too surprising, it is nonetheless disappointing. I spoke to many people in the nearby communities who believe the Water Protectors were paid as much as $36 per hour. I have yet to find anyone who was paid. On the contrary, most people made large sacrifices to be here.

The Sacred Fire Circle prayers began on 22 November, 2016, before dawn, with Guy Dull Knife, a Lakota elder from Pine Ridge Reservation, and J. R. American Horse, from Standing Rock Reservation, who are both veterans, waking up the camp. “Wake up, Water Protectors! You are here for a purpose! It is time to rise up, greet the new day, and stop this Black Snake.” Guy stated that he could not say good morning to everyone because it was a sad day. Guy had been in the hospital recuperating from walking pneumonia. The news of the standoff at the bridge reached him, and he tore off his intravenous tubes when he was notified about the wounded protectors in danger. Guy’s return was to offer the morning prayers. He thanked us all genuinely for supporting the movement from near and afar. Guy said, “They are trying to kill this movement and are willing to kill us if needed.” He said there should be millions here.

Photo by John Willis for Mni Wiconi/Water is Life.

That is what is needed: to stop corporations from treating life as less significant than humanity and 
the natural environment. We can live without oil. We cannot live without Mni Wiconi, the sacred water of life. We are here for our families, our children, their children, and those still unborn. We are all one family standing together. The strength we have is in prayer, especially in numbers. Millions are needed to let the authorities know that people from all walks of life,
 all religions, all cultures are in tune with the Creator and are coming together to take a stand. We were not paid to come from all parts of the world as we did. We were not against the police. In fact, we prayed daily for them and their supporters. We hope they can see into their own hearts and have compassion to come join us—or at least walk away from their oppressive jobs. We send the call out to the Creator, Oyinkiyapo, to come and help us in the collective power of prayer.

Melanie Stoneman, a Sicangu Lakota woman from Rosebud Reservation, spoke to this being a different kind of fight, a spiritual war. “We must take care of Mother Earth and all of her children,” she said. “Living life in a good way is living in prayer. Every action is a prayer. Mother Earth needs all of us to add our prayers.” Anyone is not only welcomed, but encouraged to speak at the sacred circle.

This edited excerpt of text and photos from Mni Wiconi/Water is Life: Honoring the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Everywhere in the Ongoing Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty by John Willis (George F. Thompson Publishing, 2019) appears with permission of the publisher.


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