From across the country, they have come to this place called Cannon Ball.
Thousands of them.
Native Americans and military veterans. Environmentalists. Police from nine states. Movie stars. Cattle ranchers and lumberjacks, college students and nurses, landscapers, investment bankers and a waitress from a Florida restaurant called Smokey Bones.
All have been drawn by a 30-inch steel pipe that, in the unlikely setting of a desolate North Dakota prairie, has become a powerful symbol of heritage and history, progress and oppression, indigenous rights and corporate might.
In America’s unsettled and angry winter of 2016, people on all sides of a fractious issue are here to make a stand and have their voices heard.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a 1,170-mile, $3.8 billion project to carry oil extracted from rock through four states to refineries and pipeline networks in Illinois. It is more than 90 percent complete.
To its fans, the pipeline represents America’s energy independence, jobs and a common-sense boost for the economy. What happens next also may offer an early glimpse of the presidency of Donald Trump, an outspoken advocate for removing environmental barriers to U.S. energy production — and an investor in an oil company that owns a 25 percent stake in the pipeline project.
To its opponents, the pipeline represents the latest chapter in the nation’s long history of disrespect and abuse of Native Americans. It runs within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and tribal leaders argue that it threatens the drinking water for thousands of Native Americans and has caused the destruction of sacred artifacts and burial sites.
Sources: USGS, Army Corps of Engineers
and Energy Transfer Partners
THE WASHINGTON POST
Sources: USGS, Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners
THE WASHINGTON POST
Since early 2016, protesters have occupied a federally owned site near the pipeline’s proposed crossing under the Missouri River. Now, nearly 2,000 are living in tents, tepees, yurts, RVs and cars. They are native and non-native, elderly and newborns. The camp has become so large and permanent that it has a book-swap library and a medical center.
More than 560 people have been arrested in protests that have spread 40 miles north to the capital, Bismarck. Each side blames the other for the increasing violence. Protesters claim police have brutalized them with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and water cannons. Police say they don’t possess many of those weapons and that protesters have instigated violence, pelting officers with rocks, bottles, burning logs and bags of urine and feces.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) and the Army Corps of Engineers have ordered protesters out of the camp, but they vow to remain.
With the first snows of a bleak North Dakota winter threatening, The Washington Post visited the area to record the personal accounts of people on all sides of an issue that is tearing at the American heartland.
The way Tom Goldtooth tells the story, somewhere on the North Dakota prairie a Lakota woman had a dream that a “black snake was coming to devour our people.”
In Native American culture, dreams can be prophetic. The black snake in this case, he said, is a pipeline filled with oil.
“The world is watching,” said Goldtooth, 63, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who has been living at the camp since summer. “We’re going to stay here and confront this black snake. . . . We’re going to cut off the head.”
On a cold November morning, Goldtooth sat next to a warm wood stove in a canvas tent and described the struggle in flowing indigenous imagery: the four cycles of life, the sacred hoop and the importance of circles in nature, the spiritual power of eagles and grizzly bears.
Then his words turned sledgehammer blunt.
“This isn’t our first rodeo with the forces of genocide,” said Goldtooth, a great-grandfather with long black braids sticking out from under the hooded sweatshirt he wore beneath a canvas Carhartt jacket.
Goldtooth sees the pipeline as a threat to the drinking water of thousands downstream. And he sees it as another effort by corporations — backed by the power of the government and expected support of Trump — to trample indigenous people as they have for “hundreds of years of colonial oppression.”
“This pipeline represents something deeper,” Goldtooth said. “We have to start worrying about the rights of our future generations. We have to start looking at making a just transition as a society away from a fossil fuel economy.”
Goldtooth was raised on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the grandson of a tribal medicine man and the son of a pioneering Navajo woman who earned a college degree in microbiology.
“They gave me a strong spiritual foundation and a love for the land,” said Goldtooth, who spent a couple of years in the Army in the 1970s, working on programs to combat discrimination against Native Americans, and later as a social worker helping indigenous families.
Goldtooth said that he has long seen “environmental racism” in energy projects forced on Native Americans and began turning his anger into activism starting in the early 1990s. Now he travels the world speaking about climate change, energy, pollution and sustainable resources.
“Capitalism feeds on unlimited growth,” he said. “It’s like this monster that’s always hungry and thirsty and devouring the earth. That’s what our message is here: We have to live in balance; otherwise we’re going to perish.”
As protests over the pipeline have grown increasingly violent, Goldtooth blamed police who have been eager to attack “peaceful and prayerful” protesters with tear gas and other weapons.
He acknowledged that some violence has come from anarchists and other outsiders who “don’t want to follow the directions of nonviolence from our native elders,” who have counseled protesters on how to resist escalation.
“I commend our young people for being patient and holding back their emotions, especially when they are being harassed and intimidated by the police,” he said.
Goldtooth lives in Minnesota but has been coming to Standing Rock to visit relatives since he was a young man. He has become a key face of the movement here, and one recent morning he nodded as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist and lawyer, visited and likened the pipeline encampment to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The same day, Goldtooth stood in an empty field amid a circle of volunteer architects, engineers and builders who had come from as far as Spokane, Wash., and Santa Fe, N.M., to help build a more permanent camp to ride out the bone-cracking winter.
“You have been brought here as part of a prayer,” Goldtooth told them, whipped by a cold prairie wind. “This is going to be a place that provides safety and sustains us in our fight. . . . We’re going to stay here however long it takes.”
Local union official
Cory Bryson watched as 200 demonstrators marched through his home town of Bismarck, protesting the project being built by his union workers.
Businesses had locked their doors, and people watched warily from second-floor windows as the marchers passed a line of sheriff’s deputies in riot gear and headed toward Wells Fargo bank, a major source of project financing.
Most were peaceful and shouted “Water is life.” But one young man suddenly tried to push his way through the line of riot police, who threw him to the ground and cuffed him. The man screamed “Help!” and “I’m being kidnapped!” over and over and spat at the officers.
Bryson shook his head. To him, it was obvious the man had provoked arrest, for the benefit of the news cameras.
“This is what the community is tired of,” Bryson said. “We are one pin-drop away from this escalating to a really violent situation.”
Bryson, 32, is business manager for Local 563 of the Laborers International Union, a second-generation union member and a North Dakotan.
“My father has been a pipeline laborer for 32 years,” said Bryson, a big guy who wears his blond hair in a military-style buzz cut. “It all comes down to energy security.” Moving the Bakken field shale oil to market by pipeline is safer and more efficient than moving it by rail, he said. It has created at least 3,000 good-paying jobs in the past couple of years and will provide maintenance work well into the future.
From the beginning, Bryson has gone to observe the protests in this capital city of 67,000. “We don’t see eye to eye,” he said of the marchers, “but at the same time, they have every right to do it.”
Recently, the protest has been “hijacked by extremist environmentalists” from out of state who harass workers, one of whom was beaten up at a gas station because he was wearing a safety vest with the company logo, Bryson said. People have put dirt into gas tanks of heavy machinery, smashed windshields and committed other acts of vandalism, reports confirmed by local police.
“Guys have gotten a lot smarter — traveling in groups, not wearing company branding or labels,” Bryson said. He himself received an anonymous email that included a photo of himself, his wife and his three small children taken from his Facebook page and his home address. It said: “We hope you enjoy burning in your home with your children.” He turned it over to police.
And it’s the out-of-towners, he said, who have turned the Dakota Access standoff into “a racial issue.”
“The only people creating a race issue or anything along those lines is out-of-state people that are just adding fuel to the fire, most of them being white themselves,” he said.
Bryson said Native American culture has always been “a big part of the community” in North Dakota. He said that he went to school with Native Americans who were “like brothers” to him: “We slept at each other’s houses, ate dinner together all the time as children.”
He is sympathetic to concerns about burial grounds and water purity but said that he thinks the project still can be completed safely and sensitively.
“To say that we’re doing this because we don’t care about them is totally not what it’s about at all,” he said.
Bryson said about 15 of his union members working on the pipeline were Standing Rock Sioux from the reservation. But nearly half of them have asked to be taken off pipeline work because “they were getting a lot of heat” from family members and others in their community.
He kept his eyes on protesters and police outside the federal office building. One carried a gun for firing tear-gas canisters. A heavily armored SWAT vehicle sat a half-block away.
“North Dakota never expected anything like this,” Bryson said. “It’s not built to handle anything like this.”
Activist from Washington state
A young woman in a bright red “I Stand with Standing Rock” T-shirt walked up to Kendra Obom, who was staffing the volunteer tent in the huge camp on the banks of the Missouri River.
“We just arrived, and we’re looking for anything you need us to do,” the woman said.
“Great! We need a lot of help in kitchens and in construction,” said Obom, 31, a cheerful woman with wind-burned cheeks and big glasses who fields hundreds of such questions every day. “Do you have a preference?”
The young woman, a waitress from Florida, chose kitchen duty, so Obom sent her to a nearby tent to help prepare meals.
Obom arrived here in early November, driving 25 hours in her Dodge minivan from Olympia, Wash., to join a movement she had been monitoring on social media, which was making her increasingly upset.
“It’s important to recognize the long history of colonialism that our country has,” said Obom, the daughter of two U.S. Marines and the founder of a school back home that provides outdoor education for urban youth.
“We often don’t hear about indigenous issues,” she said. “And so when I saw what was happening here at Standing Rock and how much attention it was getting, I saw that it was an opportunity to amplify indigenous voices all over the country.”
She is among thousands of other non-indigenous people from around the country and world who have been drawn to Standing Rock.
They chop firewood, build tepees, pick up trash, paint protest banners, help with recycling and composting, and attend training sessions on indigenous rights. Sometimes they join “direct action” protests that have led to clashes with authorities and scores of arrests. Some who have been arrested and bailed out attend daily “arrestee meetings” to get advice from volunteer lawyers.
An encampment by the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, N.D., where hundreds of people have gathered to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Sept. 3. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Obom stays away from the protests. She has found her niche helping to coordinate out-of-town volunteers as a way of “showing solidarity” with a minority that has historically been “disenfranchised and marginalized.”
“I think it’s important to not see other people as being so different from you that they deserve different human rights,” Obom said.
Obom was raised in North Carolina and Washington state, and both of her parents deployed to the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm. As a child, Obom said that she wanted to be in the military, and always slept with her parents’ field handbooks under her bed.
Eventually, she realized that she was too “sensitive and shy” for the military: “I felt like there had to be a way to connect with people that didn’t involve so much yelling. And I really wanted to know how to make the world feel safer.”
She was deeply influenced by her mother, who was an ardent environmentalist.
“I was the kid who used to take a bath with just a bucket of water to help save the salmon,” she said with a laugh.
She soon found a gift for organizing. In elementary school, she would start clubs and pass out “feedback forms” to her classmates to solicit suggestions for making the club better.
In college, she studied nursing and counseling, and earned a degree in health and human development, which she has put to work in community activism with youth and women’s issues.
Now she was sleeping on the hard-packed ground in her small REI tent, pitched next to the tepee and campfire of an indigenous family that had taken her in. She hadn’t had a shower in two weeks — and craved one.
For lunch, she pulled a plastic bag of microwave chana masala — Indian chickpeas — out of her van, and ate it cold from the pack with a spoon.
“This movement at Standing Rock has had incredible ripple effects,” she said. “People who could previously ignore it now have to see it and recognize the threat of these things.”
Morton County sheriff's deputy
Night after night, sheriff’s deputy Jon Moll pulls on his helmet, face shield and body armor to face off against hundreds of angry protesters.
He hasn’t had a day off in more than a month. He said that he has been hit with rocks fired from slingshots and chunks of firewood, and he has seen protesters pelting officers with bags of urine and feces.
“They’re constantly spewing ‘We’re peaceful, we’re peaceful, we’re peaceful’ as they’re throwing stuff at you,” said Moll, 38. “If you’re going to be violent, just say it. Own it. But don’t spit your propaganda at me and then try to blame me because I’m doing my job protecting my community.”
Moll, a Lutheran minister’s son who grew up on a strawberry farm in Minnesota, is one of 34 sheriff’s deputies in Morton County. The square-shouldered, 6-foot-3 deputy works the overnight shift, which until August usually meant handling bar fights and traffic accidents. Now, the department is consumed with confronting pipeline protests, helped by police reinforcements from as far away as Louisiana.
Protesters in Mandan, N.D., face off with police during a rally against plans to pass the Dakota Access Pipeline on Nov. 15. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
A particularly rough encounter on Nov. 20 epitomizes the escalating tension between protesters and law enforcement. That night, police used fire hoses to douse protesters in subfreezing temperatures, sending several to the hospital. A 21-year-old woman suffered severe damage to her left arm. Protesters, and her family, said that she was hit with a concussion grenade, a weapon that creates a loud sound designed to disorient people. Police said that they do not use those devices and that the woman was probably injured by a propane tank the protesters were trying to use as an improvised explosive device. Each side accuses the other of lying about the incident.
Moll, who said that he was hit on the helmet by a rock that night, defended the measures as justified. “I think utilizing water is essentially a soft method to try to keep people away,” he said. “Everything that I saw happen was absolutely correct.”
Moll spent his teenage years in Philadelphia, where his father entered the Lutheran seminary, and in Yonkers, N.Y., where his father preached.
“Lutherans are pretty good at putting their money where their words are and actually doing missionary-type work,” he said. “We were raised to recognize that we exist to help other people.”
He graduated from Norwich University, a military school in Vermont, thinking that he would enlist in the military. But instead he gravitated back to the Midwest and enrolled in a North Dakota police academy.
“There’s an interaction with people on a very real, very visceral level that you really can’t get in another line of work,” he said. “The feeling of being a law enforcement officer, of serving the community, of putting yourself on the line for the betterment of others, is a different level of service that fits me well.”
It bugs him that some violent agitators have cast themselves in the model of one of the great religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He didn’t throw rocks and bottles at people. He didn’t spit in people’s faces. He knew exactly what he was doing with civil disobedience, and he understood and expected that he would be placed under arrest,” Moll said. “That’s part of it. Today, it’s ‘You can’t arrest me, that’s illegal, it’s against my rights.’ Well, no, you’re missing the playbook here, kid. Civil disobedience means you’re going to get arrested, so please don’t complain about it.”
Native American activist from Alaska
Faith Gemmill needed to feed 30 hungry protesters, so she looked over the dinner options: Mason jars filled with moose heart. Reindeer sausage. Dried Caribou and salmon.
She and 13 other Native American women had carried that homemade food in coolers and boxes on a four-flight, 10-hour odyssey from their home in Arctic Village, Alaska.
“We came to show solidarity, and this is how we can help,” said Gemmill, an environmental leader back home and now a volunteer camp cook, as she started chopping carrots in a makeshift kitchen tent, stacked high with donated foods, from soup to Nutella.
“We are fighting for recognition of our sovereign rights and to continue our way of life,” she said. “The threat here is a threat to all of us.”
Gemmill came here in early November from her tiny village, 500 miles north of Anchorage, to join the encampment. She had seen news coverage of clashes between protesters and police and felt ill over what she considered another violent indignity against native people.
Her solution: bring women.
“We’re the ones that nourish and defend life, so it just seemed right,” said Gemmill, 43, who cajoled money and air miles from donors and put together a delegation of volunteers to bring “an outpouring of prayers from Alaska.”
Since her early 20s, Gemmill has worked against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas, and she sees the Dakota Access Pipeline as a dangerous over-reliance on fossil fuels that is exacerbating climate change.
“We see the impacts first, and we’re hit hardest. We fish, we hunt, we gather from the land,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘No more.’ . . . We strongly feel that fossil fuels should be left in the ground, and this country and all countries need to start moving toward sustainable and renewable energies.”
Gemmill was born in Arctic Village, population 150, and raised in a culture of protecting natural resources. “Our elders taught us that you only take what you need from the land, and you use it all,” she said. Every bit of every moose or caribou killed by her tribe’s hunters is used: meat for food, hide for clothing, bones for tools and medicine.
Her activism was awakened when she was 15 and sent to a Native American boarding school in Oregon, where she met peers from all over the Northwest who didn’t know their native languages, had never hunted and knew little about their history.
“I was blown away,” she said. “It scared me.”
She returned home and started programs to make sure young people were aware of their heritage, and she quickly became a rising star in tribal efforts to protect the local environment.
“Those are the values I brought with me to North Dakota,” she said, where she now shares a 12-by-12 tent pitched next to a hill covered with signs marking sacred burial sites.
Gemmill said that she and the other Alaska women joined a recent protest on a local highway, where they sang and drummed and prayed. Some young men in the group walked onto land owned by the pipeline developers, and, she said, they were quickly surrounded by needlessly aggressive police who sprayed them with mace.
The attacks on the protesters were unprovoked and “disgusting,” she said. She said she saw one officer who was “full of hate.” “You could see it in his eyes — all he wanted to do was hurt somebody,” she said.
Gemmill knows the political climate in the United States is shifting sharply against her, with the election of Trump, who has vowed to lift restrictions on oil and gas producers and who is invested in an oil company that has a 25 percent stake in the pipeline.
“Whatever he does, we’re going to stand up and defend what we have to defend,” she said. “It’s our future generations’ rights to clean air, clean water, healthy food, their food security and a healthy environment.”
Foreman for a local excavating company
Adrian Brown woke at 4:30 a.m. and pulled on his blaze-orange hoodie. Deer season was winding down, and he was itching to get his buck. But after five hours of tromping through the blustery prairie, he was ready for a mushroom and Swiss burger and a pile of fries.
To get to the only restaurant out here, in St. Anthony, he and a buddy drove 15 miles down a gravel road, crossing over a 30-foot wide gash in the vast plains running straight as a ruler for as far as the eye could see. Buried 10 feet below the freshly turned dirt was the oil pipeline that has been tearing apart the communities where Brown’s family has lived for generations.
“The great thing about living in the United States is that we’re all able to have a voice. What I disagree with is the way they’re going about it,” Brown said of the thousands of people who have gathered in Cannon Ball.
Brown, a burly, bearded 30-year-old in a black ball cap, said the increasing protests are costing local people money. He is a foreman for a local excavating company and said the day before, protesters tried to burn a truck on railroad tracks crossing the road to the gravel pit where he needed to pick up a load of rock.
“I had to move jobs, which isn’t the end of the world because we have other things to do, but it’s an inconvenience,” he said. “I have friends who are owner-operator truck drivers, and this time of year is our ‘go time.’ This is how these people support their families. Owner-operators who couldn’t get in and out of the pit went home. They didn’t make any money yesterday.”
Sitting in a restaurant with walls decorated with huge racks of antlers and other trophy heads, Brown said shipping shale oil by rail has overloaded lines and made it harder for farmers to get their wheat and other crops to market.
And: “Am I for alternative energy? Do it. Are we ever going to live without fossil fuel? Absolutely not,” Brown said. “This pipe will go in the ground. It’s the world we live in. Oil makes the world go ’round.”
Brown said relations between Native Americans and non-indigenous people have always been good in southern North Dakota: “I’ve fished down on the reservation for many years. I spend money at the gas station by the casino. I go to the casino. It’s never been an issue.”
He, too, blamed the escalating conflict on “out-of-staters” who have turned the local Standing Rock Sioux’s legitimate concerns into an increasingly tense and volatile standoff. Police say about 93 percent of those arrested have been from outside North Dakota.
Brown also suspects — as many here do — that the protesters are being funded by out-of-state sources, possibly by wealthy people who are invested in the railroad and are trying to scuttle a pipeline that will compete with rail.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are beginning to be at their wits' end with it,” Brown said. “It’s affecting our daily lives. Schools are being locked down. The Capitol is being locked down.”
Brown, a jovial man who is quick to laugh, said half-jokingly that a fierce North Dakota winter might end the standoff naturally: “I hope it gets really, really, really cold and all the out-of-staters go home.”