CANNON BALL, N.D. — The simmering showdown here between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the company building the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline began as a legal battle.
It has turned into a movement.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country have traveled to this central North Dakota reservation to camp in a nearby meadow and show solidarity with a tribe they think is once again receiving a raw deal at the hands of commercial interests and the U.S. government.
Frank White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, was overcome with emotion as he looked out over the ocean of brightly colored tepees and tents that have popped up on this impromptu 80-acre campground.
“You think no one is going to help,” said White Bull, 48. “But the people have shown us they’re here to help us. We made our stance, and the Indian Nation heard us. It’s making us whole. It’s making us wanyi oyate — one nation. We’re not alone.”
At issue for the tribes is the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, which runs through North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois and has a capacity to transport more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day. The $3.8 billion pipeline now under construction was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cross under the Missouri River a mile north of the reservation.
That river is the source of water for the reservation’s 8,000 residents. Any leak, tribal leaders argue, would cause immediate and irreparable harm. And tribal leaders point to what they consider a double standard, saying that the pipeline was originally going to cross the Missouri north of Bismarck, the state capital, but was rerouted because of powerful opposition that did not want a threat to the water supply there.
The tribe says it also is fighting the pipeline’s path because, even though it does not cross the reservation, it traverses sacred territory taken away from the tribe in a series of treaties that have been forced upon it over the past 150 years.
The reservation sued the Corps of Engineers in July, saying that the agency had not entered into any meaningful consultation with the tribe as required by law and that it had ignored federal regulations governing environmental standards and historic preservation.
Dean DePountis, the tribe’s attorney, said: “This pipeline is going through huge swaths of ancestral land. It would be like constructing a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery or under St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Tensions flared Saturday when Dakota Access workers plowed under two locations adjacent to the pipeline path that just a day earlier the tribe had identified in a court filing as sacred and historic sites. When tribe members and others tried to prevent the action, they were stopped by private security workers for Dakota Access who used guard dogs and pepper spray to drive them back. Photos of the encounter shared online showed snarling German shepherds lunging at protesters. A spokesman for the tribe said six protesters were bitten. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department reported that four security guards and two dogs were injured.
That incident prompted the tribe’s attorneys, from the nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice, to request a temporary restraining order on further construction on the pipeline in that location. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg partially granted the order Tuesday. Boasberg said he will issue a ruling Friday on the tribe’s request to halt all work on the project until permitting issues and the tribe’s disputes with the Corps of Engineers have been properly addressed.
On Tuesday, several pipeline opponents attached themselves to Dakota Access construction equipment in a “lockdown” protest. Others hung a large white banner that read “Water is our first medicine” on a bulldozer. Police watched from afar but did not make any arrests, according to a tribe member.
Attorneys for the Corps of Engineers have argued in court that there was a standard review process for the pipeline and that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was consulted on the project.
Representatives of Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, declined to comment for this article and directed a reporter to the company’s website. Dakota Access says on the website that the pipeline allows the oil to be moved in a “cost-effective, safer and environmentally safer manner” and will deliver nearly $1 billion in direct spending to the U.S. economy.
Large labor unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America, have supported the pipeline and in a statement characterized protesters as “extremists.”
Even as the battle over the pipeline was playing out in court, support for the tribe’s position poured in from all over. The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has called on the United States to provide the tribe a “fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process to resolve this serious issue and to avoid escalation into violence and further human rights abuses.”
More than 200 Native American tribes have declared their support, and many have sent food and supplies.
On social media, activists have used the #NoDAPL hashtag to spread information about the protest and provide live video feeds from the campsite and from protests. Actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson and Susan Sarandon have offered to support the tribe’s efforts.
Environmentalists also have joined the fray, hoping to halt construction of the pipeline and make it go the way of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which ultimately was killed by an order from President Obama last year. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited the Standing Rock reservation in 2014. The tribes and environmental groups have appealed to the president to use his authority to halt the Dakota Access project, but they have received no response from the White House. The president, traveling in Laos, was asked about the tribe’s protest but did not specifically address the case in his answer.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein toured the area and met with protesters Tuesday. Speaking at a campfire meeting in the evening, she called on Obama to “take back this illegitimate permit given by the Army Corps of Engineers.” On Wednesday, a warrant was issued for Stein’s arrest on misdemeanor charges including criminal mischief after she was photographed spray-painting a message on a bulldozer.
Neither Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton nor GOP nominee Donald Trump has stated a position on the pipeline.
For Native American environmentalists, the cause extends beyond the boundaries of the reservations. “The goal is to stop the pipeline, and it’s not just for us,” said Nick Tilson, 34, of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We know there are 17 million people downstream from us. The problem is bad for whatever community is near this pipeline. It’s not going to be if it breaks — it’s going to be when it breaks.”
At the growing campsite, a mile down the road from the pipeline’s planned route, a sense of rural village life is emerging. There is a central kitchen where meals are prepared morning, noon and night. Another huge tent provides clothing, food and toys. Water and other supplies arrive by the truckload. Children run about kicking a basketball and squealing. The whinnies of horses blend with the whir of a chain saw cutting firewood and the far-off beat of a drum. Smoke fills the air.
Many of the Native Americans who have come here speak of a spiritual reawakening taking place. As morning broke Tuesday, Jefferson Greene, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, greeted the day with a song in Ichshkiin, his voice carrying across the slowly stirring campground. The song was giving thanks for the light coming over the horizon and for the strength it provides, he said. Greene had arrived the night before with his aunt and young son.
“There’s such a feeling of unity here,” he said. “When tribes put the call out for help, we need to support them. We all need to be here for each other.”
Jo Kay Dowell, 59, of Tahlequah, Okla., was beginning her third week at the camp in a tent she shares with her daughter Anna Walker, 25, and granddaughter Kyah Vann, 6. Dowell, a member of the Quapaw and Cherokee tribes, said she has become frustrated hearing from so many Native Americans that “there’s nothing we can do about it” when it comes to standing up for tribes’ rights.
“To see this many people come fight for something like this is a dream come true,” she said.
Drucilla Burns, an octogenarian and tribal elder from the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe in Needles, Calif., sat under a stretched tarp eating a breakfast of tortillas and buffalo cooked over a nearby fire.
“Water is what we’re made of,” Burns said. “We’re supposed to be the protectors of the land and water. My God, they took everything away from us. And now they want to take our water, too?”
For Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, the questions about what happens after Friday’s ruling are existential. Standing in his back yard, he smoked a cigarette and recited a list of treaties that his people made with the government that were broken whenever economic interests outweighed tribal rights.
“How do you eliminate a race?” he asked, letting the question hang in the air. “That’s what the government has been trying to do for 200 years. But we’re still here. We have maintained our culture. We’ve maintained our way of life. We’ve maintained our dignity. We’re still here.”
Elahe Izadi and Ann E. Marimow in Washington contributed to this report.