It’s 2016, and the weight of American corporate interests has come to the Missouri River, the Mother River. This time, instead of the Seventh Cavalry, or the Indian police dispatched to assassinate Sitting Bull, it is Enbridge and Dakota Access Pipeline. In mid August, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II was arrested by state police, along with 27 others, for opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the meantime, North Dakota Governor Daplymyre called for more police support. Every major pipeline project in North America must cross Indigenous lands, Indian country. That is a problem.
The road west of Fargo is rarely taken. In fact, most Americans just fly over North Dakota, never seeing it. Let me take you there.
My head clears as I drive; my destination the homeland of the Hunkpapa Oceti, Standing Rock Reservation. It is early evening, the moon full. If you close your eyes you can remember the 50 million buffalo, the single largest migratory herd in the world. The pounding of their hooves would vibrate the Earth, and make the grass grow. There were once 250 species of grass. Today the buffalo are gone, replaced by 28 million cattle who require grain, water and hay. Many of the fields are now in a single GMO crop, full of so many pesticides that the monarch butterflies are being wiped out.
If you drive long enough you come to the Missouri River. Called Mnisose, a great swirling river by the Lakota, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is breathtaking.
The Missouri River has a fixed place in the history and mythology of the Lakota and other Indigenous nations of the Northern Plains. In the time before Sitting Bull, the Missouri River was the epicenter of northern agriculture; the river bed so fertile, the territory was known as the fertile crescent of North America.
Now Enbridge and their partners are preparing to drill through the river bed. The pipeline has been permitted in sections from the west and from the east. The northern portion was moved away from the water supply of Bismarck, into the watershed of Standing Rock. That’s unfortunate.
Despite Lakota legal and regulatory objections, the Dakota Access Pipeline construction began in May 2016. If finished, it will snake through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, where it will link to a 774-mile pipeline to Nederland, Texas. More than 570,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil will pass through the pipeline daily, along with 245,100 metric tons of carbon daily, or enough carbon to combust the planet to oblivion.
The pipeline would span 200 water crossings, and in North Dakota alone, would pass through 33 historical and archeological sites. Enbridge just bought the Dakota Access pipeline, noting that the proposed Sandpiper route (Minnesota’s 640,000 barrel per day Bakken line) is now three years behind.
In late July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Standing Rock claims the project violates federal and treaty law. Standing Rock also filed an intervention at the United Nations, in coordination with the International Indian Treaty Council. As Chairman Archambault would explain in a New York Times story, “….The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation supported more protection of the tribe’s cultural heritage, but the Corps of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners turned a blind eye to our rights. The first draft of the company’s assessment of the planned route through our treaty and ancestral lands did not even mention our tribe.
“The Dakota Access pipeline was fast-tracked from day one using the Nationwide Permit No. 12 process, which grants exemption from environmental reviews required by the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by treating the pipeline as a series of small construction sites.…without closer scrutiny, the proposal breezed through the four state processes…”
In Iowa where work on the pipeline is underway, three fires erupted causing heavy damage to equipment and causing an estimated $1 million in damages. Investigators suspect arson, according to Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty.
In October 2015, three Iowa farmers sued Dakota Access LLC and the Iowa Utilities Board in an attempt to prevent the use of eminent domain on their properties to construct the pipeline.
The health of the Missouri River has been taken for granted. Dammed in the Pick Sloan Dam projects, each project increases contamination, and reduces her health. Today, the Missouri is the seventh most polluted river in the country. Agricultural run-off and now fracking have contaminated the river. My sister fished a gar out of the river, a giant prehistoric fish, only to find it covered with tumors.
In a January 2015 spill, saltwater contamination from a massive pipeline spill reached the Missouri River. In the baffling way of state and federal agencies, North Dakota’s Health Director David Glatt did not expect harm to wildlife or drinking water supplies because the water was diluted. The saying is “the solution to pollution is dilution.” That is convenient, but not true. Blacktail Creek and the Little Muddy River were contaminated with nearly three million gallons of saltwater, with elevated levels of chloride contamination. All was diluted. Except for that Gar fish with the tumors. There are pipelines everywhere, and under 150 PHMSA (Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) pipeline inspectors in the whole country.
And now comes the risk of oil. The pipeline companies generally discuss a 99 percent safety record, but studies have found that to be grossly inaccurate. In fact, a former Scientific American Editor Trudy Bell, reports, “…. PHMSA data from 200l to 2011 compelled KAI to conclude ‘the average pipeline therefore has a 57% probability of experiencing a major leak, with consequences over the $l million range in a ten year period…’” Not good odds.
As the numbers of protestors (who prefer to call themselves “protectors”) on the ground grew from 200 people to 2000, state law enforcement decided to put up a safety checkpoint and rerouted traffic on 1806 from Bismarck to Standing Rock, hoping to dissuade people from coming and put the squeeze on Standing Rock’s Prairie Knights Casino, which is served by that road. We just drove around, the scenic route is beautiful. And as supporters surge in numbers, the casino hotel and restaurants are full.
While North Dakota seeks to punish the Lakota, Chairman Archambault expresses concerns for everyone. “I am here to advise anyone that will listen that the Dakota Access Pipeline project is harmful. It will not be just harmful to my people but its intent and construction will harm the water in the Missouri River, which is one of the cleanest and safest river tributaries left in the United States. To poison the water is to poison the substance of life. Everything that moves must have water. How can we talk about and knowingly poison water?”
In the meantime, ND Governor Jack Dalrymple announced a state of emergency, “…making additional state resources available to manage public safety risks associated with the ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.” He may have exceeded his scope of authority and violated civil and human rights to water.
Chairman Archambault said, “Perhaps only in North Dakota, where oil tycoons wine and dine elected officials and where the governor, Jack Dalrymple, serves as an adviser to the Trump campaign, would state and county governments act as the armed enforcement for corporate interests….”
There are a lot of people at Standing Rock today who remember their history and the long stand off at Wounded Knee in l973. In fact, some of those in Standing Rock today, were there in 1973 at Wounded Knee, a different, but similar battle for dignity and the future of a nation.
I am not sure how badly North Dakota wants this pipeline. If there is to be a battle over the pipeline it will be here. For a people with nothing else but a land and a river, I would not bet against them. The great Lakota leader Mathew King once said, “The only thing sadder than an Indian who is not free, is an Indian who does not remember what it is to be free.”
The camp represents that struggle for freedom and the future of a people. All of us. If I ask the question, “What would Sitting Bull do”, the answer is pretty clear. He would remind me what he said l50 years ago, “Let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children.” The time for that is now.