LOCAL SUPPORT GROWS FOR STANDING ROCK
Several local activists make the trip or send help from home
Activists from Colorado have been joining the campaign to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Glenn Morris tried to be brief, to quickly deliver updates from Standing Rock and take a few questions, but every time he went to sit down, another hand shot in the air.
What kind of supplies are needed? Is the United Nations getting involved? Are cops really stopping businesses in Bismarck, N.D., from selling propane to people headed to camps an hour south of the city, where members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies are gathered to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from passing under the Missouri River?
More than 70 people packed into a former church in Denver, now the Four Winds American Indian Council headquarters, for a weekly Wednesday night meeting to hear updates on the Standing Rock movement, pass on advice and prepare to make trips to the camps to join people such as Thomas Lopez, who has been there since September and plans to stay indefinitely.
“I had to stand next to my brother and sisters in stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline and also standing up to many injuries our people had to face in the past 200-plus years,” said Denver-born Lopez, a core member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.
Morris, a leader in the American Indian Movement of Colorado,
sought to ease people’s fears about a recent order to evacuate and the arrest of a Denver woman accused of shooting at officers during a protest.
Since April, the tribe and its allies have gathered at the Standing Rock reservation to stop the pipeline. Their movement gained international attention this fall, when video footage went out showing law enforcement firing water cannons and rubber bullets at protesters who describe themselves as “water protectors.”
Masses of water protectors have made the Standing Rock reservation, located in both North Dakota and South Dakota, their temporary home. Although rumors and fears run through camps at times, the prayerful water protectors remain focused on stopping construction of the pipeline and protecting the water for the Dakota Sioux as well as the other 17 million people downstream of the Missouri River who they say would be affected by a spill.
There is deep historical context for the protest. The pipeline doesn’t just represent a potential health and environmental risk, said community leader Molly Ryan Kills Enemy after Wednesday’s meeting. It represents a history of disregarding native sovereignty, trampling spiritual beliefs and slaughtering native people.
Dakota Sioux demonstrators have put out a call for others to join their efforts, and it’s been answered by people from all over Colorado, including students from Durango’s Fort Lewis College and a contingent of veterans.
“This isn’t just an indigenous problem, this isn’t just a Native American problem,” Lopez said. “This is an issue that’s going to affect all around the world.”
Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, is building the $3.8 billion pipeline to carry oil from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to terminal facilities 1,172 miles away in Patoka, Ill.
The pipeline’s original path was rerouted just north of the Standing Rock reservation after people in Bismarck said they were worried about an upstream spill contaminating their water, said Intertribal Council on Utility Policy secretary Bob Gough.
The tribe expressed concerns about the pipeline’s risk to its water and sacred sites in a 2014 meeting with ETP representatives, but those were ignored, Gough said. A representative from ETP declined to comment for this story.
Construction of the pipeline was stopped at the Missouri River on Nov. 14, after the Army Corps of Engineers announced that additional analysis was warranted. The corps has jurisdiction over the shoreline of the river.
The Army Corps and North Dakota governor issued separate orders to evacuate the camps on Army Corps land citing safety concerns, but both later clarified that people will not be forcibly removed.
But water protectors aren’t budging.
Morris, who helps advise Standing Rock chairman Dave Archambault II’s office, said the land that now houses both the partially constructed pipeline and the camps was declared part of the Sioux Nation in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. He said neither the Army Corps nor the state of North Dakota has the authority to order the Dakota Sioux and their allies out.
Morris stressed that the 371 treaties that were signed and ratified by the U.S. were international contracts between two equal nations — “not the U.S. and some roving pack of dogs.”
“Often tribal governments are not as strong or visible in the defense of their self-determination,” Morris said, adding that tribes often acquiesce to the federal government after threats, such as a loss of funds.
But this time, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is standing strong on the authority of its treaty.
“What has started at Standing Rock is a model to the world,” Morris said during the meeting. “That’s not going to end at Standing Rock.”
But even if the protesters did decide to heed the Army Corps and North Dakota orders or if a blizzard forces them to evacuate, it would be a hefty endeavor to pack up the camps and go.
“It’s basically one of the larger cities in North Dakota at the moment,” said Sam Malcolm, a Broomfield entertainer who recently returned from Standing Rock after representing his tribe, the Paiute. “You have a lot of people. You have an entire society that is trying to thrive.”
Non-native allies and tribes from across the country and world — some say more than 300, while others contend more than 500 — have gone to Standing Rock in solidarity. The camps’ populations fluctuate, at times reaching more than 5,000 people, as some people stay for months while others only for a couple of days. Numbers have been swelling in the past weeks.
The camps have schools, medical tents and kitchens. There are elders and peacekeepers. People generate their own energy with solar panels, and representatives at Wednesday’s meeting said elders are now asking for wind turbines.
Everyone who returns from the camps stresses their prayerfulness and peacefulness, saying that it is an incredibly loving environment.
But that doesn’t mean the popup city doesn’t have growing pains. Rumors run rampant along with fears of police infiltrations and cellphone-tampering technology.
David Balestrini, an Aurora teacher who lives in Denver, went to Standing Rock over his Thanksgiving break — or as many at Wednesday’s meeting referred to it: “Thanks-taking.” He had to reschedule a phone interview for this story after someone ran into a tent where he was sitting through orientation screaming of a raid. Talking the next day, he said it was just a woman trying to cause panic at the camp.
“I think a lot of Colorado’s already awake to what’s going on,” Balestrini said, adding that he ran into 20 other Coloradans on his first night.
Balestrini said he had been thinking about going, but the final push came after he saw water cannons fired on protesters in frigid weather.
“A lot of people are going because to them it’s activism or a cause they can get behind,” Malcolm said. “But for (native people), it felt like we had to be there.”
Water protectors say the seeming disregard for native sovereignty and violence against peaceful protesters hark back to a long history of brutality against indigenous people that strikes a chord with other native nations.
“It felt really nice to see and to be near people of all different nations coming together for a common goal because it was something that all of us can relate to,” Malcolm said. “All of the tribes have gone through something similar to this before.”
For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the question is not if the pipeline will break, but when. The tribe says a river contamination would impact 17 million people, killing crops, animals and people.
“As many indigenous people know, our world is centered around the water. Every ceremony we have we start with this water because water is life,” said Thomas Lopez, a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver, who recently joined the International Indigenous Youth Council. “By taking away our right to clean water and our right to access clean water, you are impeding on what people would call religion. We don’t call it religion; it’s our way of life.”
This is the first time that all of the American tribes have come together in hundreds of years, Molly Ryan Kills Enemy said. She is a full blood Sicangu Lakota Sioux from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. She was adopted and moved to Denver.
Kills Enemy runs the Denver Stands with Standing Rock Facebook group and helped plan a Standing Rock march in Denver on Saturday that drew more than 50 people. She has yet to go to Standing Rock because, as a single mother, she is worried about her kids. Instead, she said she can stand in solidarity by replicating here what’s being done in North Dakota.
She said she’s been uneasy and experiencing fear unlike anything she’s previously felt since law enforcement used pepper spray, rubber bullets and sound cannons on protesters Oct. 27.
She got home that night and burst into tears. The next evening, she was listening to news about Standing Rock, and suddenly she had a vision that took her to a field where she saw atrocities happening to her ancestors at Wounded Knee. She said many native people have recounted similar experiences with their ancestors’ memories.
“When they continue these attacks, they’re replicating history,” Kills Enemy said.
Kills Enemy expressed concern about what will happen this month, noting that both Wounded Knee and the 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota Native Americans, which was ordered by President Abraham Lincoln, occurred in December.
There is pressure for Dakota Access to finish the pipeline before the new year so the company doesn’t break contract agreements. If the pipeline is not delivering oil by Jan. 1, third parties can renegotiate or cancel their contracts, Gough said.
Water protectors have expressed doubt that help will come from Washington. Instead, some said they hope investors will back out after Jan. 1. Democracy Now reports that more than two dozen major banks and financial institutions, including Bank of America, HSBC, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, have given ETP a $3.8 billion line of credit to build the pipeline.
“Do I think this pipeline is going to get built? Yeah, I think they’re going to do it,” said Jorge Lopez, a retired Marine who lives in Steamboat Springs.
He was a part of frontline actions at Standing Rock over his Thanksgiving break and headed back Saturday for a couple more days.
“I want to know that I did everything that I could possibly do to try to prevent it,” Lopez said. “I don’t want to continue on in a world knowing that the pipeline was built and I just sat back and watched them while playing video games.”
Matt Black Eagle Man, center, of the Long Plain First Nation, chats with friends outside his tepee at the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota on Saturday. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
American Indian nations members and supporters march in downtown Denver on Saturday during a Standing With Standing Rock demonstration.
Waskoness Pitawanakwat, 16, of the Ojibe tribe, heads out for a ride Saturday on her horse Sun Cloud at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation outside Cannon Ball, N.D. Helen