Right now, more than 200 members of Native American tribes and their fellow activists are camping out near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
They’ve been there for months, and the protest is one of the biggest in Native American history. If you haven’t been following the protests, though, let’s get you up to speed:
Basically, a corporation called Energy Transfer Partners wants to build a big oil pipeline, stretching more than a thousand miles from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline would snake within a half-mile of the water supply that serves more than 9,000 Native Americans, and it could also disturb their sacred tribal lands.
When they heard about this, the Standing Rock Sioux filed suit against Energy Transfer Partners and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers on the grounds they had disregarded both tribal treaties and U.S. environmental regulations. In late August 2016, this all came to a head during a weeklong standoff at the construction site, where Native American tribes came together with the Standing Rock Sioux in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Little Bighorn.
A federal court was expected to make a decision on Aug. 24, 2016, about whether the pipeline could continue being built. But then the judges postponed the decision for an extra two weeks.
They wanted to wait until Sept. 9, 2016, so they could have time to look over all the information. In the meantime, construction was expected to halt. As temporary as the victory was, things were cautiously looking up for the protesters and their land.
While the tribes waited for the federal judges to make up their minds, they also discovered, and presented, some new information about the ancestral land they trying to protect.
According to tribal historians, several ancient and culturally important burial grounds and other sacred sites would be affected by the pipeline — including at least 27 burials, 16 stone rings, 19 effigies, and some other features too.
“These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced,” said tribal chairman David Archambault II in a press release.
The tribes submitted their information to the court on the Friday before Labor Day — and the next morning, those same lands were already being razed by bulldozers from Energy Transfer Partners.
When tribal protesters and other activists tried to stop the machines from destroying their land, though, they were allegedly greeted by private security guards armed with dogs and pepper spray.
Of course, the details of the incident change depending on who you ask. The Sacred Stone Camp claims at least six people were bitten by dogs, including a child and a pregnant woman, while about 30 more were pepper sprayed. Protesters shared photos and videos that appear to support these claims.
However, Energy Transfer Partners basically responded with a “Nuh-uh! They started it!” placing the blame on the protesters for any violence that occurred.
And although local law enforcement was not present during the incident, the Morton County Sheriff’s Office stated that “four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured,” but they received no official reports of protesters being injured. The crowd dispersed when law enforcement officers arrived on the scene and no one was arrested.
Regardless of how the incident began, one thing is certain: It was a rough altercation. And it sums up just how messed up this whole situation has been from the start.
Demolition continued through Labor Day weekend. But the battle wasn’t over yet.
The Standing Rock Sioux filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order against the project, which was granted in part by a U.S. district court on Sept. 6, 2016. It will only last until the official court decision comes down at the end of the week, but at least it’s something.
Even the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers — the other defendant in the case, alongside Energy Transfer Partners — supported the decision for the sake of public safety.
Unfortunately, though, that decision couldn’t undo the damage already done on ancient Native American lands.
“Imagine heavy machinery invading your family cemetery, plowing through graves, demolishing headstones, knocking down the church next door,” Archambault wrote in an Op-Ed for The Hill. “Our people are heartbroken. Our history is destroyed. That ground is now hollow.”
“Destroying the Tribe’s sacred places over a holiday weekend, while the judge is considering whether to block the pipeline, shows a flagrant disregard for the legal process,” the tribe’s attorney told Indian Country Today.
Sadly, the bullying, strong-arming, and general disregard of Native American life and property is nothing new in the U.S.
But, at least this time, we have a chance to stop it before it gets even worse.
If you want to help the Standing Rock Sioux protect their lands — and stand up for the rights of Native Americans in general against big oil corporations — you can start by signing the official White House petition to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Sacred Stone Camp is also accepting donations of cash and supplies, which is particularly helpful, since many of them already live in poverty and state authorities have pulled water and other emergency resources from the protest site. You can also contribute directly to the tribe’s legal defense fund or divest from any of the companies and banks who are currently supporting the pipeline’s construction.
At the very least, you can help spread the word about the struggle, so that Energy Transfer Partners can’t keep getting away with these kinds of actions.
In the words of the Standing Rock Sioux: “Water is life.”
All Native Americans deserve to keep their rights to water and to life.