He drove 20 hours to get there, hauling about $1,000 worth of donations ̶ coats, tents and supplies−to distribute to the approximately 3,500 water protectors gathered at the Standing Rock Reservation who have mounted opposition to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline projected to stretch from North Dakota to Illinois.
“I had a spiritual call to go,” explains Albert Running Wolf Ortiz, director of the American Indian Movement Chapter of Indiana and Kentucky. “When I looked at my grandchildren, I knew I had to go.”
The Pipeline and Environmental Effects
The Dakota Access Pipeline Project is an approximately 1,170-mile, 30-inch-diameter crude oil pipeline that is expected to transport 470,000-570,000 barrels of oil each day from the Bakken and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, where it would link with other existing pipelines. The pipeline would be the first to “allow movement of crude oil from the Bakken shale, a vast oil formation in North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast,” according to Reuters.
Already more than half completed, the pipeline comes with a price tag of $3.7 billion, but Energy Transfer Partners, owned by Kelcy Warren, multi-billionaire and Dallas-based financial backer of the project, promise it will bring millions of dollars to local economies and create 8,000-12,000 construction jobs. Initial estimates projected it to be in service by the end of the year, but that’s been called into question due to legal obstacles.
The pipeline would run just a half-mile from the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the North and South Dakota border. It would run under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, the major natural water supply, and through sacred areas that aren’t official parts of the Reservation.
The Standing Rock Sioux is party to the Treaties of Fort Laramie 1851 and 1868. The 18,000 enrolled members view the water and ancestral lands as sacred entities. Although the pipeline would be built just beyond tribal borders, they argue that it would affect their water. They say an oil spill would permanently contaminate the reservation’s water supply and that construction of the pipeline would desecrate sacred sites where many of their ancestors are buried if the pipeline goes through.
In a lawsuit it filed against the federal government, the Tribe wrote that it is concerned “with impacts to the habitat of wildlife species such as piping plovers, least tern, Dakota skipper and pallid sturgeon, among others. The Tribe has a particular concern for bald eagles, which remain federally protected and play a significant role in the Tribe’s culture, and which would be adversely affected by the proposed pipeline. The Tribe is greatly concerned with the possibility of oil spills and leaks from the pipeline should it be constructed and operated, particularly into waters that are of considerable economic, religious, and cultural importance to the Tribe.”
With pipelines breaks occurring around the world daily, it’s a genuine concern.
“If the pipeline goes under the Missouri River and bursts, Cannonball, N.D., will be a dead zone,” Ortiz states. “There will be no drinking water; you can’t boil it out, you can’t grow anything. It will affect the whole environment. This oil is from tar sands; it’s dirty. The reservation will be a dead zone in 30 minutes. That’s their only supply of water.”
Three Federal agencies opposed the pipeline: The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation all stated that the USACE did not do an adequate Environmental Impact Statement, particularly with regard to drinking water, before approving the route ̶ a route that was changed from the original configuration of the pipeline 10 miles upstream of the more heavily populated state capital of Bismarck before it was moved to one-half mile outside of the Reservation’s official boundary. According to the Bismarck Tribune, one reason that route was rejected was due to its proximity to the city’s water supply.
The land represents the sacred burial grounds of ancestors, historic village grounds and Sundance sites. More than 1,200 archeologists and museums have asked the federal government to stop the desecration of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sacred sites. In addition, 30 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, have denounced it, criticizing the lack of public engagement and insufficient environmental review.
In order to protect their source of water, The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit against the federal government to stop construction of the pipeline, which they believe violates Native American treaties. The tribe claims that the USACE, which has jurisdiction over the land and, as federal trustee, is responsible for upholding treaty rights, did not hold meaningful consultation with them before granting “fast-track” approval in July−a violation of treaty rights.
It's been discovered that the company that did the environmental assessment also worked for Energy Transfer Partners, adding to the Tribe’s suspicions.
In early August, Energy Transfer Partners gave the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe a 48-hour construction notice, according to NBC News. However, the USACE failed to secure written easement to start building the pipeline. “They anticipated,” Ortiz says. “The equipment came and the building started, but the company didn’t have the easement.”
The lawsuit says the reservation established in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie “included extensive lands that would be crossed by the proposed pipeline. The Tribe has a strong historical and cultural connection to such land. Despite the promises made in the two Fort Laramie treaties, Congress betrayed the treaty parties by passing statutes that took major portions of this land away from the Sioux.”
It goes on to mention archaeological sites, both identified and not, and says, “The lands within the pipeline route are culturally and spiritually significant.” In August, the state of Iowa revoked a permit to build the pipeline in Lyon County when a Native American burial site was uncovered. Under Iowa law, work must be halted until excavations are completed and a determination is made whether the remains are more than 150 years, constituting an ancient burial grounds that requires protection from disturbance.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe see the pipeline as both an environmental and cultural threat to their homeland. It’s also a challenge to their right to self-determination. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s tribal sovereignty precedes colonization, is permanent and is recognized (not granted) by the federal government.
It was after this lawsuit was filed that Energy Transfer Inc., in partnership with the Enbridge Corporation and Marathon Oil, bulldozed a two-mile, 150-foot-wide path through the land being contested in Federal Court. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe claims that the Army Corps of Engineers failed to fully satisfy the National Historic Preservation Act, various environmental statutes and its trust responsibility to the Tribe in approving several sections of the process. They, along with attorneys from Earthjustice, filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order “to prevent further destruction of the tribe’s sacred sites by Dakota Access Pipeline” on Sept. 4.
A few days later, the USACE agreed to the Tribe’s motion for a temporary restraining order in regards to additional work on the pipeline within 20 miles of Lake Oahu in North Dakota until the court ruled on the suit. However, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg allowed work to continue west of Highway 1806 because he believed the USACE lacked jurisdiction on private land.
“On Labor Day weekend the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal council sent a letter to the EPA about a line of digging two miles away from sacred burial sites,” Ortiz recounts. “They halted construction Saturday, but they hopscotched over those two miles and dug up our ancestors. They did it on purpose. They destroyed the grounds so there would be nothing here.”
ABC News reported that Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners used bulldozers on burial sites one day after the Standing Rock Sioux filed court papers identifying them as sacred sites.
“I surveyed this land and we confirmed multiple graves and specific prayer sites,” said Tim Mentz, the Standing Rock Sioux’s former tribal historic preservation officer, in a tribal press release. “Portions, and possibly complete sites, have been taken out entirely.” Ancient cairns and stone prayer rings can never be replaced.
In court documents, Mentz was more specific, counting “at least 27 burials, 16 stone rings, 19 effigies and other features in or adjacent to the pipeline corridor just north of the Standing Rock Reservation.”
Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, also issued a press release, saying, “This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced.” He claimed that “construction crews removed topsoil across an area about 150 feet wide stretching for two miles, northwest of the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers.”
“What’s happening is a travesty,” Ortiz reflects. It’s why he felt he had to go in person. “I had considered sending money, but …” supporting Native rights is a “family thing,” he says.
The humble man from Oklahoma who now resides in Ft. Thomas, KY, insists he is not a leader, but, rather, a servant of the people. A Kiowa, he was inspired to activism by his grandfather, who was at the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-71. That’s why, despite talk of road blocks barring the way, he went.
So did members of 250 Native American nations (out of 566 federally recognized tribes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs). “It’s the biggest gathering since Custer,” Ortiz observes.
In a symbolic moment, the seven council fires of the Sioux Tribe came together for the first time since the Sioux defeated Custer at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Today’s gathering is the largest, most diverse tribal action since that victory in 1876. “There are leaders from Hawaii, Ecuador, the Philippines, Alaska, South American, Australia, New Zealand…” Ortiz lists. “There are Aztecs and Mayans. They stand with us.”
Calling themselves water protectors (as opposed to protestors), these activists put their lives on the line, going to the digging site and chaining themselves to equipment, chanting the Lakota battle cry: mni wiconi – water is life.
“We come from water,” Ortiz notes. “Protecting water and sacred land is important.” He points out that indigenous peoples make up 4 percent of the population of the world, but protect 80 percent of the environment.
Though Ortiz went without a thought of violence or trouble, violence has periodically erupted. On Sept. 3, private security guards with attack dogs confronted a group of 500 protesters, some of whom were chained to bulldozers. The tribe says at least 30 people were pepper-sprayed and two individuals were injured from dog bites.
Authorities say some protesters are armed with hatchets and knives. Energy Transfer Partners has sued several protesters, claiming they threatened and intimidated company-hired contractors who were working at the site.
Worried about escalating violence in reaction to upcoming legal rulings, North Dakota's governor called on the state's National Guard, while the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, made up of tribal leaders in the Dakotas and Nebraska to defend tribal rights, asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to send federal monitors to the site. The ruling
Judge Boasberg denied the Tribe’s request to temporarily block construction of the DAPL. ABC News reported that he concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the argument that building the pipeline would harm the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and that he disagreed with the lawsuit's contention that the USACE erred by granting permits for the pipeline.
While the federal court ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in a surprising move, three federal agencies blocked the pipeline at Lake Oahe, pending a thorough review and reconsideration of the process.
The U.S. Justice Department responded to the ruling by announcing steps to protect Lake Oahe for the time being and the Departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army announced that the Corps will at least temporarily halt authorization for construction of the pipeline around Lake Oahe while it reviews its decisions regarding the large reservoir. The government requested that Dakota Access, the Texas-based company building the pipeline, voluntarily pause construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe.
While some caution that this is merely the illusion of victory, the Standing Rock Sioux consider it a game-changer and immediately began acting on their legal options, including filing an appeal and a temporary injunction to force Dakota Access to stop construction.
Ortiz was in Cannonball, N.D., when the ruling was announced. “The Department of Justice and the Obama administration shut down the pipeline. Everyone wanted to know the truth right away.” It was a welcome reprieve after disappointing silence from the president who once sat with tribal leaders at Standing Rock.
At his final Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama addressed leaders of more than 560 Native American, unveiling initiatives aimed at upholding Native American sovereignty, such as a requirement that federal agencies consider Native American treaty rights in decision-making on natural resource projects like the DAPL.
For now, it’s a waiting game “for the EPA to go in and do an environmental study,” Ortiz says. Whatever the outcome of that, there will be no compromise, he adds. “They have to stop or it will be another Wounded Knee.”
For some, he knows this is “just a story on the news.” But the Sioux rely on the waters of Lake Oahe for drinking water, irrigation, fishing and recreation and to carry out cultural and religious practices, and they are determined to protect those waters.
After dropping off supplies and getting a little sleep, Ortiz returned home. But even to be there for just a while was spiritual, he says. “I was there when they brought out Red Cloud’s pipe and shared with everyone; it hasn’t been out in 150 years. Mary Spotted Bear brought the flag from Custer.”
If the pipeline goes through, he’ll go back. “I worry about losing my job, but nothing is going to stop me. My life is for my people. We have warriors ready to put their lives on the line. I prepared my family: if I get the call, I may not come back. It’s a sad, lonely life to pick up the pipe for my people.”