In November, AU Staff member Mark Dawson, Director of Covenant Productions, visited the Dakota Access Pipeline protest site. “I started following the the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camp activity along the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation around the time that the Camp of the Sacred Stones was established by a few committed indigenous water protectors in April,” Dawson said. “My interest grew as I witnessed over social media other developments in the story as a group of teenagers from the Oceti Sakowin Youth & Allies ran from North Dakota to Washington DC in protest of DAPL.”
For months, nearly every type of social media feed has been littered with posts about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Around the end of October, many Facebook users “checked in” at the Standing Rock reservation, and the hashtag #NoDAPL has swept through social media as small forms of protest. But what is being protested exactly?
According to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s informational website, it is a project that was proposed in December of 2014 and approved by the affected states in March of this year to construct a pipeline to transport crude oil from facilities in the Bakken/Three Forks formations in North Dakota to a refining facility near Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline would go through cities in both North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. The reason that this project has gotten so much publicity is that the path for the pipeline in North Dakota would go through sacred land in the Standing Rock reservation.
After the pipeline project was approved by the state, members of the Standing Rock Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe began protesting the construction because of the possibility that the pipeline could pollute the water of Lake Oahe, which is considered sacred. They called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to compose a more comprehensive environmental impact report for the pipeline’s proposed path. The ACE declared that it was okay for the pipeline to go through the Reservation, as well as across The Mississippi River, Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe.
Ever since then, members of the Sioux tribe have been actively protesting the pipeline project and appealing to the N. Dakota government to get the project stopped or at least rerouted away from their land. Throughout the course of the protest, the Sioux members have been joined by other native groups from around the world—Including indigenous people from New Zealand—as well as non-native Americans who want to help, including actress Shailene Woodley, and a group of over 2,000 army veterans.
The protests have essentially been sit-ins in the form of camps set up at the pipeline’s construction sites and have been peaceful. “The leaders make it clear again and again that this is a non-violent struggle based on prayer and ceremony,” Dawson said. “Any violence, drugs, alcohol or other inappropriate behavior in camp or at direct action protest events is not tolerated.”
“There is a central sacred fire area [at the camp] where the tribal elders maintain a spirit of prayer and ceremony which starts around 6 a.m. and goes into the evening,” Dawson said. “Throughout the day various ceremonies are held and prayers are offered there. Sometimes there are Native American dancers, musicians, or speakers. The times I spent around the sacred fire were very moving, and I could sense the sincerity of the people and their deep connections to their traditions and ancestors, which is what empowers them to fight against the pipeline.”
To attempt to remove the protesters, private security and police officers have been using fmore violent measures such as pepper spray, water cannons, rubber bullets and strip searches for protesters who were arrested.
“The common call that started to come from the camps was for anyone who wanted to support clean water and indigenous rights to come to the camps,” Dawson said. “As more and more incidents of police violence against unarmed, peaceful protesters—water protectors—took place in September and October, I began to consider going myself to be there in support and offer what help I could.”
Dawson arrived at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which he explained was “created as sort of an overflow camp when the original Camp of the Sacred Stones couldn’t handle the numbers of supporters arriving. Sacred Stones Camp is actually on the reservation, but the Oceti Sakowin Camp is right across the Cannonball River which is the northern border of the reservation.”
Dawson explained that the Oceti Sakowin camp was really a bunch of smaller camps combined into one big camp. “Many of these smaller camps were groups from other tribes such as the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe,” he said. “There were many other tribal affiliation camps with over 200 tribes represented along with camps that were non-Native.”
“In the camps everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful to each other,” Dawson said. “The attitude of prayer that is encouraged by the indigenous elders has informed everything that’s happening in camp. It was incredible to see and experience. I really can’t think of a place I’ve been where I’ve seen such unity, love, and acceptance among people. It was truly beautiful.”
On his first day at the camp, Dawson attended an orientation meeting where he learned more about what was going on with the protest and what was allowed and expected of the people who were arriving to help.
The next day, he participated in various service projects to help improve the conditions for the people who were staying there. “I attended a volunteer meeting in the morning and spent the day moving around camp helping with putting up a yurt, a tipi, a kitchen supply tent, varnishing compost toilets and some very light construction,” he said. “It was great being able to contribute, if even a little, to helping get needed work done as the camp prepared for winter. One of the mantras of the camp is to give more than you take from camp, which I tried to do.”
“The primary thing I learned from my trip was that the Standing Rock Sioux are committed to protecting their water, sacred sites, and future generations,” Dawson said. “These are strong people who have endured with their ancestors 500 years of oppression, injustice, and violence from the US Government. They are committed to non-violence, but aren’t messing around. This is an existential struggle for them and they will see it through to the end. My respect for our Native American brothers and sisters was only strengthened with this trip. At the right time, I could see myself going back to support their cause if the situation doesn’t resolve in the new few months.”
On Nov. 25, police issued a warning to the protesters that they needed to vacate the premises by Dec. 5, but none of the protesters decided to comply with the order.
On Sunday, it was announced that the ACE had denied the construction of the pipeline through the reservation. As of Dec. 5, but the owners of the pipeline have issued a statement that they intend to wait out the remainder of President Obama’s term and then resume construction in the originally proposed path.