In U.S., Tribal Nations Clash with Law Enforcement to Protest Oil Pipeline

Protesters held ground on Sun., Nov. 6 along the banks of the Cannonball River in the U.S. state of North Dakota to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Local law enforcement held a line directly above. Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas
Tribal Nations

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline surged toward law enforcement on Sunday and narrowly escaped another confrontation in a string of clashes between protesters and police. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, an indigenous tribal nation based within the U.S., is leading the fight against the pipeline, which could disrupt the tribe’s water supply from the Missouri River.

SACRED STONE CAMP, NORTH DAKOTA, U.S. — It was a quiet Sunday afternoon at this makeshift camp when people got word that local law enforcement was approaching the Cannonball River, a tributary to the Missouri River.

They don’t call themselves “protestors,” but instead prefer the term “water protectors,” to signify their intent to keep construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline away from the Missouri River, a water source for the area. They grabbed their car keys, hopped onto the beds of trucks, mounted horses or just ran, phones in hand, through fields of long, dry grass and dirt to join the group holding the front line.

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Protesters used thick ropes to help each other cross the Cannonball River as they approached law enforcement on one side and then returned to their camp on the other.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

The majority of people stayed on the camp side of the river, but more than 100 people crossed the water to confront law enforcement officials. Protesters held their fists in the air and chanted. A few held mirrors pointed toward law enforcement so they could “see themselves for who they are,” one protester explained.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

The flag of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is displayed at the Sacred Stone Camp. Flags of various tribal nations are erected to show solidarity.

Anne Eagle Bull, GPJ Tribal Nations

Sandra Rambler traveled from the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona to the Sacred Stone Camp. When word spread through camp that afternoon that local authorities were approaching the proposed construction area, Rambler rushed to the Cannonball River to demonstrate.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

While many protesters rushed to the banks of the Cannonball River, a few dozen people walked up to a nearby highway to try and access the law enforcement line from the north.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

Law enforcement blocked access to the highway and told protesters to turn back.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

As pipeline opponents retreated from one area, many continued their protests in other areas.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

This grassroots movement began in April, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, an indigenous nation based on its reservation within the U.S. state of North Dakota, along with their supporters, set up camp along this river to protest the construction of the oil pipeline. If completed, this 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline will transport about 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota through the states of South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. The company behind the pipeline secured permission to dig under the Missouri River, upstream of the reservation.

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“I love my people,” says Theron Adams, an American Indian and pipeline opponent who traveled from Montana to support the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. On Sunday, he walked close to law enforcement, but officers used pepper spray on him and others. His eyes continued to burn after he returned to the main camp, he says.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ Americas

Tribal members worry that an oil spill from that pipeline could contaminate the river, which is their main source of water. The pipeline’s proposed route would also pass through historically significant and sacred lands for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The camp has slowly garnered global attention and has grown to hundreds or thousands of people—the number shifts daily—as supporters from around the world come to stand with the members of Standing Rock. Law enforcement has used tear gas and rubber bullets to push protesters away from the pipeline’s construction zone, and people have been arrested for refusing to budge. Pipeline opponents say law enforcement officials have launched unwarranted attacks on them, while police say they’re protecting private land.

For almost two hours on Sunday, pipeline opponents set out in canoes and other small boats into the Cannonball River to push right up against the law enforcement line. A few hundred people gathered near the water’s edge on each side, and a handful walked up a small hill toward the officers. The tension continued until a tribal elder anxiously approached the edge of the water and, using a megaphone, pleaded with protesters to return to the camp.

“Today is not the day,” he told them.

Sunday’s near-confrontation was just one of many in this movement’s struggle to prevent the pipeline’s construction. Pipeline opponents say those confrontations will continue as long as construction continues.