The freezing temperatures aren’t stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline—-or the Standing Rock Sioux

Words and photos by Allison Trebacz
Additional reporting by Melissa Studach
Graphics by Emily VanSchmus

Alarming: That’s the kind of blue Lake Oahe is in November. It’s a true cerulean against the drying prairie grass of the hills of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It’s not what I expected, especially driving along the generally desolate Highway 1806, a stretch of rural asphalt that hugs the western side of the Missouri River for 120 miles through both Dakotas. Strips of blue water stood out between the breaks in the hills, a stark contrast to the mint green pipes laid out alongside the road and waiting beside piles of soil. I also passed a fleet of police surveillance vehicles at an intersection—complete with several vans, an armored truck and a mobile command center freightliner.

At the bottom of a hill, color interrupted the landscape. Signs clung to the fenceline. Tipis and plumes of smoke rose into the sky. Hundreds of flags danced in the wind and lined a driveway into Oceti Sakowin—a camp established by the Standing Rock Sioux and epicenter of the protests over the Bakken Pipeline.

The camp is a mass of activity in the evening. Journalists with their red badges and equipment swarm the hill that overlooks the valley. It’s nicknamed “Facebook Hill” because it’s the only spot that still receives reception in November. Water Protectors proudly returned that day from a “direct action.” This time, no one was arrested or injured, and there’s reason to celebrate because their prayer is working.

Oceti Sakowin is one of the largest gatherings of indigenous tribes in years, with 300 tribes represented at its peak. Each tribe brings a flag and many more flags were sent by supporters who couldn’t be there.

Steam rises from the giant cooking pots in the numerous kitchens while volunteers work furiously to prepare meals for all. Children and dogs run around, fires burn at every other tent and people stand around them. There are no designated lots or streets beyond the entrance—the land is for everyone who shares the values of Oceti Sakowin. There is laughter, there is celebration, and there isn’t fear—all mixed with an unshakeable sense of solemnity and an undercurrent of hope.

Nothing represents that more than what is at the camp’s heart: a sacred fire burns, representing a constant state of prayer and peace, the constant push to protect that cerulean blue water.

The Black Snake

The Bakken oil field is big. Big in its sheer size: It’s more than 200,000 square miles, stretching north and west from Bismark, North Dakota, into Montana and across the border into Canada. And big in actual oil production, pumping out over a million barrels of crude oil per day—a production increase of over 330 percent since 2010. To put that in perspective, that’s enough energy produced in one day to run an average American household for over 150,000 years. And that oil reserve is just a few hours upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Of course, once all of that oil is out of the ground it has to go somewhere. Most Bakken crude takes a ride, either by truck or by rail, to refineries across the country. That comes with dangers, though. Bakken crude is uniquely volatile and transportation by rail and truck is, according to some industry experts, dangerous and inefficient.

That’s where pipelines come in. They’re an alternative to all those tanker trucks and railroad cars. The majority are located in southern, oil-producing states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. They result in fewer fatalities per year, and dollar for dollar are a more efficient way to transport large amounts of oil. Which explains why there are a lot of them. The U.S. has 2.5 million miles of oil pipelines running through it. The Dakota Access Pipeline would add another 1,172 miles to that total. Construction has been ongoing for the last two years and is nearly completed on the DAPL, which would bring crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois.

The pipeline winds from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois.

While mostly complete, the pipeline is stuck at Lake Oahe, where the Standing Rock Sioux are locked in the largest gathering of indigenous tribes since the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn when the Lakota and several other tribes of indigenous people came together to preserve their land. This year, over 300 tribes have been reported at the camp, all united by shared histories of colonialism, dwindling numbers and a common goal to protect Mother Earth from the pipeline or the “Black Snake”—as the indigenous have named it.

They are also there to protect the water. The pipeline is supposed to cross Lake Oahe and the Missouri River just north of Cannon Ball—just outside of the Standing Rock Reservation, 20 miles upriver from its water intake valves in Fort Yates, North Dakota, which supply drinking water for roughly 10,000 tribe members.

The irony: It wasn’t supposed to cross there. It’s actually an alternative route. According to a permitting document, the pipeline was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck. That route was rejected by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers during its environmental assessment. According to the Bismarck Tribune, one of the reasons that pipeline route was rejected was because it was a threat to Bismarck’s water supply.

So the tribe protested. The tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers. And on December 4, the tribe won a reprieve. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers denied an easement that would have allowed construction to continue as planned, which will put the project on hold pending another investigation and analysis of alternative routes. It was a small win for the indigenous people, though with the upcoming oil-friendly Trump administration, it is unlikely that it will be enough.

“As stated all along,” said Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners and partner to Dakota Access. “ETP is fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expects to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe.”

Water is Life; Prayer is Power

There are two things you learn when you first arrive at Oceti Sakowin, the main camp in Standing Rock: “Mni Wiconi,” which is Sioux for “water is life,” and the absolute power of prayer.

“All we’re doing is praying here.”

“We’re so far remaining in prayer and we are trying to be as peaceful as we can and for them to see… It’s, it’s hard to hold back, you know against this thing and it’s—I’m sure that I’m not the only man or woman here that could say that. I’m tired,” Frank Archambault said.

That’s Frank Archambault. He’s the founder of the security team, or Okichitaw, at the Oceti Sakowin camp and the cousin of the Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault III. Okichitaw is usually made up of law enforcement, ex-military or active military. Long ago they were warriors; today they’re still that. Archambault and the other Okichitaw work around the clock to keep order and ensure the safety of campers.

The fact that they have to is kind of surreal. Standing in the camp, surrounded by tipis, burning sage, and wood fires: It’s something I never imagined I’d be a part of in my lifetime. All of it felt like something from a past that no longer existed. But here we were, in a yurt. Me bundled in a parka, Archambault, with his feathers, walkie-talkie and grave stare; and a man named Aidoneus Bishop, a.k.a. “Viking,” Archambault’s second in command.

The stories they tell me about the most recent confrontations sound like something out of a movie, something unbelievable. Tear gas, batons, sound canons, bean bags and rubber bullets fired at point-blank range. Even armored vehicles, military humvees with snipers perched on top and assault rifles poised on the other side of a razor wire barricade the indigenous never asked for.

Routine tent slashings occur at night. Low-flying surveillance planes and pipeline helicopters break the rules of the enforced “no-fly zone” regularly. There has even been an instance of a rogue agent of the pipeline barging into camp, clutching an AR-15. And, most infamously, security used water canons in below-freezing conditions on the protestors.

The policing on the pipeline has exceeded North Dakota’s $10 million emergency budget and that doesn’t include what DAPL’s private security force has spent on their defenses. The use of force is hard to justify, but it hasn’t kept DAPL and the Morton County Sheriff’s office from trying.

Every day at Oceti Sakowin starts and ends with prayer. Every action, every march is done in the act of prayer and the presence of burning sage. Any weapons, drugs or alcohol are confiscated. Anyone in possession of any of those is removed from the camp.

“They’re nervous because they don’t know our song and our prayer,” Archambault said. “And they don’t know what’s behind that so they get nervous and they, they do these stupid things where people can get hurt when all we are doing is praying. There is no violence.”

The Standing Rock Sioux are here to defend the sacred.

Stopping the Snake

Eminent domain is the right of the government or an agent to take private property for public use in exchange for appropriate compensation. It was a right that had to be approved by every government agency involved in the installation of the pipeline across four states. In Iowa alone, that was 18 agencies.

Now that more than 90 percent of the 1,172 mile pipeline is constructed, there isn’t an eminent domain case that can stand in the way.

“I guess you do have a choice to say no,” said Kevin Niemann, a farmer with property just west of Litchfield, Illinois, and along the DAPL. “But when you’ve got a eleven-hundred-mile pipeline, and you’ve got a half mile in there, how are you gonna stop that? That’s the thing.”

Once Dakota Access was bequeathed their power of eminent domain by the necessary agencies, they sent out their sales representatives, hired from a contract service in Texas called Contract Land Staff. Their representatives began negotiations with landowners about two years ago. Kevin Niemann’s family was one of those landowners—and among the first.

“These land people were just salesmen is what they were,” Niemann said. “They were trying to convince you to sell the rights and then they were going to do this and that. If anyone had any problems, they were going to take care of it. It was all a good deal, so you didn’t have anything to worry about. That’s their presentation to you.”

The Niemann family has owned their piece of farmland in Illinois for 30 years. They grow soybeans and corn on it—like most farmers in the Corn Belt. And like most farmers in that part of Illinois located within a few hours of the Patoka refinery, they’ve had natural gas pipelines running underneath for years.

The power of eminent domain is straightforward, according to Dan Biersdorf, an eminent domain lawyer from Minnesota who handles cases nationwide. “The process is very simple in the court’s eyes—is it public use or isn’t it?” Biersdorf said.

And with pipelines, the rule is clear: if it’s an interstate pipeline, and it serves multiple users, then it satisfies public use. There is no acknowledgement of environmental or economic impact that a pipeline project might have on the infrastructure of the community it runs through.

Fire and Feathers Protect Water and Land

The Sacred Fire at the heart of Oceti Sakowin will burn until the Black Snake is dead.

One night, I stand around it with hundreds of other people. Many are indigenous, some are like myself—journalists—and many more are there with friends just to link arms with the indigenous and fight the fight for clean water.

It was strange to look on Twitter that night and see that Oceti Sakowin and the Standing Rock Protests would be described as “Burning Man”—a reference to a festival that takes place in the desert outside of Reno, Nevada. It’s a musical festival where everything goes and art and drugs become a type of currency.

That is nothing like Oceti Sakowin. There is a profound difference between the camp and Burning Man—just as there is a profound difference between Chicago and small-town Iowa. It’s respectful; it’s uplifting. Tribal elders share their stories. Hot sage tea is handed out to everyone—a welcome comfort on a November night. Children run in and out of the meeting area. There are moments of riveting spoken word poetry, rich storytelling, and lively song and dance. It felt like a beautiful celebration ensconced by an ominous force.

At dawn, Oceti Sakowin is quick to rise. Smoke and steam mingle in the crisp November air as the sun peeks over the hills.

A second day at the camp and a conversation with an Apache man from Arizona gave the ominous force more context. There are sniper outposts on the surrounding hills, surveillance cameras everywhere and government-sanctioned signal blockers. In fact, driving down Highway 1806 in Cannon Ball, there are police vehicles logging license plate numbers.

Oceti Sakowin shouldn’t be mistaken for a festival.

“This is not a town of 800 people or 4,500 people, this is a community,” said Wanbli Ishnala Yelo, a Standing Rock Lakota Sioux. “Here, everybody comes together and everybody helps. Everything comes in full circle in myriad ways, so it seems like what we need comes back to us. What we have that we don’t need, we give away and it all comes back and everybody’s being taken care of. That’s a community.”

Yelo is also a veteran and a part of the Okichitaw. Our conversation was cut short when a North Dakota resident ran his truck at a crowd of water protectors and fired several shots into the air.

It isn’t just private, militarized DAPL security and local law enforcement that the Standing Rock Sioux are still standing up against, but the deeply seeded prejudices of their local communities.

“If they are scared of our feathers, and they gotta bring all these guns and everything, let them be scared,” Yelo said. “These feathers are very important. We earn them. We pray with them. Everything is to Macaw. We give everything to Mother Earth.”

The Numbers

Once complete, “The Black Snake” will transport 470,000 gallons of crude oil per day. That’s nearly half of the daily production of the Bakken oil fields. Dakota Access will create 8,000 jobs, more than 40 of which will be permanent positions tasked with operating and maintaining the pipeline. DAPL will also directly contribute $55 million in annual state property taxes in the four states it runs through.

There are also indirect benefits, Julie Carey, an expert energy economist and director at Navigant in Washington D.C, says.

“I like to think about it like throwing a rock into water, which has a ripple effect,” Carey said. ”So you have direct spending. That direct spending goes into related industries and services to help get the equipment and services needed to construct the pipeline and those industries serve as an extra benefit to the economy in that indirect benefit. There is also a further induced impact to the economy from additional spending due to higher labor income in these industries.”

The oil industry impacts the U.S. economy in a big way—just a few years ago we had to rely on importing oil to meet our energy demands, which made us subject not only to oil price shocks but the taxes incurred. Now, with advancements in the industry—including fracking and horizontal drilling—we have a surplus of oil. Though it’s expected to balance out soon, it points to a newfound stability in the economy of our natural resources.

“We’re better off because of the oil and gas industry than we would otherwise be relative to other global countries,” Carey said. “And these are real good jobs. The oil and gas industry employs a lot. That’s distinct from the wind and solar that require far fewer employees to operate these facilities.”

Proof: The oil and natural gas industry supports 9.8 million jobs, according to a report by the American Petroleum Institute. And these jobs in oil, excluding gas station jobs, have average salaries of $100,000, which is over 95 percent higher that the U.S. average for private-sector salaries.

But just because the oil industry is good for the economy doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Nearly 3,300 leaks have occurred from pipelines across the U.S. over the last seven years and the U.S. DOT estimates that over 280 significant spills happen every year. A recent spill on December 5 seemed to confirm the protesters’ point that a leak could result in serious damage. A system failed. More than 175,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into a creek a little over two hours away from Oceti Sakowin.

More problematic, in 2015 only 139 pipeline inspectors were responsible for over the 2.6 millions miles of pipeline in the U.S. Pipeline operators can remotely shutdown any leak within five minutes of finding it, but there’s no guarantee that leaks will be discovered in a timely fashion.

Map by georgejosephmapping

A Future

“Mni Wiconi” echoes through camp like a greeting. Water is life. Water is life. Water is life.

The fireworks had stopped hours ago. The bonfires had dwindled down to embers. Finally, a tribe just down the hill had stopped drumming. It was a clear, crisp night, and I thought that I’d  finally be able to truly see the Milky Way and feel so infinitesimal at the majesty of the universe.

But I could barely make out much more than the Big Dipper. The sky was washed out by massive floodlights along the drilling site.

Of all of the images and conversations I had to take home, this moment in the dead of night was the most apparent. It captured the intrusion on nature and sheer helplessness in the wake of destructive progress.

DAPL set up floodlights along the pipeline that face Oceti Sakowin and have shone 24/7 since June. The lights are clearly visible until the sun has fully risen over the hills.

Those at Oceti Sakowin had a small taste of victory on December 4, but it won’t be enough to cut off the head of the black snake. Their best case for victory now is in the civil rights lawsuits that have been levied against the private security force and the Morton County Sheriff’s office for the use of excessive force and potential violations of the First Amendment.

Currently, December rages through the camp with harsh conditions, below zero temperatures and bottomless snow storms. The Standing Rock Sioux have hunkered down. They’ve encouraged other people to leave camp, go home and stay safe but continue their support through donations.

“We just—we just want clean water, you know,” Frank Archambault said to me. “It’s just, it, and it’s ridiculous why they’re doing this, I don’t understand that, you know,  I wish I could ask one of them, what are you doing? You know, this is water. This is the first medicine of life and you’re going to destroy it?”