By JASON COPPOLA
Truthout | News Analysis
As Americans shopped for “Columbus Day” bargains at their local retail stores, water protectors, or protesters as they are sometimes called, gathered in prayer on the front line of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance.
Thousands of people have camped over the past months at the Sacred Stone Camp, established along the Missouri River in Cannonball, North Dakota, as a place of peaceful and prayerful resistance to the construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ 1,134 mile, $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, which intends to carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily through Lakota treaty lands on its way through Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.
On October 10, Indigenous Peoples Day to Native Americans, a caravan of cars from the camp set out to a pipeline construction site near the St. Anthony area on Highway 6 in North Dakota.
Actor Shailene Woodley, the most well known of the group for her recent roles in the films Snowden and Divergent, was streaming live on Facebook.
“The reason why we are here,” said Woodley in her broadcast, “is because last night the US district court of appeals decided to deny the injunction to halt construction of the pipeline for 20 miles. So we decided to show up and stand in solidarity for Standing Rock, to show the world, mainstream media, and the government, that we are not going to back down regardless of what decisions they make.”
Woodley was referring to the decision over the holiday weekend by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which denied the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s emergency motion for an injunction to stop construction of the pipeline.
“Indigenous Peoples Day is about recognizing our true nature. All of us, regardless of our background and our history,” said Woodley, answering people’s questions as she walked along, conducting brief interviews.
“Regardless of the color of our skin we are all Indigenous to this earth,” she said.
Unfortunately, this sentiment is not shared by many throughout the Dakotas. Racism against Native Americans is at the heart of the pipeline battle.
Sarah Sunshine Manning, a writer for Indian Country Today Media Network, explained to Truthout, “The feeling of the Native American community is that we’ve really been dehumanized and this dehumanization is as old as America,” Manning said. “There’s really been this effort to paint us as the villains, beginning with the first official US document that labels us and freezes us in time.”
Manning was noting the Declaration of Independence which, referring to the wrongs of King George, states, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Columbus himself, after his initial peaceful descriptions of the Arawak people, then described them as “savage cannibals, with dog-like noses that drink the blood of their victims.”
Manning had been on the scene just after a private security company hired by Dakota Access allowed attack dogs to maul a crowd of protestors consisting of men, women and children.
“We are very much aware as Native American people that systemic racism is very real. It is a stealth racism that works its way into local and national government,” Manning said. “It works its way into law enforcement and this is why we see these sorts of things happen because there is such a negative perception of Native American communities.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline is “definitely an issue of environmental racism,” Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network told Truthout. “They had another route. They were supposed to go seven miles north of Bismarck.”
When the people of Bismarck, 90 percent of them white, found out about the pipeline route they disapproved, explained Braun. “They told the North Dakota Public Utilities board that they didn’t want it. ‘It’s going to affect our water if it breaks,’ is what they said. The pipeline route was then changed to pass near the Standing Rock reservation,” Braun said.
“They thought this land was expendable.”
“For over 500 plus years we’ve been fighting colonization and genocide,” Braun said. “And we are still fighting it right now. But we are here to stand our ground. That pipeline will not go through.”
Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle, a Standing Rock pediatrician, was arrested during the first weeks of the stand-off between law enforcement and protestors. She told Truthout about the anger and frustration of seeing Energy Transfer’s trucks and equipment driving through Lakota treaty territory and was pushed to act.
“Our people gave up so much, we were starved in order to be forced to sign these treaties,” Jumping Eagle explained, referring to the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. “The treaties directly define where our lands are. And they are standing in our treaty territory and violating our right to clean water.”
A High-Profile Target
Woodley’s activism has helped bring additional national attention to the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She has been a supporter of the movement since Lakota youth ran from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C. The context through which Woodley has been able to present these issues to a non-Native audience, along with her popularity, has proven to be a very dangerous combination. Her live broadcast at the time of her arrest was being seen by over 40,000 viewers.
Instructed to leave the area by law enforcement, the group gradually made their way up the hill, back to the road to their cars to head back to camp.
“Everyone is peacefully vacating,” she said as she walked toward her car with the group. “Our government loves to do this specifically; you’ve seen it over and over and over again. Last night, when they decided to make this announcement, first off it’s right before Indigenous Peoples Day, how awful is that? It’s also during the presidential debate when mainstream media is focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. People aren’t paying attention to a pipeline. People are paying attention to Donald and to Hillary. This is no accident, these things are calculated.”
During the morning, other protestors at various sites carried out other nonviolent direct actions, such as chaining themselves to construction machinery, which halted work for the day.
Along Highway 6, Woodley, escorted by her mother and others, began walking toward their RV, which they soon realized was surrounded by police, guarded by a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) personnel carrier, like the machines I’d seen rumbling down the streets of Baghdad.
“I was just told that the cops are following me,” Woodley said. “Send some prayers.”
As they approached their vehicle, Woodley was picked out of her group by what looked like a Special Forces team in full tactical military gear on a raid in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“This one?” an officer is heard saying as he apparently grabs Woodley’s jacket.
Woodley was then informed that she was being arrested. “You are being placed under arrest for criminal trespassing,” said an officer as a surveillance helicopter hovered overhead.
When asked why she was singled out of the group of well over a hundred for arrest, an officer replied, “You were identified.”
As Woodley was being detained, she continued her broadcast, urging people watching to call their congressman, their senators, the Army Corps of Engineers, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Woodley was charged with criminal trespass and participating in a riot. Upon her release, Woodley posted bail for the 27 other water defenders arrested that day in North Dakota.
Time will tell if the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the 300 or so other Indigenous nations and the non-native allies that stand with them will stop the pipeline’s completion. But as summer is quickly dispatched by the chilly winds of the Great Plains, history has yet to be written.
“They think we are expendable,” Jumping Eagle told Truthout. “We are not expendable. Our children are not expendable. They deserve a future, a healthy future. That’s why we are here.”
Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission.
Jason Coppola is a writer and producer of the upcoming documentary film Operation: Manifest Destiny. Coppola has worked unembedded in occupied Iraq and on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Indian Reservations. His stories for Truthout and Al Jazeera English have won awards from the Native American Journalism Association.