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DAPL Water Protectors Forge a Way Forward Against the 'Black Snake'

Water protectors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline head to court, while some opt to stay at camp in punishing winter conditions.

When the U.S. Department of the Army announced its denial of the easement that would have allowed Energy Transfer Partners to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Reservation on December 4, exultation ensued. The Corps’ decision suggested that a full environmental assessment and pipeline re-route would be the only possible way for the company to complete the now $4 billion project. The permit denial was, thus far, the most profound victory for both the grassroots water protector groups and for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Many #NoDAPL supporters celebrated, while many more proceeded with cautious optimism, fearing that this political victory wouldn’t be the end of the fight.

They were right. The conflict is long from over.

Though it hasn’t ended, it has shifted drastically on several fronts, and the fate of the situation remains unpredictable. While the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues to fight their battle through diplomacy and legal action, President-elect Donald Trump continues to appoint climate change deniers to his cabinet, which does not bode well for any environmentalist causes. Meanwhile, divisions are emerging amid the once-unified anti-DAPL entities, prompting Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to remain vigilant about the need for transparent communication and frequent public updates.

‘It’s Time to Go Home’

Citing safety concerns, Archambault asked water protectors to leave camp. On December 5, following the permit denial announcement, the chairman released a video statement indicating that while the pipeline company might continue to drill near the water in hopes of getting a rise out of water protectors, they would likely not risk the future of their project by illegally drilling under the water. His confidence in the pipeline project posing no immediate threat to the water, coupled with his concern over the harsh winter weather conditions, prompted him to suggest the water protectors abandon camp for the time being.

“There’s no action that’s going to take place by the company,” he said. “We have to be proud of the victory, but it’s time now. It’s time to go home. I appreciate your being here and supporting Standing Rock, but it doesn’t do anybody any good to live in an unsafe environment.”

DAPL frozen bulldozer-Ray Bones Lowery-Facebook

Frozen bulldozer at a DAPL construction site.

Many protectors in camp objected to the chairman’s suggestion. In an apparent response to the statement, Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and activist from Standing Rock, wrote on Facebook, “...the reality is 1000s are staying and they're here sacrificing for us because DAPL won't stand down. They need our courage right now, not our doubt. That's it. We help when it gets tough, we don’t run.”

The rumor mill began to swirl regarding Archambault’s motives. Facebook comments revealed a new slanderous nickname for him, “DAPL Dave.” Others accused him of being rude or unappreciative of outsiders’ support. In response, the chairman reminded the public that he and the Standing Rock Sioux tribal government have been fighting the pipeline since before the camps existed, and that they supported the water protector camps from day one. He stated that the Tribe has contributed vast monetary and personnel resources to support the camp, which at times grew so large it surpassed the entire tribal nation territory’s population. Archambault also noted that over the course of three years, since the Tribe has been actively opposing the pipeline, the oil company has offered millions of dollars in land, cash and resources, but that they never accepted any of these deals or negotiations.


Addressing rumors, Archambault released a statement on December 13.

“We’re still doing what we can to prevent this pipeline from happening,” he said. “It’s in our interests. I don’t have a house in Florida. I don’t have a house in Bismarck. I never accepted anything from the company. The one reason I asked people to leave in such an urgent manner is that we were in the middle of a storm,” he said, “if we weren’t in the middle of a storm we probably would have done it right.”

To the SRST, “doing it right” meant that they would have preferred to hold a feast or ceremony to properly thank visitors.

In any case, the camp remains occupied by #NoDAPL demonstrators, and aside from an earlier vote by the Tribal Council to request that the Red Warrior faction leave, the Tribe has not since issued any official demands or requests that others leave. The chairman has also stated that he would welcome a new gathering once weather conditions become safe again.

Camp Vs. Nation

Due to the controversy following Archambault’s statements and the ensuing reactions by activists, it became clear that the #NoDAPL entities are no longer as unified as they once were. Campers who insist on remaining are following the lead of LaDonna Bravebull Allard, Iron Eyes and others. Other leaders of the movement, such as Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, have remained at camp in solidarity with the movement while also acknowledging respect for the chairman’s request.

Shortly after the chairman asked demonstrators to leave, Bravebull-Allard posted a Facebook live video selfie, surrounded by Sacred Stone Camp residents, stating that they had no intention of leaving.

Oceti Sakowin Camp-December 2016-AP

A motorist checks the condition of an exit ramp before attempting to drive out of the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. An overnight storm brought several inches of snow, winds gusting to 50 mph and temperatures that felt as cold as 10 degrees below zero.

“We want everyone to know that we will be here until the black snake is no longer,” she said, followed by cheers and fists raised by her supporters.

When, exactly, the black snake becomes “no longer” remains up to the federal judge who will be hearing the case. The federal judge working on the case between the Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners has provided updates on a timeline for further results.

In mid-December U.S. District Judge James Boasberg held a scheduling conference to set up the schedule for upcoming months regarding the court battles in Washington D.C. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will file a brief by January 6, at the latest. Further, the judge did not grant any permission for Dakota Access to drill under Lake Oahe, even though the company had requested it following the easement decision. Oral arguments will not be heard until at least February.

On Friday December 19, Boasberg decided to resolve the case between Energy Transfer Partners and the Army Corps of Engineers before resolving the one between ETP and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Meanwhile, Archambault stated that he believes those who are adamantly encouraging protectors to remain through the harsh winter might have ulterior motives themselves. In a video statement released December 11, he stood by his stance.

“If this is about the black snake, if you want to kill the black snake, you have to go after the blood that feeds it,” he said, noting that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been the sole entity battling the pipeline in court.

He addressed concerns for divisive attitudes that have become apparent.

“What I’m seeing now is that people are starting to point fingers and they’re saying that I’m helping Dakota Access, and I find that crazy,” he continued. “And the only reason people are saying that is, myself and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are encouraging people to get out of harm’s way.”

Later on, he noted his suspicions outright.

“I’ll say it,” he stated, pointing at the camera. “The only reason people are trying to stay is because there’s donations. There is money. And if that’s our motive to stay here, we’re no better than that pipeline company. If that’s your reason to be here, you’re no better than the oil company.

“I think people are saying things right now to get what they want,” Archambault continued. “All this camp is doing right now is creating friction and accusing—accusing SRST, who’s been hosting, accommodating and meeting needs.”


Donations, Donations, Donations

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Supporters around the world have donated untold millions of dollars in cash and supplies to dozens of entities claiming direct support for Standing Rock. Some of those are valid, others not so much.

In response to the chairman’s asking folks to leave, Iron Eyes posted on Facebook.

“Instead of asking people to leave who are equipped and ready to stay we should use the millions that were sent to stop this pipeline to shelter, warm, and feed our protectors,” he wrote.

Iron Eyes has since posted links to the LastRealIndians crowdfunding campaign—a nonprofit organization that he operates—indicating that thousands of people will remain and need more resources.

“People were saying Sacred Stone had a million and could not understand because we did not have it in the bank,” said Bravebull-Allard of Sacred Stone Camp, which is on her land. “I could not spend money we did not have but I did my best to help people.”

She did not indicate a dollar amount that Sacred Stone has received or spent so far, but did point out that approximately 3,000 illegitimate sites have used the camp’s name to raise money.

Archambault, in a video statement on December 13, said that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has received about $6 million in donations and that the tribal council has voted consistently to spend these funds on legal needs, to accommodate the camp, and for public relations. So far, he said, the Tribe has spent $600,000. They are saving remaining funds—about $5.4 million—for legal fees that they expect will continue to accrue. In any case, the Tribe will continue to hold monthly meetings regarding how the money has already been and should be spent.

“It’s open and transparent,” Archambault said, addressing questions about what they’re doing with the money. “We have records, we have documentation, and we’re not trying to hide anything. We don’t make this about money or about donations. Our purpose and our intent has always been to protect future generations and make sure they have clean drinking water.”

In addition to questions about funds, some confusion arose regarding supply donations. Kenny Frost, who is associated with Sacred Stone Camp, posted on Facebook on December 11 that “a certain tribal council member has been going through the mail and packages obtaining all gift and cash cards sent to Sacred Stone Camp, including certain tribal employees,” and that “the chairman of the Standing Rock tribe does not have the authority to stop such delivery as this impedes the delivery of personal mail packages and gift and monetary cards which have a monetary value and constitute ‘Fraud, and Theft under applicable United State laws.’ ”

Frost implied that the Tribe was intentionally intercepting packages that were meant to be delivered directly to camp, and that it was breaking the law by tampering with mail. Archambault, via the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has since released a statement in response to these allegations.

“There has been some confusion lately regarding donations and the Tribe’s role in storage and dispersal,” he said. “First and foremost, please do not indulge in these conspiracy theories circulating about secret agreements between the tribe and the company or local law enforcement. Such rumors are false and harmful to our movement. Also, I would like to clarify that the Tribe has only tried to help in this donation supplies issue by providing a storage facility for the large quantity of donated items coming in for the camps. We have never attempted to guide or interfere with distribution. To avoid any further confusion, we ask that camp donations from here on out be sent to specific people at the respective camps, and not directly to the tribal offices. Any supply donations received by the tribal office will be returned to sender."

On the morning of December 13, Sacred Stone Camp and LRI representatives posted photos of the warehouse where their supplies had been stored, indicating that they were able to collect their belongings, and another rumor was laid to rest.


Oceti Oyate, The People’s Camp

For months, the public has known the main camp as the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires camp, a name that comes directly from traditional Lakota/Dakota societal structures. Iron Eyes has indicated that the sacred fire of the Oceti Sakowin camp had been put out and that the camp has been renamed the Oceti Oyate, or “The People’s Camp.” It remains unclear whether any of the traditionally appointed chiefs of the initial Seven Council Fires camp played a role in this transition.

Tribal Nation & Water Protectors vs. the State of North Dakota

Despite internal conflicts, the Tribe and the Water Protectors remain united in their shared desire to stop the pipeline and see the fairest possible outcomes in the water protectors’ individual cases. Hundreds of water protectors have been arrested and will go to trial in North Dakota in coming weeks and months. Many are concerned that it will be impossible to secure unbiased jury trials for the water protectors, as it is likely that most citizens in Morton County have been influenced by media or have personal ties to the pipeline.

On December 12, Morton County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson filed a motion requesting that since most water protectors had deemed themselves “arrestables,” intentionally violating the law for the sake of their cause with support from activist attorneys, the state should not “drown their resources” by providing them with legal services. It is unclear whether or not this attorney understands that many other crimes committed by any other defendants in any everyday criminal cases are done intentionally, which does not in most cases bar them from the right to legal defense.

On December 20, the first two water protectors were found guilty, convicted of misdemeanors in a Morton County jury trial. Ben Schapiro of Ohio and Steven Voliva of Washington were both arrested on September 27, accused of blocking a highway during demonstrations. The jury convicted the men and find them each $1,285.

Another 10-person water protector trial was supposed to happen on December 19, but the judge postponed the trial to January after learning that some evidence had not been provided to some of the water protectors’ defense attorneys.

In continued attempts to further the cause of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the chairman met on December 13 with the governor of North Dakota, Jack Dalrymple, who has been an outspoken opponent of both the Tribe and the grassroots pipeline protectors, having declared a “state of emergency” and requesting increased law enforcement to stifle their efforts back in September.

As a result of the three-hour meeting, the governments agreed to move forward on steps toward re-opening a bridge that had been closed due to the protests. Also on December 13, Attorney General Loretta Lynch released a video statement on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, stating that they have been monitoring the protest all along and are committed to supporting both law enforcement and the right of civilians to protest.

“Let me stress that violence is never the answer,” Lynch said. “Our first concern is the safety of everyone in the area.”

The Justice Department has made “strenuous efforts to open up communication and dialogue” between law enforcement, protestors, and governments involved, Lynch said. “We recognize that strong feelings that exist about the Dakota Access Pipeline—feelings that in many instances arise from the complicated and painful history between the Federal government and American Indians.”

On December 15, the North Dakota Supreme Court made an unusual move by calling for public comments on a petition filed by the Water Protector Legal Collective to allow for out-of-state attorneys to represent the water protectors. The deadline to submit comments is set for 4p.m. on December 30.

Future of the Black Snake

Regarding Trump’s solidifying his place in office with the recent electoral college results, anti-pipeline parties are concerned about what he and his environmentally unfriendly administration nominees will mean for the fate of the cause.

For example his appointment for Energy Secretary, former Texas governor Rick Perry, is a current board member of Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the Dakota Access Pipeline. Being that Perry is a huge personal stakeholder in the project, anti-DAPL entities—SRST and water protectors alike—are worried that Perry will do everything in his power to get the project going once Trump is in office.

Worst-case scenario might be that a Trump administration could possibly work around any negative rulings and force the project forward under the guise of sorting out the environmental impact down the road. With that in mind, the Tribe is pressuring the Obama administration to start the new Environmental Impact Assessment process prior to Trump’s taking office.

The Tribe issued yet another press release addressing the topic on December 21. They stated that the Tribal Council members are working together and have agreed that they must do their best to develop new relationships with the incoming administration.

“We must try to educate and explain in the hopes that they understand, or at least grant us the benefit of the doubt,” the Tribe said. “We will not win any arguments if we go in completely oppositional to this administration. We are in no way ‘negotiating’ with the companies nor the administration. We are not giving into the proposed route and never will.”