An activist provides a first-hand account and the perspective missing from most news accounts of the Native American protests over a controversial pipeline.
Alan Gilbert is a Distinguished Professor of International Studies at the University of Denver and Paula Bard is a fine-art photographer. They travelled to the Sacred Stone encampment in North Dakota to save the waters of the Missouri and sacred grave sites from destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline would span four states and has prompted many protests, particularly by Native Americans. Their personal account offers insight into the spiritual side of Native American water-protection.
On September 8, the growing opposition prompted the Obama administration to halt the pipeline construction, and to re-evaluate the government’s position on the project. This action reversed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to allow construction without consultation with the tribes.
On April 1, the Lakota formed the Sacred Stone Camp — Inyan Wakhanagapi Ohti -— led by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and tribal chair Dave Archambault II. The Lakota prayed for a vision to protect the waters of Lako Oahe and the Missouri River from being fouled by an oil leak. They prayed to protect the ancestral sacred stone graves and a history still handed down in the stories of elders. The waters are threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is being constructed by Energy Transfer Associates. Despite treaties with the United States government, indigenous people were not consulted about the pipeline by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Lakota envisioned nonviolent civil disobedience. They put out a call and, as a result, a great movement of indigenous people from 154 tribes, as well as non-indigenous supporters, began to form against the DAPL.
In late August and early September, Paula Bard, who took some of the photographs accompanying this article, and I visited the encampment. It has now grown from 1,000 protesters during the week to 3,000 on the weekend.
In Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on September 2, Tim Mentz Sr., a tribal elder and its historical preservation officer since 1985, testified that 27 graves and 82 stone sites were in the path of the pipeline. The very next day, the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, the company leaped over 15 miles of undisturbed land to bulldoze that area. It desecrated graves.
That same day, a prayer march, led by 79-year old Dennis Banks, a co-organizer of the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, prepared to walk from Sacred Stone camp toward a protest site. Many of the women were dressed in beautifully beaded tribal shawls and dresses, pink and purple, black and white.
Some of the marchers wore “Native Lives Matter” t-shirts. Others carried signs saying “You can’t eat oil” and “Honor the Treaties.” At the front, people drummed and sang. Along the march, some from the back started chants. Banks, a longstanding hero of resistance, faltered from the heat, but others helped him and he pushed on.
The site was identified by flags and signs along the construction company’s fence, about a mile and half away on Highway 1806. People lined up in front of a gate. Some from the front of the march took puffs from a sacred chanupah pipe; women danced to drums. Other marchers, including many children, sat down on the slopes of a little ravine on both sides. Just as we were about to leave, a frantic indigenous man, wearing camouflage pants, a beaded necklace of feathers and a SWAT hat, ran down the hill to report that the company was already digging, about a mile on. Most of us were confused and all of us were tired and hot, but we pushed on over the hill. When word spread to the camp, hundreds of others, including some media, drove up to join in.
When we came to the spot where the tractors were digging, everybody ran to the fence. A mother with her young son climbed over the fence to protest. Security guards suddenly brought out dogs and mace. When other protesters came to her aid, one was thrown to the ground by a guard.
Given the train of abuses, the cultural disregard, the threat to the waters, the poverty and hopelessness of indigenous communities, the arrogance of the company, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Governor and police of North Dakota — many young people had simply had enough. The protesters pushed over the metal fence and confronted the bulldozers. They acted together in a kind of moving blockade and walked in the huge, gouged tracks of the tractors driving the machines back over the hill and down the other side. Some young men from the camp joined on horseback. We were all in the crowd.
Determined to block the bulldozers, some mothers left their children back at the fence with relatives who did not join. Other mothers fretted about their 13-year-old children who had rushed ahead. A woman we went back with was especially proud of her son who had ridden his horse out to drive the bulldozers back.
The air was full of barking, the screams of those who were maced, the shouts of those who fought against the dogs, the grinding of the retreating machines. Victor Puertas was bitten on the arm. On Tuesday, September 6, he would chain himself to a tractor as part of the ongoing civil disobedience.
The guards sicced some 10 dogs on the demonstrators. Most were attacked from behind or aslant. A few with flags on poles were able to ward off the dogs. But others, including mothers and children, were bitten and 60 were maced.
Despite these provocations, the water-protectors remained nonviolent. This was a huge value of the camp. It is a place of nonviolence and prayer. The elders drummed this into the younger people, to considerable effect. Finally, in a victory for the demonstration, the tractors and guards left for the day. After the shock and terror of the dogs, the surging of the tractors, a feeling of victory and accomplishment coursed through all of us and lasted into the evening.
The state troopers had waited quietly in three cars lined up a half mile further down highway 1806. They had let the corporate attack go on. In no other action have dogs been used against people. In this demonstration alone, the police were not directly involved. Two representatives of the Sioux went to talk with them. The troopers said work was over for the day. If we left, no one would be arrested. And no one was that time.
As we came off the property, some protectors were doing makeshift treatments for bites and mace. One woman, who had been bitten, shouted out about the dogs, demanding that we stay. The dogs traumatized many, especially children.
When Paula and I returned to Denver, we were among several thousand protesters who participated in the Four Directions March to the state capital on September 8. Other demonstrations occurred on subsequent dates: on September 9, 150 demonstrated against the Dakota Access pipeline in Boone County, Iowa; 15 were arrested. There were also big demonstrations in solidarity with the Sioux in cities from Tulsa, San Francisco and Omaha to New York City.
Still, on the morning of September 13, in a further act of nonviolent civil disobedience, two protesters chained themselves to tractors. Police came to the site with assault rifles, and 20 water-defenders were arrested.
The US government’s long record of ethnic cleansing of indigenous people has always involved cultural erasure. How many Americans are aware of their country’s long history of major and small injustices perpetrated against its indigenous people? How many residents of Massachusetts know that Harvard acquired 2000 acres of land from the 1638 massacre of 500 Pequot men, women and children?
How many residents of Mankato, Minnesota, know that Mankato was a chief who helped Little Crow fight the starving of the Santee Sioux in 1862, during the Lincoln administration’s war in the West. Or that the name Minnesota, itself indigenous, hovers over those who stole the Sioux’s land and erased their traditions.
How many North Dakotans know that Sitting Bull was murdered by soldiers in 1890 at his home just before the army’s slaughter of 250 peaceful Sioux for doing a Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee?
The destruction of graves is yet another milestone in a long process of attempted cultural extinction. On Saturday, September 3, about 10:00 pm, Mentz spoke to a gathering of several hundred in the Sacred Stone camp for about an hour. We had all eaten (a tribe from Seattle had brought salmon). We heard prayer songs and speeches from Chase Iron-Eyes a Sioux activist who, inspired by Bernie Sanders, is running for Congress and Deborah Parker, a former vice-chair of the Tulalip tribe near Seattle, who fought in Washington, D.C, for two years for the inclusion of indigenous women in the Violence against Women Act. The lights in the camp were dimmed. Some children were still playing. Some people had, with them, small dogs.
Mentz is an older man with glasses and two long, thin white braids that come down his shoulders in front. He wears a baseball cap with Sx on it for Sioux. Unwrinkled, he looks younger than he is. Mentz gestures as he speaks, makes a crescent when describing the sign of the dipper carved in grave markers or a circle for the Wagamuha of the Strong Heart Society. He is plainspoken and often funny. Mentz has kept track of or sometimes unearthed sacred stones, ceremonies and stories for some 35 years.
He underlines that the grave sites just destroyed are rare. His talk explores gradually, in increasing depth, a kind of circling in sadness, what had been lost. His descriptions of prayerful ceremony — of the use of a line of tobacco as an offering to spirits, of participants exiting by circling the line clockwise, of the care people took in honoring the ancestors — are riveting. The gathering, which included people from many tribes which do not have precisely these practices as well as those of us who are learning for the first time some of the secrets of a different kind of prayer — one much more in tune with nature — hangs on his words with growing shock and sadness. Until he spoke, many of us had no idea of the extent of the cultural desecration that had occurred that day.
Mentz noted that the Sioux found sacred stones until the 1960s when federal dam construction dredged the Missouri and the Cannon Ball river at their confluence straightening the rivers. They no longer created sacred round stones. The Army Corps of Engineers has a bad history here.
When Mentz was told by his daughter over the phone about the destruction on Saturday morning, he had to sit down. I could hear the heartbreak in his voice. The plowing was a human-made earthquake. Mentz is a Sioux-American. As he said rightly, “North Dakota lost a major piece of history.”
“We were told about Bear Medicine Man and how the earth was marked with symbolism,” Mentz related. “Stories go with and are remembered by the teaching-stones inlaid in the ground, which should withstand the test of time.”
Teaching-stones are about the size of teapots. They are sometimes colored for meaning. Some Sioux ancestors made rock formations and markings indicating knowledge about the stars. As Mentz put it, “What is above, the heaven and stars, is also down below.” These mirror markings on the earth had not just one meaning, but provided diverse guidance in how to live. The Earth Justice lawyers for the Sioux had just submitted his testimony the day before. That morning, these very sites had been maliciously, carelessly bulldozed by the company.
In his September 2 court testimony, Mentz had reported finding a big dipper — IyoKaptan Tanka in Lakota — carved on a grave. The dipper is central in Lakota cosmology. This crescent was the largest of three he had seen in his lifetime. A leader had “fasted or vision-quested in the cup” of the Big Dipper to make the ultimate commitment to the people. This is the last level to attain as a Chief and very few Chiefs made it to the seventh level in leadership. Only a Chief or Itancha can stand in the cup of the Dipper. To find a grave attached to the cup signifies the importance of this leader and this site, what the Elders would say of him [w]as ‘he was beyond reproach.’ This is one of the most significant archeological finds in North Dakota in many years.”
IyoKaptan Tanka, Mentz testified, was 75 feet from where the pipeline was projected to go. Energy Transfer Associates bulldozed it the next day…
With care and attention, Mentz also testified about a Chante Tinza Wapaha, the staff of the Hunkpapa Strong Heart Society. The Hunkpapa were the Sioux band that was led in the 19th century by Sitting Bull.
“The Strong Heart rattle or coup stick is in the center of the site hooking the stone ring and the half ring together,” he testified. “The features are evidence that others had followed a similar spiritual path and completed their spiritual walk of life. This [staff] indicates that a pledge was made between two Strong Heart members sharing their vision quest to be sealed with prayer when using the coup stick in battle.”
The staff marks the place where warriors joined the society. It adjoins a grave. The site lies near the descendants in Standing Rock: “We have a place close to home that can fulfill this void…”
Mentz also found a stone effigy of Mato Wapiya or Bear Medicine Healer. “To find evidence of where a fasting or presence is connected to a [Hunkpapa] society is very unusual.” In Mentz’s 35 years of research, he had come across but one other on the Great Plains. “We only have great stories of these types of men; the deeds they accomplish during times when healing needed to occur. The gift of this type of healer was profound to the extent that other bands shared these medicine men, but to find the site where he received his gift of healing is extraordinary.”
In the words of David Archambault Sr. (the father of the current tribal chief): “As far as burial sites, our people didn’t bury anyone in dirt. They were placed on scaffolds so the body could be given back to Mother Earth; however, the scaffold place was marked. Tim Mentz found 27 such final marked resting places before DAPL deleted their sanctity.”
The stones are sacred.
“All the sacred markings are now part of huge overturned mounds of dirt containing random once- hallowed stones,” Archambault added. “They now symbolize nothing but desecration for money.”
If This Were Arlington Cemetery
In the Lakota’s vision, the nonviolent protest over the water and the stones is also sacred. The Sioux have resolved to sustain their protest through the harsh North Dakota winter. They have urged everyone, indigenous and non-indigenous, to join them.
On January 13, 2007, the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. On August 23, 2016, the Sioux brought their case to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Responding a week later, on September 1, Alvaro Pop Ac, chairperson of the forum and an indigenous leader from Guatemala, along with Dalee Dorough and Chief Edward John, ruled for the Sioux:
“The pipeline would adversely affect the security and access to drinking water of the Sioux and millions of people living downstream of the Missouri River, but it would also destroy archaeological, historical and sacred sites of the Sioux. Given these circumstances, we call on the United States government to comply with the provisions recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure the right of the Sioux to participate in decision-making, considering that the construction of this pipeline will affects their rights, lives and territory.”
In contrast, echoing Energy Transfer Associates, South Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple called out the National Guard. Police are making arrests “for trespassing.” There is a dazzling irony in saying to indigenous people, who have treaty rights in this land, that they are the trespassers.
Given the company’s unleashing of dogs and mace there is a similar irony in the idea that nonviolent civil disobedients are “the violent” ones.
In his testimony on September 2, Wentz told the story of the Corps of Engineers’ flooding of the lowlands where his grandmother took him as a child to make offerings to the ancestors:
“In the early 1960s, the Corps of Engineers flooded the lowlands along the Missouri River in this area for the Oahe dam and reservoir project. Prior to the flooding, as a young boy I would ride or walk alongside a horse-drawn wagon owned by my uncle, who took my grandmother to Fort Rice which was approximately 13 miles north of the mouth of the Cannon Ball along the Missouri River. A grocery store was located there and most people travelled there as it had a train depot. We would stop there and our grandmother who was born in 1891 had us go to the nearby hills to the west not far from the old wagon trail and take food to the spirits of our relatives. These hills are near where the DAPL plans on inserting the pipeline to go east under the Missouri River. Numerous burials of an old warrior society and chiefs are buried there up on top and near the bottom of the hills and it was the custom to stop and feed their spirits with wasna (a pounded beef jerky mixed with tallow) and also give water to the spirits.”
Wentz mourns: “It grieves me today to remember how respectful we were then, and how as young adults, we were required not to talk or make any noise in respect to the society leaders buried there, when offering them food when now this area will be destroyed.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Sacred Stone Camp (Tony Webster / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)