The Battle for Standing Rock

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After a federal US court judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for a temporary injunction against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) September 9, the large encampment at the North Dakota reservation was disappointed but not surprised. What they didn’t expect was that, only hours later, three US government departments would jointly demand a voluntary stop to construction.

I had a feeling it was going to happen – there were just too many people involved, all standing with Standing Rock, for it not to happen,” said Gail Chamberlain, an Ojibway craftswoman from Wikwemikong, Ontario, who now lives between the Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Kanesatake. “When we heard that he had stopped it, everyone was cheering, there were celebrations – there was a powwow! People were dancing.”

But it wasn’t over, and nobody at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation – a community that combines members of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota Nations with other members of Anishinaabe Nations – believed the government intervention was the end of the story.

Indeed, on September 16, another federal court ruling threw out a restraining order that barred the Standing Rock tribal chairman and several other pipeline protesters from “unlawfully interfering” with construction. The judge said the North Dakota court ruling from August no longer served a legitimate purpose.

Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (also called the Bakken Pipeline) has been simmering for years. The 30-inch diameter pipeline is to be buried a minimum of four feet underground and can carry up to 450,000 barrels of fracked crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. DAPL’s Texas-based parent company Energy Transfer Partners, LP, has said that the project will create between 12 and 15 permanent jobs, along with up to 4,000 temporary jobs generated during the construction process.


Because the DAPL relied on eminent domain laws to seize private land for the pipeline, opposition to the project in rural areas came from both Native and non-Native residents. Native DAPL opponents have cited the threat from oil spills to the Missouri River – which it is slated to travel under – a water supply for local First Nations. Non-Native farmers protesting the DAPL, meanwhile, worry about damage to the soil and erosion that might result from the project, as well as a potential threat to local wildlife. As early as 2014, Iowa governor Terry Branstad ignored petitions signed by 2300 DAPL opponents demanding he stop the pipeline, which would cut across Iowa on its way to Illinois.

But the battle began to intensify in August, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe organized an international campaign called ReZpect Our Water, and filed an injunction against the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to halt construction. At that point opposition to the pipeline became centred in Native communities, particularly the Standing Rock Indian Reservation itself, and soon Native supporters began journeying to Standing Rock to join the movement. By the beginning of September, the protest at Standing Rock had become the largest gathering of First Nations in over 100 years. Standing Rock resident JR American Horse told the Associated Press in mid-September that he stopped counting the flags of Nations represented there after he reached 300.

“People went for a week and ended up deciding to stay for the long run,” said Chamberlain, who brought a banner from the Nation to hang at the site. “I met people who’d seen it on social media or on the news, all over the place, and just decided to drive down there.”

Food is provided daily on-site by donation, and early worries by Standing Rock residents that they would not be able to accommodate a large number of visitors have been eased by the strong organization within the two camps. There is an on-site school. And while many say they intend to camp through the winter, locals are speculating that provisional buildings will probably go up to protect the camp’s more vulnerable members.

Chamberlain added that if Crees or other supporters wish to send goods to help out the camps at Standing Rock, what the water protectors need now are materials to help them through the winter, in particular tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, rechargeable batteries, rechargeable lights and portable heaters.

“Everyone who went down there brought something. No one showed up empty handed,” said Chamberlain, who paid for her trip to Standing Rock by holding a 50/50 raffle that raised more than $2000. “I originally thought I’d bring food and water, but I figured once I was down there I’d check to see what they needed, only to find out they have plenty. Everybody’s bringing food and water in by the truckload. So what I did was I brought accessories to help people stay on social media – rechargeable batteries, phone chargers, things like that.”


Kahnawake resident and K-103 radio host Timothy Armstrong, who is originally from Manitoba’s Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, arrived after a 40-hour drive.

“I pulled off the highway and was greeted by two young local men swinging a can full of burning sage with which they smudged every vehicle coming to and from the camp,” said Armstrong by e-mail. “It was a homecoming of sorts. Here were so many individuals, some 5000 on the day that I arrived that shared not only my heritage but also my beliefs. This kind of Indigenous coming together was unprecedented and I knew that I was part of something very special. The mood at the camp was always upbeat, with a hand wave and greeting of ‘Where are you from?’ from everyone I passed.”

Standing Rock opponents to the DAPL have characterized themselves as “protectors, not protestors.” There is a policy of strict non-violence that includes bans on weapons, drugs and alcohol at the camps. “Every day they emphasized that it was a peaceful demonstration, and that no one was going to cross the line, no one was going to incite the National Guard or do anything,” said Chamberlain.

Chamberlain noted that roughly a quarter of the opponents are non-Native, including those who are there independently or with environmental organizations such as Greenpeace.


In the confrontation between DAPL opponents and security guards on September 3, protestors allege they were attacked by employees of the private security firm contracted by the Energy Transfer Partners. The guards used pepper spray and dogs, many of which were described as poorly trained. (One video shows a dog biting its handler.)

By September 9, the simmer had come to a boil. Standing Rock’s DAPL opponents remained peaceful, but pressure was rising among those committed to preventing the pipeline through civil disobedience. That afternoon, US District Judge James E. Boasberg was scheduled to rule on the August lawsuit from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe demanding an injunction to the pipeline. It was after his 58-page refusal to grant an injunction that the Department of Justice, Department of the Army and Department of the Interior stepped in with its demand for a voluntary moratorium on pipeline construction bordering or underneath Lake Oahe.

Many media outlets painted the moratorium as a victory, but DAPL supporters say it’s only a delay. While it invites US tribes to “formal, government-to-government consultations” on the project, there’s no guarantee that it will result in a decisive defeat of the pipeline. For that reason, actions have endured to block any construction, and the work of the water protectors continues.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have appealed Judge Boasberg’s decision, and while it awaits a ruling from the appeal court, work on the pipeline is formally shut down.

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