In Cortez Tuesday, locals heard firsthand accounts of the protest on the Standing Rock reservation against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
The forum, held at St. Barnabas Church, was attended by 45 people, and was sponsored by the Resource and Environmental Advocacy and Protection (REAP) group, based in Montezuma County.
Tom Johnston spoke about his experience and those of his two sons during a recent visit to the protest camps.
“Every day is exciting, with planes and helicopters buzzing overhead, and police and private security forces in riot gear,” he said.
He said Native American tribes have banded together to protest the construction of the pipeline, which is poised to drill under the Missouri River and is seen as a threat to water resources.
A forward encampment set up on the pipeline route was raided by police, Johnston said, “with sweat lodge ceremonies interrupted and people pulled out of a prayer circle” then arrested, including his two sons.
“The beautiful thing is the 250 tribal flags out there,” he said. “There are real acts of heroism in the face of tear gas, sound cannons and rubber bullets.”
Treaty landThe Standing Rock Sioux tribe opposes the pipeline because it is being built across ancestral lands they claim under a 1851 Treaty with the U.S., said Adrianne Chalepah, a Kiowa-Apache from Cortez who also attended the protest with her husband, a Lakota Sioux.
“The media don’t report that the land is treaty land, which legally means it belongs to the Lakota,” she said. “We have become educated and know our treaties, and we are not going to allow the pipeline to pollute our water.”
Chalepah said there is a misconception that the protesters are “lawless hippies.”
“You see grandmothers and children. Women are leading the effort,” she said. “Kids in middle and high school started the resistance and are brave enough to put their bodies on the line.”
She said protesters have been peaceful, and access to the camps on reservation land is strictly controlled by the Standing Rock tribe to prevent weapons, drugs, and alcohol from coming in.
Johnston told of a pipeline construction project protected by barbed wire and heavily defended by local police and private security forces. Trespassers are arrested and held in jails on-site.
The project is on land permitted by the Army Corp of Engineers, but the permit is under review by the agency to determine whether the pipeline can be rerouted away from tribal lands.
“How can they be arrested when on treaty land?” Johnston said. “We’re holding an eagle feather up, and they are in riot gear. That’s all we have is a shield and a prayer.”
Cancel accountsIn response on how to help, Chalepah suggested canceling accounts with banks that are helping to finance the $3.8 billion project, including Wells Fargo and CitiBank.
One woman who had just returned from the camps said she helped sort through donated clothes, adding that there is a need for snow pants, boots and warm sleeping bags. Skilled carpenters and laborers are also needed to build shelters for protesters to continue through the winter.
“I want to go back to support the effort,” she said.
Joni Tressler, of Mancos, recently attended the protest camps to support the cause, and said it’s important to understand Native American rights and history.
“Going to Standing Rock, I realized how much of this is about the oppression of Native American people and how this has been going on forever,” she said. “I want people to be aware of it, that it is a human rights issue happening to native people across the country.”
About the pipeline Owned by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile project would carry nearly a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois, where shippers can access Midwest and Gulf Coast markets. Announced in 2014, supporters said the pipeline would create more markets and reduce truck and oil train traffic — the latter of which has been a growing concern after a spate of fiery derailments of trains carrying North Dakota crude. The pipeline would help cut costs for Bakken region drillers, which have had to turn to more expensive rail shipments when existing pipes filled up.
A lawsuit by the Standing Rock Sioux alleges that the pipeline, which would be placed less than a mile upstream of the reservation, could impact drinking water for more than 8,000 tribal members and millions who rely on it downstream. A separate lawsuit filed by the Yankton Sioux tribe in South Dakota challenged the same thing. ETP says the pipeline includes safeguards such as leak detection equipment, and workers monitoring the pipeline remotely in Texas could close block valves on it within three minutes if a breach is detected.
The protest encampment has been called the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century, and the first time all seven bands of Sioux have come together since Gen. George Custer’s 1876 expedition at the Battle of Little Big Horn.