Energy Environment

Guest Post: A Pipeline Carrying 500 Years of Pain

Written by Brian Johnson
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Labor Day Weekend, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Attack dogs, mace, and a public official defending corporate violence. Before you read any further, watch for yourself at Democracy Now!

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their growing list of allies have traction in the media and the courts against the Dakota Access Pipeline. On Labor Day, a federal judge ordered an emergency hearing for Tuesday. They have quite a fight ahead of them. Check out the list of financial backers for the project. It calls into question for me everything I know about corporate philanthropy.

Judge James E. Boasberg’s urgency is undoubtedly linked to the nonviolent protest and corresponding violence, in deed and word, of Energy Transfer and the Morton County Sherriff’s Office – whose state patrol letterhead (featuring a red skinned face with feathered headwear) is a bitter irony. Morton County is a place, like almost all places belonging to indigenous people, where another abuse and encroachment fits right into a long sad history of lies and broken promises.

Sometimes Prayer Is An Action

Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp chronicle pictures, testimony and video on Facebook. Months of organizing and creative actions (like a youth run to D.C. people chaining themselves to dozers, and other planned arrests) are culminating in thousands gathered, Energy Transfer’s brazen disrespect for due process, and nonviolent water protectors using bodily interposition to disrupt the destruction while exercising incredible restraint.

Sherriff Kyle Kirchmeier makes strong counter claims that the protestors ARE using violence. His statements are distortions at best, outright lies meant to mislead the public at worst.

This evening he launched his defense in the court of public opinion on the Morton County Sherriff’s facebook page a fairly bizarre choice for a law enforcement official in the midst of litigation. In case that mistake is soon realized, here is the text from above a picture of bodies jostling next to a car:

“This picture shows a private security officer pinned between his vehicle and 50 protestors Saturday afternoon. You can see a wooden post that someone was trying to jab him with to the left and a man standing on the back of the pickup with a metal post. A fellow security officer and others came to his aid to hold back the group of protestors.”

Why, Sheriff Kirchmeier, were no arrests made? Whence your eagerness to defend a corporate private security force? Besides your singular photo showing reasonable bodily interposition tactics, where is your proof? What is your position on the behavior of those dogs? And where was the Sheriff’s office while this event was taking place? Did you communicate in advance with the company or private security forces? The original statement from your office said nothing of the injuries sustained by protestors.

Inquire Locally

Just outside of Custer, Montana, on Interstate 94 toward Standing Rock, a brown highway sign with white lettering encourages motorists to “Inquire Locally” about Yellowstone National Park. You have to be from Montana to get the joke. The park is 200 miles away, in the other direction as the sign. But I’m sure there is a place to buy lunch or spend the night while you inquire. The advice is good in spite of itself: inquire locally.

The events at Standing Rock should matter to Montanan’s for lots of reasons. Maybe they will hit parents who just took their kids to school especially hard. An MSU doctoral student, mother, and wife, Linda Black Elk, was one of the protestors hit with mace, About a dozen MSU Bozeman students and alumni were present at the construction site immediately after the confrontation and for the day after in camp at both Sacred Stone and Red Warrior. Montanan’s looking for truthful eyewitness accounts from other Montanan’s could discard all forms of media. You need only to inquire at the MSU Native American Studies Department.

Harden Not Your Hearts

The morning after, KCND 90.5 aired “The Jefferson Hour” a fascinatingly idiosyncratic approach to news analysis. It concluded that it is a “verrry optimistic” opinion that “white people will soften” not harden, their attitudes to natives as a result of this protest action.

The top-of-the-hour headlines on 89.9 KDPR guaranteed hardened hearts. With absolutely no details, listeners all over the country heard that, at Standing Rock in North Dakota “the protest turned violent yesterday.” End of story, you fill in the blanks. “There go those violent Indians again, tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Head nodding in unison, like an oilrig on the prairie, Morton County Commissioner, Cody Shultz, circles the wagons and demands that the chief keep his braves under control.

Both Sacred Stone and Red Warrior camps are open and peaceful places for all people, including white guys like Cody and me. Commissioner Shultz should just attend the evening campfire.

Camp Fire Stories

The dogs are important. The mace is important. The pipeline is important. The water, most of all, is important. Faced with an oil pipeline through their graveyard and watershed, the Standing Rock Sioux proclaim: Mni Wiconi. Water is life. In camp, at dinner and around the campfire, these events get their meaning.

Camp flows like a beehive or anthill. The system seems chaotic; the productivity is astounding. Fast as a film cut-away, huge unsorted piles of donated food assembled themselves in neat stacks under tents and tarps. The aproned, smoking, elderly woman in charge met my amazement with a grin: “We know how to get things done when we need to.” Not a single corn flake got rained on, I’m sure of it.

At campfire, a 19 year old boy, one of the youth involved in the run to Washington D.C., reflected on ego, voice and spirituality. Though he thought it best to step back, he found himself at the front: “I realized I had a voice from the Great Spirit that would not be silent.” An elder got up later, representing the two-spirit community, and committed himself to staying to support the youth “as long as Great Spirit will allow.” And then a little boy, in costume, danced to Michael Jackson.

Another elder spoke who has carried a pipe for the tribe for 31 years. He insisted that everyone respect the Standing Rock Sioux and their protocols. He reminded the people that they are united, strong, powerful and will win. Through what? Prayer. He certainly did not need the Commissioner to tell him to quell violence. I doubt he read Cody’s blog post anyway.

After fresh performances by Nataanii Means and Quese IMC, a young woman spoke: “We have to remember that peace is not passive. Peace is powerful, my relatives. The life blood of the mother, water, flows through all of us and makes us alive.”

One water protector made me think of Ezekiel’s dry bones: “Sometimes prayer is an action. Sometimes we have to meet our prayer halfway to fulfill prophesy.”

In one of the deftest acts of spiritual leadership I have ever seen, an elder woman from an Oregon tribe turned a potential insult into blessing. Her tribe was singing a prayer of greeting when a southwestern tribe entered camp in the customary way: drumming, singing and dancing in full ceremonial dress. The cultures collided right at the fire pit. The elder woman grabbed the microphone and described an old prophecy: “that north will meet south. You entering right now, to teach us how to pray, is a fulfillment of that prophecy. We are one.”

As a kid, my mother took me to powwows in Great Falls. I hated it. Drum circles of Montana tribes still rank very low on my personal list of favorite rituals. On September 3rd, 2016, with earplugs in, van doors closed and locked, I drifted off to sleep in Sacred Stone Camp. That drumming sounded like my heart beat.

Editor’s Note: I will add hyperlinks to this story later today, but wanted to disseminate the text now.

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Brian Johnson

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