Forces of oppression and injustice exist in our world, in our country, in North Dakota. These are the forces of empire, the forces that drag our world away from the Creator's intent and toward human greed and power. This post is my recollection of what happened on Sunday, November 20th.
According to the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1851, as you can see in the map, the Sioux Nation has rights to the land between the Cannonball River and the Heart River. Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline has already built the pipeline, against federal laws, orders from President Obama and against orders from the Army Corp of Engineers, through the disputed Sioux land and is now illegally digging under the Missouri River. They have ripped a huge swath of destruction through ancient Indian burial grounds, dug under the beautiful Heart River, and now have begun digging under the Missouri River. Their belief is, it seems, if they can finish the pipeline, no one will ever be able to stop oil from flowing in it. They've almost accomplished that task.
Highway 1806 runs north from both Sacred Stone Camp and Oceti Sakowin Camp (where I stayed) and across the Cannonball River where the pipeline is actively, and as stated earlier, illegally being built. The bridge crossing the river is now the front line of protest, prayer and conflict. As of about October 24th the Morton County Police have blocked passageway north using two burnt out dump trucks, razor wire, and Jersey barriers. They've also staged military vehicles at the north side of the bridge. It's here, at the north side of the bridge where water protectors gather regularly to pray and protest the pipeline. It is their (our) belief that the Morton County Sherif's Department is illegally and unjustly protecting Energy Transfer Parters as they complete the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is our belief that the only way to stop the pipeline is to bring awareness to what is happening and continue to push for legal and political action. That is the fight that all people, all over the world, this Advent season can participate in. But the fight on the front lines is not only political, not only phone calls and emails to politicians. The fight on the front line is a real, physical battle against a the completion of the pipeline. Protectors are using their bodies, sacrificially, to bring awareness that the forces of empire will stop on nothing to finish the pipeline as quickly as possible.
On Sunday, November 20th, a group of indigenous young adults from Oceti Sakowin took action to remove one of the burned out dump trucks. Cornelius and I were sitting around the Sacred Fire some time in the early evening when we heard a woman near us nearly sobbing, exclaiming that "they weren't supposed to do this, they weren't supposed to take direct action against the pipeline for 30 days." What we heard from her was that the elders had asked the young indigenous leaders not take direct action on the bridge while they continued the legal fight. I don't know what was said in those meetings, who decided what, but action was taken against the will of many of the elders, to remove the blockade protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline and it's completion.
A native man came running into camp, out of breath and wet, as we sat there hearing the woman's story. "We need bolt cutters!" he exclaimed. They were attempting to open up the highway and needed to free the second dumptruck! They believed the highway was on Sioux land and it was their right to have free access to the illegal operations of DAPL. I don't think anyone expected the response that was coming from the Morton County Police and their hired mercenaries.
Cornelius jumped up into action first. I think he grabbed a container of bottled water needed at the front line to wash the eyes of the growing mass of demonstrators now being attacked with tear gas. It as about 27 degrees outside, tear gas and pepper spray were not the dangerous weapons, the National Guard's water cannons brought the threat of extreme hypothermia. Soon, the attempts to move the second truck ended but hundreds of protectors gathered at the front lines to show they would not be moved either. The water canons soaked the crowd. Ice began to form on the razor wire forming icicles that glittered in the bright lights of the National Guard. An ice skating rink formed on the roadway making movement difficult for anyone trying to get out of the way of the onslaught from the police. Soaked protectors were not dissuaded, that evening became the night when the world paid attention, even if just for one night, to the abuses and injustice at Standing Rock. Whether you think the police force was justified or not, the abusiveness of those giving the orders to protect DAPL as they illegally continue their work cannot be questioned.
I prayed at the Sacred Fire, "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us," with tears in my eyes, feeling like something bad was about to happen. I stayed until a call for blankets came. Several of us carried boxes of blankets down the highway to the front lines where protectors were being carried out of the crowd on stretchers, freezing and often incapacitated. They were wrapped in blankets laid in the middle of the highway. No longer were we being attacked with water canons and tear gas, but rocket propelled concussion grenades were being shot into the crowd and police were taking aim at civilians with guns loaded with rubber bullets. From the police we saw dozens of fiery canisters soar through the air and release blinding gas and pepper spray. People were hit in the face and abdomen with rubber bullets, breaking through clothing and skin. One woman I saw was hit in the eye, breaking her glasses. Cars, trucks and vans pulled onto the bridge to carry the injured and hypothermic water protectors back to camp, but the medical tents could not house all of the hurt.
That night 300 people were injured and 23 were taken to area hospitals, many with hypothermia. A young caucasian woman from New York City, Sophia Wilansky, suffered the worst injury. The New York Times wrote: "'From an inch below the elbow, to an inch above her wrist, the muscle is blown off,' her father, Wayne Wilansky, said from the hospital, Hennepin County Medical Center. 'The radius bone, a significant amount of it, is blown away. The arteries inside her arm are blown away. The median nerve is mostly blown away.'" According to the Protectors a concussion grenade, designed to explode and throw less-lethal rubber shrapnel, exploded as it hit Sophia. According to her, it happened very early on Monday morning around 4am, as most protectors had moved back away from the front lines. An officer threw the device directly at her and it exploded. Of course the police and law enforcement deny this.
I'm not sure that night should have happened, but it did. The elders asked for no direct action for a 30 day period, but it did. That action and the brutal police response brought more awareness around the world that law enforcement will not stop at putting up barriers, but will take any action necessary to protect the pipeline. There has also been negative response since then, the Army Corp of Engineers have issued an eviction notice for Oceti Sakowin, and the governor followed with his own. This probably wouldn't have happened if that night didn't happen. Either way, we know that the water protectors will not be moved, people are not leaving. They continue to win the legal battle as the DAPL workers continue to win the physical battle to illegally build the pipeline.
For Native Americans the United States Government is an empire of oppression. They simply believe that their only source of drinking water will be threatened by a pipeline running under it and have therefor asked it not be built on their land or anywhere north of their reservation. The empire built upon the extractive economics of the fossil fuel industry does not stop in the face of people who oppose them. For centuries Native Americans have not been listened to, they have been displaced, lied to, and marginalized in society. Now is our opportunity to extend restorative justice toward those who have been oppressed and are now asking that we honor their decision to reject this pipeline.
Jesus was a man falsely convicted of a crime and murdered by the Roman Empire. To me, "empire" exists anywhere one people group takes advantage of another or wherever a systemic injustice is justified by the majority at the expense of the minority. The American empire that we live in is the empire of hyper-consumerism, where economic growth matters more than anything else. An economy based on a theory that economic growth is the only way to measure economic health is doomed to become unjust and unsustainable. Today the oil and gas industry is being expanded and continually built on a premise that it cannot fail, if it does the economy will fail. This is the lie of the Empire, the lie that we cannot transition our economic system to a just and low-carbon future. We are living a lie that we cannot transition quickly from an economy built by industries that extract from the earth and from human beings. What if economics existed to benefit the earth, human society, all life on planet earth - even beyond the seventh generation.
Native Americans at Oceti Sakowin Camp and Sacred Stone Camp are not only fighting for clean water in the Missouri River, they are righting for you, for your children, for the generations to come who will inherit the earth that we leave for them. The Dakota, Lakota, Nakota and over 300 other Native nations are fighting to push our world toward a future where all human life is honored and where every inch of Grandmother Earth is treated as sacred space. They are taking every risk they can, putting their health and lives on the line, for their people and for all people. Direct action is risky, it's not always pretty, it's not always done at the right time or place. But in the face of empire we all need to take direct, peaceful, nonviolent, action to push back the veil of injustice.