Native Americans protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline on Friday near the
Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota.
Photograph: James MacPherson/AP
Montoya, a 22-year-old member of the Lipan Apache tribe from San Francisco, is part an influx of Native American and environmental activists from all over the country who have gathered in the remote part of the state to take a stand against the $3.7bn North Dakota Access Pipeline, which tribal members say threatens to pollute drinking water and damage sacred sites.
Though people have been gathering on the site since the proposal was announced in April, hundreds descended on the site this week as construction began – and 18 people have been arrested.
On Monday night, protesters say pipeline workers were instructed to leave their equipment after protesters walked onto the work site and surrounded the machinery, in an action led mostly by women in the group. Cody Hall, of the Red Warrior Camp who joined the movement this week, said women had “jumped fences” to get closer to machinery in order to obstruct it. On Tuesday and Wednesday construction continued to be suspended. It is still unclear when work will resume.
If and when the pipeline is completed, it will transfer fracked crude oil from the Bakken field in the north-western part of North Dakota. It will run south-east across that state and then through South Dakota and Iowa before joining with a pipeline hub in Patoka, Illinois. According to its website, Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company behind the project, is the largest pipeline operator in the US by volume.
Although the pipeline will run outside the formal boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, tribal members have argued that it will disturb sacred sites, and that consultation on this point was inadequate. These arguments failed to stop the approval, which was granted in late July.
At 1,172 miles long, it is only seven miles shorter than the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska, which the Obama administration finally rejected last November. It has received less national attention that that pipeline, but that may be changing.
Tensions intensified on 10 August, when Dakota Access workers, accompanied by armed security guards, arrived to start construction of an access road for heavy machinery needed to complete the pipeline crossing of the Missouri. Workers were initially met by 15 to 30 protesters, but those numbers grew over succeeding days. According to filings made in Dakota Access’s successful application for a restraining order against protesters, by Friday, there were upwards of 350 protesters at the site.
Eighteen protesters were arrested on Friday, including Standing Rock tribal chairman, Dave Archambault II. The Guardian sought comment on the pipeline and the restraining order from Energy Transfer partners, but they did not respond before deadline.
People at the rallies uniformly reported that 400 to 500 people had gathered at the blockade site over the last two days, with 700 people camping in solidarity. Mossett says that food and other supplies are being brought to the camps, and facilities set up because “we anticipate that it’s going to grow”.
Morton County sheriff Tom KirchMeier said it’s difficult to tell exactly how many people have assembled. “The current numbers are unknown. We are assessing regularly as the numbers change hourly, and daily,” he said. North Dakota Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Iverson said extra traffic control had been dispatched to the area to cope with the large number of vehicles arriving at the site.
According to Mossett, the immediate goal for activists is to prevent construction until 24 August, when an application for an injunction by the Standing Rock Sioux will be heard in Washington DC.
If Dakota Access will not suspend construction until then, the protesters are determined to force them to do so, at least at this point in the pipeline. This weekend, protesters are planning to take to the river in canoes and other watercraft.
In the longer term, Hall says they will be there “as long as it takes”.
In recent years, there have been a string of indigenous actions against oil pipelines in the US and Canada, but this one is already attracting especially broad support. On Facebook, Jon Eagle Sr, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the Standing Rock Reservation, affirmed that the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux Nation – representing all Sioux groups – had come together for the first time since 1876 over this issue. Tribal chairman Archambault called in a statement for “my fellow American citizens (to) stand with my people”.
Mossett thinks that Native American pipeline activism may be at a crossroads. “This is the first time that the tribes have been coming together in recent history.”