Analysis Reporting

How Standing Rock Stole My Despair

Members of San Antonio-based Kalpulli Ameyaltonal pray at the site of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline construction close to Marfa, Texas. Credit: Greg Harman

And what the indigenous resistance in North Dakota means for Texas and a world wrapped in pipelines.

At the Oceti Sakowin Camp, just outside the Standing Rock Native American Reservation in North Dakota, the sun seems to rise in the west. Thanks to the north’s low-slung winter sun, there’s never a midday, not one recognizable to a South Texas denizen. It seems perpetually dawn or dusk, sacred moments for gathering or dispersing. In this Native American resistance camp, a shallow stretch of disputed land caught between a blockaded highway, an oil-company-occupied bluff of burning white light, and a smoothly flowing Cannonball River, there’s a constant influx of fresh supporters entering along a flag-lined dirt road, where the colors of supporting tribes and peoples from around the world wave day and night. And there are tracks of packed earth where those resisting the “black snake” exit again to stand off against construction crews and an army of public and private security details.

“They tried to burn us out,” a man tells me upon arrival, not to be the last with the news. “What kind of person does that? There’s women and children in this camp.”

I’m still trying to orient myself. The black, scorched hills across two-laned Highway 1806 and the bridge barricaded with burnt vehicles, cement security barriers, and razor wire to prevent access to the pipeline’s staging area all lie to the north. I have to remind myself, the sun rises from the east. But the reasoning doesn’t set. In the morning, as the frost begins to slip away, the world is still upside down as a daily water ceremony gets underway. More than 100 venture quietly in shy steps down Flag Road to the banks of the quiet Cannonball. They come to honor the women here, the water carriers, and sprinkle fingerfuls of tobacco on the imperturbable waters.

Downstream, young men patiently tend to their horses as others re-enter the world through tent flaps to poke their campfires awake. For those of us not camped out on “Facebook Hill,” the one site in Oceti where a cell signal is sometimes possible, news comes not from a device but from those around us. Sometimes it comes late. Sometimes it repeats itself. Sometimes it elaborates.
On this first morning, I’m told the hilltop fire struck at about midnight two nights before our small group pulled into camp. “You should have seen it,” this one laughs, re-telling the story. “The wind turned around and pushed it back on them.”

Speaking to Democracy Now!, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network spoke of a vehicle doing donuts in the middle of the highway late that night, perhaps as a distraction, before racing away to the south. “And immediately after that, flames were seen on top of the hill.”

While many here speak of going to the “front lines” to square off — non-violently and almost always with prayers sung — against the militarized forces guarding the pipeline, this entire camp built on contested land claims has been the front line in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s fight against the $3.7-billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). As testified to by the rise of Standing Rock solidarity actions that popped up around the world, it’s become a front line in the global fight against extraction and industry-engineered climate chaos, as well. These actions, including a divestment campaign targeting DAPL investor Wells-Fargo, have continued even since the camp began a victorious dissolution last week after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the pipeline a permit to tunnel beneath the reservation’s primary source of drinking water, Lake Oahe.

“The market already knows that carbon is dead,” environmental activist and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said on a recent visit to the camp. “The only thing keeping it alive is infrastructure.” That infrastructure is now under increasing assault in places like Mississippi, Georgia, Washington State — and, slowly but steadily, the most heavily pipelined of states, Texas.

While protests in support of Standing Rock have been held in every major Texas city in recent months, a campaign against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, owned by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners (soon to do business as Sunoco), the majority interest pushing DAPL, has been gathering strength. Marches involving sometimes hundreds of people have shaken the fences at a pipeline site in Alpine; waved banners and banged drums at the multi million-dollar Lajitas Resort overlooking the Rio Grande (owned by ETP CEO Kelcy Warren); crossed onto the pipeline easement itself closer to Marfa to hold a traditional indigenous ceremony; and last week three pipeline opponents in Alpine chained themselves to the gates at a Pumpco, Inc., pipe yard, a subcontractor of ETP.

In other words, the message of Standing Rock is resonating. The model has been framed among the tents, tarps, teepees, and yurts raised up these past months on Lakota and purported U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land. Though drastically whittled down by waves of European immigration and U.S. military muscle and broken treaties, it’s a land the Sioux, the Oceti Sakowin, or “Seven Council Fires,” more properly, never ceded to their occupiers.

Some, like a band of Oglala brothers who tease me mercilessly at the camp for my yellow shoelaces at an early morning campfire before offering me food, joined the fight here at the beginning and never left. Others stop by for a day or two, including a healthy dose of celebrities. Some, like actor Shailene Woodley, arrested for trespassing and “engaging in a riot,” have come out multiple times. Others linger for weeks but worry about winter.

Our small group, which made the 24-hour drive from Austin, Texas, in the first part of November to deliver donated medical supplies, will stay for a week, offering labor to the camp, bodies to the non-violent contest against the Morton County Sheriff’s Office and a strange stew of regional law enforcement and militarized security forces. We also came to serve as a witness to the struggle, a witness we each pledge to carry home and share with our own communities.

There are roughly 2,000 camped here this week, reflecting a global interest that has drawn support from more than 300 indigenous tribes and nations and an untold number of non-native allies. Cries of “Mni Wiconi,” Lakota for “water is life,” erupt spontaneously at all hours here, to be answered enthusiastically in a ragged chorus with “Mni Wiconi!” and “No DAPL!” It rings out as the camp first stirs and one of the elders tending the sacred fire off Flag Road announces over the PA system: “Wake up! Wake up! We didn’t come to sleep!” It rings at dusk as people start to settle back into their camps. It rings out at the low-flying planes and helicopters that circle constantly and at the floodlights on the hill.

As horrendous — though ultimately innocuous — as the torching of the hills across the highway was, I come to learn of many other criminal offenses targeting this camp. Well-documented and just as brutal assaults by marked and unmarked members of the pipeline-obligated police state are a fact of life here.


As hundreds of Native American veterans were lining up at the camp, preparing to march out to the blockaded bridge for a color guard ceremony and 21-gun salute on Veteran’s Day, our group piled into a pickup truck to help shut down construction of the pipeline further to the south. Dozens of protectors rushed across the slash of loose, turned earth, many with billowing blue wind socks proclaiming, “Mni Wiconi,” to pray over the pipeline and call on workers to leave their jobs. Despite one near-scuffle with a pipeline employee and minor property damage to some of the equipment, there is no violence and few arrests. It is far from the no-holds-barred police responses that have followed other similar actions.

Here at Standing Rock, there have been dogs sikked on self-described water protectors (“not protestors,” we are reminded repeatedly); there has been an indiscriminate use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, the last of which is shot out of canisters the size of fire extinguishers. On a recent below-freezing night, security forces sprayed people for hours with water cannons and tear gas and badgered them with rubber bullets. It was on this night that 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky was hit by some kind of explosive. Witnesses say it was a concussion grenade hurled by the police, a claim supported by family and medical staff at the receiving hospital. The explosion “blew the bone out of her arm,” according to one report.

“There have been many human-rights abuses that have gone on here in the last four months,” Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, tells me on Veteran’s Day, as dozens of protectors spill out over a pipeline site many miles south of camp to shut down construction there.

“We’ve been sprayed in the face, we’ve been bitten by dogs, we’ve been knocked down. We’ve been taken to jails and dehumanized, stripped down, strip searched,” Mossett said. An elderly couple tell me they are facing multiple felony charges, linked in part to allegations of arson rooted in their maintaining of a fire for their sweat lodge ceremonies. I’m told of women being held in dog cages at overcrowded jails. Of property being returned to the camp after one police raid covered in feces and urine.

A class-action lawsuit filed on November 28 included a request for a temporary restraining order against the Morton County Sheriff’s Office accuses the department of a “violent, unjustified, and unprovoked physical attack on Plaintiffs and others, without warning or opportunity to disperse.” It also alleges practices that are fairly obvious when viewing the livestreams of the assaults posted on Facebook, including the use of Specialty Impact Munitions, or “SIM (such as lead-filled, shotgun-fired ‘beanbags’ and high-velocity plastic and foam rubber ‘sponge rounds’); explosive flashbang-like grenades such as ‘Instantaneous Blast CS grenades’ and Stinger grenades; other chemical agent devices; and a high pressure water cannon and fire hoses, despite the subfreezing temperature.”


The Trans-Pecos Pipeline in October before being sunk into the ground on the edge of Alpine, Texas.

  • The Trans-Pecos Pipeline in October before being sunk into the ground on the edge of Alpine, Texas.

The message of Standing Rock offers a contagious and apparently controversial challenge that water equals life — that water, in other words, is to be prized more than oil. Yet as President-Elect Trump prepares to come to power with promises to revive the Keystone XL pipeline and expand all manner of carbon-rich petroleum plays, statistics concerning pipeline spills — an average of 250 per year — become increasingly important. The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, for instance, lists 5,675 pipeline spills between 1996 and 2015, which resulted in a recorded 347 deaths and 1,346 injuries. While the PHMSA doesn’t list the amount of oil, gas, and hazardous substance released from those breaks, or direct damage to drinking-water supplies, it estimates the total financial cost of the spills at $7.5 billion.

Most days, a small plane circles the camp, we assume taking pictures, possibly scooping up cellphone data. Sometimes a helicopter, which can fly lower to the ground, will join in. On our fourth night at camp, we can’t see the plane that circles us. Its lights are off, in a likely violation of federal law. Only its droning motor, and an occasionally visible silhouette against the moon-illuminated clouds provide us evidence. A possibly darker side of this understood surveillance comes to light while running errands in Mandan when a new friend relays his experience with a cropduster he said sprayed the camp in the early morning. “We were running to get away from it,” the man says. “My friend, who is a lot lighter than I am, passed out right away. I was sick for a week.”

If complete, the 1,172-mile line — the “black snake” many here call it, weaving in explanations drawn from indigenous prophesies from several tribes — would move as much as 570,000 barrels of fracked Bakken shale oil to an energy hub in Illinois. Much of that is then expected to pass through to Sunoco’s (AKA ETP’s) Nederland, Texas, refinery. This local connection has put ETP CEO Kelcy Warren under increasing scrutiny as a Texas response to Standing Rock builds and pushback against two ETP pipelines under construction in West Texas grows.

Appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the billionaire high-dollar Republican donor was met by more than 100 protectors at the commission’s November meeting who sung, chanted, and prayed for more than an hour and a half before a few dozen entered the meeting to challenge the inclusion of Warren among its board members.

Warren was targeted again and again by commenters speaking ostensibly on a proposal to clear a swathe across protected marshland in East Texas for San Antonio-based GT Logistic’s coil of refined petroleum fuel pipelines for an easy path to the global market. Many speakers closed their thoughts decrying the presence of an oilman so committed to industrializing the landscape on a commission meant to protect natural Texas. In the end, Warren and one other commissioner recused themselves from the vote and the measure died for lack of quorum.

The Dakota Access pipeline, however, has plenty of partners and an array of financial backers who can’t be happy with the delays, including Enbridge Energy Partners and Marathon Petroleum Corp. Investor Wells-Fargo has specifically been targeted with actions across the state and beyond calling on customers to pull their accounts. With last week’s permit denial, ETP is guaranteed to overshoot its January 1, 2016, completion deadline, meaning its contracted customers will be able to walk away from their prior commitments, threatening a major financial loss if not the completion of the pipeline itself, according to a report prepared by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and Sightline Institute. The combination of low oil prices and depressed Bakken production threaten to make DAPL a “stranded asset.”
“The rush to build the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline stems largely from the financial motivations of Energy Transfer Partners, motivations that do not necessarily coincide with the interests of Bakken oil drillers or with any economic rationale for increased regional pipeline capacity,” that report concludes.

ETP opponents from the West Texas organizations Defend Big Bend, Big Bend Defense Coalition, and a raft of tribal and pan-indigenous groups and their allies would like to see the same happen with the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being run to Mexico from the West Texas Permian Basin.

There have been two major marches on the Trans-Pecos, the most recent involving a direct action on November 20 in which around 20 protectors crossed onto the pipeline construction site outside Marfa to hold a ceremony, complete with Aztec dancing, drumming, and singing. The event overwhelmed the limited security on site at the time. The group chanted “Defend Big Bend!” while members of San Antonio-based Kalpulli Ameyaltonal performed Cazador, described as a warrior’s dance in which the hunter makes agreement with the earth for the provisioning of their people.

“Sometimes we do have to stand up to our government,” Lori Glover said over a bullhorn, mobilizing the crowd of roughly 100 gathered at the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area before the march and site occupation. “And sometimes we do have to stand in the way of things they think are in our best interest that really aren’t.”

Glover, of the newly formed Big Bend Defense Coalition, was one of two arrested last week for criminal trespass after she U-Locked her neck to a pipe yard fence in Alpine. When a struggling Brewster County Sheriff’s Deputy asked a pipeline employee if they had a bigger bolt cutter on site to help break Glover free, the response, she said, was: “No. But I have a blowtorch.”



As assortment of indigenous and non-indigenous allies—including the Society of Native Nations—marched on ETP's Trans-Pecos Pipeline outside Marfa in November.

  • As assortment of indigenous and non-indigenous allies—including the Society of Native Nations—marched on ETP’s Trans-Pecos Pipeline outside Marfa in November.

Back in the high Chihuahuan Desert of Far West Texas, across the pockmarked Permian oil patch, in the shadow of the Twin Sisters looming over Alpine from the west, I returned to a sun standing straight up, often seemingly all day. This is where I first started writing about flaming petrochemical plants and those forced to breathe that benzene-ringed smog they generated. In the late ‘90s, I became intimately acquainted with struggles against proposed radioactive waste dumps targeting politically disenfranchised communities. The open-loop industrial systems offering their waste, and more waste, that had to go … somewhere, flowed along the path of least resistance. As, I later came to understand, they did so everywhere. This was the end of the pipe, both metaphorically and literally.

With the media beginning to make climate science more accessible, more available in the last 20 years, debates over local environmental justice fights have catapulted into global significance. With each collaborative offering of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, always a few years behind the current research, the prognosis only grew more dire as the upper atmosphere’s heat-trapping greenhouse layer thickened thanks to the massive amounts of petroleum-combusted gases being released from pipes across the planet. This: The Black Snake tightening its grip.

After hundreds of thousands of years of human emergence and evolution in a life-coddling climate — the temperate interglacial Holocene era, marked by greenhouse gases fluctuating generally between 200 and 250 parts per million — geologists have begun debating the planet’s crossing into a new geologic age, that of the “Anthropocene,” in which humans become recognized as the dominant force affecting planetary changes. With the greenhouse thickening to 400 parts per million in the last few years, a corresponding heat has taken hold. Fifteen of the last 16 years have been the hottest since reliable record-keeping began in the 1800’s. Projections just a couple decades ago about future megastorms, the entrenchment of “permanent” drought, rising seas and wildfires, have—thanks to ever-improving climate science—begun to be discerned today in destructive weather patterns, also increasing in frequency.
But it’s not just heat. We’ve gutted the world’s forests—mowing down half of the world’s tropical rainforests in less than 50 years; forced animal and plant species into a death spiral not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs; pushed ocean life, absorbing most of the industrially added heat and most of the acidic CO2, into a rush toward collapse. Talk of humanity threading this rapidly constricting needle’s eye of ecological collapse is now treated with a straight face by much of the research community.

“By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors,” Paul Erlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University wrote in a collaborative 2013 study, “unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.”

Finding hope during this mad rush to detangle the earth’s brilliant web comes with some difficulty. For me, it has been Standing Rock, a deeply spiritual and uncompromising movement for indigenous rights and ecological sanity, that has allowed me, if not to hope, to at least to hold the door open to possibility.
For all the police violence directed against it, for the violence driving news coverage of the camps, Standing Rock is first and foremost a site of peace and reconciliation. The work here, many suggested to me, is an unfolding answer to indigenous prophesies promising a day when all peoples will be restored to one another in friendship and humankind’s relationship to the earth will be brought back into harmony. Oceti Sakowin — and sister camps like Rosebud, Sacred Stone, and Red Warrior — have thrived under intense pressure and in spite of long-standing tribal animosities and reminders of deeper, multi-generational wounds of colonization and genocide represented by the thousands of allies of European ancestry (the first colonized, I am also reminded, kindly) who have passed through Flag Road. In this complication of still-unreconciled cultures, each day brings opportunity for acceptance and a building of trust. Smoke from the wood fires is blown about at all hours of the day and night, joined by the rich smell of prayers constantly being offered with sage and tobacco and cedar and copal.

Walking along the Cannonball one morning suppressing my shivering, I meet an Inuit woman remarking on the warmth of the day. For the time of year and location, she’s right. Atop the earth, the Arctic is more than 20 degrees warmer than normal. Villages are slipping into the sea. Yet despite the great disharmony we inhabit, or because of it, we greet each other in the only way that makes sense in this moment. We greet each other as friends and continue our walks.

When I return to camp there are hundreds walking to the river singing.
Water is my body/ Water is my soul/ When I walk down, down to the water/ With the water, I am one.

Men stand to the side with hands outstretched in support, honoring the woman as they file down steps cut into the steep banks of the Cannonball to offer a pinch of tobacco on her waters. These are followed by those along the LGBTQ spectrum, women with male spirits, men with female spirits. Men follow last. Without understanding why, I have to breathe in deeply over and again to keep from sobbing. As I reach the water, it spills out with a shudder as I leave my prayer on the water with the rest. Leaving it on the water with my tears.

Greg Harman is an independent journalist, former San Antonio Current editor, and founder of San Antonio-based writer and activist Marisol Cortez contributed to this report.