Understanding STANDING ROCK

A group of local activists is back home after spending nearly a week in North Dakota, where they joined more than 1,000 protesters opposed to a hotly disputed oil pipeline being constructed there.

Kinesha Stoner, 20, of Wausau, is a member of the Ojibwe tribal nation and is one of a handful of local activists now returning from the site. “I have never had so many weapons pointed in my face,” Stoner wrote.

Standing Rock

Courtesy of Kinesha Stoner

Standing Rock

More than 1,000 protesters remain at the site of a bitterly disputed oil pipeline in North Dakota.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, would transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil each day from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a Chicago area refinery. The $3.8 billion project is spearheaded by Energy Transfer Partners and runs parallel to an already existing pipeline built in 1982. But the pipeline project is drawing sharp criticism both nationwide and locally. Opponents say the pipeline threatens sacred native lands and could contaminate the water supply from the Missouri River, the longest river in the U.S. Some activists compare the pipeline to the defeated Keystone XL project and argue that the project poses similar threats.

Protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” have been on site since April, when members of the Standing Rock Lakota and other Native American nations rode on horseback and established a spiritual camp called Sacred Stone. Several other large camps have since emerged, and the protests have now become a national rallying cry for indigenous rights and climate change activism.

As the pipeline nears completion and approaches the river that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe fears it will contaminate, an increasingly militarized police force continues to engage in tense standoffs with demonstrators.

The pipeline was already rerouted once, prompting critics to call the current route an act of “environmental racism.” A previously proposed route had the pipeline crossing the Missouri River north of Bismark, according to permit documents. That changed when predominantly white North Dakota residents rejected the plan in the interests of protecting their communities.

The Obama administration said last


Courtesy of Kinesha Stoner


Local activists collected cold weather gear and donations on The 400 Block this fall to assist protesters opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

month it wants more study and tribal input before deciding whether to allow the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River reservoir. But that delay, which comes as protests unfold daily along the proposed route, raises the likelihood that a final decision will be made by President-elect Donald Trump, a pipeline supporter who has vowed to “unleash” unfettered production of oil and gas. Trump also holds a financial stake in Energy Transfer Partners.

Stoner and members of the public Facebook group, Water Protectors: Share Your Story, collected hundreds of dollars in donations along with medical supplies, cold weather gear, sleeping bags and other provisions to share with protesters on the front lines. Stoner and a handful of friends began their 1,300-mile round trip journey to North Dakota on Nov. 22, towing a U-Haul trailer packed to the brim with those donated supplies.

“We’ve had amazing support from the community,” Stoner says. “Our goal is to just be as much help as possible, wherever we’re needed.”

The local Facebook group so far has more than 430 members and is growing by the day. The group was created by a handful of Marathon County residents to share information about the ongoing fight against the pipeline and to encourage support for the protesters, Stoner says.

Many members were fired up after learning that Marathon County Sheriff’s deputies had been deployed to North Dakota to assist local law enforcement. Following that announcement, about a dozen protests have been held at the Marathon County Courthouse and on The 400 Block by activists opposed to the deputies’ involvement. Chief Deputy Chad Billeb says all deputies deployed to North Dakota returned home at the end of October, and there are no plans to send additional officers to the site.

A number of the demonstrations against the 1,200-mile long pipeline have turned violent and bloody. More than 400 activists have been arrested since the protests began, according to multiple media reports.

Tribal leaders say they were not consulted before the project began, which means the pipeline violates federal law and native treaties with the U.S. government, a claim the North Dakota Public Service Commission disputes. The tribe also says that if the project goes under the Missouri River and any closer to the reservation, there could be irreversible damage to their land and cultural heritage.

Protesters say police are aggressively targeting those trying to block construction of the pipeline. Armed with large tanks and riot gear, police have used pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, Tasers and water cannons, according to multiple media reports and videos taken by protesters at the site. Stoner, who shared details of her trip on the Facebook group page, says the use of water cannons in sub-zero temperatures is particularly frightening and poses significant risks to protesters.

Tensions are continuing to rise, especially in light of a Dec. 5 deadline for protesters to leave the encampment. The U.S. Army Corps said last week in a letter to Standing Rock Sioux tribal leader Dave Archambault that all federal lands north of the Cannonball River will be closed to public access after that time. The Corps cited North Dakota’s oncoming winter and increasingly contentious clashes between protesters and police. The agency says “it has no plans for forcible removal,” but anyone on land north of the river after the deadline will be trespassing and may be prosecuted.

“The raid will not be pretty,” Stoner writes. “They have live ammo now.”

The tribe is also fighting the project in court, arguing that the project approvals were improper and that the U.S. government failed to study the large-scale impact. The tribe is also arguing that the pipeline violates the United Nations’ declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.

In response, Energy Transfer Partners said in court filings that pipelines are the safest and most efficient method of transporting oil, and that even a temporary injunction to stop the project would have “devastating short and long-term impacts.” The pipeline is now more than 45% complete.