Police fight off protestors at Standing Rock in North Dakota

Protesters gathered to protest the North Dakota Access Pipeline on November 26th. Police used pepper spray and flash grenades against the protesters. (Bill Alkofer/AP Exchange)

UConn student Spencer Borden traveled to North Dakota over Thanksgiving break to cover the protests at Standing Rock for an investigative piece in a journalism course.

Police used water cannons, rubber bullets, pepper spay and flash grenades against those protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline on the night of Nov. 21.

Protestors gathered at a bridge near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation that had been blocked off by burned trucks. On one side of the barricade were the ones protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, those who call themselves “Water Protectors.” On the other side were police, fire trucks and National Guard soldiers. On the night of Nov. 21, Water Protectors walked to the blocked off bridge on Highway 1806 that runs parallel to the Standing Rock Reservation. Once the Protectors reached the blockade and barbed wire, they began their traditional style of protest. They sang songs, played instruments and prayed. People and tribes from all over the world have come to join the people of Standing Rock in their effort to keep the sacred grounds and water source intact and safe. Native American tribes throughout the country have traveled there as well, including members from all six of Connecticut’s Native American tribes.

“I’m a common man; not any better than anyone else. I’m mixed blood; Chickasaw, European and a little bit of African,” Shayne Christen said.

Christen is a 66-year-old man who left his farm and wife in southern Oregon to join the cause. He was on the bridge the night of the 21st. On the morning of Wednesday, the 23rd, Shayne sat in his tipi and rolled a cigarette.

“I feel traumatized. I was watching people develop icicles on their heads while they were being sprayed. The man right next to me was hit twice with rubber bullets,” Christen said through tears. “To see the man in the water cannon laughing about spraying water on women and men in 23 degree weather…It’s disheartening. I really do believe in the power of prayer. I’ve seen miracles happen.”

On the morning of Wednesday, the 23rd, the Standing Rock Tribe members started allies began their day as they always did. With the sun yet to rise completely over the mountains, they began their morning prayer around an open fire. After the prayers were finished, the elder tribesmen devoted time for people to come up and say whatever they felt they needed to say. Many spoke of fear, love and misunderstanding. There were signs all around the camp offering counseling and help to those suffering from trauma and PTSD from the night of the 21st.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is being financed by Energy Transfer Partners. The energy conglomerate began construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline in March of 2016. The pipeline is planned to stretch from North Dakota to Illinois, passing through South Dakota and Iowa. In the southern half of North Dakota, the pipeline is planned to go under the Missouri River and through the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. So far, Energy Transfer Partners construction crews and private security forces have been sent in to guard the pipeline and keep members of the Standing Rock community away.

Energy Transfer Partners wants to set up fracking systems in North Dakota to tap into the Bakken Shale oil fields. The construction of the pipeline has the potential to endanger the water supply of millions, including the entire Standing Rock Sioux reservation population. Energy Transfer Partners have released statements assuring people that this pipeline will be built to withstand any rupture. So far, there have been 26 reported pipeline bursts in the United States since the start of 2016.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered a halt on construction. However, it is only at the river where Energy Transfer Partners was ordered to stop construction. They are being allowed to continue their building all of the way up to the river.

The pipeline was originally planned to go through the town of Bismarck, Mandan, North Dakota. When proposed to the town, it was strongly opposed. The route of the pipeline was then moved to go through the Standing Rock reservation.

“Bismarck, Mandan is a town that is about 90 percent white,” University of Connecticut professor Barbara Gurr said. “Then, when [the pipeline] is opposed in Bismarck, they decided to run DAPL through the Lakota Treaty Territory at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.”

Professor Gurr believes that the companies behind DAPL targeted the extremely poor Native American communities of North Dakota after they were turned away from the primarily white town.

Professor Gurr has also been out to Standing Rock to assist the camps however she could. She recalls some of the Water Protectors praying on the ground near the armed security forces as their common form of peaceful protest. Others built uncovered tipis. Just as many others who have been there, Gurr is shocked at the way much of the media, large and small, is covering what is happening to Native Americans in Standing Rock.

“There’s a warped and almost dishonest sense of who is doing what,” Gurr said.

She went on to elaborate on the media coverage which has often been using terms such as “rioters” and “mobs,” terms that she believes carry racial undertones. While media inaccuracies are abundant, they may not be intentional. Much of the problem with the information comes from the sources, not the reporters.

“I was screaming at mainstream media to pick up the story. Every day, three or four times a day I’m checking MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS. We’ve been starved out of the main media,” Christen said. “The whole story isn’t getting out. The county sheriff reported that we were starting fires near the bridge, which was true. But what they left out was that we were building the fires to try and warm up those who had been on the front lines and were sprayed by the water cannons. It was 23 degrees out; these people needed help.”

After an extremely contentious presidential election cycle, racial tensions are higher than many young people in the U.S have ever experienced before. There has been an increase in bullying at schools, as well as hate crimes and churches have been burned.

President-elect Donald Trump is a career business man. According to financial disclosure forms released in May 2016, Trump held tens of thousands of dollars worth of shares in Energy Transfer Partners. Trump has since sold his stake in ETP, according to the Dallas Business Journal. Energy Transfer Partner’s CEO Kelcy Warren donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund and another $66,800 to the RNC, according to Reuters.

Many major news outlets are owned by billionaire investors, who, like Trump have diverse investment portfolios.“I didn’t know any of this, to be completely honest with you,” Tom Yokubinas, a senior at Keene State College who considers himself to be up to date on the news, said.

A statement released by the Morton County Sheriff's Department said that, ‘protestors’ were “very aggressive” and that they employed “tactical movement.” The Sheriff's Department also accused the Water Protectors of "starting a dozen fires” near the blocked off Backwater Bridge. Videos from the encounter show Water Protectors with their hands up as they are sprayed with a water cannon from a national guard humvee.

“[The news outlets] are relying on the Morton County Sheriff for information; and he lies.” Christen said. “He said that ‘there weren’t water cannons used…Morton County didn’t use water cannons. Well, okay, it was a different county on the machine,” Christen said, shaking his head, half chuckling and half crying. “And they emptied it. They emptied it completely and then brought in fire trucks to refill it.”

As Christen told his story, prayers and chants around the fire could be overheard. “Even now, we continue to pray for our oppressor,” Christen said. “My wife called and she told me that I have to be the one to bring the calming presence to these people. There is a calmness that lives inside of me but the longer that this goes on, I fear they are getting closer and closer to live ammunition and dead Indians.”


Spencer Borden is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at spencer.borden@uconn.edu.