CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that it was Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall who wrote separate letters to President Barack Obama, asking him to intervene in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote to the Department of Justice.
Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
If they have to, Monty Singer and his friends will pack themselves like sardines in their teepee to keep warm as temperatures in Cannon Ball, N.D., hover in the single digits this week.
They’ll heat up beans on the old cast iron stove they are hauling behind their 10-person Albuquerque Rezistance Van, which is packed full of other winter necessities.
At the end of their 21-hour drive, they’ll be joining thousands of other self-labeled “water protectors” massed in a resistance effort against construction of an oil pipeline near a Native American reservation about 50 miles south of Bismarck, N.D.
They are just some of at least 100 New Mexicans, with financial support from hundreds more, who have joined at the Oceti Sakowin Camp protest site that is drawing increasing federal scrutiny and public awareness.
“It’s primarily about the water, but it’s also about so many other things,” Singer said from his North Valley painting studio on Wednesday during a supply gathering and send-off party.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, is a 1,172-mile mostly 30-inch pipeline from oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to a refinery in southern Illinois. Its parent company, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, estimated cost at the outset at $3.8 billion. Where it crosses bodies of water, it must have approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has yet to grant it final permission to run pipe under the contested portion of the Missouri River prompting the protest.
But the project has become about more than just this stretch of construction.
Thousands of environmental and Native American rights activists are camped out. Hundreds of them have been arrested. And many say they are prepared to camp out in teepees and tents until the pipeline is stopped.
The chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Martin Castro, said the “issue of the pipeline is not just about the pipeline alone, but rather it is about the entire relationship between the United States and sovereign Indian nations, their rights, traditions and religious beliefs.”
Singer says these are his strongest motivation.
“I had to wake up and realize the level of colonization I have, the amnesia I have about my cultural tradition, the fact that I don’t know how to pray in my own language,” he said, tapping a historical anger over generations of mistreatment and disenfranchisement of Native Americans, starting with early settlers to the American government’s breaking of treaties with native tribes.
That includes the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 that the Sioux at the Oceti Sakowin camp claim puts the land in question under their ownership. Some historical and legal experts say the claim is founded.
“I can’t abide them (oppressors) taking any more,” Singer said.
This trip will be his fourth to the site and he, like his fellow American Indian Movement members, plan to stay the whole brutal North Dakota winter.
Elizabeth McKenzie, 28, a Diné, or Navajo, is also headed back to the site. It will be her sixth trip from home in Albuquerque to the camp; most of the trips have been to take supplies there and bring back excess supplies not needed at the camp. This time, she plans to stay.
“I want to see how the contract plays out. At the end of the year, Jan. 1, they have to re-evaluate the entire contract behind DAPL, so the backers will have to look into it and see if it is worth it to try again,” she said. “That’s why people are holding out” to the end of the year.
Proponents of the pipeline say it will contribute to American energy independence and local jobs. Some members of other Native American tribes in the state also support the jobs the pipeline has brought. And the company has promised the pipeline will not leak.
Plus, the pipeline is almost entirely built, except for the portion that needs to run under the Missouri River about a mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation boundary.
It is at this boundary that activists in late spring began to set up the largest protest to the project. McKenzie said there were only a few teepees and tents when she visited in late spring. Now she can’t even count them. Singer said he estimates there are 10,000 people there.
The camp has an organized website that lists each day’s activities, including orientation meetings for newcomers, school times for children at their make-shift school, sobriety meetings, volunteer needs and community rules about no drugs or alcohol, and expectations for cultural rituals at the site.
A hive of subcamps works to be self-sufficient, though there are campwide kitchens. There is a Southwest Camp, made up mostly of Diné people. There is a Pueblo Camp started by people from New Mexico’s numerous pueblos.
While it is the largest, Standing Rock is not the only conflict along the pipeline’s route. Farmers who have had their land taken by eminent domain have sued over the project.
One of the original routes had the pipe installed north of Bismarck, but the residents there succeeded in rerouting it over concerns it could pollute their water.
So it was routed to the Standing Rock reservation, where the Sioux tribe says it runs through burial grounds and sacred sites, in addition to threatening water they and everyone else downstream uses.
“We have to fight to get the same treatment” as Bismarck, said Karilyn Haozous, 60, who is in the caravan with Singer, a U.S. Marine, and fellow AIM activist Bobby Valdez, who is older than Haozous and like Singer a military veteran.
Singer and Valdez plan to join more than 2,000 other American veterans who are headed to or are already at Standing Rock. That also includes a veteran from Rio Rancho who was interviewed by the New York Times, and at least 120 Diné veterans from New Mexico and the Navajo reservation. The Veterans for Standing Rock group raised $910,000 in a GoFundMe account. Singer and other local activists also have GoFundMe accounts.
They will stand at the “front lines” of the protest, they say, which has at times been physical with DAPL’s private security firm and at other times with local law enforcement.
Last week, Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote to the federal administration condemning police brutality and calling for federal monitors to visit.
On Wednesday, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an evacuation order, but said it is only an warning and he won’t force an evacuation. The Army Corps of Engineers has said the same.
Meanwhile, churches, bars, yoga studios, hair salons and galleries around New Mexico continue their supply drives.
Dozens of caravans planned to depart this weekend from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Farmington and Taos.
Todd Wynward, a Mennonite pastor in Taos whose focus is building peaceful communities around interconnected water sources, has helped coordinate the main Taos fundraising hub supporting at least five caravans of supplies and people, including some yurts.
“They brought culture and music and food, and just a hug spirit shot in the arm. They poured out our joy from Taos,” Wynward said, noting a “communion” with activists from the Taos Pueblo.
“It feels like a deep Ghandian and Martin Luther King kind of thing to me. For us … it feels like our Selma moment, it’s our civil rights time for our era. People are coming back changed.”