Ohio State troopers and local activists are both on the frontlines of a historic showdown over indigenous rights

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies’ struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline has called attention to deeper issues around the government’s treatment of indigenous people and the role law enforcement should play in responding to protests.

click to enlarge About 100 people gathered in Northside Nov. 5 for four hours of prayers and speeches in solidarity with activists in Standing Rock, N.D. protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
About 100 people gathered in Northside Nov. 5 for four hours of prayers and speeches in solidarity with activists in Standing Rock, N.D. protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
On Oct. 29, 37 Ohio State Highway Patrolmen left the Buckeye State for a stretch of south-central North Dakota known as Cannonball.

As they did, they traced a 1,200-mile path similar to the one traveled by local indigenous activists, environmentalists and others resisting the continued construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline there. 

Calling themselves Water Protectors and adopting phrases like “water is life,” members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies’ struggle over the pipeline has called attention to deeper issues around the government’s treatment of indigenous people and the role law enforcement should play in responding to protests.

The tension around those questions runs deep here in Ohio, which has residents on both sides of the frontline.

State officials say that by sending troopers, they’re participating in a mutual aid agreement for emergency situations called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. 

Seven states including Ohio and Indiana have sent troopers to North Dakota under the agreement since North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency around the protests in September. Dalrymple and local law enforcement, including Morton County, N.D. officials, say some protesters are violent, citing anonymous threats and social media posts as reason for that belief.

Opponents of the pipeline, including local activists who have gone to Standing Rock, say the protests there are prayer-based and non-violent and that Ohio State troopers have joined efforts that are violating protesters’ civil rights. 

Photos and videos circulated on social media or published by news organizations show security forces and law enforcement officers using dogs, pepper spray and batons against protesters, some of whom are elderly. 

A mass arrest late last month netted more than 140 protesters camped near construction of the pipeline. Those protesters were held in chain-link fence enclosures and marked with numbers written on their limbs. Activists involved in those arrests have decried their treatment. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed deep concerns about law enforcement activities at Standing Rock, and the United Nations has sent human rights observers there. 

“I’ve seen 40 riot police come in full gear to arrest five individuals for standing on the side of the road, praying,” says local activist Jheri Neri, a member of the Mescalero and Dine tribes who has made several trips to Standing Rock to deliver donations and express solidarity. “I’ve seen riot police and police from other states take the tarps off of sweat lodges and pull people out in the middle of a ceremony and throw them, in their underwear, on the ground face down to handcuff them.” 

The Ohio Highway Patrol released a statement last week saying that troopers are “protecting the rights of everyone involved” in the struggle. According to officials, Ohio taxpayers will be reimbursed by North Dakota, per the conditions of the EMAC agreement.

If Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation developing the pipeline, gets its way, the $3.7 billion project will carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota under the Missouri River near land occupied by the Standing Rock Sioux on its way to an oil refinery outside Chicago. 

The company and the Army Corps of Engineers say they worked to engage the public around the proposed pipeline, including the tribes in the area. 

An earlier plan routed the pipeline near Bismarck, the state’s mostly non-indigenous state capital, but public outcry about possible water contamination there forced a change in the route, pushing the project close to Sioux lands, which have been lined out in a series of treaties, including the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty and other, later agreements.

Indigenous leadership at Standing Rock has cited concerns over potential leaks or explosions in the pipeline that could pollute the Missouri River, which supplies water for the people of standing rock and an estimated 17 million people downstream. A number of similar pipelines in Michigan, Montana and Alabama have been subject to leaks and other accidents, causing environmental damage. 

Standing Rock leaders have also detailed in federal court filings over the past few months the danger the pipeline presents to local sacred sites and graves. Leaders with the Standing Rock Sioux say construction crews have already bulldozed some sacred sites on the land near the Missouri River.

Members of the tribe began camping in the path of the pipeline and filing federal lawsuits requesting an injunction blocking the pipeline this summer. The group camped at Standing Rock and surrounding areas now numbers in the thousands, including representatives from more than 200 indigenous tribal nations living across the country as well as environmentalists and racial justice advocates. 

Last month, the Army Corps of Engineers indicated it would temporarily hold back from issuing permits for portions of the pipeline on federal land near Standing Rock. That decision came even after a federal judge ruled that it could issue those permits. 

“Important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain,” the Corps said in a news release the same day the federal ruling was handed down. 

President Barack Obama has also signaled a willingness to hear indigenous protesters out and perhaps change the route of the pipeline.

“We are monitoring this closely,” he said last week. “I think as a general rule, my view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans. We are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

Consternation around the treatment of North Dakota protesters deepened after members of the Bundy family, a group of ranchers that held a months-long standoff with federal Bureau of Land Management forces in Nevada in 2014, were recently acquitted on charges related to another standoff on federal land in Oregon that happened last year. Indigenous activists say the treatment given by the legal system to the Bundys, who are white, shows the inequities native peoples face.

Local activists have been going to Standing Rock for months, establishing a supply line through Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky and making trips out to the site to deliver donations of food, truckloads of firewood, tents, teepees and other items. They’ve also gone to stand on the frontlines and pray with Standing Rock Sioux, activists like Neri say.

Recently, some elected officials have joined the opposition. Earlier this month, Cincinnati City Council’s five Democrats signed a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich asking him to remove the state troopers. 

“There is no reason Ohio State troopers need to be in North Dakota fighting Native Americans,” Councilman Chris Seelbach told a group of more than 150 who gathered outside Cincinnati City Hall Nov. 2. Attendees included members of Cincinnati Black Lives Matter, local Sierra Club officials and politicians. 

Another event Nov. 5  in Northside drew about 100 people for four hours of prayers, ceremonies and speeches from indigenous leaders and local activists. Among those present were Miami Valley Council for Native Americans Executive Director Guy Jones, organizer Albert Ortiz, long-time American Indian Movement member Chico Dulak-Bear and Kyle Snyder, a member of the Lakota nation, originally from Fort Hays near Standing Rock.

Racial justice advocates, including Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, pledged solidarity with activists at Standing Rock, highlighting the connections between indigenous and black rights movements. 

Dulak-Bear, who was present at the beginning of the American Indian Movement in late 1960s Minneapolis, said that movement had many of the same aims today’s Black Lives Matter movement supports. 

“We developed originally to protect the Indian people of Minneapolis and Saint Paul from the brutality of the police,” he says. “We started following the police force around with cameras and we would take pictures of the arrests. In order to correct the wrongs, or try to correct the wrongs, we have to stand together, all of us.” ©

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