A year later, Dakota Access pipeline protests changed people

A year later, Dakota Access pipeline protests changed people
  1. A year later, Dakota Access pipeline protests changed people
    CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) — A year ago, protest camps near North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation swelled with thousands of people intent on stopping the Dakota Access pipeline. Today, the camps are gone and oil is flowing through the pipeline while court battles over pipeline permits continue. But the massive demonstrations that caught the world's attention last year have permanently changed people and politics here. While problems on the reservation remain, tribal leaders say S…

CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) — A year ago, protest camps near North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation swelled with thousands of people intent on stopping the Dakota Access pipeline.

Today, the camps are gone and oil is flowing through the pipeline while court battles over pipeline permits continue. But the massive demonstrations that caught the world's attention last year have permanently changed people and politics here.

While problems on the reservation remain, tribal leaders say Standing Rock is stronger for what happened last year and that tribal members are engaged and focused on helping build the future.


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"There's a sense of liberation, a sense of freedom, and a sense of worth. I can actually do something. I'm actually free?" said Standing Rock Chair Dave Archambault.

Cows now graze on the site of the Oceti Sakowin camp where thousands pitched tents and built rudimentary wood structures. There are bits and pieces scattered about. Broken glass, weathered batteries, a bent fork and squash growing where a camp kitchen was set up.

People still return to the site to ponder what happened here.

A recent visit by Minnesota Public Radio News found a big bearded man leaning on a wooden walking stick surveying what was the Rosebud camp, next to the Cannon Ball River.

"Tent used to be right over here," said Dave Lillis, pointing to spot near a line of trees. Lillis, 39, is from Washington state and said he lived in the camp for five months, until the camps were shut down in February.

"It's bittersweet," he said. "I came here last night for minute and was going to camp out. Ended up going up the road and sleeping in the car for a while, because it just didn't feel the same."

Lillis sat at his old campsite for a bit and thought about the experience. "The lessons I learned here: how to listen, how to stay humble, stay in prayer," he said.

"It's a very sacred space, always will be," Lillis added. "I'll always stop here when I get a chance, probably for the rest of my life"

He said he plans to spend time this winter at a Minnesota camp on the White Earth reservation set up to oppose the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project.

The Standing Rock camps drew thousands of people, including tribal delegations from Africa and South America. It also drew unprecedented public attention to Standing Rock.

"A year and a half ago we were invisible, we were invisible people," said Linda Black Elk, a teacher at Sitting Bull College on the reservation who spent months helping coordinate medical care at the camp.

"We were invisible to people, they didn't want to see us and we're not invisible anymore," she said. "And I think that we have decided that visibility is a gift. And we are going to use it for the greater good."

One tangible change that has roots in the protest camp is a new free clinic that's currently being developed in Fort Yates, North Dakota, where the Standing Rock tribal government is headquartered.

The need for health care that integrates traditional treatments with western medicine became apparent while the camps were operating, Black Elk said.

"We actually had people who live in the local area who were not even in camp or weren't really even interested in what was going on at camp who would come to camp just to receive health care because, it was free first of all, but also I think it just really touched a part of them that traditional western health care doesn't," she said.

Land is set aside, money is being raised and an architect is working on the clinic design.

Black Elk has a list of medical practitioners, many who volunteered at the camp, who offered to return to staff the clinic for two week shifts.

It's a challenge to raise the money, said Black Elk, because everyone is exhausted. But donations for the clinic continue to come in.

The time she spent at the camp changed Black Elk in good and bad ways she says. The trauma of clashes with police left her distrustful and reliving painful experiences.

"One of the things I dream about a lot is this sort of slow motion of me standing there and all of a sudden this massive dog coming at me and coming right up to my face like it was going to bite my face," said Black Elk.

But the movement also made her more outspoken, unwilling to sit by and watch injustice. She now has a nationwide support system.

"I found family in camp and people who are still my family," she added. "People who I have absolutely no doubt that whenever I need them they will be there for me."

The Dakota Access protest has also had positive and negative financial impacts.

The Standing Rock tribe received $11 million in donations. Some went to reimburse communities that sheltered people from the camps during winter storms.

But there are complaints and rumors about the money.

Archambault says the tribe has been transparent about how it used the donations, but that dozens of outside groups and individuals used online fundraising sites to raise money. The tribe has documented at least $40 million, but that money that doesn't go to Standing Rock.

Edward Swifthorse, who lives in Cannon Ball, the reservation community nearest the camps, said he supported the effort to stop the pipeline. But he thinks people took advantage of this small community that opened its doors and helped thousands of people with shelter, showers and food.

"Cannon Ball should have been compensated from the GoFundMe groups to whoever used Cannon Ball's name for profit," said Swifthorse. "Because of the Dakota Access pipeline protest we that live here have to deal with racism or prejudice more now than before up in Bismarck," North Dakota's capital.

Anger from the tribe's neighbors is also putting the squeeze on the tribal economy, Archambault said.

"The casino is still impacted by this. And our casino is one of our primary economic drivers," said Archambault, who points to talk of a casino boycott by residents of Bismarck.

Business has been slow since the protest camps started, casino revenues are down two-thirds from two years ago. The tribe has used donations to keep some programs running while they wait for casino income to rebound.

"But it's going to take time and it's going to take healing and it's going to take relationship building again," said Archambault, who knows rebuilding those relationships won't be easy.

North Dakota's governor has reached out to the tribe in an effort to repair relationships, and Archambault is appreciative. He thinks governments have more incentive to get along, but it will be much more difficult to overcome the anger and resentment among individual citizens on both sides.

"If I were to cuss you out and call you bad names and bad words, how easy is it for you to forgive and let that go?" Archambault said. "So, at the individual level, it's not…

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