PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Sunday night, anyone who hadn’t been aware of what was happening out in North Dakota learned about the battle that is raging over a desire to run oil pipelines and a growing contingent protesting against that.
The area is known as “Standing Rock,” and the project is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
The National Guard and military forces have joined up with local, state and regional police, taking on an estimated 7,000 protestors. Among them are hundreds, perhaps thousands of Mainers.
What’s happening out in North Dakota is on land not far from the Battle of Wounded Knee, a fact not lost on indigenous Mainers who gathered Tuesday in the Hampden townhouse owned by Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot attorney and activist.
Mitchell is an attorney with the Native American unit of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and executive director of the Land Peace Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of indigenous land rights.
One woman present has two sons who are out at Standing Rock, and she has plans to head there soon, carrying with her supplies and determination to protect the primary water source for that region: the Missouri River.
Inside the townhouse and divining music from their ancestors, the three Penobscot Passamaquoddy women — June Sapiel, Dawn Neptune Adams, and Sherri Mitchell — said they have also received a message to go to Standing Rock.
“There’s a prophecy about the black snake, and we were told generations ago that there would come a time that this black snake would move across the land,” Mitchell said. “For generations, people didn’t know what that meant, and everybody is pretty clear now that what they were referring to was these pipelines.”
Sherri Mitchell is referring to the Dakota Access Pipeline, planned to carry crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken region through 50 counties in four states: South Dakota, Iowa and into Illinois. At Standing Rock, the proposed pipeline dips into the Missouri River.
The prospect of a pipe pumping crude oil near or at the river’s bottom has incited thousands of protesters to block access to the river. Those protests began six months ago with a handful of protests. Social media has helped bolster the cause, prompting activists from around the globe to travel to North Dakota.
On Sunday night, the situation boiled over. An estimated 400 protestors, attempting to cross the Backwater Bridge were instead corralled by authorities. Witnesses reported a chaotic situation with people screaming, cars honking, combined with tear gas, water cannons and a volley of rubber-tipped bullets wounding protesters.
The Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council said in a statement that its medical teams treated 300 people for injuries that were a “direct result of excessive force by police.” At least 26 people were transported from the scene by ambulance with gashes, internal bleeding, and eye trauma, the council said. One young woman from New York reportedly lost an arm due to her injuries. The Morton County Sheriff's Department described Sunday's events as a riot.
On Facebook Live, Kevin Gilbertt captured the scene, describing, “They just pointed water at the protestors. They are spraying people down in sub-zero temperatures. Peaceful protestors. Unarmed protestors. This is all happening on American soil.”
The Morton County Sheriff's Office denied it, insisting authorities didn't use any concussion grenades and suggested an explosion heard during the skirmish might have been caused by small propane tanks that protesters rigged to set off.
Tens of thousands who were watching on Facebook Live, including June Sapiel, were horrified. June’s two sons are out there. One of them was arrested late in the summer, Sapiel said, for protecting tribal elders.
“Two-twenty-six. They tattoed the number 226 on his arm. They shoved him into a metal dog kennel,” Sapiel described, becoming emotional. “They threw a tarp over it.”
She said her son spent a night inside that kennel before being released the next morning.
Now, Sapiel, Mitchell and Adams are driving directly into what could be a potential danger for them. They argue that they must stand united to help protect the Missouri River. “What is precious. It is life. We must protect it. We are standing with Mother Earth,” Mitchell said.
And 7-year-old Woli Adams, who is watching it all unfold, said she’s praying for the protesters, for the water and most of all, for her mother and her friends who are heading to Standing Rock. “Hopefully if they get hurt they still stay alive.”
“I am not afraid. I am not worried. I am intended to go,” Sapiel said.
“I’ve been working toward this point my entire life," Mitchell said. "They need us. We are many tribes, but together we are one. We are doing this for Mother Earth. We are doing this for the future of this world.”