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Jan Lee headshot

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Accuses Pipeline Workers of 'Desecrating' Burial Sites to Stop Protests

By Jan Lee

Violent altercations over the weekend on the freshly-bulldozed remains of a Native American cultural landmark left a lot of questions.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August over a controversial oil pipeline, were on one side of the disagreement. They stood aligned with several hundred environmental protesters from across the country. A small but well-prepared crew of security guards, armed with attack dogs and mace, were on the other.

The issue was the land contractors proceeded to tear up, and a series of documents the tribe filed in court only a day earlier. According to a press release issued by the tribe on Saturday evening, contractors for Energy Transfer Partners, LP, the company behind the pipeline, destroyed "[sacred] places containing ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe." They argue the destroyed landmarks would have been important to the suit to stop the pipeline.

The tribe's attorney, Jan Hasselman, said the destruction was particularly ill-timed:

“We’re days away from getting a resolution on the legal issues, and they came in on a holiday weekend and destroyed the site,” said Hasselman, who is representing the tribe with the assistance of Earthjustice.

Representatives of the tribe and environmental organizations accused the pipeline company of deliberately destroying the burial sites in order to prevent the tribe from strengthening its claim in court.

Dakota Access and Standing Rock Sioux: Longstanding disputes

Protests against the 1,168-mile Dakota Access pipeline (which crosses North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois) have been going on for months. And they forced Energy Transfer Partners into court more than once.

In June, a stop-work order was lifted in Iowa after Energy Transfer agreed to amend its route and run the pipeline underneath a Native American burial site and protected wetlands not far from the South Dakota border. The agreement to burrow underneath burial sites, however, did not apply to the North Dakota cultural site, which is on private land.

Tim Mentz, a former cultural protection officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who helped compile the list of burial sites for court submission, feels differently. He insists that some of the destroyed sites would have "unquestionably" qualified for preservation under the National Historic Preservation Act and would have required Energy Transfer to amend its route.

“I surveyed this land, and we confirmed multiple graves and specific prayer sites,” Mentz said. “Portions, and possibly complete sites," were "taken out entirely” during last Saturday's construction.

Mentz said the sites he surveyed were left out of a cultural-resource survey the pipeline company submitted to the Corps. That led to a disagreement over whether the pipeline would damage cultural artifacts. Two other historians have also come forward to say the survey done by the contractor was incomplete.

Water at the heart of debate

But the burial sites aren't the only issue of conflict for the Sioux tribes. Water is once again a focal point in the debate over crude oil transport.

Water problems are legendary in this part of the state, and the tribe makes clear on its website that "water is the key to increasing the quality of life and promoting full economic development on the Standing Rock Reservation." According to court documents submitted by the tribe, the pipeline comes within a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Critics say this is too close to assure it won't affect the tribe's water source if a pipeline break or leak occurs.

But in earlier court documents, the Army Corps of Engineers said they reached out to the tribe for discussion but their efforts were rebuffed. The Corps also claims to have required Energy Transfer officials to offer the tribe the opportunity to monitor construction at certain points along the route. If so, the requirement was clearly missed last Saturday as bulldozers began working on disputed ground.

But the tribe insists supervising the route isn't the issue.

"The Corps puts our water and the lives and livelihoods of many in jeopardy,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a prepared statement last August. "We have laws that require federal agencies to consider environmental risks and protection of Indian historic and sacred sites." He said the Corps "fast-tracked" the project, disregarding key objections and problems in favor of making a construction deadline.

Standing Rock Sioux's emergency injunction

The Corps remained fairly silent on last Saturday's violence and the way the situation was handled by company officials.

It isn't clear why the contractors started on the plot of land that had been in contention for months. Many also wonder why law enforcement officials, who were reportedly seen on the outskirts of the construction zone, didn't intervene when the violence started. But according to onlookers, many of whom had video cameras and phones, the skirmish started when protesters and tribal members realized the bulldozers were ploughing over the disputed cultural sites.

Hundreds of protesters poured through the fences and were met by security guards armed with mace and dogs. Tempers flared when one protester was stopped and thrown to the ground, and protesters charged the bulldozers.

An interesting side note of this altercation was that it was extremely well recorded. Democracy Now! moderated as the fight ensued, and numerous video accounts were published live. For their part, the security guards who charged against protesters with bite dogs seemed fairly unconcerned about being taped as people were being bitten or maced. One female security officer repeatedly commanded her dog to charge into crowds, rather than defend property.

By the time the fight stopped, four people were bitten by dogs, including one child and a pregnant woman. The oil company released a statement saying several of its security personnel and dogs were injured.

The bulldozers halted for a day while the judge overseeing the suit sorted through the issues. The tribe, having filed an emergency motion, called on the court to issue a restraining order against Energy Transfer and its contractors.

The next day, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg ordered the company to halt construction on roughly 250 miles of pipeline. The affected area spans between State Highway 1806 in North Dakota and 20 miles east of Lake Oahe, South Dakota. But according to a statement released by Waterkeeper Alliance, the judge said "he lacked jurisdiction over the lands west of the highway, where the destruction of sacred sites has been occurring, because the National Historical Preservation Act applies only to federal agency action, and the land was not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps."

The limited power of U.S. regulations

It's unlikely the Sioux Nation ever thought its ability to protect or have access to culturally-significant areas would be weakened when they ceded lands in treaty centuries ago. But the inability of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect cultural sites that weren't within the boundaries of their reservation, but were always regarded as accessible, points to a concern that isn't just limited to Native American communities. In fact, it's an issue that has been played out through the centuries in the United States, and culture often has little bearing over its outcome. Neither, apparently, do the years of acculturation that we often, and passionately, claim lie between the injustices of the 17th or 18th centuries, and our more informed way of handling civil rights issues today.

As the Army Corps of Engineers observed when it agreed to halt the pipeline for now, the push for oil across lands that communities have always regarded as theirs to protect is changing the way we regard the importance of a community caught in the middle.

The outcome of lawsuits like the Sioux Nation's may have a lot to say about a community's legal rights. But unfortunately, they don't regulate or ensure what is most needed -- and most at risk -- in controversies like this: the common decency of respecting hallowed ground.

Image credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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