The True Story Of How Standing Rock Fell

Marty Skovlund, Jr. stands in front of a structure formerly used to dry corn that was set on fire on the last day of the Oceti Oyate protest camp just out side of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. ©AJ Miller

At the end of a protest that lasted for nearly a year, one veteran traveled to Standing Rock to find answers.

“Fuckin’ hippies need ta get a job,” remarked the pipeline worker in his thick Louisiana accent to a friend sitting with him. The friend, who continued watching the local news anchor talk about the massive clean up effort on the hotel lobby television, replied, “Have you been down there lately? It’s a goddamn mess. Gonna take f’rever ta clean that up!”

Suffice it to say, that’s exactly how many around the nation felt about the aftermath of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota.

I had only been on the ground in North Dakota for a few hours at that point though, returning once again to cover the protest happening just outside of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. My first visit to the main camp, originally known as Oceti Sakowin, was to cover the mobilization of thousands of veterans to assist in the protest by Wesley Clark, Jr. and his cohorts. That trip proved to be the high point of the movement with the camp population swelling to what some estimated to be as high as 20,000 people.

The pressure of so many protesters, who call themselves ‘water protectors’, joining the fight forced the Army Corps of Engineers’ hand on whether to accept or deny an easement allowing Energy Transfer Partners to continue construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. On December 4th, 2016, while sitting in the traffic on Highway 1806 just above the camp, I heard a roar erupt as news reached the protesters. Despite Clark Jr.’s gross incompetence as a leader of the veteran mobilization, the tactic had worked and an all night celebration started with a ceremony around the sacred fire at the center of the camp.

The spirit of victory and excitement swept through the Oceti protest camp after the easement was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers during the first week of December 2016. ©Marty Skovlund Jr.

With victory in the air, the pipeline opponents praised what was surely the end of DAPL construction. They believed months of the bitter stand off with law enforcement and private security resulting in the arrest of hundreds had ended. Surely they would no longer have to endure blasts from water cannons in sub-zero weather, or punishing barrages of less-lethal munitions.

For the law enforcement officers on the north side of the barricade that was blocking Highway 1806, it seemed that they would no longer have to endure everything from rocks to Molotov cocktails being thrown at them. They would no longer have to listen to the accusations and jeers of angry protesters, or watch vehicles burn in front of them. Finally, they thought, the officers who came in from neighboring states would finally be able to return home to their families.

The feeling of victory was gone almost as fast as the good weather though. The next morning, the word had spread that DAPL officials announced their plans to continue construction despite the Corps of Engineers’ decision. Almost simultaneously, the inclement weather that North Dakota is known for rolled in, forcing many protesters to flee the camp for their lives.

The Oceti protest site braced as a severe winter storm descended on the camp in early December 2016. ©Marty Skovlund Jr.

One of my last memories from that first trip to Oceti Sakowin was searching Army-issue GP Medium tents that collapsed under the intense wind, while the -30 temperatures burned the small amount of skin I had left exposed on my face. We feared that senior citizens, many of whom were veterans of the Vietnam War who showed up in response to Clark Jr.’s call to action, might have been trapped under the collapsed walls. Fortunately, and no thanks to the veteran movement’s leader, all had escaped.

Now, over two months later, I sat in the hotel lobby planning the next day’s return to the ruthless high plains landscape that the camp was built on. It was now called Oceti Oyate due to the tribal leaders who built it leaving a few weeks prior. I knew that wasn’t the only thing that had changed during my absence though. A President who was a shareholder in Energy Transfer Partners was inaugurated. The easement denial was overturned, and now approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The population of the camp was only a fraction of it’s former self, some estimating it at 600–700 strong. Finally, an eviction notice had been served to those remaining residents of the camp, and evacuation was not negotiable.

I had no idea what I was heading into, but was looking forward to the challenge.

North Dakota is no stranger to dealing with floods. Both the Missouri River and the Red River have drained significant amounts of resources from the state and her citizens. Oceti Sakowin was built on a flood plain of the Missouri River, causing significant concern that the contents of the camp would be washed away in rising waters, resulting in an ecological disaster. Although that fear was very convenient for supporters of the pipeline, it was a fact nonetheless. Evacuation was necessary in order to begin the cleanup ahead of the coming floods.

The fact that a clean up was mandatory does not necessarily reflect that the protesters were negligent in their maintenance of the camp though. Oceti, for the most part, was extremely organized on my trip during the first week of December. The neighborhoods that Native Americans had established were especially impressive considering the conditions. Vehicles were parked in rows, loose trash wasn’t floating around, and signs were hung all over the camp reminding protesters to ‘pack it in, pack it out’. The camp, as a whole, was at least as clean and organized as combat outposts I saw overseas, complete with porta-potties and trash receptacles.

The Oceti protest camp in early December. Notice that cars were parked in rows and no trash was on the ground. ©Marty Skovlund Jr.

That being said, the storm that came in on December 5th, 2016 was bad enough that a lot of people barely made it out. I have no doubt that trash receptacles and porta-potties overflowed when the roads closed. I also know that there were vehicles stranded because they wouldn’t start (it was -30 after all). On top of that, the mass exodus of people left only a small contingent to clean up.

Was there work required once the weather cleared up? Yes. Do I think it was gross negligence on the part of those that came up to protest? I’m not so sure about that. But I was curious to see how bad the current condition of the camp actually was.

I departed the hotel early on the cold, wet morning of February 22nd. According to law enforcement press releases, the eviction would commence at 1400. Emergency services would be made available to anyone who voluntarily left, to include a hotel room and a bus ticket to anywhere in the lower 48. The light rain turned into heavy, wet snow during my drive south from Mandan, ND. Even though I grew up driving in harsh Midwest winters, I still had trouble keeping control of my four-wheel drive truck.

Just outside of Fort Rice, I encountered my first checkpoint. T-barriers, concertina wire, a Humvee, and a police cruiser accompanied by one National Guardsman and one law enforcement officer. As I waited in the short line of vehicles going through, I couldn’t help but think how different it was entering the protest site from this side of the barricade. It was akin to entering a forward operating base in a war zone, complete with soldiers in body armor checking each vehicle’s occupants.

After confirming that I was media, I was directed off to the side of the checkpoint to await a law enforcement escort up to the protest site. My first interaction of the day with uniformed personnel proved to be polite, professional, and friendly. So far, so good.

Despite the smiles at that first checkpoint, I knew that not all was well. A source that was a former private military contractor (PMC) with the DAPL security detail informed me the day prior that “Late December, early January there became a very big divide,” between law enforcement leadership and the private military contractors hired by DAPL. The contractors were almost all prior military combat veterans, many of whom hailed from the special operations community. For DAPL, these PMC’s were literally the best security money could buy.

Multiple agencies and departments from across the country had joined forces with PMC’s from four different companies though, working side by side for months. With so many different “tribes” together in an austere environment, away from home, for so long… I was not surprised to hear about disagreements. Certainly I had witnessed the same thing working in a joint environment on combat deployments overseas. Unfortunately, the issues ran deeper than just agitation from long days and unruly water protectors.

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