G-Sync: Standing Rock and why Michigan matters

Only a fraction of the stories coming out of Standing Rock are making it to mainstream media sources, so local businessman Mark Sellers and Rapid Growth Publisher Tommy Allen hit the road to see for themselves what is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline and at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Allen explains why what they discover there indeed matters to Michigan.

If you have been closely following the news coverage about the Standing Rock civil disobedience originating from within the Oceti Sakowin Camp (pronounced Och-et-eeshak-oh-win and meaning Seven Council Fires) that is spreading now all over the world, including last weekend’s events at Lansing’s Capital or in downtown Grand Rapids, it is easy to conclude this is just a squabble between the Sioux Nation and a Texas oil company named Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) over an oil pipeline’s placement. 

But after Grand Rapids businessman Mark Sellers (the owner of HopCat, Stella’s Lounge and Grand Rapids Brewing Co.) and I set out last weekend to see for ourselves what really is happening on the ground, the connections uncovered are frightening when you consider how closely this event is tied to Michigan.

When you look at a map, it might be easy to see why Native Americans would ask that we consider looking into this nearly 1,200-mile pipeline project.  

For if it is completed as scheduled, the ETP’s Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would enable more than 450,000 to 570,000 barrels of highly combustible crude oil to travel daily from North Dakota’s Bakken to Patoka, Illinois. This pipeline’s path includes a critically vital passageway slated to cross within a half mile of the Standing Rock reservation and proceed through the Missouri River - the nation’s longest freshwater river, which flows west 2,341 miles before connecting to the Mississippi River just above St. Louis, Missouri. 

An oil spill could irrevocably contaminate Standing Rock’s water supply that is used for drinking (the tribe’s main sources for drinking are located just downstream of the pipeline’s current route), fishing, irrigation, and more. Such fears of an oil spill have been voiced by many - and, in fact, the original route for the pipeline was slated to be built close to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital. However, that plan was abandoned following residents voicing concerns that a pipeline spill could be devastating to their drinking water - exactly what the individuals at Standing Rock are now saying.

The standoff between the DAPL’s security detail and the more than 10,000-members of the Sioux Standing Rock Tribe started in April 2016 and has since attracted more than 300 Native American tribes that have made the journey and set up residence at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. 

Joining these growing numbers of Native Americans, religious, and other environmental groups who oppose the current route of the DAPL and call themselves Water Protectors (not protesters) Michigan Water Protector Nancy Shomin in a conversation with me on Saturday referred to water as the creator’s gift. (Shomin was one of the more than 140 people arrested on Oct. 27 at the Highway 1806 barricade.)

To be a guest on this land and see firsthand how so many diverse people can come together around a common cause is something I can say I’ve not seen in my half century on the planet. 

In fact, many of the Native Americans I spoke with shared that this is the first time in more than 200 years that all these tribes have assembled for a common goal. It is hard to simply brush off this moment when you consider the seriousness of their quest and resulting turn out.

“We have Pawnee and Navajo here along other tribes who would not speak to one another and now they are setting up camp side by side,” says Kelly Red, a Michigan Water Protector who works with the Oceti Sakowin Camp to ensure its security. 

As I sat down with numerous Water Protectors — many from Michigan or with ties to our state — they all rank the retaliation from the DAPL security as shameful. A few who I spoke with had been arrested and did not want to release their full names, as many of them are awaiting their day in court after being arrested at the barricade crackdown that occurred on Oct. 27.

If you do not recall this date, it was the day when the DAPL security detail broke through its concrete barricades to target not just the unarmed Water Protectors with rubber bullets, tear gas foam, sonic cannons (which can cause permanent hearing loss), concussion grenades, and other crowd control measures, but also targeted medics, journalists and even horses - a sacred animal to the tribes. 

Prior this October conflict, in September of this year DAPL’s  private contractor hired unleashed dogs on the protectors. For many watching from the outside, these images revived images of the civil rights struggles of African Americans in the 1960s, when police dogs attacked protesters. Later Morton County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Gruebele released a statement that “the dog handlers were not properly licensed to do security work in the State of North Dakota.”

To date, more than 400 people have been arrested, with many of these folks being crammed into chain link-style kennel cages in a garage where they were forced to sleep on the cold concrete and were each marked with a number on their arms, thus echoing for many the way Jews and other “undesirables” were identified and imprisoned in Germany during World War II. The connections to past civil rights battles around the world is frightening. 

And yet, the Water Protectors have returned nearly daily to show, via peaceable assembly, the power of prayer and its sacred meaning to their movement’s goals to be nonviolent.. 

While no action took place on Thursday, Nov. 3 when we landed in North Dakota, the day prior to our arrival the Water Protectors attempted to reach another sacred burial ground. They crossed the chilly Cannon Ball River (a tributary to Lake Oahu and the Missouri River) but were met with rubber bullets that hurt like hell, according to Michigan Host Tent security detail member Amos Cloud, who showed me his wound.  On the surface the wound looks like nothing until you realize beneath it was fluid building up under the skin, causing the camp’s medic to become concerned that a deadly blood clot could emerge. 

Security for DAPL even have sprayed the elderly in the face, often point blank with tear gas foam as they attempted to perform a ritual in the waterway surrounding Turtle Island. 

While conducting an interview, journalist Erin Schrode was shot at point blank range as she interviewed a Water Protector who was not even in the water nor exhibiting any threats to the DAPL security detail. Watching this searing video as a journalist, it was hard for me to imagine that I was in America anymore. (Warning graphic video footage from Erin’s interview. https://twitter.com/ErinSchrode/status/794255752055562240

And yet, with all the violence and inhumane treatment from protester abuse to the trumped up, overreaching and, in my opinion, bogus charges against these protectors, Highway 1806 — named in honor of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition west in the year 1806 — was filled each day we were there with a steady flow of cars steaming into the beautifully flag-lined road leading to the camp.

But with each day that DAPL construction project gets closer to the Missouri River, the camp site, as reported by news agencies, has swelled to more than 5,000 Water Protectors (not protesters, as the Sioux Nation is quick to point out). We have all the pieces in place for a high profile showdown between the ancestral members of our nation’s First People versus big oil business. 

This protest is peaceful because the elders have adopted the same nonviolent tactics of other civil rights struggles. These being nonviolent because the Native Americans whose land this mighty river flows through, including North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, depends on this watershed for sustaining their lives, and the basin is filled with sacred sites and burial grounds

As the DAPL project has plowed ahead at times when they have been requested to halt so that human remains and other cultural artifacts can be authenticated, the pipeline work has instead continued, often destroying ancient sites that can never be recovered now. 

It has been asked of me, from those I have discussed this with at the camp and then after, how I would feel if someone were to take to placing a pipeline through a major cemetery like Arlington Cemetery. I think we know how we would react as a nation when placed in these terms. 

In fact, while I was working in Rome, Italy in the 1990s on a documentary project with Dr. Mel White, I recall seeing a construction site at a complete standstill. 

I asked our production guide why it was halted. Turns out in Italy when they discover any ancient ruins during construction, it is understood that a period of authentication of the cultural value must be determined before any work can commence again. This seems to me like a fair trade considering our time here is short but our shared histories on this earth are that much longer. Some things are worth getting right when the sacred is involved. 

However, it is also worth pointing out that this DAPL protect is so much more than just about the water and sacred sites that sustain and inform these indigenous people’s lives. It is about those cities and farmers who live and depend on fresh, clean water for the sustaining of a wide array of life forms, from plants to animals to humans. 

In addition, the Native Americans being treated as a sovereign nation has been violated as they have been repeatedly not invited to those critical important talks in the years leading up to this project — a violation of a federal mandate which states that the Army Corps is bound to engage in a government-to-government manner with the tribes.

We all know that fossil fuels are an easy-to-secure energy source because they are cheap and plentiful. But the continued value that we place on cheap is what is in fact causing climate mayhem. 

What is needed is leadership to make us truly great. We need to be smarter about our resources and not keep running to cheap products just because they are easy to secure via modern and often dangerous methods of extraction.  We need a national energy policy that finally acknowledges that if we are to be serious about our planet’s health and our ability to coexist — something nearly every Native American I spoke with stresses — we need to move quickly. 

This is a fact that is not lost on those keeping climate temperature scores that rise and break warming records each year. I may not be a climate scientist, but for those of us who tend to the earth, this year’s record-breaking temperatures (again) have resulted in me harvesting tender flowers that should have been killed off by a freeze last month. I mean, I love harvesting dahlias in November but I should not be harvesting dahlias in November. That is not normal and points to an imbalance at work even here in Michigan. 

So why is a showdown looming for the Water Protectors versus DAPL?  The short answer is money and the rush to get this black gold in the pipe rolling east before the current contract (negoiated in 2014)  on Dec. 31, 2016. 

A few years ago, when the DAPL contracts were being drawn up with its energy industry partner investors, oil was selling for around $80 a barrel, enabling the ETP, the company building the pipeline, to bank more profit based on the price of oil from a few years ago. 

But today the price of oil is bottoming out, making it much cheaper. If the crude oil is not flowing by Jan. 1, 2017, then the energy partners will have missed an important deadline and be forced to renegotiate with their partners. And at the current prices falling under $40 to $50 per barrel, oil once a hot commodity (but not any more when it comes to falling costs) this is leading to more tensions to wrap this up quickly something that the Native Americans are clearly aware of as more and more actions are occuring.

So how is this connected to Michigan? 

As I review the market impact reported on the Market Realist website, if you scan through the document, which does a great job of presenting all the factors surrounding this project, you will encounter a name that is familiar to folks in West Michigan: Enbridge Energy Partners.

From the Market Realist they write, “Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco Logistics Partners (SXL) together own 38.3% of the project. Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners recently announced a 36.75% stake sale in the Bakken Pipeline Project to MarEn Bakken Company, an entity jointly owned by Enbridge Energy Partners (EEP) and Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC), for $2 billion. The remaining 25% stake belongs to Phillips 66 (PSX).” (Source

If you recall in 2010, an Enbridge pipeline broke, spilling nearly a million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. And while it cost them more than a billion dollars clean up their mess, can you imagine if they have another spill along the straits of Mackinac, where their “Line 5” is submerged under water and sits as a gateway to both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan?  Many brewers across our state, including our local HopCat staff, know the importance of access to clean water in the production of beer. 

In 2015, HopCat released Oil Rigger - a limited release stout benefiting the Kent County Water Conservation’s efforts to educate people about Line 5. Also in 2015, Grand Rapids Brewing Company released FLOW (For Love of Water) and benefited the organization FLOW. Both releases quickly sold out. 

On our last day on the land, we witnessed, along with the thousands who gathered, a group of children entering the camp by foot. It was a sight to behold as the camp erupted in cheers and chants signifying the importance of this next generation of leaders’ arrival at the camp.

Another Water Protector with ties to Michigan, Dawn White Bull Bacon, says that what she is feeling today is a lot of what her ancestors must have felt generations ago as they faced confrontation with outsiders who wished to lessen their rights to this land they once called home before the “doctrine of discovery” (or, in layman’s terms, the process by which colonial and also post-colonial members have used to seize land simply because it was not documented).

This doctrine over the years has been used to support legal decisions that ultimately invalidated or outright ignored the indigenous people’s claim of possession to their ancestral land in favor of their new governing bodies. 

Earlier this week, the Water Protectors took action to cross the waterway between the camp and a sacred space referred to as Turtle Island, a place previously where many of their ancestors are buried, crossing the chilling river through the aid of canoes, kayaks, and boats.Then, the very next day, more than 400 children from the International Indigenous Youth Council marched to the 1806 barricade to let those know who repeatedly use tactics to thwart and discourage other’s voices from being heard that they are praying not just for their people, the land, and the water, but that they, too, are praying for those in uniform who are charged to keep them from their sacred land and burial sites. The video is chilling to watch, as it could indicate that the power of civil disobedience is taking hold not just there but in cities and towns all over the world who are joining the growing ranks of supporters of the indigenous people of Standing Rock. 

Forgive me for being overly religious here at the end, but when I see so many youth coming home to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I am reminded of words I heard at church: Jesus said, "Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

One of the 400 youth members who marched in silence to the barricade, handed a glass of water blessed in a ceremony to an officer on the other side of the razor fence. Instead of discounting this gesture of love or returning threats or firing upon the youth, the guard accepts it and holds it close to his heart. 

On our last day, Graham Biyáál, Environmental Stewardship Team Leader at Shiprock AmeriCorps, arrived at the camp after running 1,400 miles by foot from Arizona to Standing Rock to join the Water Protectors. 

Upon arrival and after plenty of time to think about his statement, Biyáál said, “This water is not necessarily ours, but we were put here to protect it, to make sure it doesn’t get hurt, and that is exactly what this pipeline is wanting to do.”

As we headed back to Grand Rapids, it became abundantly clear that what happens here does indeed impact Michigan as well. And how we respond to our land’s First People may determine our own fate if we lose sight of the importance of clean water in our lives. 

I may have left my heart with my fellow Water Protectors at the Michigan Host Tent at Standing Rock, but my vision is so much clearer: If we are to advance as a state, we need to be hyper vigilant about our water, what it means - to everyone, and the value of investing in cleaner power sources.

“I somehow feel we could be defeated,” says Dawn White Bull Bacon, who has been a part of many of the peaceful actions. “But I am still going to stand up and pray that it does not happen.”

If you would like to know more about about our Michigan Water Protectors or would like to contribute as they prepare for settling on the land this winter as they continue their quest, please consider a donation to the Michigan Host Tent.

On Sunday night, as our plane touched down in GRR, word began to circulate that the Water Protectors had taken Turtle Island. I think for the first time, I raised my fist high with pride knowing that Michigan was a part of this successful action. 

The Future Needs All of Us. (now more than ever.) 

Tommy Allen 
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
Rapid Growth Media
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