A months-long protest against the $3.8 billion oil pipeline, which will run through four states, descended into violence during the weekend after construction destroyed sacred Native American burial grounds in South Dakota.
The incident occurred within half a mile of an encampment where hundreds of people gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protests. The tribe is demonstrating against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to grant permission to Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access pipeline, which crosses North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois — including the reservation in southern North Dakota.
The riot erupted one day after the tribe filed court papers stating they found several sites of “'significant cultural and historic value” along the path of the pipeline. Tim Mentz, a tribal preservation officer, said the tribe was only recently allowed to survey private lands north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
When it did, the researchers found burial rock piles called cairns and other sites that have historic significance to the Native Americans, and which are in a danger from the pipeline.
The tribe also fears the project will negatively impact drinking water quality for thousands of tribal members and million others who live downstream.
The protest turned ugly when bulldozers appeared and destroyed cultural sites on private lands. As demonstrators — who included pregnant women and children — ran to stop the machines, they came in contact with private security guards armed with pepper spray and dogs. At least six protesters were bitten by the guard dogs, including a child, and 30 people were pepper sprayed.
Meanwhile, four guards and two dogs were injured during the altercation.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II said the construction crew removed a huge swath of topsoil stretching for two miles and called it a “historic” wrong.
“This demolition is devastating,” Archambault said. “These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”
The tribal leader has been sued by Energy Transfer Partners for interfering with the pipeline — something that his attorney, Tim Purdon, said is nothing more than an attempt to stifle Archambault’s voice.
“I think they think he is a voice for the people that no one can control,” Purdon said. “From the first day I met him, I could tell he is a very serious person who really has the best interests of his people — and the people of North Dakota — at heart. What I see now is the same thing: He is focused on what he believes is best.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also shown support for the tribe’s cause.
“Regardless of the court’s decision, the Dakota Access pipeline must be stopped,” he said. “As a nation, our job is to break our addiction to fossil fuels, not increase our dependence on oil.
“I join with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the many tribal nations fighting this dangerous pipeline,” he added.
Last month, environmental conservation groups also urged President Barack Obama to revoke the standing permit from Army Corps of Engineers citing the pipeline could prove to be an “existential threat to the tribe’s culture and way of life.”