by Edmund Frazier Myer and Faith Price
photos and video footage courtesy of Greg Urqhart
Throughout fall semester, multiple WSU Native American students have shown their support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that would potentially cross the reservation’s water supply. Students have held “NoDAPL” demonstrations on Terrell Mall, collected supplies, and traveled to be part of the camps of “water protectors” that have gathered on the Standing Rock Reservation.
On Monday, December 5, WSU students Greg Urquhart, Kyra Antone, and Mykel Johnson shared their experiences at Standing Rock as part of a panel presentation. Greg Urquhart, a Cherokee doctoral student in Counseling Psychology, went to Standing Rock twice during Thanksgiving break.
“I was blown away by the proficiency and organization of the camp,” said Urquhart.
“First and foremost, the camps are prayer camps,” he said, and showed the crowd some photos as he described the scene. What is going on is “largely a peaceful demonstration.”
Urquhart explained that as you come into the camp there is a sign that says “No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons,” and a disclaimer stating that security has the right to search your vehicle.
Everyone who comes to the camp is required to attend an orientation (held daily) and receive an introduction to Standing Rock Sioux culture. There is also training for direct action, such as techniques to use and what to prepare for if on the frontlines in protection of the water.
Mykel Johnson, a sophomore and Nez Perce tribal member, visited Standing Rock in September. She said that she met a lot of different people there, including tribal leaders, members from many tribes, and people from all different nationalities.
“It changed my perspective on life,” said Johnson, noting that it caused her to pay more attention to social justice issues. After meeting all the people who care about the cause, Johnson said, “We know this is something worth fighting over.”
The pipeline, which will carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois, was originally routed north of Bismark, however, after concerns for the safety of the city’s water supply, it was re-routed half a mile north of the Standing Rock reservation, over the objections of the Tribe. In August, opponents of the pipeline began camping near the location the proposed pipeline would cross the Cannonball River. The site has grown to include four distinct camps and thousands of residents, both Native and non-Native.
Sophomore Kyra Antone, Coeur d’Alene and Tohono O’odham, spoke about the kindness everyone at the Oceti Sakowin camp showed toward one another. She said that the first morning she was there, she woke up and got out of her tent, and was greeted by multiple people and offered food. She said the camp is complete with an area for prayer and ceremony, medic tents, food stations, places to volunteer, and legal aid tents. Urquhart described it as a “small city.”
Antone and Urquhart were both present at Oceti Sakowin on November 20, the night law enforcement drew mainstream media attention for what some are calling excessive use of force and human rights violations, which included spraying water protectors with water cannons.
Urquhart and Antone shared their story of that day’s events with the audience.
Police had used burned out vehicles to block off Backwater Bridge,meaning anyone trying to get through to the camp would have to go a longer route. This particular road was also the way to the nearest hospital, said Urquhart, estimating the blockade added an hour and a half to an ambulance’s emergency response time.
Antone and Urquhart had gone up in the afternoon to just check out the frontlines. They weren’t expecting anything to happen. That day, a group from the camp had decided to try to remove the blockade and open the road to the hospital. As more people began to gather, law enforcement decided to vacate the protestors from the premises.
“They came out for prayer and support and the police overreacted with tear gas and rubber bullets and everything else,” was Urquhart’s assessment.
Urquhart is a six-year army veteran who served in Iraq. After his service, he spent four years in the National Guard and trained on the riot response team. He mentioned that the flashbang grenades used on the protestors were specifically designed to move back crowds, and not to be thrown in the midst of people.
“Morton County sheriffs were throwing them three or four people deep into the crowd,” said Urquhart.
In addition to the flashbangs, Urquhart said the police used rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and sound cannons on the unarmed, peaceful, crowd. And in what were freezing temperatures, the police used high power hoses, similar to a fire hose to “spray down people left and right,” with what he said was water mixed with mace or pepper spray.
“I don’t think there was one thing that I was trained on in the riot response team for the National Guard that wasn’t used,” said Urquhart.
Law enforcement has since received criticism for their tactics, especially dousing people with water on a frigid North Dakota winter night.
“There were literally icicles forming on people because it was so cold,” said Antone. Hypothermia was the main injury reported that night, however, one woman nearly lost her arm, a man next to Urquhart caught shrapnel to his face, and both Urquhart and Antone were teargassed on what has become known as “Backwater Sunday.”
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see,” said Antone, who noted she has asthma and expressed gratitude for Urquhart and others who pulled her out and helped her wash it out of her eyes.
“It was a really scary experience – I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Antone. “And, I guess, it was hard for me to understand,” she added. “I never thought I would get maced by a police officer – someone that I always looked to for protection. I wasn’t doing anything but standing there.”
Urquhart had been trained on mace and tear gas in the Army.
“That girl’s fearless. She’s a warrior,” he said of Antone.
Urquhart drew on his military training to assist others. He spent many hours that day helping flush out people’s eyes with water bottles, and doing what he could to help. He noted that law enforcement was targeting the clearly-marked medics, journalists, and those trying to help by bringing blankets or hand warmers to wet people.
“They were aiming for the head and groin,” said Urquhart.
Police began spraying the water cannon around 5pm and were still going when he left at 2am.
Urquhart filmed parts of the evening to document the events and shared his videos with the audience. Although it was very dark that night, the audio was enough to understand the setting. On one recording you could hear people drumming and singing, while others were asking for assistance in the form of blankets, water, and earplugs. Another clip shows law enforcement dousing the crowd with water as they stand in protest, song, and prayer.
Both Antone and Urquhart noted that their experiences at Standing Rock were very different than what was depicted in the news.
“Being there and then seeing the videos on the media, it was very different,” said Antone.
“I came back and read the news that we were starting fires. That was the police tear gas canisters,” said Urquhart, noting the water protectors had only one fire to warm people up. He was eager to share his first-hand account with campus.
“The more people know about it, the less tolerant they’ll be of it,” stated Urquhart. “The news kind of sanitizes it.”
It’s Not Over Yet
The day before the panel, on December 4th, news broke that the Army Corps of Engineers put a halt to construction of the portion of the pipeline nearest the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation while they explored alternative routes and prepared an environmental-impact statement.
“The decision yesterday is historic in that it’s a victory for us,” Urquhart said. But he reminded the audience that this is not over yet. “The oil company has not stopped activities there. Trump has said that he supports this pipeline.”
The panelists urged the audience members to pay attention to what’s going on in our society and stand up for what they think is right.
“Do your research. Hear these people’s stories,” Johnson urged the audience. “Be aware of injustices going on.”
Urquhart, for one, is traveling back to Standing Rock over his winter break to bring firewood to the camps.
“Just like Wounded Knee was a symbol of resistance and strength, I think this is our generation’s time,” Urquhart said. “This is where our people are going to say, ‘okay we drew a line in the sand and said no more.’”