Representatives from the United Nations and Amnesty International have travelled to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to examine and investigate charges of mistreatment of protesters by local police. Testimonies from protesters have alleged that officers are using excessive force, making unlawful arrests, and mistreating arrestees in jail. The latest clashes between protesters and police sent 17 protesters to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia and a woman whom witnesses say was hit directly by a concussion grenade is in danger of losing an arm.
These events have proved to be the latest and most violent chapter in a story that has drawn protesters from nearly all fifty states and around the world together to stand against the $3.7 billion, four-state Dakota Access Pipeline. North Dakota law enforcement has reportedly deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons on more than 400 protesters. The water cannons are new to this increasingly violent interaction between protesters and police and are dangerous in the sub-freezing weather common this time of year in North Dakota.
These incidents of increasing police brutality against protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline are yet another example of the marginalization of, disregard for, and dishonoring of Native Americans lives and culture. Water safety and land rights are the pretext for this protest, but its results illuminate a larger, more heartbreaking portrait. The Standing Rock Sioux, like many other Native American tribes, point to the violation of the first treaties signed between their still-sovereign nations and the United States of America, while seeing US government bodies conform to patterns of action that value Native American rights less than those of non-Native citizens (say, the mostly white community of Bismarck, ND, whose outcry over water safety was enough to move the pipeline out of their backyards).
The pipeline will directly affect the Sioux people, passing within a mile of the Standing Rock reservation where they have lived for generations, and threatening their primary water source. The reservation, established in 1889, stretches west of the Missouri river into South Dakota and south of the Heart River into North Dakota. The land is considered sovereign, and is protected by the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868, giving the Sioux tribes full ownership and authority over the land within the reservation’s borders, though many believe their ownership rights extend further.
“I can honestly say this land was taken from us,” Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This government honors treaties like they’re holy grail but when they are within our own homeland they find ways to break them.”
The violation of Native American treaties and the subsequent protests, is not necessarily new news, but the police brutality is creating a scene that is attracting more mainstream media attention to Standing Rock, helping to make sure that the protesters’ voices are heard. Regrettably, such change has only come after peaceful protesters were sent to the hospital, illustrating the unfortunate truth that often it is casualities that garner the media attention that can bring pressure for change.
Rob Keller, a spokesperson for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, stressed that the Mandan Rural Fire Department was spraying water on the protesters to put out fires the protesters had started, and for crowd control. “Water hoses were used to keep distance between officers and criminal agitators and also to put out fires set by those agitators,” he said.
Dallas Goldtooth, a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, criticized Keller, stating that the fires were built to warm people who had been soaked with water and were freezing in the frigid night, an effect and not a cause for the spraying.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department is claiming that the protest was in fact a “riot” and continues to arrest protesters, charging them with various crimes.The increasingly militarized police force has not given an overwhelming appearance of peace and diplomacy, while the overcrowded jails have led the police to keep detainees in makeshift corrals that have drawn comparisons to dog kennels. Celebrities like Shailene Woodley have publicized such arrests and the ensuing conditions arrestees are kept in. From experiencing similar treatment herself, Woodley has spoken out against the inhuman treatment.
Amnesty International, in a letter to Morton County Sheriff’s Department on November 21, expressed concern regarding the police use of force and the labeling of the protest as a “riot.” Evidence sourced from interviews and videos posted on social media platforms paint a united and violent picture of the chaos that erupted during the evening of November 20, on a bridge on Highway 1806. The letter states that the “U.S. government is obligated under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights of indigenous people, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” and continues to explain that the protesters have a right to peacefully express their opinions, and should be protected from rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. The letter goes on to explicitly argue that “public assemblies should not be considered as the ‘enemy’” and that members representing the North Dakota police force should facilitate instead of restrict such a “peaceful public assembly.”
This evident militarization of the police force, often against the most vulnerable members of our society is bigger than the original catalyst issues of land rights and water security. These episodes of police brutality against protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline are a continuing violation of the human rights of Native Americans. As Amnesty International outlines, the people of Standing Rock have rights: the right to express their dissenting opinion, a right to gather together in solidarity for a cause they believe in, and a right to not be harmed in the process. It should not take international human rights agency observers to point out these truths in our own backyard. And yet, none of these rights have been honored and many of their voices have gone unheard until just now, when the incidents of police brutality became too much to ignore.