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Standing Rock: Protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline

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Standing Rock: Protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline

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Sean Davis talks with activist Jessie Sponberg about his experiences at Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, which is still continuing and growing in support.


“Today, we are the Buffalo. You are the cattle,” a native protester at Standing Rock told reporter and fake minister Jessie Sponberg.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion project that, if finished, will carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day from western North Dakota to Illinois. According to William Brangham, a PBS NewsHour correspondent, “The pipeline’s original path crossed the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, a city that’s 90 percent white. But when concerns were raised about a potential oil spill there, the pipeline was rerouted south to go under the river right next to the Standing Rock Reservation.”

Energy Transfer says the pipeline means infusing millions of dollars into local economies and creating 8,000 to 12,000 temporary construction jobs, but the Lakota and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes see the pipeline as not only a major environmental and cultural threat, but another of a long line of affronts by the U.S. government.

Jessie Sponberg, a Portland activist and community leader, felt he needed to do what he could to help the native population, so he jumped on a train with a homemade press pass, his phone and laptop, and little else. He arrived in Minot, North Dakota, at 1:00 a.m. in the morning with fellow activist Sara Long. They ended up unrolling their sleeping bags and staying overnight in a construction site. The next day, Jessie says he noticed the general anti-native attitude of many of the area’s residents. He stopped at a McDonald’s with his laptop, phone, and press pass visible and people would come up to him to give their unsolicited opinions on the matter. One elderly lady told him that if the Indians want to have an opinion on the happenings of the land, they need to stop taking money from the U.S. government. Another person told Jessie, “We build them houses and they tear down the bathroom walls so their horses can drink out of the bathtubs.”

When Jessie finally arrived at the protest site, he says there were tribal flags, horses, approximately fifty cars, three tepees, and a few hundred people; but when he left twenty-four hours later, the size had more than doubled. With the strong winds, small tents, even staked down, stand a chance, but according to a recent AP article in the Minot Daily News, the tribes are here to stay and will start a school and cafeteria for the protesters and their families.

The grass grows up to your hips, you see nothing but the land in every direction as far as you can see, and it gets incredibly cold out there; but being out there, Jessie tells me, you cannot ignore the history. The Lakota were the biggest players in The Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, or as the natives call it, The Battle of the Greasy Grass. This was a battle where the U.S. forces overestimated their abilities and lost in a very decisive way. The battle ending with Lt. Colonel George Armstrong being knocked from his horse by a native named Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a wife who fought next to her husband in the battle. In the end, Crazy Horse and Chief Gall annihilated The U.S. 7th Cavalry, a force of 700 men. Custer, two of his brothers, a nephew, and his brother-in-law were killed as well as 263 other men.

The native protesters are suspicious of all outsiders, but Jessie won the confidence of those he spoke to. One native explained that this protest was not only about the potential poisoning of their water supply, but the anger still felt by the native tribes for a history of how the U.S. government treated them. This man, who preferred to go by the name Savege, said, “The way the U.S. government made the native people sedentary was to replace our buffalo with cattle. Cattle need to be fed, watered, looked after. Buffalo run and don’t need to be taken care of. Today, we are the buffalo. You are the cattle.”

When asked what were the takeaways from his visit, Jessie says, “It’s not a party out there. If you go out there and you’re not contributing, you’re a wasted resource.” He went on to say that this battle is worth fighting. “If we lose, the more things like this will happen because we lost.” And when asked if he’d go again, Jessie said of course he would, but not as a journalist. “They needed one at the time to help get the message heard. If I go back this time, it will be for a different reason. For all our future generations, we are the ancestors and we need to show them that there are things worth fighting for.”

If you’d like to follow Jessie Sponberg, check out his Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/ozone2016




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Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War and a Purple Heart recipient from the Iraq War veteran. His latest stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various magazines and media sources such as 2020*: The Year of the Asterisk (University of Hell Press), HUMAN the Movie, the international fashion magazine Flaunt, the TED Talk book The Misfit's Manifesto, and much more. For more of Sean's writings and illustrations go to seandaviswriter.com.