By Caroline Grueskin
The Dickinson Press
BISMARCK—Pipeline protests on Sunday centered around burial grounds near Cannon Ball and in Bismarck.
Around midday, one group of protesters crossed a creek near the main Oceti Sakowin camp in an effort to pray on a hill they say contains sacred burial grounds. Another group brought the message to the Fairview Cemetery in Bismarck, with calls of “How would you like it if we dug up your ancestors?”
Gravesites have been at issue since early in the pipeline protests. Most notably, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has said that there are gravesites along the path of the pipeline in an area on Cannonball Ranch near the reservation. The state has maintained there are no gravesites there, but it was, nonetheless, the site of a major confrontation between protesters and Dakota Access private security with guard dogs in September.
More recently, a reputed burial site atop a hill called Turtle Island across from the main camp has become a flashpoint between protesters and police, with protesters saying that law enforcement is desecrating the site by patrolling from it. Protests were staged there Wednesday and Sunday.
“It is a sacred site. It is a burial site, and the desecration is overwhelming,” said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone Camp and Standing Rock historian. “They want to go up there and pray because the police have been stomping all over that area.”
Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Keller said he was not familiar with any gravesites on the hill or discussions between law enforcement and protesters about them.
Keller said that about 100 people crossed the creek from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday using kayaks, canoes and swimming. Protesters created barricades at the bottom of the bluff and began climbing the hill toward law enforcement, who gathered at the top. Police ordered protesters to stand down and sprayed them with tear gas and pepper spray as they neared officers, he said.
“It was used as people encroached up. That kept ’em from moving forward,” he said of the chemicals. He said most of the protesters crossed back to the camp side by 4 p.m.
Video posted by the news site Unicorn Riot shows dozens of people sitting on the hill, grabbing at their faces in the clouds of tear gas.
Jennifer Cook, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, is one of four legal observers the group recently sent to observe police actions at the protests. Two of her colleagues observed the hours-long confrontation, and she was there for the latter part.
“When you use tactics like this from the law enforcement perspective, the Ferguson report from the (Department of Justice) states that the law enforcement tactics used here against DAPL protesters are the exact kind of tactics that instigated the riots … that leads to tension and anger,” she said. “I didn’t witness any violence. The aggressive action that I witnessed was from law enforcement.”
Cook said she believed people’s intent was to go atop the hill and pray, “not to have an encounter with law enforcement.” She said early on in the day her other legal observers saw a police boat splash water on the protesters in an apparent “antagonization tactic.”
On Friday, the ACLU called on DOJ to investigate potential constitutional rights violations against protesters by the police.
Keller said Morton County has been asked by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the protesters off the hill. He said that, despite word over the weekend that the corps had rescinded its request, he had received no such notice. A spokeswoman for the corps did not return requests for comment Monday.
He contended that an increase in pepper spray use was the result of protester’s actions, including climbing up the hill, starting a small fire and holding up mirrors, which he said were being used to reflect light in officers’ eyes.
One person allegedly ferrying people by kayak was arrested on misdemeanor charges of trespass, obstructing government functions and preventing arrest, Keller said.
At the same time on Sunday, at the Fairview Cemetery in Bismarck, about 40 people congregated for about an hour, according to city police.
A live video posted by Unicorn Riot shows people calling into megaphones, “How would you like it if we dug up your ancestors?”
“Morton County, where is your compassion for the graves of our ancestors?” a protester asked.
Bismarck Police blocked off part of Century Avenue during the mid-morning protest. The protesters left behind six red shovels sticking up from the dirt before leaving voluntarily. No one was arrested.