Years after Standing Rock, scars of protest remain

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For more than a year between 2016 and 2017, thousands of people crowded into three protests camps in North Dakota. Ostensibly, they were there to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The reality was more complex, bringing together environmentalists, Native American activists, members of Black Lives Matter and sympathetic citizens. Area residents saw it all up close: both the rituals and prayer, and the blocking of roads and violence. Today, the camp is gone but the scars remain.

Many people focus on the cost to Energy Transfer Partners, (ETP), the company building the pipeline. According to a study by the University of Colorado, the protests cost ETP and other firms with ownership stakes in the project no less than $7.5 billion. The banks that financed the project lost an additional $4.4 billion through account closures.

But the true costs of the protests are more than dollars.

“It will take a generation to work past the effects of this,” says Julie R. Neidlinger, a writer from Bismarck. Neidlinger’s book, “Blue Like a River,” gives voice to the local perspectives that she believes were drowned out.

She is open about how the protest harmed the relationship between Standing Rock and the communities of Bismarck and Mandan. Even finding the right words to describe the situation is difficult, since many tribal members live in these cities. Before the protests, the tribe was a neighbor. During the protests, many stories depicted the area as two sides pitted against each other.

Said McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson, “The globe watched a heroic struggle on their computers, while North Dakotans lived through a protracted siege.”

No story is ever as simple as it first seems. Neidlinger collected dozens of interviews with police officers, tribal members and residents.

The view of the protests that most of America saw focused on the David and Goliath story of the plucky protesters standing up to the faceless corporation. This narrative leaves out the story of the broader community, which was caught up in the protests whether they wished to be or not.

“The way it was painted, that it was white racists against natives, was completely inaccurate,” Neidlinger said, explaining that other groups co-opted the movement to push for a carbon-free energy future, changes in the relationship between tribal and federal governments, and simple fundraising.

Black Lives Matter chapters and environmental groups saw themselves as allied with the camp, even as their presence muddied the goals of the protest.

Instead of just resisting a pipeline, the camp was seen as a stand against a range of injustices — everything from treaty rights to police violence.

On the other side, law enforcement resources were pushed to their limits. The community rallied to support them, organizing donations of meals and other supplies. That community effort never made headlines.

“We wanted to show support for our law enforcement when we certainly weren’t getting much from outside the state,” Neidlinger said, expressing frustration with the narrative that focused more on dramatic pictures taken in the camps rather than the quiet work of Girl Scouts and others supporting police.

In her book, Neidlinger describes her own conflicted reaction to the news that ETP had sued environmental organizations, seeking to recover damages. Generally ambivalent toward the energy industry, she found herself oddly pleased at the prospect that someone was pushing back.

“I’m no fan of lawsuits, but that felt like the only thing that would even possibly address the things we were frustrated about here,” she said. “You have to keep in mind, we saw all these protesters get their charges dropped, get a slap on the wrist. We saw people get rich and continue to get rich. We were seeing all this and our state was footing $34 million in costs.”

So far, the ETP lawsuit has been unsuccessful. The company was forced to swallow its losses, just as the state of North Dakota was forced to swallow the costs of law enforcement.

Neidlinger hopes her book will encourage people to consider how events in the news affect real people.

“It’s important that people think about the places where events take place, not just the events themselves,” she said. “When we see events on the news, we want to say, ‘There’s a bad guy, there’s a good guy.’ (Instead,) we need to think about the community all this is happening in.”

Erin Mundahl writes for

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