Nebraskans involved in different ways in Dakota Access controversy

Dec. 6, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

People gather at Nebraska's State Capitol to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it won’t permit the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. But between court battles and the incoming Trump administration, that may not be the final word. Nebraskans have strong connections to the controversy on different sides of the issue.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about three dozen people gathered on the steps of Nebraska’s State Capitol. The gathering was about 600 miles away from the spot near the Missouri River where thousands of people have camped out for months, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. But demonstrator Mike Funk of Lincoln said he feels a connection.

“The Missouri River provides drinking water for a lot of people in the United States. And if that gets oil spilled in it -- which every pipeline will eventually leak, it’s just a matter of when and where – it’s going to have a massive effect for water quality for millions of people,” Funk said.

Adrienne Tyrell and Mike Funk protest at the Nebraska Capitol. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Supporters of the pipeline, which would be buried 36 feet below the bottom of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, say it would be safe. But fears the pipeline threatens the water supply, promotes climate change, and tramples Native American sacred places, are high on the list of protesters’ concerns.

The protests in North Dakota have produced some tense confrontations between demonstrators and police. Adrienne Tyrell of North Bend, Nebraska, said she’s donated money and helped spread word about the demonstrations to friends via social media. And she says what she’s seen about confrontations between protestors and police, like one last month where police used water, teargas and rubber bullets, adds to her opposition to the pipeline.

“It’s pretty horrifying to see some of the images that are produced of the injuries like, I can’t even imagine just sitting there not really doing anything destructive and being violently attacked by the police who are supposed to protect you,” Tyrell said. “It kind of makes me upset to see, and I think other young people are upset as well. I think other people in general are upset about it.”

Maxine Herr, spokeswoman for the Morton County, North Dakota Sheriff’s office, says many demonstrators are prayerful and peaceful. But she says a video that went viral on social media, of law enforcement spraying protesters with water during a confrontation on a highway overpass, failed to show how aggressive some of the protesters were being.

“They’re lighting fires around the bridge; they’re flanking our officers on both sides. They were a tremendous threat. And our officers need to protect themselves. I think we can say they used incredible restraint in how they protected themselves,” Herr said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts listens to questions about the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Under an interstate agreement, Nebraska sent two groups of state troopers to North Dakota to help law enforcement there in October and November. Gov. Pete Ricketts says the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, has followed the proper legal process.

“What’s not proper are the way the protesters are trespassing on private property, blocking public access, burning cars, throwing rocks and bottles. Those are the things that are outside the law,” Ricketts said, adding, “That’s why it’s important that we have some public safety there.”

The confrontations brought back family memories of tensions between Native Americans and whites for demonstrator Jason Shald, originally from Gordon, Nebraska, near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Jason Shald (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Shald’s dad owned a grocery store there, and he says he grew up most of his life being “just another white guy.” But when members of the American Indian Movement marched on Gordon in the early 1970s to protest a Native American’s death there, and one of his father’s employees suggested defending the store with guns, Schald heard a different message.

“I remember my dad looking at him and telling him, ‘Hey, some of those people I’m related to.’”

It turns out Shald’s great grandmother was a midwife who lived between Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and according to family stories, tended to some of the wounded from the massacre there in 1890. Schald says he has to be optimistic further confrontations over the pipeline can be avoided.

Mechelle Sky Walker (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Meanwhile, some protestors camped out in North Dakota say they’re not going anywhere. Mechelle Sky Walker, a member of the Omaha tribe who organized the Capitol demonstration, has delivered supplies several times to the encampment. The Army Corps and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple have said the demonstrators should leave. Energy Transfer Partners argues the Army Corps gave it permission to cross the river in July, and says it intends to complete the pipeline without rerouting it.

Here's a short video from Inside Energy on the pipeline and the protests

Sky Walker says she does not expect people who stay at the encampment to be deterred by the harsh North Dakota winter.

“Because we’ve been on reservations so long, and because we’ve been oppressed, we’ve got a tougher skin than you think. We can handle this,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nebraska state troopers have returned home, but Gov. Pete Ricketts says they could be sent back to North Dakota again.

“We don’t have any plans for more troopers to go to North Dakota. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out,” he said.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said protestors could now return home, and he called on President-elect Donald Trump to support the Obama administration’s decision. But Ricketts called the decision to block the pipeline “another example of how various agencies have circumvented the public process to push President Obama’s agenda.” Ricketts added he looks forward to working with Trump – who’s supported the pipeline -- to roll back what he calls the “job-killing regulations put in place over the last eight years.”

Correction: Energy Transfer Partners says the pipeline would be 95-115 feet below the bottom of Lake Oahe, not the 36 feet indicated in the story.