Jack Schaaf, 60, has been keeping away from the grassy camp where thousands of Native Americans have joined the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight against an oil pipeline.
Where Native Americans see the camp as a scene of prayer and peaceful protests, Schaaf and other ranchers and residents in the conservative, overwhelmingly white countryside view the protests with a mix of frustration and fear, reflecting the deep cultural divides and racial attitudes in Indian country.
“You get 2,000, 3,000 natives together – is it safe?” Schaaf asked as he mowed the grass outside a home he and his son are building next to a cornfield, about 10 miles north of the camp.
On Sept. 9, the federal government temporarily blocked construction of a crucial section of the 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cross ranchers’ fields and a river just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. But protests have continued, and there are roughly 2,000 representatives from different tribes and environmentalists still active at the protest site.
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Schaaf said he had no problem with people standing up for a cause, but he was tired of navigating a police checkpoint if he wanted to drive into Mandan for a pizza. He complained that closings at Lake Oahe had prevented him from boating. And he said the protesters had no right to march on a public highway. “I think it’s totally wrong,” he said. “If they want to protest, they should be in the ditch.”
This has gone on long enough. The governor needs to show some backbone.
Jim Henes of Bismarck, North Dakota
Other residents have complained to the Morton County sheriff that out-of-state cars were playing chicken with them on the two-lane rural Highway 1806, which leads to the camp. They say strangers have walked onto their property to videotape them or have stolen hay from their pastures. One rancher said he was driving his tractor out to his field when a group of masked men on a rural county road tried to approach him.
“They have been somewhat threatened by this,” said Bruce Strinden, a Morton County commissioner and part-time rancher who raises horses and chickens. “These ranchers, it’s their livelihood. If somebody would come and set fire to their hay reserves and come and cut their fences and cause their livestock to get loose, that causes real problems.”
White residents who live near the camp, pausing their gardening or fence-mending to chat, said they did not want to give their names because they were worried about their safety. Sheriff’s officers have been escorting the local school bus. National Guard troops are on duty at a traffic checkpoint that alerts passing drivers to the slower speed limits by the camp and the possibility of marchers on the road.
They don’t know that we’re hard workers. We don’t all drink. We have jobs. We have to support our families.
Jana Gipp, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux
Tribal members say the camp and protests pose no threat to anyone.
On a stroll through the camp, visitors meet young men on horseback, children playing in the grass and grandparents in camping chairs, some of whom have traveled from as far as California, Florida and New York.
But there appear to be few faces from neighboring towns like Mandan and St. Anthony. Residents from Morton County – population 30,000, about 92 percent white – often pass by the camp, cellphone cameras out. Few make the turnoff to head in.
“We don’t know our neighbors,” said Jana Gipp, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux who lives on 130 acres along the Missouri River here. “They don’t know that we’re hard workers. We don’t all drink. We have jobs. We have to support our families.”
The main camp sits on federal land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and is run by a group of volunteers and members from the Standing Rock Sioux. People line up for communal breakfasts, dance and sing around campfires and march a mile up the highway to the privately owned ranch land where construction on the pipeline has halted for the moment.
Tribal officials say they have applied for a camping permit from the corps, but law enforcement officials say they do not appear to have one. The corps did not respond to emails asking about the legality or status of the camp. On Tuesday, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company developing the pipeline, sent a memo to employees saying it is committed to the project.
There are many ties between Indian and non-Indian residents here. Every weekend, people drive down to the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to gamble and see concerts. Plenty of friendships straddle reservation boundaries.
But each side views the protests through starkly different prisms.
Last month, Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier of Morton County warned that his officers had been threatened with pipe bombs. Tribal leaders said that was a misinterpretation of a call for demonstrators to “load up their pipes” – their ceremonial chanupa pipes.
Last week, when protests flared into violence at a construction site for the Dakota Access Pipeline, many white residents blamed protesters for breaking down a fence, rushing onto privately owned land and attacking pipeline contractors. But opponents of the project said the marchers had been provoked when the pipeline company dug through land that tribal members say is a sacred cultural and burial ground. They condemned the pipeline company for hiring private security guards whose dogs they say bit several people.
Saturday afternoon, Jim and LaVonne Henes and three friends from Bismarck, N.D., were eating lunch at a restaurant in the tiny farm community of St. Anthony on their way to a concert by the rocker George Thorogood at the Prairie Knights casino. They had originally planned to camp there over the weekend, but as tensions and the police presence rose in recent days, they decided just to head home after the concert.
“I didn’t feel safe,” LaVonne Henes, 55, said.
Jim Henes echoed a growing impatience with the large-scale protests, now entering their second month. (Smaller numbers have been camped out since April.)
“The feeling’s getting to be that the governor hasn’t done enough,” he said. “They’re on corps land, which they’re not supposed to be on. This has gone on long enough. The governor needs to show some backbone.”
With work stopped for the moment, it is unclear how many people will stay at the camp, and for how long, given the approach of North Dakota’s cutting winter. The sheriff and other public officials have already started to talk about their hopes of a “peaceful endgame,” but people at the camp say they plan to stay.
Whatever happens, the Standing Rock Sioux, county residents and law enforcement agree on this: They will be here when the visiting protesters have left.
“I have to live here when everybody’s gone,” said David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux.
Strinden, the county commissioner, echoed the sentiment: “When this is all over, we’re still friends and neighbors.”