With treaty claim, pipeline protesters move to private land

CANNON BALL, N.D. – The long-running dispute over the Dakota Access oil pipeline expanded to private land recently purchased by the pipeline builders, with protesters who say the area rightfully belongs to Native Americans setting up camp and vowing to stay put until the project is stopped.

The protesters erected tents and teepees on the property along the pipeline route over the weekend. The local sheriff’s office called it trespassing, but said it wouldn’t immediately remove the more than 100 people because it didn’t have the manpower.

“We can’t right now,” Morton County sheriff’s spokeswoman Donnell Preskey told The Associated Press.

The land is owned by pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners, which bought it last month from a rancher for an undisclosed price. The Texas-based company did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday.

The protesters, many of whom are Native Americans who have been demonstrating against the four-state pipeline for months, said in a statement Sunday that the land is theirs by an 1851 treaty and they won’t leave until the pipeline is stopped.

“We never ceded this land,” Joye Braun, a protest organizer said in a statement.

The $3.8 billion pipeline, most of which has been completed, crosses through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. Opponents worry about potential effects on drinking water on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation and farther downstream on the Missouri River, as well as destruction of cultural artifacts, including burial sites.

On Monday, dozens of people were milling around the site, some cooking over campfires.

Loren Bagola, who joined the protest from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, said the demonstrators want to remain peaceful.

“We are here to pray for our ancestors that were desecrated and pray the pipeline people will find an alternative,” he said. “We pray for their workers too. We pray for police officers and their families. We all have one thing in common: We want clean drinking water.”

But Vanessa Dundon, a Navajo from Whitecone, Arizona, said the protesters were ready to use the hay bales and large logs stacked at the site to block the adjacent highway.

The ranch purchased by the company last month is more than a century old and is within a half-mile of a larger encampment on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ land where the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of others have gathered in protest.

Protesters do not have a federal permit to be on the corps’ land, but the agency said it wouldn’t evict them due to free speech reasons. Authorities have criticized that decision, saying the site has been a launching point for protests at construction sites in the area.

In September, protesters and private security clashed after construction crews removed topsoil on the ranch. The incident came one day after the Standing Rock Sioux filed court papers saying it found several sites of “significant cultural and historic value” along the pipeline’s path.

Authorities said four security guards and two guard dogs were injured; the tribe says protesters reported that six people had been bitten by security dogs, and at least 30 people were pepper-sprayed.

More than 260 people have been arrested since demonstrations began in August, nearly half of whom were arrested over the weekend during a large protest at a pipeline construction site.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has asked the company to explain its purchase of the ranch and how it complies with the state’s Depression-era anti-corporate farming law.

North Dakota law generally bars corporations from owning agricultural land unless the property is controlled by a farm family, though there are some exceptions.

The company said in a letter delivered to Stenehjem’s office Monday that it purchased the land “in an effort to enhance safety of its workers.” The company said it would transfer ownership of the land or use it “for some other use” that complies with state law after the pipeline is built.