At North Hennepin Community College’s American Indian Community Day, keynote speaker Dana Yellow Fat, a member of the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribal Council, spoke about his experience opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In his speech, he noted that he feared the line could poison the area’s drinking water.
“Back before I was elected, we started hearing grumblings and rumors about this pipeline, this company that wanted to make their way across our treaty land,” Yellow Fat said.
The previous council had told Dakota Access LLC it did not want the pipeline on their land, Yellow Fat said. Council members asked to meet with Dakota Access leadership, and the company stopped communicating with the council, he said.
Later, after it became clear that Dakota Access was going to move forward with the project and construction, Yellow Fat was approached by community members who asked him to help set up a prayer camp to block pipeline construction in Cannonball, North Dakota.
“That was the first day that Sacred Stone Camp was set up, which [we thought would be] the camp [emphasis added],” he said.
“Prayers were said every day, the camp would grow, the camp would shrink,” Yellow Fat added. “Late July, the oil company started making a move.”
When he heard that the company was trying to bring construction equipment on the site, he and his wife mobilized as many people as they could.
“I got out there, and there was already a line of state patrol officers,” Yellow Fat said. “People went to jail right away. The fight was on from that day forward.”
Early in the protest, the police officers on-site were not in military-style gear, Yellow Fat said.
“We prayed, and we sang and we danced, and we asked the police officers protecting this big company to do the same, because I was sure a lot of them didn’t agree with having to be there to protect an oil company that could potentially poison the drinking water for millions of people, but it was their job,” he said. “In the beginning, we made friends with a lot of them. We talked to them, and a lot of them said, ‘If I wasn’t working I’d be standing with you.’”
On Aug. 12, Dakota Access was able to get their equipment around the protesters, Yellow Fat said.
“That date will stick in my mind forever,” he said.
A larger police force wearing riot gear arrived on the site.
“Two elderly women, both in their late 60s, crossed that police line to try to stop that machinery,” Yellow Fat said. “I wanted to protect those women, me and Chairman [Dave Archambault II]. So, we went to go get them back to our side. I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t want anybody to get hurt. So, we went to protect them, and we both got arrested,” Yellow Fat said.
After the pair were arrested, Yellow Fat’s wife began more aggressively recruiting folks to come to the site.
“My wife put the word out that we need help, now they’re arresting our leaders,” he said. “By that weekend we had 5,000 people there.”
This group was now too large to stay at the Sacred Stone camp, so they moved to a different spot on the river. When translated into English, the name of the new camp was “The Seven Fires of the Lakota,” because the “seven council fires of the Lakota had never met in such a fashion since 1876. If you can think about that, the last time that the seven council fires met was right before the death of General George Armstrong Custer,” Yellow Fat said.
Yellow Fat was at times afraid for his life at the camp, and he worried about the threat of a larger violent struggle, he said.
“It was a fear that I would soon realize, I would soon see come true, because at the best estimates we had anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 people in that camp, in those two camps,” Yellow Fat said. “And, a lot of them were ready to fight, ready to stop this by any means necessary.
“I was at a lot of meetings that I won’t go into any great detail about, but just in the middle of the night a lot of the leadership would meet, and it was scary too,” he added. “You think, what does the U.S. Army do in the desert when they get a lot of leaders meeting someplace? There’s a drone strike.
“We had drones covering us constantly,” Yellow Fat added.
Police began using less-than-lethal weapons on protesters, including “mace, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, sound cannons,” Yellow Fat said.
Yellow Fat said he was both maced and shot while at the camp.
More than 800 people were arrested during the confrontation, Yellow Fat said.
Staying at the camp taught Yellow Fat’s children how to fend for themselves and learn new life skills, he said.
Yellow Fat said his father was both a tribal council member and an active member of the American Indian Movement after coming back from the Vietnam War. As a result, the threat of violence was constant, he said.
“Some of my earliest memories are – you know, I was about 5 or 6 years old – and driving to different places with my dad and actually riding shotgun,” he said. “You hear the term ‘riding shotgun.’ I was 4 years old. My dad taught me how to use a rifle … it was too much, too much for me, so they armed me with a handgun,” he said.
“I think back at it. You know as a kid you make a game out of everything, but [those were] really dangerous times for our people,” Yellow Fat added. “And now it seems that that target that was placed on my father’s back at that time has transferred to me.”
The fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline is currently in the legal system, Yellow Fat said.
“I’m always hopeful. I have to stay optimistic on whatever we do,” he said.
Contact Kevin Miller at [email protected]