The weather was freezing at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests turned violent on November 20, 2016. Native Americans opposed the 1,200-mile oil pipeline on the grounds that it violated the rights of the tribe and passed through Lake Oahe, a sacred burial site and major source of drinking water. This fall marks the second anniversary of the bloody incident, which is remembered as Backwater Sunday.
“Look out!” someone shouts as fiery tear gas canisters streak through the midnight sky. The cell phone video careens sharply as images of smoke and military vehicles come into view. In the darkness, war whoops and drums can be heard along with chants, “We are not leaving … we are not leaving!” The camera pans to a wooden bridge blocked by strands of razor wire meant to stop tribal members from crossing.
“That was my first day at the camp,” says Cherokee Greg Urquhart, the Washington State University doctoral student who filmed the scene. “I drove 16 hours with the intention of only bringing supplies and prayer to the water protectors. When I arrived, I walked down to see the barricade on Backwater Bridge, and just as I got there, more than a dozen different law enforcement agencies started firing pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets. They also turned on the LRAD—long-range acoustic device that hurts your eardrums.
“I had teargas training in the army, so I ran in to help people flush their eyes and gargle to spit out the chemicals and walked them to the medic station.
“No one was armed on the tribal side—it was noncompliance, a peaceful protest.,” he says. “Everyone was standing around the bridge praying and singing with their hands in the air—Native, Jewish, Christian. We were on sovereign tribal territory and we weren’t required to leave.
Throughout the evening, Urquhart saw head injuries and bleeding. “Most trauma came from a water cannon that knocked people over and ripped their skin off—and rubber bullets which caused brain damage,” he says. “The police also used flashbang or concussion grenades. They blocked the bridge on the tribal side, which they had no jurisdiction to do, and we couldn’t get an ambulance into the main town.
“Eventually, around midnight, law enforcement had used up everything except the fire hose, which continued till 2 or 3 a.m.,” he says. “It was freezing temperatures and people were getting hypothermia, so we lit one fire to help warm them. The papers said we lit fires to start anarchy, but in reality, the teargas canisters started most of the grass fires.
“Being a future psychologist, I try to be impartial and see it from different angles,” Urquhart says. “I was once a Sheriff’s cadet and on a law enforcement riot response team. I was also on the water protector side, so I feel I have a good background to judge. But I can hardly justify any of the police actions that night.
“The next morning, we went up and took a knee on the bridge and held prayers for all the injured, as well as for the police. This time, they didn’t bother us. Many protesters were sent to the hospital and that night, the whole camp was praying and mourning.
“I’ve never seen such extremes in my life,” he says. “Extreme hostile intent on one side, while in camp it was like a family. People were walking in the blizzard asking if you needed food or to come to their tent to get warm. I’ve never experienced the love that was shown there anywhere else in my life on such a large scale.
“What I loved most about it is that was prayer-based—spiritual. The atheists would pray for good will. Christians prayed to Jesus Christ. Muslims, Jews, we all got along; it was amazing to see that amount of peace and unity. It was such a beautiful thing.
Urquhart says that, in the end, some good has come out of the conflict.
“It inspired different Native peoples to come together and have greater awareness of the need to protect Mother Earth,” he says. “Also, the movement has spread to hundreds of different sites across the country making it more difficult to force small farmers off their land or for companies to push through with impunity.
“I think back now and it seems so crazy. Minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit on the bridge. Driving through blizzards 16 hours straight to get back to Pullman. It was such an intense time.”
Read about Greg Urquhart’s work with Native American veterans who face PTSD.