The North Dakota sky over Standing Rock beats almost continuously with the pulse of propeller blades. The tempo is changed by the number of helicopters, planes, and drones; speeding and slowing the beat in a sinister arrhythmia, taunting the Water Protectors below. Each thump of the displaced air reminds Water Protects they are being watched, followed, tracked, and attacked – their civil and human rights stripped – with the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Water Protectors took up residence in camps in and near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to demonstrate and attempt to prevent the creation of the Bakken Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The oil pipeline is slated to go under the Missouri River, just 2,400 feet upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Missouri River is the main water source for the reservation and a food source for its residents.
Protector efforts to thwart the development of the pipeline has been met with violence and surveillance by police. In order to track the Water Protectors, police and Energy Transfer Partners use helicopters, planes, and drones to photograph, monitor and harass. In some cases, the helicopters are used for more direct action against Water Protectors.
This nine-part series will illuminate the FAA’s complacency and the role the FAA’s concession played in the violence against Water Protectors. A listing of the other eight articles is at the bottom of this article.
In an effort to block the pipeline, the Water Protectors set up camp on Energy Transfer Partners’ property – directly in the proposed path of the pipe on October 23, 2016. On October 28, a monsoon of police swept over the camp, destroying personal property, impounding cars, effecting over 140 arrests and pushing the residents south along Highway 1806, back to Oceti Sakowin camp. The crowd pushed against the police, slowing their progress and attempting to stop them from taking the camp.
Riders on horseback, Spirit Riders, galloped forward in an attempt to protect the crowd and slow the police. They immediately became targets of police violence and their effort to slow the progress of police was diminished when the police began to project concussion grenades at the horses.
The Spirit Riders retreated and formulated a new plan to boost morale – send the buffalo.
Buffalo hold a special place in Lakota culture. Before colonization, they were a primary food source for the Lakota and their society’s welfare was tied to the buffalo. They are symbols of strength, self-sacrifice, divinity, and unity.
Between Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Ground was a sea of brown – the last of the mega fauna – buffalo; hundreds of them. They were a private herd, grazing nearby.
Hours into the raid, the police had made it most of the way through the Sacred Ground Camp. The Water Protectors were heart broken. Leaders, elders, press, and children had been arrested. Armored police vehicles had used sonic weapons on the crowd. Pepper spray was free flowing. Tear gas had injured hundreds. A sweat lodge (a traditional religious building) had been destroyed and the people praying inside arrested. A prayer circle was arrested. Women weeping in prayer on the burial grounds of their ancestors were arrested.
When the crowd had been pushed almost all the way to the edge of Sacred Ground Camp, the crowd was in total dismay; even the deaf could hear the hearts breaking. Waves of despair washed over the Water Protectors as they watched their homes be ripped apart, their property cut into pieces, and the tractors came.
The hills to the east began to change color, their golden hew turning dark brown. The sound of police commands and screaming was drowned out by cheers and the sound of thunderous hooves. Water Protectors pointed and jumped up and down.
The buffalo were running. The buffalo were running toward the Water Protectors, at the police.
From above, the yellow helicopter left their surveillance and sped across the burial grounds, across the road where hundreds of Water Protectors and police stood embattled, zoomed over Sacred Ground Camp and directly at the buffalo.
The helicopter, flying at a maximum 100 feet above the buffalo, attempting to corral the buffalo – splitting the herd. Two-thirds of the buffalo went north and a third returned south, from where they came.
The helicopter chased the northern herd, shooing them far from the sight of the Water Protectors and returned to its task of surveillancing the Water Protectors.
Not long after its return, the small southern herd ran across the hill again – raising cheers from the crowd. As the small herd went over the hill, small specks appeared over the ridges behind them.
The Spirit Riders were riding over the hills, and moving the buffalo.
Again, the helicopter flew low over the crowds of people to get in position to scare the buffalo away. The riders continued to move the buffalo forward. The buffalo were pushed by the helicopter and left north, behind a hill and out of sight.
As soon as the buffalo were gone, police on ATVs raced across the hills toward the Spirit Riders. The helicopter turned from the north and headed south, following the ATVs in pursuit of the Spirit Riders.
Elders screamed to the crowd to help the riders but they were hundreds of yards from the Water Protectors, past a barbed wire fence and behind a line of police. They were on their own.
The Spirit Riders split into two groups.
The ATVs chased down one group of Spirit Riders – shooting the horses and the riders with rubber bullets – injuring both.
The helicopter chased the other group. The riders ran their horses as fast as they could, but they were no match for the speed of the helicopter. The helicopter dropped elevation over and over again, buzzing and hovering above the Water Protectors at 10-15 feet above their heads in an attempt to spook the horses or dismount the riders.
Video footage of the buffalo run spread across the internet, in it documentation of the helicopter pursuits of the buffalo and its low elevation flying over the crowd.
Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 91.119 of the General Operating and Flight Rules requires the helicopter to fly at least 500 feet above non-congested areas and 2,000 feet above congested areas.
The Water Protector Camps had a higher population than the majority of the cities in North Dakota, sometimes reaching 10,000 residents. The greater population density and population numbers makes the Water Protector camps congested if any city in North Dakota is considered congested.
Even though impartial evidence swirled around the internet, even though the stories of the helicopter are well known – the yellow helicopter continued flying.
Part 1 – The Buffalo
Part 2 – Drone War
Part 3 – Water Cannon Drone Take Down
Part 4 – The Low Intensity Conflict Methods
Part 5 – False Tag
Part 6 – No Fly, No See
Part 7 – Who is a Real Journalist?
Part 8 – International Air
Part 9 – The FAA’s Role
LaRae Meadows is a freelance writer, who has been embedded at Standing Rock.