Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco
Monday 21 November 2016 05.08 GMT Last modified on Monday 21 November 2016 18.29 GMT
Law enforcement officials in North Dakota have deployed tear gas and water hoses against hundreds of activists protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Protesters also reported being hit with rubber bullets and percussion grenades on a bridge just north of the encampments established by indigenous and environmental activists in opposition to the controversial pipeline.
“They were attacked with water cannons,” said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Standing Rock Sioux tribe member and founder of the Sacred Stone camp. “It is 23 degrees [-5 °C] out there with mace, rubber bullets, pepper spray, etc. They are being trapped and attacked. Pray for my people.”
The Morton County Sheriffs Department described the incident as an “ongoing riot” and described the protestors as “very aggressive”. A spokesman for the sheriffs department said that law enforcement was spraying water because protesters were lighting fires on and around the bridge.
One person was arrested, according to the sheriffs department .
“As medical professionals, we are concerned for the real risk of loss of life due to severe hypothermia under these conditions,” the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council said in a statement posted on Facebook.
One hundred sixty-seven people were injured and seven were taken to the hospital, according to Jade Begay, a spokeswoman for the Indigenous Environmental Network.
The incident is the latest violent clash between the unarmed anti-pipeline activists, who call themselves “water protectors”, and a highly militarized police force. More than 400 activists have been arrested since the protests began, and law enforcement has deployed pepper spray, teargas, rubber bullets, Tasers, sound weapons, and other “less-than-lethal” weapons.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the first of several “spiritual camps” on the banks of the Missouri River in April. The tribe fears that the pipeline, which is planned to cross under the river less than a mile from the Standing Rock Reservation, will threaten their water source and argue that construction has already disturbed sacred burial grounds.
Pipeline construction is almost completed in North Dakota, but the company building it, Energy Transfer Partners, still lacks a final permit to drill under the river. On Tuesday, 15 November, the company went to court seeking to have a judge force the government to allow it to begin drilling immediately.
Sunday’s standoff began around 6pm local time, when a group of about 100 protesters attempted to clear two burned trucks that were forming a barricade on the bridge, which is on the most direct route from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to Bismarck, North Dakota – the closest large city. The trucks have been in place for several weeks, and law enforcement has erected a barricade behind them, forcing all traffic to take an approximately 20-mile detour.
“The purpose of this action was to do something to remove that barricade because it’s dangerous,” said Begay, a Tesuque Pueblo and Diné who has been at the Standing Rock encampments since September. “That barricade poses a danger not just to everyone at the camp, but also to Cannon Ball and other communities that are south.”
Begay said that activists did light two bonfires to keep people warm and make soup and tea. Other fires were sparked by law enforcement weapons, she added.
Protesters rallying against the Dakota Access Pipeline clash with police on a bridge over the Missouri River Photograph: Morton County Sheriffs Department
“They’re using that barricade as an excuse for us not to be able to lawfully protest,” said Frank Archambault, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe from Little Eagle, South Dakota. “We got word that the drill is now on the pad so tensions are high right now.”
The activists successfully moved one of the trucks before law enforcement responded with tear gas, water cannons, and other weapons, Begay said.
The violence comes at a difficult time for indigenous activists at the camps, said Archambault.
“We have a very harsh day coming up now,” he said. “In my family we never celebrated Thanksgiving. It was always a day of mourning for the day that genocide began on this continent. This all just goes to prove what we’re talking about.”