Leaked documents and public records reveal a troubling fusion of private security, public law enforcement, and corporate money in the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline.
One year ago today, on October 27, 2016, hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on a small resistance camp that stood directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, forcibly evicting residents and arresting 142 people — more than on any other day in the 11-month-long Standing Rock struggle. Seven people, all Native American, were slapped with rare federal charges, and additional cases stemming from the raid continue to move through the North Dakota legal system.
Although it was not the most violent confrontation between the pipeline resistance and law enforcement, no other incident better illustrates the collaboration between federal, local, and state police and private security in suppressing the NoDAPL movement, nor would any be as symbolic of the historic proportions of the native-led fight. A year later, two other pipeline fights — against Enbridge Line 3 and Keystone XL — are brewing nearby in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. As indigenous leaders in those fights stand again on treaty rights against the pipelines, the October 27 standoff and the eviction of Treaty Camp have become a roadmap for both water protectors and law enforcement as they prepare for battles to come.
The Intercept has obtained hours of police bodycam and aerial footage, as well as photographs, audio recordings, and a large set of incident reports describing police activities during the October 27 raid. That material, selections of which appear below, along with interviews with more than a dozen water protectors who were present that day, paints the most detailed picture yet of the most dramatic standoff between indigenous people and U.S. police forces in over four decades.
Drive north on Highway 1806 through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, cross the Cannonball River, and you enter unceded treaty territory — land indigenous people never agreed to relinquish.
Immediately north of the river begins federal land controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where the largest Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camp, known as Oceti Sakowin, was located for seven months beginning in August 2016. Just north of there, the Dakota Access Pipeline now crosses the highway. Energy Transfer Partners bought the property on either side of the road, known as Cannonball Ranch. The legality of its sale to ETP is questionable under a North Dakota law that blocks corporations from buying agricultural land. But North Dakota law aside, native historians say, that land should never have been for sale: It belongs to the Sioux. If the Fort Laramie treaties in 1851 and 1868 had been honored, the site would still be controlled by the Great Sioux Nation.
For water protectors, the fight against the pipeline was only the latest episode in two centuries of native resistance to U.S. government incursion into the northern Great Plains, part of a lineage that includes the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass, where indigenous people defeated the U.S. 7th Cavalry in defense of their treaty rights to South Dakota’s Black Hills; the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, where as many as 300 Lakota people were killed by U.S. soldiers; and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, where armed members of the American Indian Movement faced off with federal agents in protest of a corrupt local government and the U.S. government’s legacy of broken treaties.
This latest confrontation was not supposed to involve guns — the water protectors were mostly committed to unarmed opposition — but it did invoke that bloody history.
Law enforcement planned to evict the Treaty Camp on October 26, but a soupy fog descended on the hills. A small envoy of local, state, and federal officers drove toward the blockade that water protectors had erected on the highway to keep police out.
They were greeted by Mekasi Camp Horinek, a member of the Ponca tribe from Oklahoma, whose uncle Carter Camp helped organize the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973. He was joined by several other pipeline opponents.
The negotiators talked in circles, with Horinek and his companions returning repeatedly to the issue of the Fort Laramie treaties, which law enforcement repeatedly argued was not their jurisdiction.
“So is this about water and oil, or is this about 140 years?” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney replied, referring to the Great Sioux War, which ended with the U.S. government’s annexation of the sacred Black Hills.
“Everything. All of that. We’ve had enough. We’ve had enough,” one of the water protectors said.
As the conversation broke down, Horinek declared, “Highway 1806 is now a no-surrender line, and that camp is no retreat.”
“That’s your final word?” Laney asked.
“That’s the final word,” Horinek replied.
Reflecting on that day nearly a year later, Horinek explained that the experiences of native people 140 years ago are impossible to disentangle from the poverty and environmental contamination seen across Indian Country today.
To him, the October 27 raid was a visible reminder that the past is present. “I wanted the world to see this militarized force coming in like it’s the 1800s with their gatling guns and their advanced weaponry,” he told The Intercept. “I wanted pictures of them slashing those teepees; I wanted pictures of them pulling open those teepees and arresting families.”
In the weeks preceding the founding of the Treaty Camp, direct action had become a daily ritual for residents of the resistance camps nearby. On some mornings, convoys of cars carrying water protectors would weave through the hills toward construction sites or government buildings identified as protest targets. A team of lawyers stood at the ready to assist those who were arrested and detained. But the temperature was dropping below freezing at night. Winter would doubtlessly sap energy from the movement.
Meanwhile, scouts and drones sent out into the hills were returning with reports that the construction was getting closer to the highway crossing and to the river.
Water protectors felt a growing sense of urgency.
Joye Braun came to the NoDAPL movement already a veteran pipeline fighter. She was involved with a Keystone XL opposition camp on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. After Obama’s State Department denied Keystone XL a key permit, putting it to a halt, Braun became the first person to pitch a teepee at the first DAPL resistance camp, called Sacred Stone.
“The only way you can stop a pipeline when it gets that drastic is to go in front of it,” Braun said. “This was our land. This is our land.”
According to treaties signed between the U.S. government and indigenous nations in the 19th century, Cannonball Ranch — the land DAPL eventually purchased — should have never been for sale.
That’s because the pipeline route cuts through land that the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, intended to buy peace and safe passage for settlers moving through the area, established as belonging to the Sioux. In 1868, the treaty was superseded by a second treaty that established the Great Sioux reservation. But while that treaty created a reservation whose borders were further south, it also determined that the land DAPL bought was “unceded Indian territory” — a designation that holds to this day, despite the beliefs of some U.S. elected officials.
“Unceded land is land that was never given over or conceded; it’s essentially stolen land,” Nick Estes, a Lakota historian, told The Intercept. Cannonball Ranch, specifically, was “illegally settled,” Estes said, and acquired as private property through squatters’ rights.
Only an act of Congress can abridge a treaty, opening unceded territory for non-native settlement, Estes said — but that never happened with this particular land, the status of which remains disputed. Disputes over unceded land have arisen before — most notably over the Black Hills, which resulted in a 1980 Supreme Court decision that offered a monetary settlement as reparation for the settled land — but no actual land restitution. Indigenous people have refused to take that money.
“Turning private land back into indigenous land … is near impossible,” said Estes. “Private property always trumps indigenous land rights, and that’s just how the federal system works.”
“People think … oh, that was back in the 1800s, and that was a long time ago, and those don’t have any merit today,” said Braun. “That’s my land, that’s the Lakota and Dakota people of this territory.”
On October 23, Braun moved her teepee to what would become the Treaty Camp. But she never doubted that a police confrontation was imminent. Two days earlier, police had moved their staging area from the Mandan airport, a 40-minute drive from the heart of the protests, to Fort Rice, 10 minutes away.
“I think every night I only got about an hour of sleep because we were constantly under threat of them moving in,” Braun said. “There were constant rumors — they’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming.”
Then, on the morning of October 27, “They came marching in.”
To Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, whose department led the law enforcement response to the pipeline protests, treaty enforcement is the federal government’s job. “I understand the treaties and what that’s about,” he told The Intercept.
“This was a federal problem from the beginning of it,” he said, adding, “We as the county officials can’t do anything about it.”
“That’s the irony of it,” Estes said. “County sheriffs and any law enforcement officials are supposed to uphold federal law and the Constitution, and in the Constitution, it says that the treaties are the supreme law of the land.”
Nonetheless, Kirchmeier would lead some 300 officers to clear the Treaty Camp on October 27.
It wasn’t just local police that would join the operation. In August, North Dakota’s Department of Emergency Services activated the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which allows states to import police from other states. On October 27, 97 out-of-state officers participated in the raid – approximately a third of the force.
An array of federal agencies was involved, too. Ninety federal law enforcement officials from various agencies had taken part in monitoring the DAPL resistance by October 23, police records show — and 14 of them took part in the October 27 operations, according to police. Meanwhile, the law enforcement Emergency Operations Center in Bismarck, established to respond to the DAPL protests, hosted daily meetings that included intelligence officers from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other agencies.
Still, after more than two months of DAPL demonstrations, police felt under-resourced, frustrated that the federal government refused to take control of the situation by making a final decision on the pipeline or sending more support.
This would be one of the largest operations the multi-agency force had carried out. “The biggest concern is that there were several hundred individuals that were camped out on private property, and that could not continue,” Sheriff Kirchmeier said.
Treaty Camp would be defended at two front lines: on Highway 1806, where water protectors set up a barricade directly north of the camp, and on County Road 134, a dirt road that bisects the highway south of Treaty Camp and north of Oceti Sakowin Camp. Water protectors suspected police would use the dirt road to cut off access to the larger camp, where thousands of water protectors had stayed behind.
Desiree Kane, a Miwok freelance reporter who stayed at the resistance camps from May to December 2016, approached County Road 134 as the standoff with police began. Within hours, barricades were set ablaze in between the water protectors and the police.
Despite the flames, Kane said, “There was an overwhelming sense of calm.” Singers sang prayer songs to the beat of a hand drum. On the hills, horse riders looked down on the gathering. “I think it’s portrayed as mayhem, but that’s not what I witnessed.”
At Highway 1806, however, arguments had broken out about whether to allow police to extinguish a barricade fire that was sending smoke billowing into the hills. Horinek backed away from his cry of “No surrender; no retreat.” Despite objections, he pushed people back, allowing police to inch forward. “I think had we not slowly pulled back that there would have been loss of life on October 27, 2016,” he said.
Soon, law enforcement began deploying pepper spray, Tasers, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and batons against water protectors.
Frank Archambault, a Standing Rock tribal member and member of a camp security group, found himself pleading with water protectors to avoid provoking police. “We’re all the time trying to stop them from throwing stuff, so they don’t have an excuse to shoot those people,” he said.
Allison Renville, a member of the Great Sioux Nation from South Dakota, saw historical trauma playing out in the mixed reactions of her fellow water protectors. “A lot of it had to do with fight or flight, a natural response when you’re threatened that bad that you’re waiting to die,” she said.
“When I went out there, I went out with the mindset of, I’m going out there to protect and stand for what is right, and if that costs me my life, then so be it,” said Elih Lizama, an Apache and Mayan pipeline opponent from California, who joined a group of horse riders assigned to patrol the hills that made up the DAPL property. But he didn’t equate readiness for death with violence.
“They brought guns to this fight,” Lizama said. “All we have is our prayer.”
At a meeting of DAPL security personnel held the day before the Treaty Camp was raided, a PowerPoint was presented describing a volatile situation. “There are outsiders deliberately moving the rioters toward violent action,” the PowerPoint said. Under a category labeled “What we know,” it noted, “Rioters do possess weapons.” Under “What we do not know”: “Number and type of weapons in the camp.”
TigerSwan, a firm made up of former military personnel hired by Energy Transfer Partners to manage its sprawling security operation, organized the daily briefings and made sure police knew what was being discussed. Public records show that Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen and Morton County Sheriff’s Deputy Lynn Wanner received the presentations.
A spokesperson for Morton County said that they only used the information from briefings for “situational awareness.” Mercer County did not respond to requests for comment. TigerSwan and Energy Transfer Partners did not respond either.
In an interview with The Intercept, Kirchmeier insisted that law enforcement kept private security at a distance. “When we did a law enforcement function or we had a law enforcement incident, I did not want the private security anywhere near where the law enforcement was,” he said. “Could they stay up on the hilltops and that type of thing? Yes, because it was on Dakota Access property.”
But he admitted that law enforcement and DAPL security did sometimes work together, “depending on the circumstance.”
“Did we talk to private security? Absolutely. We used them as a resource just like many other resources that are out there,” he said, listing asset sharing that included police using private security’s snow mobiles and ATVs for their operations.
For example, police were using ATVs owned by DAPL to distribute their own personnel throughout the sweeping plains, including at least one sniper, who crouched in the weeds aiming at Highway 134. A Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson told The Intercept, “Because [law enforcement] received numerous threats that protesters had snipers in the hills and people hiding with weapons in the trees, we had to take precautions. Our [law enforcement] was not there to shoot at targets, but rather to observe and protect our officers in the area.”
On the day of the Treaty Camp raid, private security personnel also provided police with extra hands.
As the line of police moved down Highway 1806, Alyssa Beaulieu, of the Red Lake band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, and a handful of others jumped a fence and started running though the field where pipeline construction was underway. She was quickly surrounded by men in plainclothes.
“They were trying to herd us,” she added, describing how police and security were able to control people’s movement, “so I just stood there.”
“It was just a prideful thing. I could have run, I could have gone back to camp,” she added. “But I had a moment.” She and another protester were tackled to the ground by four men, including two DAPL security guards. Private security assisted police in attaching zip ties around her wrists.
A spokesperson for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the two men (shown in law enforcement video footage in the brown coat and the camouflage bandana) helping handcuff Beaulieu and her companion were DAPL security officers.
“Security was not arresting – they do not have the authority to do so – they are only helping with detaining the unlawful protesters,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept. The spokesperson added that it was “not any different than if an intruder was on your private property – you have every right to try to hold them, detain them, as the police arrive to arrest them.”
Deeper in the hills, horse riders were facing off with police and private security in ATVs, in trucks, and even in the air. Lizama had been scouting on horseback in the plains for days, watching the activities of police and private security, “We knew they were dropping people off to spy on people from the hills,” he said.
Where horses couldn’t go, water protectors sent drones to conduct reconnaissance. But by the day of the raid, the aircraft had been officially banned. On October 23, the day the first tents went up at Treaty Camp, North Dakota officials submitted a request to the Federal Aviation Administration for a rare “temporary flight restriction” covering the airspace above the pipeline resistance.
The no-fly zone was in place between October 25 and December 13 — allowing “only relief aircraft ops under direction of North Dakota Tactical Operations Center,” according to the FAA. But on the day of the raid, DAPL’s helicopter continued to fly above, alongside North Dakota Highway Patrol aircraft, officially becoming part of the law enforcement’s eviction effort. According to Kirchmeier, a law enforcement officer always accompanied DAPL personnel in the private aircraft.
From above, police and private security captured footage of the raid and the action in the countryside, some of which would be used later in the prosecution of water protectors.
Meanwhile, on Highway 1806, police were breaking up various ceremonies in the midst of the standoff. They separated and arrested a huddle of elders immersed in prayer. Joseph Hock, of the Mackinac tribe from Michigan, was pulled out of a sweat lodge. “I was sort of a little fuzzy-headed by then,” he said. “It was like jumping in ice-cold water in the middle of winter, that’s what it felt like.”
In the distance, smoke billowed, as a bulldozer was set on fire in an area off 1806 where DAPL stored its equipment. The group blocking County Road 134 had retreated.
Still, there was defiance in the faces of many, even as it became clear the camp had fallen. “Regardless if we come out of this whole thing heroes or not, we were fighting for our people that day; we were fighting for our land,” Renville said. “We felt like we were winning.”
In the hills, three water protectors on horseback put into action a plan formulated by Lizama and his crew in the first days of Treaty Camp: They drove a herd of buffalo from an area ranch toward the frontline. As police moved farther and farther south, the buffalo stampeded in the background. “This is the epitome of Indian Country — what it’s like to be here. We’re in a modern-day Indian war,” Renville said. “When it comes to these attacks on the environment, these treaty laws are the only thing that can save us because they’re the supreme law of the land.”
As water protectors retreated, a call came over the radio, “Gunman, gunman, gunman.”
A white truck careened down Highway 1806 toward the big Oceti Sakowin camp, where thousands of DAPL opponents had stayed as the smaller front-line camp was evicted.
“All of a sudden a guy with a gun comes toward us,” said Mike Fasig, a member of the camp security group. Fasig thought of the camp full of women, elders, and children, imagining the melee that would follow if the gunman opened fire near the police line.
Fasig and another security group member, Israel Hernandez, jumped into their respective vehicles and sped toward the gunman’s vehicle.
The man at the wheel of the white truck was Kyle Thompson, a guard for Leighton security, one of about half a dozen private security companies working to guard the pipeline. Although Thompson was ex-military, Leighton mostly hired off-duty cops, including, said company president Kevin Mayberry, officers from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and other local agencies. Morton County told The Intercept that Leighton had requested personnel to watch an equipment yard. “The sheriff made the deputies aware of the job opportunity to serve as private security in their off hours (essentially, a second job – they were paid by Leighton). It was only for 12 days from Aug. 5-17 because once the protest began, the deputies were needed to respond to that activity and worked plenty of overtime with that,” said a spokesperson.
For the water protectors, private security had been a constant presence since August. Scouts like Lizama encountered them dressed in ghillie suits, which are used by the military to disguise soldiers as piles of grass, hiding in the countryside at night. They followed drivers around. Rumors of security infiltrating the camps — later proven to be founded — had circulated for weeks.
The sudden appearance on October 27 of an armed private security officer was the manifestation of a threat they had always felt was lurking.
In an interview with The Intercept, Thompson said he drove toward the camp responding to a message that equipment was on fire near Highway 1806.
He said that as he approached the side road where the burning construction equipment was located, wearing a red bandana to disguise himself as a water protector, he saw a crowd of people. “I got super paranoid and nervous. I was security, and in a sense behind the lines,” Thompson said. Sitting next to him was his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Mayberry said that his company largely stayed away from protesters and did not deploy disguised guards. “We had no guards doing that, so if he was doing that, or if somebody was doing that, that’s on him; that has nothing to do with our company,” he said, adding that non-law enforcement were not supposed to be armed. “We didn’t even know he had a gun with him,” he said.
Water protectors noticed the unfamiliar truck and asked Thompson who he was. “Brian,” he lied.
But the water protectors didn’t miss his rifle.
“They were like, stop that truck. If they stopped me and got into it, I realize they would have known who I was. I don’t know what they would have done,” Thompson recalled. So he sped down the road, steering into the ditch to avoid pedestrians. As he drove, people attempted to block his path.
“The suicide by law enforcement thing popped back into my head,” Thompson said later, recalling a warning he said he’d heard in one of the daily security briefings. “These people are almost willing to get run over.”
“If he would have shot those rounds off, the police would have killed us,” said Horinek. As was the case with many other water protectors, his thoughts immediately went to Wounded Knee, when a single shot fired as the U.S. 7th Cavalry descended on an encampment of Lakota people sparked a massacre.
As Thompson’s white truck neared the Oceti Sakowin camp, Fasig veered left, ramming Thompson to a halt. Thompson emerged from the vehicle holding his AR-15, finger on the trigger. The crowd screamed at him to put down the gun. He backed into the pond on the side of the road as water protectors, one armed with a knife, surrounded him and attempted to disarm him. Pipeline opponents set his truck on fire.
While Thompson was eventually disarmed and arrested by officers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he was never charged. Instead, it would be Fasig and two others who tried to disarm Thompson who would face felony charges.
To Fasig, the outcome seemed twisted. “If you have an unknown person wearing a mask with an AR-15 that took the license plates off his truck, and he’s going through a ditch and driving around people in an aggressive manner, trying to get close to your schools and your churches — if the citizens in that city take and do everything they can to stop that man, that city would have a parade,” he said. “But when it comes to employees of Dakota Access doing anything like that toward Native Americans, we all of a sudden become criminals.”
Many of the 142 people arrested at Treaty Camp that day told The Intercept that they were held on the highway in handcuffs for hours, stripped of their clothes, and had identification numbers written on their arms.
Eventually, they were loaded onto school buses, some barefoot and in their underwear, and taken to Morton County, where they were packed into dog kennels before being shipped to jails across the state, including some several hours away, without being told where they were going. Upon release, many returned to find that their cars had been impounded and their tents and property dumped on a pile on the ground.
Hock, who was pulled out of the sweat lodge, said he returned to find his belongings, including a sacred pipe, had been urinated on.
“They wanted to degrade and humiliate us so that we would turn back and go home,” he told The Intercept. “But what they actually did added to the resolve to go ahead and stand up and fight even more.”
The spokesperson for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that “fenced cubicles” were used on that day but stressed that “all essential services” were provided to those temporarily held in them. She added that “the inmates had the number written on their arms so it couldn’t be easily removed,” as had happened on previous occasions, and noted that those arrested were only allowed to keep one layer of clothes for safety reasons. “If they didn’t want that layer to be their long underwear, they had the option of going to the restroom to remove the underwear and change into their pants,” the spokesperson wrote.
She also confirmed that those arrested were not told where they were being taken to in order to avoid “the potential for the bus being stopped and surrounded on the highway by a mass of people, or a mass of people gathering at the destination attempting to disrupt the process and creating a dangerous situation.”
“The private security company working for the landowner likely knows what was done with property left behind,” the spokesperson added, noting that as those arrested were trespassing, the property owners had no obligation to return their belongings. “If there was property urinated upon, it was not done by law enforcement.”
In all, over the course of seven months, 838 people faced charges in at least 427 separate DAPL-related criminal cases in North Dakota, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective, a group of lawyers representing many of those defendants. As of late September, 427 people’s cases remained open, 289 were dismissed, 105 resolved through plea deals or other pretrial diversions, and 10 resulted in convictions. Two more people were convicted and imprisoned last week — the first to receive a jail sentence in connection to last year’s protests.
The most serious charges involve incidents that took place on October 27.
Five people accused of helping set the County Road 134 bridge on fire — as well as one person accused of setting a Highway 1806 barricade ablaze — were charged with “commission of a civil disorder” and “using fire to commit a civil disorder,” federal charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. And a woman named Red Fawn Fallis faces three federal felony charges — after a gun went off when officers tackled her to the ground on the day of the Treaty Camp raid. She faces the possibility of life in prison.
“A lot of people thought that it was over after Standing Rock, and they didn’t think how this is years long. We have cases scheduled out through July,” said Timothy Cominghay, a member of Freshet — a native collective that’s been providing support to those returning to North Dakota for their court dates. “This is just a different type of resistance.”
Months after he drove his truck toward the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Thompson, the private security guard, emerged as an unlikely ally to those facing charges for attempting to disarm him.
“The water protectors that day, they had a mission to protect their own people,” Thompson told Myron Dewey, a water protector and journalist with Digital Smoke Signals, in a Facebook Live interview on July 12. “It was just a miscommunication on both sides, I believe, that made us do what we did.”
Following that interview, a state prosecutor dropped charges against Brennon Nastacio, one of the water protectors that had attempted to disarm Thompson in the water, saying that Thompson’s statements had raised “significant doubt as to whether the state could meet its burden of proof with regard to the charge of terrorizing.” According to an agreement with the court, Fasig and Hernandez will see their charges dismissed in a year if they pay fines and commit no crimes.
“I’m ready for this all to be over with. But I also want to help and get the truth out there. The charges people are facing are a little bit extreme for what they did,” Thompson told The Intercept. “I feel like I have people who don’t like me on both sides now. I feel like a lot of protectors that don’t like me. A lot of law enforcement that don’t like me.”
Most water protectors and police have doubled down on their resolve — and new pipeline fights have picked up across the country.
“There is a lot of interest throughout the country on what happened and how we handled it, what we learned, and those type of issues,” Sheriff Kirchmeier told The Intercept. “I have been around, went to several other states and talking to emergency managers, to other sheriffs, to those individuals who are interested in it. The main interest is trying to find out a little bit about the background, the history of it, and what we could do, and what we did do for the safety of everybody involved.”
Joye Braun is preparing for the next treaty stand. The newly revived Keystone XL Pipeline would swing just outside the boundary of her Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and awaits a major decision from Nebraska.
“There won’t be another Standing Rock, just like there won’t be a Wounded Knee ’73,” she said. “But we learned a lot of lessons.”
If the Keystone XL Pipeline begins construction, Braun will pitch a teepee at another frontline camp.
Leaked documents and public records reveal a troubling fusion of private security, public law enforcement, and corporate money in the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline.