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Standing Rock Sioux Protests: What You Should Know To Understand The Situation

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions are still high in North Dakota this week. The Standing Rock Sioux protests have sort of taken on a life of their own recently, as many groups are converging on the site to protest the construction of the pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that is meant to transport over 470,000 barrels of crude oil across 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Iowa. And while many have been checking in on Facebook (a gesture of solidarity that some activists have warned against) and spreading the word about the clashes between law enforcement and protesters, there's a lot out there that's still not understood about the roots of the protest itself.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been protesting the pipeline since 2014. Although the pipeline doesn't go directly through the tribe's reservation, it cuts across land that plays home to multiple sacred burial sites and prayer areas. For the Standing Rock Sioux, it's as much about their heritage as it is the environment. The pipeline, also known as DAPL on social media, runs into Lake Oahe, which the tribe holds sacred, and it could potentially damage the Missouri River, which is a primary water supply for the tribe.

In the past few weeks, hundreds of protestors, including celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo, have been camping out at the site and they claim they want to stay through the winter. To cover the costs associated with the protests, North Dakota officials have asked for $4 million, which is expected to be signed off on Tuesday.

But the influx of out-of-state protestors might be blurring some of the key issues surrounding the construction of the pipeline and possibly getting in the way of securing a victory for the Standing Rock tribe.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
A Standing Rock Sioux flag flies over a protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters have gathered to voice their opposition to the Dakota Access oil Pipeline (DAPL), September 3, 2016. Drive on a state highway along the Missouri River, amid the rolling hills and wide prairies of North Dakota, and you'll come across a makeshift camp of Native Americans -- united by a common cause. Members of some 200 tribes have gathered here, many raising tribal flags that flap in the unforgiving wind. Some have been here since April, their numbers fluctuating between hundreds and thousands, in an unprecedented show of joint resistance to the nearly 1,200 mile-long Dakota Access oil pipeline. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

It's an environmental issue, for sure. Pipelines break and can affect the water and the land surrounding it. But one of the points of contention between the Standing Rock tribe and the federal government, which is overseeing the construction, is that the tribe wasn't involved enough in the planning process.

Earlier this year, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not abiding by the National Historic Preservation Act, which required federal agencies to notify the tribe sooner than they did before construction. A D.C. Circuit Court denied the tribe an injunction in early October, but construction is still halted in the area by order of the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
People hang a sign near a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River nearby, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protestors were attacked by dogs and sprayed with an eye and respiratory irritant yesterday when they arrived at the site to protest after learning of the bulldozing work. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 19, the agencies issued a joint statement saying, "the Army continues to review issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Tribal nations and their members and hopes to conclude its ongoing review soon." They also wrote that, "in the interim, the Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe. We repeat our request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

So for now, the sacred areas are safe, but possibly not for long, which is why protestors have sprung into action. Many of the protestors claim that law enforcement has been using aggressive tactics to break them up and residents of the area are rightfully worried about violence and other problems that can occur when large groups of organized and unorganized protestors gather. There have been over a hundred arrests and tensions seem to be escalating. Standing Rock tribe members, along with members of over 300 tribal nations, have been protesting and camping at the site since April.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
A protestor is treated after being pepper sprayed by private security contractors on land being graded for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) oil pipeline, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, September 3, 2016. Hundreds of Native American protestors and their supporters, who fear the Dakota Access Pipeline will polluted their water, forced construction workers and security forces to retreat and work to stop. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

"The protesters are not being peaceful or prayerful," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney claimed in statement to ABC News. "Law enforcement has been very methodical in moving ahead slowly as to not escalate the situation. However, the protesters are using very dangerous means to slow us down. Their aggressive tactics include using horses, fire and trying to flank us with horses and people."

It seems as though the situation is evolving from being about protecting the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's land, heritage, and civil rights, to being more about having something to protest and fighting the authorities over abuse of the environment. Instead of helping the cause, some protestors could be distracting from the real issues at hand, leaving the Standing Rock Sioux to deal with the aftermath, whatever that turns out to be.  

For now, at least the situation is getting attention. Unfortunately, the heart of the matter — protecting Native culture and grounds — seems to be lost, for the time being.