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After violent clashes, Native American protesters vow to continue their fight against the Dakota Access pipeline

After violent clashes, Native American protesters vow to continue their fight against the Dakota Access pipeline
Pipeline protesters hold signs for passing motorists during a rally on the south side of the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D., on Saturday. (Will Kincaid / The Bismarck Tribune)

Hundreds of Native Americans staged a peaceful march up a North Dakota highway Saturday, renewing their vow to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the wake of violent clashes this week.

On Thursday, state police, county sheriff's deputies from four other states and the North Dakota National Guard members made more than 140 arrests, using pepper spray, rubber bullets and Tasers to clear protesters from a camp they set up on the path of the oil pipeline, which is under construction. More than 50 people were treated for injuries.

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Work on the $3.8-billion project resumed the same day.

The demonstration Saturday was centered just south of a bridge that authorities closed this week after pipeline opponents apparently torched a car — one of the several vehicles burned in the clashes — and deposited it there.

The march, which was accompanied by a prayer circle, was aimed in part at letting it be known that the protest movement was a peaceful one despite the flare-up of violence.

"We understand how our young generation gets frustrated and impatient about what's going on here," said Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "Within our native culture, the elders are there to provide wisdom. So we are taking steps today, having meetings to try to heal this process of communication and understanding between the younger generation and our elders."

Mekasi Camp-Horinek, a camp coordinator who was among those arrested, said the fires were set in self-defense, out of fear that the police would surround protestors and not let them retreat. Once authorities descended on the protesters, he said, the "historical trauma passed down through the generations kicked in."

The prayer circle included several hundred Native Americans and their supporters. They gathered around a group of elders as drummers pounded out "encouragement songs" and speaker after speaker admonished the younger generation to refrain from provocative actions.

"We need to stop this anger," Paula Looking Horse told the crowd. "If people start cussing, you need to grab them, close their mouths and shut them up."

"We've got to watch over each other, take care of each other," said another elder, Archie Fool Bear.  "If there's going to be factions dividing this camp, they should leave today."

A young woman circled through the group, offering smoke from burning sage. Behind her stood the husk of the torched car, and just beyond the bridge, large military-style police vehicles and pipeline work trucks.

Protesters hunkered down in a large encampment said they worried that infiltrators and "agent provocateurs" would foment rumors and encourage violence in an attempt to discredit the movement. Videos of the clashes on Thursday show a man in a white sweatshirt, jeans and a black ponytail pushing demonstrators toward an advancing line of police.

In another incident that day, Bureau of Indian Affairs police arrested a man armed with a rifle after a standoff near an encampment of protesters, then turned him over to the FBI.

Authorities said that he worked for a private security firm contracted by Dakota Access Pipeline and that his truck was among the vehicles torched Thursday.

Plans call for the pipeline to eventually carry 570,000 barrels of a oil each day from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota to southern Illinois nearly 1,200 miles away.

In North Dakota, the pipeline would stand adjacent to Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Opponents say the construction will destroy ancient burial sites and warned that an oil spill could contaminate the water supply for 17 million people.

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More than 300 tribes in North America have come out against the project. Many of their members were reportedly headed to North Dakota to join the demonstrations, which started this spring.

Protesters said the events of the last week will not deter them.

"The fight is far from over," said Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "It's really hard for us to remain in prayer and ceremony when they're using violence against us. But we will. We will be like stones."

Tolan is a special correspondent.

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