MORTON COUNTY – The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe disputes the conclusions of state archaeologists who found that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline did not destroy sacred sites, after the company refused to allow tribal participation in the survey.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department made several efforts to encourage the company to involve tribal representation or at least allow the tribal historic preservation officer to be present while the property was surveyed on Sept. 21, said Capt. Jay Gruebele.
But Dakota Access LLC, which owns the easement identified by the tribe as containing burials and other sacred sites, did not allow tribal representation during the survey, said Gruebele, who is leading a joint law enforcement task force.
That survey led the State Historical Society of North Dakota to conclude that the pipeline corridor did not contain human remains or cultural sites, according to a final memo from state archaeologist Paul Picha released on Tuesday.
The findings, which are not significantly different than what was contained in a draft memo leaked last week, are final and the agency does not anticipate another visit to the pipeline corridor unless requested, said Fern Swenson, deputy state historic preservation officer.
Jon Eagle Sr., tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, disagrees with the findings, saying the State Historical Society “walked right over the sites.”
“That’s the importance of tribal consultation,” Eagle said. “We have the ability to not only identify but evaluate sites that are of cultural significance to us.”
Picha wrote in the memo that seven State Historical Society archaeologists surveyed a 1.36-mile pipeline corridor west of Highway 1806 at the request of the task force, which is investigating the circumstances surrounding a Sept. 3 pipeline protest, including whether cultural sites were disturbed by pipeline construction.
Gruebele said authorities didn’t have enough support to file an affidavit for a search warrant that would have allowed for Eagle to be present for the survey.
The archaeologists did a pedestrian survey at seven-meter interval spacing, inspecting the stripped ground surface and both sides of the stockpiled topsoil berms, Picha wrote. The survey found 10 locations with bone fragments and teeth from small mammals, but no human bone or evidence of burials, the memo states.
But Eagle, who said he was invited to a meeting at the sheriff’s department to discuss the survey after it was completed, contends that the topsoil berms weren’t properly evaluated and could contain evidence.
“Unless you take the berms down, that’s still an ongoing investigation,” Eagle said.
The archaeologists looked at both faces of the stockpiles of dirt as well as the topsoil that had been stripped, said Kim Jondahl, a spokeswoman for the Historical Society.
The sheriff’s department considers the archaeological portion of the investigation to be complete.
“Jon Eagle’s input was incredibly valuable to the task force in gaining an understanding of his opinion regarding the area,” Gruebele said. “However, Morton County is relying on the expertise of the state archaeologists who surveyed the property and have made a determination that no human remains or significant sites were found in the pipeline corridor.”
Mentz wrote in court papers filed Sept. 2 that he identified dozens of burials, stone rings, effigies and other features in or adjacent to the pipeline corridor north of the reservation on the tribe’s ancestral lands.
Dakota Access, which did construction work in that area the following day, denies the company destroyed any cultural sites and points out that the pipeline parallels an existing natural gas pipeline. The State Historical Society had previously concurred with an archaeological survey that the pipeline would have no impact to significant sites.
Eagle said he wants Morton County authorities to allow him to survey an area of the pipeline corridor that hasn’t yet been disturbed by construction.
“It literally is the last stretch of untouched ground. We’re confident they’re going to find sites of religious and cultural significance,” Eagle said. “If we’re allowed to survey, then we can mitigate, we can protect those sites in place.”
Morton County authorities will ask Dakota Access if it would grant permission for Eagle to survey other sites, Gruebele said.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission is not involved with the task force. Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said she’s not surprised Dakota Access didn’t allow the tribe to participate because the two parties don’t have “a very productive relationship at this point.”
“I think it would have been best to include them and have them present, but I still have a lot of faith in the expertise of the state historic preservation officer and our state archaeologist,” Fedorchak said. “I don’t suspect the results would have been a lot different. I just believe it’s generally best to include everyone so it’s an open process and people can make their own judgments and have input on it and know exactly how it was done.”
Eagle questioned whether the PSC, which granted a permit for the pipeline, could do more to allow for tribal participation in the cultural survey process.
“The PSC has more authority than they’re exerting,” Eagle said.
Fedorchak said if the PSC receives a specific complaint about the archaeological survey, the agency would look into it.
“We would handle that like any other complaint and investigation that we get on pipeline construction,” Fedorchak said. “We don’t have a complaint from them.”
The law enforcement task force is also investigating the security workers hired by Dakota Access, who used dogs and pepper spray, and the actions of the protesters. That investigation is expected to be complete in the next week, Gruebele said. To date, the only charges filed connected with the Sept. 3 protest are against a journalist and protesters.