Northwood veteran to rejoin the North Dakota Pipeline protest 

  • Art Desmarais, 58, of Northwood talks about his participation in protests opposing the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota and his plans to go back there on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Art Desmarais, 58, of Northwood talks about the small toy car he received from a Native American boy at the protest camps outside a Dakota Access oil pipeline construction site in North Dakota on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Art Desmarais, 58, of Northwood gets into his antique Volkswagen Beetle in Concord on Wednesday. Desmarais is returning to North Dakota in a different vehicle to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Art Desmarias, of Northwood, has visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation twice in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. He plans to return this week along with thousands of other veterans. —Courtesy

  • Art Desmarias, of Northwood, stands with Wyatt, a Native American child living at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/1/2016 10:59:13 PM

A toy car does not have much significance alone.

But when Wyatt, an 11-year old Native American living at one of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps, placed a small blue racecar in Art Desmarais’ hand when he visited the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in September, it ignited a sense of purpose in him.

“It was one of two toys he had, you know?” Desmarais said. “I didn’t want to take it, but it was sacred to him. That’s when I knew we had to go back.”

It was enough to encourage Desmarais, 58, of Northwood, a veteran, to go back for a second trip in October. And at 6 a.m. on Thursday, he was headed back for a third trip to the protest camps, along with thousands of other veterans in an effort called “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.” The goal is to support those who have been demonstrating for months against the $3.8 billion pipeline slated to run beneath a lake near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

Desmarais hopes to arrive by Saturday, and though he and other protesters are facing a government order to evacuate, and may be prevented from reaching the site at all, he says the significance of Standing Rock as a civil rights movement is too big to watch from the sidelines.

“It absolutely speaks to my identity as a veteran,” Desmarais, who served in the Army Reserves for 15 years, said on Wednesday. “If you know and believe that most of the things our country has been doing for the last 30 years hasn’t been for the benefit of the American people, you know now is the time when we want to act on our oath to protect the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. It’s a chance to say we did something that was right to do.”

The pipeline, once completed, will move over 400,000 barrels of crude oil across four states daily. Originally slated to pass north of Bismarck, N.D., the pipeline was rerouted to pass closer to the Standing Rock Reservation after concerns surfaced that the pipeline could affect Bismark’s water supply.

There is also speculation about how President-elect Donald Trump’s ownership of shares in the company building the pipeline could affect the situation. Trump’s most recent federal disclosure forms, filed in May, show he owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. That’s down from between $500,000 and $1 million a year earlier. Trump also owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in Phillips 66, which has a one-quarter share of Dakota Access, according to the Associated Press.

The veterans’ movement coincides with a Monday announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be closing the main protest camp due to “severe winter storm conditions.” Federal officials have said a “free speech” zone will be created, and anyone found on the land after Monday will be charged with trespassing.

Desmarais was critical of how the government has handled this situation, especially the use of non-lethal weapons. He recalls the site being a peaceful place when he first visited, where people shared their goods and were constantly praying. There was little cell phone reception at the camp, save for a spot he referred to as “Facebook Hill.” And he became attached to two children, Eli and Wyatt, who he said followed him around the camp for the duration of his stay.

He also remembers people frequently speaking about the actions the protesters should take to protect the land. “The elders, they said we should maintain absolute peace, no matter what; the younger people, they want us to get up and kill all these people,” he said. “The younger people, they’re a little more feistier – but the elders know that’s not how you’re going to win this war.”

The next time he visited, in October, the camp had gotten much larger, and more tense, Desmarais said. And when he left, he said he was stopped by North Dakota state troopers, who accused him of driving his mini Volkswagen camper over the white line and searched his vehicle for drugs.

“Every action was an escalation,” he said.

He fears the police action against the protesters is becoming more militarized and he is “frightened” by the use of private security dogs in action against the protesters.

“They have no business taking their dogs out and hurting civilians,” he said. “But I think it’s the military establishment’s only way of dealing with it, it’s the only game plan they have.”

Desmarais isn’t sure what is going to happen once he reaches the camp, although he expects to be cold. He hopes having more than 2,000 veterans supporting the protest will be enough to turn the tide in the protesters’ favor.

“I think (the protest) is a sign of hope,” he said. “And if anything, it’s about the children; you know, I’ll be dead in however many years, but the young people will still be here. I don’t want my grandson to think I wasn’t ready to stand up against this. And if 2,000 vets, and not just vets, but any people, can stand together, that’s going to make a change, hopefully, in policy.”

He continued, running his thumb over Wyatt’s toy care: “And we have to give them hope. If we’re going to make a planet for people to live on, we have to ask, ‘Is this the kind of world we want for ourselves?’ I don’t think so.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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