Treading water

MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

In 29 years as a Philadelphia Mummer, Mike Doyle has endured subfreezing temperatures, gale force winds, blizzards and tinderbox mob scenes.

But those New Year’s Day South Broad Street shenanigans pale in comparison to what he may witness next week when the 39-year-old Parkwood resident travels to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in frigid North Dakota to join thousands of Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.

Doyle, a Langhorne, Bucks County, native, is no full-time environmentalist to be sure. He’s a self-employed real estate agent who roots for the Eagles and Flyers and plays alto sax in Bridesburg’s Ferko String Band. In short, he’s pretty much a regular Philly guy.

So his spontaneous decision to pack his bags and hop the next flight to Fargo signals perhaps a growing interest in the cause beyond traditional advocacy groups and Native American communities. Indeed, Doyle won’t be the only one arriving on the banks of the Missouri River in the coming days. The New York Times reported last Tuesday that as many as 2,000 U.S. military veterans were planning to assemble at Standing Rock to act as human shields for the protesters, who favor the term “water protectors” to identify themselves.

Doyle expects to arrive there on Monday afternoon and stay through Friday. Throughout the week, NortheastTimes.com plans to share images and descriptions of his experiences in daily updates from the front lines.

“I decided to go after I saw them use water cannons (on demonstrators) in the freezing cold,” Doyle said, referring to a Nov. 20 skirmish at a barricaded roadway bridge near the pipeline construction site.

Police in riot gear used high-pressure water hoses to repel advancing demonstrators that night. The air temperature was in the 20s. According to a Washington Post report, an estimated 400 demonstrators were involved and at least 17 were hospitalized. Demonstrators claimed that police also used rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades during the clash, the Post said. Authorities said they made one arrest.

Another violent showdown occurred on Labor Day when private security forces working for the pipeline builders deployed guard dogs against hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered to stop workers from bulldozing disputed land that Standing Rock Sioux consider a sacred burial site. Tribal leaders claimed that six people suffered dog bites and 30 others were affected by pepper spray.

So while demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, the situation is in a constant state of flux. Just last week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered demonstrators to vacate a campground that authorities say is on federal land. Police initially said they would block supplies including food from reaching the campers, but later rescinded the threat.

The situation has Doyle and his wife Stephanie slightly worried, but not enough to stop his trip.

“I would say I’m worried about the overreach of the local police, like being detained for no reason like driving to the camp or driving anywhere,” Doyle said.

“It’s hard when you can’t trust the government, but it’s good to do something if you believe in it,” Stephanie Doyle said. “And it’s important to support others who believe in what they’re doing. He’s passionate about what he believes in and won’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”

The standoff at Standing Rock is in its eighth month and involves a dispute over a largely completed 1,172-mile-long underground pipeline that would transport crude from the oil fields of northwest North Dakota near the Canadian border, through South Dakota and Iowa, to tanks in southern Illinois. Dakota Access plans to tunnel the pipeline below the Missouri River just upstream from the community of Cannon Ball at the northern tip of the Standing Rock reservation.

Opponents of the project argue that a breach of the completed pipeline could contaminate drinking water for the Native American and millions of others downstream. Also, the pipeline has been routed through territory that the Sioux claim was granted to them by the federal government under an 1851 treaty.

Doyle says he gained a profound appreciation for Native Americans and their causes during a trip that he and Stephanie took 14 months ago through the Black Hills of South Dakota, as well as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

“That whole experience and learning about all that’s out there really shook me to the core,” he said. “The Sioux still refuse to accept money from the federal government for taking that land over. It’s still not resolved today.”

They visited the site of Custer’s Last Stand — Little Bighorn — as well as the Crazy Horse Memorial, a privately funded monument to the legendary Lakota warrior that has been under construction since 1948 and will measure 641 feet wide and 563 feet high when complete.

“It definitely changed everything about how I thought about Native Americans,” Doyle said. “Little Bighorn was a profound experience. It was their greatest victory but because of it they were punished so hard.”

The Dakota Access pipeline is just the latest battle in this ancient war. Doyle isn’t inserting himself into the fray blindly. He says he’s been in contact with people who are already there and will help him get settled, although he’s not really sure what he’ll be doing.

He doesn’t know if he’ll encounter roadblocks in trying to reach the demonstrators’ camps or if he’ll be able to weather the North Dakota climate once he gets there. The forecast calls for high temperatures in the single digits from Tuesday through Friday with nighttime lows below zero.

“I’ve never really been exposed to that, not four or five straight days of it outdoors,” he said. “If I get out there and they say go in the kitchen and peel potatoes for five days, that’s what I’ll do.” ••

Treading water Day 1 diary: www.bsmphilly.com/2016/dec/6/treading-water-day-1/#.WEdGTSMrLyg

Tread­ing wa­ter Day 2 di­ary: www.bsmphilly.com/2016/dec/7/treading-water-day-2/#.WEhbKKIrLCY

Tread­ing wa­ter Day 3 di­ary: http://www.bsmphilly.com/2016/dec/8/treading-water-day-2/#.WEmsciMrLyg

Tread­ing wa­ter Day 4 di­ary: www.bsmphilly.com/2016/dec/9/treading-water-day-4/#.WEsmcSMrLyg

MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

A natural cause: Parkwood resident Mike Doyle, 39, expects to arrive at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Monday afternoon and stay through Friday. “I decided to go after I saw them use water cannons (on demonstrators) in the freezing cold,” he said. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO