CANNON BALL, N.D. — The killing and injuring of cattle and horses is one of the most emotionally charged incidents associated with the pipeline protests in Sioux and Morton Counties in North Dakota.
Authorities are investigating reports of livestock being killed or butchered — some even shot with arrows and left to suffer. The reports have made national news and helped build a case for a stronger law enforcement response in the area of the protests. For any outsider, the facts in the situation are hard to pin down.
The most notable cases involve Jack Paul Thomas, a white rancher who is engaged to an American Indian woman. The couple live on a ranch site owned by his brother, Frank, about a half-mile east and south of Cannon Ball, N.D., which is a reservation settlement of about 200 people.
Cattle death incidents have occurred on a 360-acre pasture that lies adjacent to the Camp of the Sacred Stone, the original protester camp established around April 1.
While Thomas says he's a victim in this case, he has his own history of legal problems. Most recently, on Oct. 19, a neighbor accused him of stealing a horse — a charge he denies. He says the "stolen" horse was recovered from his corral, but it was in plain sight of North Dakota Highway 1806. He has appeared in court once on that case.
More significantly, he has a string of legal convictions and has served time for livestock theft, but says that doesn't have anything to do with the cattle deaths.
Thomas, 49, has lived in the Cannon Ball area all his life.
His fiancee, Jeffrie Marie Cavanaugh-Thomas, 31, is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Together, the couple operates J&J Thomas and Sons Horse and Cattle Company, a cow-calf and quarterhorse business. Jack Paul Thomas said they have about 400 cows and more than 200 horses.
Significantly, the Thomas family is involved in a lease dispute with LaDonna (Brave Bull) Allard, the central figure in the Sacred Stone Camp.
Allard, 60, a professional historian and genealogist for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said she has attempted to terminate a lease that Thomas claims on the pasture, which is on land owned by the Brave Bull family. She lives 25 miles south at Fort Yates, and started the prayer camp on Army Corps land next to the 360-acre pasture, where the recent livestock incidents have occurred.
This past June, Allard filed to establish a nonprofit company to build a cultural, environmental youth camp on the land where Thomas maintains his cattle, and where cattle have been injured, killed or have gone missing.
Thomas said he runs cattle on about 6,000 acres total — about 500 acres in the Cannon Ball area, including the 360-acre Brave Bull tract. He said his family historically subleased the Brave Bull property from David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Now, he said the lease is in his fiance’s name. "She's an enrolled member,” Thomas said. “It's easier to get leases when you're an enrolled member.”
The lease, he said, is about $17 per acre. "It's a fair rate, I guess."
String of claims
On April 1, Allard started the Sacred Stones Camp, because regional tribe members needed a place to pray to "save the water" because the "DAPL pipeline was going to kill the water." She sees it as a place for prayer and vision quests.
But things started heating up between Thomas and Allard through the summer, as people flooded the camp.
On Sept. 27, Thomas says he found two dead black Angus cows above the Sacred Stone Camp, on the leased 360-acre pasture. He also found a dead Palomino quarter horse. "I turned it in to insurance, and from there on it gradually went on,” Thomas says. “From then until we worked cattle, that's when I noticed we were short cattle."
On Oct. 9, he was rounding up cattle and found the heads of some of his cows behind the Sacred Stone Camp — no other remains were found.
On Oct. 11, Thomas was sorting cattle and confirmed he was short 23 cows, plus some calves. Cows today are worth about $1,200 and calves around $800, he says.
On the morning of Oct. 17, he discovered in his pasture one cow had two arrows stuck in her stomach and another cow had a hole in its shoulder. Brand inspectors visited the ranch and photographed the affected animals.
On Oct. 19, a brood mare was dead, with a hole in her neck, and a square-shaped hole in the skin, possibly to hide what had caused the injury. "It's a perfect cut; no animal would do that," he says.
On Oct. 26, a neighbor, George Keepseagle, found six cows and five calves that belonged to Thomas.
Allard says it's preposterous to think the camp members killed the animals for food. Butchering the animals would have been obvious and would have taken time for unskilled protesters. Many are urbanites who are vegetarian. She says the area is under constant surveillance from law enforcement.
"Most of this is gossip and rumor," Allard says.
Allard's father, Frank Brave Bull, lived on the land now leased by the Thomas family, and raised horses and cattle. The Brave Bull family established a 1-acre cemetery in 1997 when Frank died, and seven people are now buried there.
She claims to control the lease on the pasture where she wants to expand the camp. She has 17 siblings, including 11 living, each of whom owns a piece of the pasture, though she owns 27 acres. This past summer, she went to the Land Operations office at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and asked that any lease with the Thomas family be terminated. Allard claims she's "never seen a lease with any Thomases."
Until November 2015, she says, the pasture had been leased to Archambault, who is married to one of Allard's cousins.
"We've never had cattle; all of a sudden, these (Thomas) cattle show up,” Allard says. “I don't like cows."
Paul Thomas, 77, Jack's father, says he had leases in the Cannon Ball area, and formerly had leases on the Brave Bull family land, but gave them up. "We had so much trouble with fences, and cattle getting in the 'taken area' and going south, and cattle on the highways." He says he got disgusted and turned the leases to his son, Jack. He still leases 80 acres.
Jack and Allard offer markedly different descriptions of who is doing what with fences.
"That camp just tore everything out; it's a mess," Jack says. "As they got bigger, the fences disappeared. They would cut all our fences, and chase cows out onto fields. It's a big, big headache."
Other leased pastures adjoin the 360-acre pasture, but with all of the newcomers it was difficult to keep gates shut and animals in place, he says. "We were up there four or five times a day fixing fence, to keep the cattle in where they were supposed to (be). Every day, three-quarters of our day goes to checking fences in that area, making sure the cattle were all right." Jack says by leasing the pasture, he is entitled to Corps land access to the river for water.
Allard, on the other hand, says the Thomases are "forever cutting our fences, letting these cows all over the place," down on Army Corps land. "I'm spending all of this money, fixing fences," she says. "The cows are not where they're supposed to be."
Allard says the Thomas family told her in June they'd delivered a $7,000 check to ensure he'd get the lease. But, she says tribal land officials told her in May or June they'd notified Jack that he was trespassing on the land, a fact tribal officials weren't immediately available to confirm.
In August, Allard received a pasture rent check from the BIA, but says she never cashed the check, which would account for 27 acres, or about $459 by his description. She couldn't say whether any of her siblings had cashed their checks.
Allard wants the Thomas cattle gone for good. She says they've obstructed traffic on the unpaved road through the pasture to the Sacred Stone Camp entrance. They trampled a one-acre family grave plot during a two-day period the fences were down after a recent burial. "That's not even human," she says. "People should not allow that." She couldn't say why cattle might avoid an unfenced plot, but says buffalo would not make the same mistake.
In late August or early September, Jack says his family saw Allard on Facebook posted a general invitation to the public for the collection of free livestock. "She said, 'Come one, come-all, help yourself to free cattle, free horses. We'll help you round them up. Just come and get them off our land.’"
Allard confirms she did create the post, and explains: "They're in my way."