Standing Rock: Where Love Prevails
A thousand-year-old Lakota prophecy tells of a Black Snake that would one day rise from the deep and move across the land bringing destruction and great sorrow. The Sioux believe that the Black Snake has arrived in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the most powerful economic and political force in the world - the fossil fuel industry.
Not long after our group of travelers arrived at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota for a weeklong stay at the native-owned casino hotel, we began to meet Water Protectors, who were suffering from a police attack a few days before our arrival.
From home I had watched the horrifying scene on live stream. Blocked from escape, hundreds of unarmed Water Protectors on the bridge across the Cannonball River were blasted with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. I could see clouds of tear gas and hear people screaming and calling for a medic as the cameraman expressed disbelief that this was happening to unarmed civilians. Later we got the full report that exploding percussion grenades had severely damaged a native woman’s eye and blown off most of the arm of a 21-year-old woman from New York. Several hundred were hospitalized for hyperthermia and injuries. In earlier confrontations, non-violent Water Protectors defending sacred sites from bulldozers were beaten with batons, bitten by vicious dogs, arrested, stripped searched and locked up for days in jail cells or held in dehumanizing dog kennels.
Now we were meeting victims first hand. The native-led Water Protectors, as they call themselves, rather than protestors, are living in nearby encampments to defend the land, water and sacred sites of the Sioux. There is no running water in the camps, so as other hotel guests were doing, we offered our rooms for hot showers. A young native man still covered with tear gas residue sprayed on him three days earlier, was suffering from a deep cough. Another had a broken hand. A native woman who worked on camp security fell asleep from exhaustion on one of our beds. Before taking his shower, a non-native ally who served as a medic showed us a blue colored rubber bullet about the size of a golf ball, one of many that had lacerated heads, broken bones and knocked people unconscious, including an elder. The medic had been thrown backward when he was hit squarely in the chest. He thought that surely, the large red cross he wore on the front of his jacket had been used as a target.
When I first caught sight of the law enforcement officers a few days later, I felt a chill. Dozens of helmeted policeman stood in a row along the high ridge of Turtle Island, a place of ancient burial sites sacred to the Sioux. Dark figures silhouetted against the sky loomed menacingly above the peaceful protestors gathered at the base of the hill holding a large banner reading Indigenous Sovereignty Protects Water. Behind them along the banks of the Cannonball River sprawled an encampment of teepees, tents, yurts, trailers, horse corrals and old school buses. Guarding the bridge where the recent attack had taken place, another row of police officers in riot gear wearing black helmets with face guards held bully sticks across their bullet proof vests as they stood behind shining coils of razor wire and concrete barriers flanked by armored vehicles.
These armed forces were protecting what lay out of view behind them - the construction of the oil pipeline headed toward the nearby Missouri River. The original route of the pipeline had run to the north near the city of Bismarck, a largely white community that had insisted the pipeline be rerouted down stream to cross the river next to the Sioux reservation. If successful the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would bore under the river, threatening the source of drinking water for the reservation and millions downstream in its mission to carry 20 million gallons a day of crude oil fracked from the Bakken oil fields. With the frequency of oil spills increasing, including two major recent spills in North Dakota, the danger is real. If the pipeline does succeed in bringing the oil to market, it will produce the carbons equivalent to 30 coal power plants every year for 20 years or more.
Mni Wiconi -- Water is Life -- is the call from Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), the largest of several camps at Standing Rock, named for the seven tribes of the Sioux nation, which include the Lakota. Located next to the reservation and preserved for indigenous use under the 1851 Treaty of Laramie, this land was never ceded by the Sioux. Oceti Sakowin and the first camp called Sacred Stone were started in the spring of 2016, and joined by several other encampments, all run by volunteers. Non-violent and spiritually centered, the Standing Rock movement honors the sacredness of the natural world. Throughout the campsDefend the Sacred is printed on banners and on t-shirts proudly worn by native teenagers. All seven tribes of the great Sioux Nation, some former enemies, have joined together at Oceti Sakowin for the first time since Little Big Horn. Along the camp’s main road wave the colorful flags of some 300 tribes who have journeyed across the Americas, from Argentina to Alaska, bringing traditional dress, ceremonial pipes and drums to join the Sioux in the largest gathering of Native Americans in recorded history.
In support of this native-led movement tens of thousands of non-native allies have joined the camps swelling them at one point to as many as 10,000. Many more have visited to bring supplies and resources to support Standing Rock. Our group of 35 traveled to North Dakota to cook and serve 2000 dinners on Thanksgiving to express our gratitude to Native Americans for protecting Mother Earth, as they have throughout history. The Wopila (thank you) Brigade, as we called ourselves, spent two days at the Standing Rock Community High School kitchen, preparing the dinner, which we served in the school gymnasium, as well as distributed in the camps. Our brigade worked hand-in-hand with the school staff, who brushed away tears when they thanked us for coming, explaining that for so long the native community had felt unseen and forgotten.
Our dinner began with a prayer by elder Jesse Taken Alive who had given a Lakota name to the event that translates Because We Believe Them, We Are Feeding Them. In continuous loops from the camps, the Water Protectors arrived in school buses and were offered hot showers in the locker rooms before heading to the buffet. Jane Fonda appeared and asked me how she could help. “How about dishing out the mashed potatoes,” I suggested, which she happily did. With their plates heaping with turkey, potatoes and gravy, and an array of vegetable dishes, our guests made their way to the gymnasium to take seats at long banquet tables we had covered in the Sioux colors of the four directions - red, yellow, black and white. Displayed on the tables and along one wall were colorful thank you cards made by Philadelphia area school children drawn in crayon with messages such as, “thank you First Nation People for helping the air and water and earth. Ethan, third grader.”
During the dinner, an open mike attracted a variety of speakers, singers and performers, including some from our delegation, such as Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir from NYC, who also bussed tables as new groups arrived for dinner. After a native drum circle performance, the leader asked those who had prepared the feast to come forward. As we knelt at the edge of the stage, a seemingly endless line of Water Protectors filed past us shaking hands, giving hugs and thanking us for the feast, creating an emotional ending to an evening that had united people from across the country in support of a cause that no single one of us could fully comprehend in its enormity, yet each had come to serve in our own modest way.
Following Thanksgiving, our group spent several days at Oceti Sakowin, beginning with an orientation for new arrivals. Sitting on straw bales in a tent, we were schooled by seasoned non-natives about Lakota values and made to understand that this indigenous-led movement is a continuation of 500 years of resistance to colonization. As guests at this ceremonial prayer camp, we were expected to give more than we take, be of use in the maintenance of the camp, and unlearn our unconscious acts of white privilege, including our desire to control and push forward our own ideas. We were instructed to listen and learn, show compassion for all, including ourselves when we made mistakes, honor wisdom and truth, and act respectfully and with humility.
At Oceti Sakowin, where weapons, drugs and alcohol are banned, we observed native people and their allies living in a welcoming, inclusive community that exemplified these values. When someone needed something, it was given freely, as we found when we waited in line for a cup of coffee or tea or came into a tent set up as a store that offered hundreds of items from lanterns to toothpaste at no charge. Both native and non-native volunteers had traveled far, leaving jobs and families to join the cause – cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, organizing supplies, helping to build tiny houses and install solar panels. Many had been serving at Standing Rock for over six months. In kitchens set up in large military tents throughout the camps, volunteers cooked three meals a day for thousands of hungry Water Protectors, using donated supplies that continually streamed into the camps. There was a sense of abundance, an almost magical flow of energy that I can only imagine as the power of love, and an indomitable feeling of hope in the collective resolve of this native-led, multi-cultural, intergenerational movement.
Around the Sacred Fire, always kept burning in the center of camp, drums beat and elders share wisdom for those who come to learn. Native youth from many tribes play a central role in leadership in the Standing Rock movement, speaking for the community at press conferences, organizing actions and patrolling the borders of the camps on horseback. Each morning before dawn during our visit, Water Protectors gathered around the Sacred Fire and an elder led a procession down to the river for a water ceremony just as the sun rose above the distant hills. As we engaged in these ceremonies, Standing Rock called us to feel our own spiritual connection to Mother Earth and be guided by her intelligence.
Despite the history of abuse and betrayal against them, the native people of Standing Rock offer love to all, even the oppressors. They are defending not only the future of their own children, they explain, but the children of the policemen and pipe layers as well. The native elders offer kind words to the police officers whenever there is contact. After the most vicious attacks, an elder formed a forgiveness procession to the sheriff’s office carrying a banner and a prayer bundle with blessings for the police officers and their families. When the sheriff posted a notice in the newspaper requesting donations for items the officers needed, a group of indigenous youth delivered all the supplies listed, including milk, energy bars, batteries and hand warmers.
For over 500 years, Native Americans have repeated the same story – we must care for Mother Earth, so that she can care for us. Finally, the descendants of white settlers are beginning to listen. Millions of supporters have joined this native-led movement by donating money and supplies, making calls and sending letters to government officials, holding supportive rallies under the banners of No DAPL and Water is Life, offering prayers, pulling money from banks who have invested in the pipeline company -- the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, and staging protests at bank offices.