On October 27, 2016 I sat in my office in Providence and watched on my computer as my unarmed friends were pepper sprayed, beaten, shot with rubber bullets and bean bags, and arrested. I sat glued to the choppy Facebook live streams, constantly refreshing the page and searching for others who were able to get a signal when one would drop. I live-tweeted the streams, desperately trying to get folks online to tune in and see what was happening. I retweeted and signal boosted, I even called the White House. Before I knew it, I looked at the clock and realized it had been over five hours.
I wasn’t watching a warzone in a foreign country; I was watching unarmed water protectors in North Dakota. My friends and thousands of others are fighting to protect water, land, and sovereignty, the front lines in a constant battle against setter colonialism. The target is the Dakota Access pipeline, a 1,100 mile long oil pipeline that would carry over 500,000 barrels of “sweet crude oil” a day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois. The pipeline is slated to travel under the Missouri river just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, on unceded treaty land from the 1851 Ft. Laramie treaty. When the pipeline breaks or leaks, it will poison the drinking water for Standing Rock, but also for millions of people downstream. The tribe has been against the pipeline since 2014, and in April a small group of water protectors (not protesters) started the Sacred Stone Camp on the land of Ladonna Brave Bull Allard. As construction heated up, the camp grew and grew, eventually outgrowing the quiet, protected, hilly land on the Cannon Ball river, and moving just across the way onto Army Corps of Engineer land (also 1851 treaty land)—becoming the large Oceti Sakowin (Oh-chet-ee Sha-co-wee) camp seen in photos and on the news. In late October a third camp was established, the north camp, Treaty Camp, or Sacred Ground camp—directly in the path of the pipeline. This was the camp broken up by the militarized police on the 27th.
(A timeline of events can be found here, detailing the court rulings, police clashes, and current state of things at camp.)
I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet on the blog on the topic, but I’ve been tweeting non-stop for months now. The truth is, I’ve struggled with how to write about DAPL when it feels so real, so scary, and so intense. I had the opportunity to head out to Standing Rock at the end of September with my friend Jenn, who is from Standing Rock, as well as a Brown graduate student, Greg, and met up with Jessica from Beyond Buckskin. The experience was beautiful and important, and hard to put into words.
Driving into the Oceti Sakowin Camp just north of Cannonball, ND is breathtaking. Fifteen minutes south of a National Guard staffed military-style roadblock, cars turn off the main highway onto a packed dirt path, lined with the flags of hundreds of tribal nations who stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Off this main camp road, as far as the eye can see are tents, tipis, and people. The result is a small city on the plains, with thousands of protectors—Native and non-Native—coming together to support Standing Rock, and to protect water and sacred sites.
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) September 25, 2016
At the main gate, security teams check in with entering cars, directing newcomers to check in, and reminding, “No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons.” At the end of the road of flags, a circle of chairs and tipis sit next to a sign declaring the “Direct Action Principles” of the camp. At the bottom of the list is the simple phrase: This is a ceremony. Act accordingly.
During the day at camp, children run and laugh, elders sit at the main fire welcoming in tribal delegations, and organizers make sure the logistics of camp are taken care of—feeding thousands of campers and visitors, boiling dozens of enormous pots of camp coffee, accepting donations, coordinating trash pick ups and portable bathroom cleanings. Up on “Facebook Hill” (one of the only points in camp with reliable phone service), the legal tent flaps in the breeze, staffed with volunteer lawyers and legal observers, and the media tent offers orientations for those wishing to receive a press pass. At night, the camp comes to life, with songs from disparate Native nations echoing around campfires, as tribal peoples from across the lands now known as the United States come together to share and connect. Laughter punctuates the night, deep, beautiful Native laughter, the kind of laughter that makes Native people feel at home.
I felt safe at camp; I didn’t want to leave. The power of the place is immediately apparent. Time operates differently, without reliable cell phone coverage or internet, the day and night unfold at their own pace. We wandered around, supporting how we could, meeting protectors, connecting with friends and family, watching, learning, and just being present.
But there is another sound that came out at night—the unnerving whine of low-flying surveillance aircraft circling the camp. Rumors swirl about the capabilities of these planes. The consensus seems to be that they are using infrared technology to map the humans at camp, but whispers say they can listen in, or even tap into cell phones and computers from afar. Their presence definitely interferes with cell service, and can be seen in the live streams from protectors dropping out as the planes circle over. But regardless of what they truly are capable of, those at the camp know—they’re being watched. Even a month ago when I was there, police presence was never far away, and DAPL security was upping their violent response to protectors. Which, clearly, escalated to the confrontation we saw last week.
What I need to stress, again, is the role of the protectors. They are there to stop the pipeline, but to do it in prayer and without weapons. They are there to fight for the recognition of the rights and presence of the Standing Rock Sioux, and to fight for the water and land. But this is not just a fight for the environment, and I want you to remember that. This is another battle in the ongoing resistance to settler colonialism.
The night after the intense show down at the North Treaty Camp, I couldn’t sleep. The images I’d watched on my screen all day played through my mind, I kept thinking about the hundreds of protectors sitting in concrete jail cells while I lay in my comfortable bed. All day I had been—without hyperbole—nearly certain I was going to watch someone die, and the stress weighed heavy. The next morning I tried to work on another piece of writing, and broke down in tears when Word ate it. The tears were not for the lost words, but for the fear and frustration and sadness at what I had watched on the plains. This is hard. With each day I am reminded again and again of how little we as Native peoples matter to US settler society.
The role of representations in this fight cannot be downplayed either, and deserves a whole other post—but the rhetoric in the media is nothing short of a Hollywood western with wild Indians, fearful settlers, bows and arrows, yipping painted warriors on horseback, and more. Combined with the world series and Chief Wahoo being splashed everywhere, is it any wonder we’ve seen Natives dehumanized and treated as wild savages by the police?
Right now, the pipeline is just miles from the water. With uninterrupted construction, they will reach the river in a week or so. DAPL still cannot drill under the river without an Army Corps permit—which the Obama administration has not yet granted. While Obama himself has been completely silent on the issue, this small protection is the last thing that stands between the pipeline and the water.
So now, what can you do?
You can check in to Standing Rock on Facebook if you want, the awareness and solidarity is great, but know that it’s not actually preventing arrests of protectors. Other concrete actions:
- Donate funds:
- To Standing Rock Directly (The tribe is funding the portable bathrooms, trash pick up, and other infastructure)
- To the Sacred Stone Camp legal defense fund
- To the Red Warrior Camp (direct action camp within Oceti Sakowin) legal defense fund
- The Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa school at camp
- Organize or attend a solidarity rally: https://nodaplsolidarity.org/
- Host a teach in on your campus or in your community with the Standing Rock Syllabus
- Educate your sphere of influence. Don’t wait for others to do it, step up and be the voice in your circle of friends/colleagues.
- Signal boost, share, and interpret news with a critical lens (check sources, confirm, question, and examine reports and stories before sharing. So much false information being spread.)
- I’ve been so grateful for Unicorn Riot for their coverage, they’ve been on the ground since this summer
- Follow the hashtags on twitter: #NoDAPL, #istandwithstandingrock, #rezpectourwater, #standingrock, #dakotaaccess
- Follow these folks on Facebook: Dallas Goldtooth, Myron Dewey, Esha Hoferer, Kandi Mossett, Tara Houska (if anyone has more, especially the women leaders, let me know!), Sacred Stone Camp, Red Warrior Camp, the Medic Collective, Red Owl Legal collective all have pages too. Dr0ne2bwild Photography & Video has been posting drone footage since the beginning as well.
- Divest your funds from the 30 banks funding the pipeline
- Call the White House:(202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414
- Contact the ND Governor, Senators, Sheriffs, and others responsible for the militarized response
Do you want to go to Standing Rock?
Protectors are asking more folks to come to Standing Rock. Native, non-Native, it doesn’t matter, there is a role for you in the fight. If you do decide to come, a few logistical tips:
- You can fly into Bismarck and drive down to camp—just not on highway 1806. It’s about an hour or so on Highway 6, the alternative route. It puts you just south of Oceti Sakowin.
- If you plan to camp, be prepared for very cold conditions and wind. There is food, portable restrooms, and some supplies if necessary, but seek to be as self-sustaining as possible.
- It’s also possible to stay at “camp casino”—the Standing Rock Prairie Knights Casino is just about 15 min south of Oceti Sakowin. Rooms are about $100 a night, but reserve online before you come, they sell out every night these days. The casino is tribally owned, so you’re supporting the tribe as well.
- At camp, default to those who are from Standing Rock, and those who have been part of this resistance for a long time. It is your place to listen, help out in any way possible, and be in the role of a supporter. That might mean washing dishes, sorting donations, picking up trash, chopping wood—not just going to the direct actions.
- If you choose to participate in the direct actions, attend a direct action training, and listen to those leading the action. The protectors are unarmed, peaceful, and prayerful. You must adhere to these principles.
- This is not the place for you to live out your burning-man-hippie-mystical Indian fantasies. Leave your weird fake regalia at home, no one is going to give you an Indian name or take you on a vision quest, put on your damn shoes, don’t stand at the main fire with your arms in the air “absorbing the energy,” and don’t treat the Natives at camp like you’re at a zoo. (I saw all this and worse. Will have to be another post.)
- Update: Here is an awesome set of resources from the Standing Rock Solidarity Network–Ally Resource Packet
Lastly, a note to the amazing Native college students around the country: I know how hard this is to watch from afar, and feel helpless as your relatives and friends head to North Dakota. But we need you to stay put. We need you to focus on your studies, and we need you to graduate. This fight is not just taking place at the camps, it’s taking place in the courtroom, in tribal council chambers, in the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice, supported by tribal historic preservation officers, tribal archaeologists, tribal council members, Native attorneys, Native filmmakers, Native professors, Native journalists, and more. As you well know, DAPL is just the most recent in centuries of injustice brought by settler colonialism, and there will be many more fights. And we need you to get your degree for those fights.
To jump into Aunty mode for a minute: I know the urge is strong to push the schoolwork aside, hop in the car, and get to the front lines. But stopping or dropping out isn’t supporting the movement, as hard as that may seem. Your education is the most powerful tool you have, and I want you to have that tool into the future for you, your family, and your community. We need you. I don’t want this to sound patronizing—I know you can make your own decisions, and I trust you to do what’s right for you and your education.
But regardless of where you are, please take care of yourself, and take care of your friends, and your campus community. Even if we’re not at Standing Rock, the weight of watching the videos and seeing the images is real. Talk to counseling services, talk to each other, take time away from the computer, and practice whatever self care you need. I know how hard this has been for me, I can only imagine how hard it is for you to watch as one of only a handful of Natives on your campus.
There’s work you can do in your sphere of influence. You can organize rallies, teach-ins, and fundraisers, you can use this semester as a chance to research and write papers about tribal consultation on environmental projects, Native activism, or the role of social media in the DAPL fight. Propose a summer research project studying soil samples from oil-contaminated areas. Look into the legal precedent set for the case in federal Indian law. Find ways to make your work relevant, and know that you’re deeply loved and being thought of and prayed for always.
Back to everyone else (you’re still reading, omg, thank you!), there are a million other angles to unpack with this fight, this 2000 word post just barely scratches the surface. Read, share, and educate yourself and others. The DAPL fight isn’t over. Far from it.
And if any protectors or organizers are reading this and I’ve shared misinformation or missed something, please let me know!
*So much gratitude to Jenn for making my trip possible, inviting me into her homelands, and continuing to share information with me and support our Brown Native community. My activism on this issue would not be possible without her, and I’m eternally grateful for her support.