Journey to Standing Rock: Water is Life

Minutes before arriving at Sacred Stones Camp, a bald eagle swooped straight for the windows of our bus, then switched directions, swerving to fly alongside us for a moment that could have been years long. The bus erupted into cheers, applause, and calls of “A, ho!” He was so close; I could see his eyes, the speckles on his underbelly, and the exact variation of color in his wings. Then he flew away, and amidst the cheering and exclamations, Robert, a new friend of mine, said, “He winked at me, I swear he winked at me!” I rolled my eyes and laughed, but after something as miraculous as that, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was telling the truth. Seeing that eagle, whether a coincidence or not, banished the doubts from my mind; coming to Standing Rock was the right decision. As a white ally, I understood that this story of Native resistance of corporate powers did not belong to me, but I knew that I still had a part to play.

                                                                                                           Photo credit: Robert Pilot

For those who don’t know, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), owned by the corporation Energy Transfer Partners LP, is proposed to travel across four states and transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Originally routed to cross the Missouri River south of Bismarck, it was moved to avoid “populated areas” and now is set to cross under the aquifer of the Great Sioux Reservation, endangering both drinking water and the surrounding natural environment in general. The Standing Rock Lakota Nation has also claimed that both construction and planned constructions sites pass through burial grounds as well as historical ceremony sites.  “It’s important for us as Native Americans to preserve sacred tribal land,” said Lynn Rice, of White Earth Nation. “We have already had so much taken from us. When will it stop if we don’t stop it now?” 

Seeing the encampment for the first time, I was speechless. I understood why earlier Robert, the same man who had supposedly received a wink from the eagle, had, with an uncharacteristically serious look on his face, called this his Mecca. Hundreds of flags lined the highway as well as the road leading into the camp. More than a thousand tents and teepees covered the field. According to the BBC, this is the “largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years.” I didn’t doubt it for a second; the unity in the space was tangible, as if you could reach out and touch it just as easily as one might reach out to another human being.

                                                                                                        Photo credit: Robert Pilot

Our group, numbering over 100, many of whom were indigenous youth, entered the camp on foot chanting “Mni Wiconi,” the Lakota words for “Water is Life”.  We went straight to the sacred fire at the center of the encampment and officially asked the chiefs and leaders there for permission to join them. Every one of us was welcomed like a long lost relative. 

A month ago, a federal judge refused the tribe’s request to pause construction of the pipeline, but the appeals court temporarily restricted construction within 20 miles of either side of Lake Oahe.  This is a temporary win for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, but the U.S. District Court has not yet made a decision on the tribe’s request for a permanent end to the construction, set to pass within a half mile of the reservation.  The energy of the camp at our arrival and throughout the weekend was optimistic, but it was impossible to forget the constant threat of the “black snake”. The pipeline is named “black snake” after an old Lakota prophecy, wherein a large black snake stretches across the land and poisons the earth, only to be defeated at the last minute by the native people.

At its core, this movement is spiritual. Many who support the cause don’t participate in direct action or protest, but instead pray. I was honored to be able to witness ceremonial dances from a variety of tribes and traditions, including Aztec dancing. Songs of prayer, strength, and celebration were near constant. I heard them waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night, the drum as consistent as a heartbeat. 

Back at home, what little mainstream media buzz I had heard on the subject of DAPL had been, of course, violence based. My experience and the words of people there, however, told a different story. Delbert Blackfox Pomani, a Dakota Chief, told me, “We are not violent people. We are very peaceful, very spiritual people. I could go anywhere, stick my hand in the ground, and talk to God. He hears me. This is the first time we have gotten to all be together, sing together, pray together, and they still want to take that from us. They dread this day, that we come together. The whole world is looking at us now.” 

And it is. Though the mainstream media has been lacking in its reports of the history being made at Standing Rock, the word is still spreading through social media and independent news outlets. People from Sweden, Britain, New Zealand, and more have travelled thousands of miles to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Nation. As winter comes on, people are making plans and preparing for the coming months. The message is clear; no one is leaving.

As a Ho Chunk man named Curtis West told me, “I have eight grandchildren. And they might have children and grandchildren. When they grow up, I want them all to have a clean environment, clean drinking water.” This feeling is echoed throughout the anti DAPL movement. It is for future generations that this pipeline is fought, so youth leadership is highly valued. There is a youth council at the Sacred Stones Camp that is involved in major decision-making processes. While I was there, the majority of the group was in Arizona speaking on behalf of the Lakota people.  

                                                                                                      Photo credit: Robert Pilot

On the eight-hour bus ride home, I was able to get the perspective of some of my new friends. Jack Aaron Theis, a member of the Pembina band of Chippewa Indians, brought up an issue I hadn’t even considered in regards to DAPL; “People think ‘Oh, they just don’t want their environment to be messed up’ but it’s a lot more than that. When an oil company comes in to build, they bring man camps. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but with these huge camps of hundreds of guys and an underserved, impoverished community nearby, it can be.  70% of violence against native women is perpetrated by non-native men and that’s not spoken about a lot.” Despite his concerns, Jack’s positivity was unwavering; “I think that what’s happening with Standing Rock is kind of the last straw and that major progression is going to be made. There’s going to be a huge shift in indigenous sovereignty in the US and the way in which native laws are respected.”

Standing at a light rail station in Minneapolis, I thought of the certainty of a warm bed and a cup of tea waiting for me back at Gustavus. Despite the beauty and power of the last few days, the thought of home was a comfort. It occurred to me that, never in my life had that comfort been threatened. The words of Chief Blackfox echoed in my mind; “Us native people, this is our home. These other people, they can get mad and they can go back to wherever they came from and forget it, but we can’t. Where are we going to go? If they dirty up everything, where are we going to go?”