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Understanding Standing Rock: My Experience at Oceti Sakowin Camp

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MNSU chapter.

On top of Facebook Hill, as it is known to water protectors, the Oceti Sakowin Camp stretches for miles. Tipis, yurts, tents, campers, cars and even school buses serve as shelters and homes for the people gathered there. Hundreds of flags run along the perimeter of the camp and down the main road. Recognized and unrecognized Native American nations, universities, organizations and different countries have planted their flags in a show of solidarity.

Over the past few weeks, the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline became public. Although the fight has been going on since North Dakota approved the pipeline in January, the publicity gained through Facebook check-in’s and celebrity arrests made people take notice. Mainstream media has finally chosen to acknowledge this movement that has the whole world watching. Supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux come from across the nation and from across the world. I was fortunate enough to have spent time at the camp, and was able to see with my own eyes exactly what we are fighting for.

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)?  

Dakota Access LLC is the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline is meant to transfer crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, under the Missouri River, to a terminus in Illinois. 38 miles of the pipeline’s route cuts through territory that still belongs to the Great Sioux Nation (according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851). The company claims the pipeline is safe, and the Standing Rock Sioux shouldn’t fear their water sources being contaminated. It should be noted that the original path of the pipeline was rerouted from running through Bismarck, ND because Bismarck’s citizens feared their water would be poisoned if the pipeline were to leak or burst.

Mni Wiconi: Water is Life

The Standing Rock Sioux are not the only people affected if the pipeline were to contaminate the water. The Missouri River flows 2,341 miles before entering the Mississippi River. Over 2.5 million people get their drinking water from the Missouri River alone, not including the rivers and tributaries it feeds into.

Water is also incredibly sacred to many Native American nations. The DAPL wouldn’t just be an environmental disturbance, but a cultural one as well. Water is used for ceremonies and cultural traditions. Water is Medicine. Water is life.

You’re on Native Land

Tribal sovereignty in the United States is defined as the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America. A sovereign nation is one that has the right to govern itself. Recognized Native American Nations have their own forms of tribal government and laws that are sometimes separate from those of the United States. The DAPL is problematic because it’s proposed route runs through land that was given to the Great Sioux Nation in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Essentially, by approving and supporting the pipeline the United States is invading another country, because the Standing Rock Sioux are considered a sovereign nation. Invasion of another country is an act of war, and it’s obvious to the protectors in the Oceti Sakowin Camp that we are living in a war zone.

Federal Forces

Police and private security hired by Dakota Access LLC and Energy Transfer Partners use war-like tactics to harass and attack protectors. 24 hours a day, the humming engines of low flying planes and helicopters can be heard throughout camp. The constant surveillance and disruption of peace and quiet is considered by many protectors to be a form of “psychological warfare.”

There have also been instances of excessive force and torture tactics used by the police and hired security. Protectors, including elders and children, have been bitten by attack dogs, pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and beaten by police officers. Protectors have been stripped searched and left naked in cells to be harassed by officers. Some protectors have even reported being kept in dog kennels instead of regular cells. These tactics are “cruel, inhuman and degrading,” according to Amnesty International.

I witnessed these aggressive tactics first hand. Around 1 a.m. on Oct. 24 we awoke to screaming outside the tent. What had been sounds of drum beats, laughter and singing just minutes before quickly became sounds of terror.

I woke up to a woman screaming outside the tent, “The hill is on fire! Everyone wake up, the hill is on fire!” I scrambled out of the tent to see the hill directly across from the entrance from camp up in flames. I watched in horror with the other protectors as the flames grew from the size of a large bonfire to a full on prairie fire. When the smoke cleared in the morning, a black scar of about 400 acres of burned land stretched across the horizon. The cause of the fire is being reported as “unknown” or “under investigation,” but protectors have our own narratives and speculations.

Camp Life

These aggressive tactics carried out by police create a sense of mistrust and even hatred between protectors and federal agents. For example, while hanging out with a little girl, she displayed how she had been taught to feel about “the enemy.” Upon hearing the sound of a surveillance helicopter approaching, she looked to the sky and gave the chopper the finger (and it was awesome).

Children are ever present at the camp. I had the fortunate opportunity to meet two little boys, Carter and Kobe, cousins who instantly became a pain in my neck and my favorite little protectors. Kobe, who I would quickly learn was a trouble maker, spent hours hanging out with us in the kitchen. He even proclaimed very determinedly that he would ride his bike to Minnesota when he found out we were leaving the next day. Carter spent most of the night trying to steal my fry bread and receiving piggy back rides from his cousin.

The willingness of these children to get to know complete strangers demonstrates the innocence they carry with them. Children are impressionable, and the violent tactics carried out by federal agents is how they are being taught to view them; as the “bad guys.”

Children are also ever present at the camp. Many protectors are living there permanently with their entire families. Police have expressed wanting to bring child endangerment charges against protectors who have children at the camp, choosing to ignore the fact children wouldn’t be in danger if federal agents weren’t invading their home.

Despite the threat of police and hired security, there is a sense of peace at camp. A gathering of Native nations of this magnitude has never been seen in history. Protectors from all over the world have moved into camp, I met a woman who had come all the way from Australia. Each one of them ready to defend the water and sacred sites at risk if the pipeline is constructed. Structures are being winterized and cold weather donations are flooding in. Protectors are preparing to ride out the bitter plains winters. Through prayer and peaceful demonstration, we will kill the black snake.


How You Can Help

Visit the Sacred Stone Website for all the ways to get involved, or stay updated through the camps offical Facebook page. 

Her Campus MNSU writer. Mass Media major at Minnesota State University, Mankato.