At 8:30am, three men with a loudspeaker called from the back of a little black pickup: “We gather in 30 minutes. We’re going out to stop their work on the pipeline. Remember why you are here. Protect the water. Ready your camp. Water is sacred. Remember why you came.” We stop our packing and listen. The truck continues past the Oglala area, the Seneca, the Hunkpapa, scores of other tribe’s camps. Past teepees strong in the plains wind, past flapping blue tarps and flattened tents. The nearly 300 flags on twenty-foot poles along the long camp entrance ramp flap proudly behind the truck and its call to action. We get the kids, some snacks, and water, and drive over to the ramp. Cars are ready to roll out. People looking for rides hop into pickup beds. We’re sent off with raised fists from those we pass and calls of “Mni Wiconi”—water is life.
First stop is the front line camp—a dozen tents and supplies on each side of the main road that runs north-south between Bismarck and Cannonball, the small town on the north edge of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation. We’re just a mile from the main camp, about 40 miles south of Bismarck. This camp is literally blocking the progress of the Dakota Access Pipe Line. The Missouri River is visible to the east, maybe half a mile away.
We park along the road, not knowing what we’ll be doing but so glad to be here. We’ve spent the last four days trying to help the effort in any way we can—splitting fire wood for the cooking and water-heating fires, preparing meals at the food tents, serving food, and doing dishes, lots and lots of dishes. Doing chores, we meet people and to get a better understanding of the flow of the camp. Folks are from California, Tennessee, Maryland, and just down the road from Fargo. Retirees from Pennsylvania, a young actress from LA, a New York mother with her two kids, an atheist from Texas. “Why are you here?” I ask. The answers vary, but all felt pulled to be at Standing Rock. There is a palpable sense of history in the making. The Standing Rock protest is at the intersection of human rights and environmental justice.
Of “Keep It in the Ground” on Native Land. Of economic inequity and structural oppression. This is the Great Turning in action, led by youth, by women, by native peoples who have survived genocide.
At the front line camp, we run into David Solnit, the art organizer for 350.org whom we met in Reno for an action against fracking several months back. He’s hastily screwing his trademark beautifully made signs onto wooden poles to hand out to the crowd. I lend a hand, and it feels great to see a familiar face. Katy, meanwhile, has run into another friend. A young man who’s been at Standing Rock for a couple months and who was arrested some weeks prior after chaining himself to a bulldozer. He is wearing a bandana to hide his face and is facing felony charges (reckless endangerment) for that action. Katy asks if he’s nervous about the possibility of five years in prison. He is, but he’s hoping for the best and committed to this work.
We listen to two speakers who remind us that this is a nonviolent action, that we’ll be heading to a work site. That we’re among warriors whose job is to protect the elders, women, and children among us (It’s not mentioned, but there are many female warriors). Prayers are said in a native language, small prayer flags flutter on the fence behind us. We head out again, this time towards the work site.
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We feel like guests here, welcome guests, but guests all the same. It is a learning experience for me—a white middle class man used to organizing, to be in the minority; to be quiet, to follow, to listen. It’s not my land or even directly my water, but I can help and I can bring back the courage, wisdom, and hope from Standing Rock to my home in Reno. Natives are keeping the fires, overseeing the cooking, directing the donations, leading the actions. And not just at this camp but also across the river at the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp. All this work is concentrated in the heart of the camp where big wall tents and well-anchored pop-ups constitute a warren of food, water, wood, and tools. This is where announcements are made, people speak, the drums beat and dances occur. Prayers are said in native tongues throughout each day and until midnight every night. Donations come here, where we unloaded our 16’ box truck of winter clothes, tents, sleeping bags, a solar power station, a giant Vietnam-era wall tent, and a thousand pounds of potatoes and onions donated by folks in Reno and the surrounding areas.
Our trip out here was organized fast. We had been following Standing Rock for weeks, and one day Katy came up to me in the garden and said she felt called to be there. In Quaker parlance, she was experiencing a powerful leading. How could we help? I asked. Within the week we had met with local natives (several of whom had already been there and back) to answer that question, organized a rally downtown in solidarity with Standing Rock and to “Fill the Truck” (Gloria Steinem even stopped by to give her support), had T-shirts made, and raised $3,800 to fund the trip. Our family was joined by two others, one a Paiute, to make a small caravan for the 20-hour trip.
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We’re about 40 cars back in the convoy, crisscrossing back roads through farm and grass land, catching glimpses of the pipeline cut over the gentle hills, every so often passing the turquoise pipes themselves, laid out, unconnected, on the earth. A yellow helicopter has been following us, buzzing back and forth low over our convoy, since we left camp. A single engine plan is circling higher up.
We reach the site and find the workers gone. The helicopters (and informers, many say) have alerted them well before our arrival. The pipes are connected here and are being set into the ground to go under the road. There is a large mound of earth to one side of the “black snake”. We park on the shoulder as more cars pull forward. People stream out and converge next to the pipeline. Signs come out, people climb the mound and start hurling clods of earth onto the pipeline itself. There is anger, joy, and anticipation. The little black truck pulls up, and the organizers start to speak again. “We have stopped their work again. [cheers] Every day we stop them it costs them $500,000. We’ve protected the water. Mni Wiconi! [more cheers]”
An announcement is made, “Our scouts tells us that a paddy wagon is on the way. The police are coming. Do we want to stay or leave?” The crowd answers with raised fists and a resounding “Stay!” “Warriors protect the elders, warriors to the front, women and children in the middle. This is a peaceful protest.” We can see flashing police lights in the distance. The crowd, at least 400 of us, surges forward towards the coming police. We march a couple hundred yards down the road. “Warriors to the front” Maybe a dozen horses and riders are out, riding to the front. The police—or is it the military?—arrive in force. They come with two armored vehicles, one with an open turret with a man perched behind a shield, holding an automatic weapon. They fan out along the road, about 50 in body armor and riot gear, armed with shotguns and rifles. It’s a scary sight, and we hang back with our kids. “We are unarmed. The police are not our enemy. We are protecting their water and their grandchildren’s water, too.” The horsemen ride down the road asking all of us to clear the way—the police want the road cleared. As if maintaining that bit of law and order in the middle of some North Dakota cornfields with not a house or other person in sight justifies this obscene show of force. These natives on horseback are powerful to see. The spirit of the Plains Indian is alive and riding among us. The police stand shoulder-to-shoulder, grim behind their masks. We see our masked friend again, and he is elated. He tells us this is the best-organized and highest turnout they’ve had for an action to date.
Up front, the police and the lead organizers are talking. Chants go up every so often, flags and signs are waving, and then a line forms, and the protectors start shaking the police officers’ hands; one after another, forming a continuous line of handshaking, eye contact humanizing and deescalating the moment. The tension ebbs. Eventually, “We’ve won today! Let’s go to the next site.” Whoops and hollers as we disperse and head to our cars. Ours happens to be behind the police line and behind the armored vehicles. We walk there and see for the first time just how many police there are: twenty or so cars – Bismarck police, state police, county sheriff, the paddy wagon driven by two National Guard troops in their fatigues. It dawns on me just how expensive this action was for law enforcement and how much money it’s costing the government, our government, to protect the pipeline and I smile.
The convoy rolls away with the police standing aside. The helicopter still swoops, the plane still circles. We peel off from the convoy to head back to Reno. It’s 2:00pm and we’re moved to tears by our day.
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On our ride home, we try to follow the goings-on at Standing Rock, but news coverage of the blockade is scant. We learn through social media that there was another action the day after we left, with an equal show of force by the police; several arrests were made. In one video, a policeman is loading his shotgun just yards from the protectors. I see fear moving through the crowd, and their hands go up. “We’re unarmed,” they repeat again and again. My eyes well with tears again, so heartened am I by the courage of these water protectors.
December 4: Federal officials have denied the final permits required for the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The Army Corps of Engineers announced it would instead conduct an environmental impact review of the 1,170-mile pipeline project and determine if there are other ways to route it to avoid a crossing on the Missouri River.
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen reported on Dec. 22:
I have heard from folks who’ve been there recently that pipeline drilling continues and the water protectors will be there as long as they need to be. This is far from over.
My hope is to return in February or a bit later in the spring. Two of our friends from Reno were arrested a couple months back at a peaceful protest and now face trumped up felony charges, trials on Feb 27th. One, a senior citizen and a veteran of Vietnam (he was wearing his hat that day), was taken down and manhandled by three police officers after doing nothing but standing in a line. They were both strip-searched and kept overnight in jail. The legal team got them out.