The snow-scoured hills and buttes of the Missouri Breaks are dotted with isolated houses, until the sudden appearance of the Oceti Sakowin encampment on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The presence of so many people catches at the heart. Snow-dusted tepees, neon pup tents, dark-olive military tents, brightly painted metal campers, and round solid yurts shelter hundreds on the floodplain where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri. Flags of Native Nations whip in the cutting wind, each speaking of solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, or D.A.P.L., owned by Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics. This pipeline would pass beneath the Missouri River and imperil drinking water not only for the tribe but for farmers, ranchers, and townspeople all along the river’s course.
Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Fires, refers to the seven divisions of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, people who are perhaps best known for their resistance to colonization (Little Big Horn, 1876), their suffering (Wounded Knee, 1890), and their activism (Wounded Knee, 1973). One of their most famous leaders, Sitting Bull, was murdered in the town that is now their tribal headquarters, Fort Yates. Down the road from Fort Yates is the town of Cannonball, named for the large round stones polished by the whirlpool that marked the convergence of the two rivers, just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp. The round stones disappeared when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri, in a giant project that lasted from 1948 to 1962. The result of that project, Lake Oahe, flooded Standing Rock’s most life-giving land. The Lakota were forced onto the harshly exposed grazing uplands, and they haven’t forgotten that, or much else. History is a living force in the Lakota way of life. Each of the great events in their common destiny includes the direct experience of ancestors, whose names live on in their descendants. It is impossible to speak of what is now happening at Standing Rock without taking into account the history, as well as the intense spirituality, that underlies Seven Fires resistance.
On December 3rd, veterans from all over the country began to arrive at Standing Rock. Jack Dalrymple, the governor of North Dakota, and the Army Corps of Engineers had called for the camp to be cleared of protesters, who from the beginning have preferred the term “water protectors,” on the 5th. Vehicles were lined up for nearly a mile to get into the camp. It did not seem possible that many more people could fit onto the space, but somehow the camp seemed to morph to hold envoys from all over the globe. To name a few: Maori, Muslims, delegations of priests and ministers, people from more than ninety Native Nations, plus any number of Europeans, and various rock stars. The curious came, the bold, the devoted, not to mention the Water Wookie Warriors, whose pop-up camper had a “Star Wars” theme; passionate young Native people as well as seasoned elders joined the resistance camp. The arrival of veterans adept at winter survival and ready to join the fight against the pipeline was yet another influx.
A small group of veterans in various patterns of camouflage gathered before their first briefing, standing in the sun outside the tiny plywood and thermal-sheathed headquarters at the eastern edge of Oceti Sakowin. There had been rumors that supply stores in the area were not serving anti-D.A.P.L. customers, and that police were blocking or fining anyone who attempted to bring building supplies to Standing Rock. But, a few feet away, supplies were being unloaded and a barracks was quickly taking shape. A tall, rugged National Guardsman wearing a wool stocking hat and a tactical desert scarf talked to me before the briefing began.
“I have been on the front lines of other protests, but I’m here because of the brutality of this police response,” he said. “They thought they were way out here and could do anything.”
On October 7th, Dalrymple had requested backup for the Morton County police under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is normally used for natural disasters. Officers from twenty-four counties and sixteen cities in ten different states responded, bringing military-grade equipment, including Stingrays (cell-site simulators) and armored personnel carriers purchased under recent federal grants. On the night of November 20th, police weaponized water against the water protectors, causing seizures and hypothermia. The next day, the county sheriff, Kyle Kirchmeier, said, at a press conference, “It was sprayed more as a mist, and we didn’t want to get it directly on them, but we wanted to make sure to use it as a measure to help keep everybody safe.”
As we waited at the camp, in warm sun, I asked veterans at what moment they had decided to meet here. Most of them talked first about online videos of riot-gear-clad police using water cannons in subfreezing weather, of masked police tear-gassing water protectors, of Native people being maced as they held their hands up, and of the use of attack dogs. The disturbing scenes initiated by the Morton County police and other police units were instrumental in activating increased support for Oceti Sakowin.
“I am here because of state violence on behalf of a corporation,” Matthew, a genial, lightly dressed man, said. He’d put nineteen hundred and ninety miles on his modest sedan driving from Florida with a group of veterans. Some said that they regarded maintaining a clean water supply as a homeland-security issue, and corporate greed as the enemy. Other veterans talked about the oath they had taken to defend their country from “enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Brandee Paisano, a cheerful, fit, and forthright Navy veteran from the Laguna Pueblo tribe, said that she was there to keep the oath she had taken on enlistment. “I signed up to be of service, foreign and domestic. As a Native woman, it’s even more important for me to be strong and support my people.” She was also there to uphold the Constitution, she said. Many of the veterans recited parts of the Constitution–the First Amendment was mentioned most often.
Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. More non-Native people probably get to know American Indians via the military than any other way, except perhaps living in a city. (Urban Natives constitute more than half of the over-all U.S. Native population.) People in the military quickly become bound by mutual need, if not extreme duress. These are lasting friendships.
A veteran sporting reflective sunglasses and an undercut man-bun hopped up on a tree stump and began explaining that the mission many of them had in mind—to link arms in front of the water protectors while wearing their uniforms, walk forward, and take whatever punishment the Morton County police cared to deal them—was probably not on the Standing Rock tribe’s agenda.
“So if you hear a battle buddy talking about charging the fence, reel him in. This isn’t our mission. We’re here as an asset,” he said. “And if you come across a ceremony or hear singing, take off your hat, lock it up, and stand there.”
Later that day, tribal leaders held a meeting at Sitting Bull College. Two local veterans, Loreal Black Shawl and Brenda White Bull, took charge.
“The highest weapon of them all is prayer,” White Bull said. She explained that her Lakota name meant “Compassionate Woman.” Like so many Lakota, she was the granddaughter of a Second World War code talker, one of the Native soldiers who, using their own language, communicated in a code that was never broken. “The world is watching. Our ancestors are watching,” she said. “We are fighting for the human race.”
David Archambault II, the tribal chair, who from the beginning has led the resistance to the D.A.P.L. pipelines, told the veterans, “What you are doing is precious to us. I can’t describe the feelings that move over me. It is wakan, sacred. You all are sacred.”
Along with many other members of the Standing Rock community, Archambault has steered the encampment in a nonviolent direction. The camp’s direct-action group, Red Warrior, has maintained a discipline and humility that still speaks powerfully to people all over the world. A recently published photo of a person from that night of November 20th, covered in ice and praying, illustrates the deep resolve that comes from a philosophy based on generosity of spirit.
“People said, ‘I am ready to die for this,’ ” Archambault told the assembly. “But I want you to live. To be a good father, mother, uncle, sister, brother. I want you to live for my people.”
On the afternoon of December 4th, the Army Corps of Engineers made the stunning announcement that it had denied Energy Transfer Partners an easement to cross under the Missouri River. In the end, though, the veterans did take on a lifesaving mission. In every way that they could, they helped secure the camp against what turned out to be a blizzard of unexpected intensity. The blizzard arrived on December 5th, and, in the deep cold that followed, veterans reinforced shelters and helped maintain a spirit of coöperation that enabled the thousands of new camp members to survive their experience on Standing Rock.
Besides frostbite, what did people take away from there? This was probably the first time many non-Native people had been on a reservation, or in the presence of Native ceremonies. That’s a positive. The more people understand that Native Americans have their own religious rituals and objects of veneration—which to many non-Native people are simply features of the landscape—as well as cathedrals and churches, the better. Understanding the natural world as more than just a resource for energy, or a recreational opportunity, or even a food resource, gives moral weight to the effort to contain catastrophic climate change. Imagine if Energy Transfer Partners planned to drill underneath Jerusalem. Of course, the company wouldn’t consider such a route. Yet it would be safer than drilling beneath the Missouri River.
Most visitors and supporters who came to Standing Rock encountered a portrait of sacred humility. As in any large decentralized gathering, there were conflicts, but the over-all unity was remarkable. Tara Cook, an African-American veteran from Charlotte, North Carolina, told the Bismarck Tribune that she planned on taking exactly that message home to use in organizing for Black Lives Matter. Other Americans, disheartened after the election, threw their hearts into chopping wood for the camp, and left with the sense that the next four years will require just the sort of toughness and resolve they had experienced at Standing Rock. Every time the water protectors showed the fortitude of staying on message and advancing through prayer and ceremony, they gave the rest of the world a template for resistance.
I am a grudge-holder, so, when leaders practiced radical forgiveness, there were times I had trouble living in the moment. In most prayers that I heard, the police, the sheriff, and the pipeline workers were included. The U.S. government was forgiven for all it had done to the Great Sioux Nation, and, later on, the military also. But there is something extremely compelling about surprise compassion. A friend of mine, Marian Moore, who spent time at the camp in support of the water protectors, told me that, one day, members of the Indigenous Youth Council took water up to the barricade that prevented access to pipeline construction. The young people offered the water to the police who stood on the other side. Two of the officers refused, but one took some water and spilled it onto his shirt, over his heart. Then, across the barricade, the police officer and the water protector bowed their heads and prayed, together.