The road that brought us to Standing Rock

October 3, 2016

A historic Native-led resistance is confronting giant energy corporations in protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project that threatens further environmental destruction and theft of Native lands. Solidarity with this struggle has been building for months, and both the Obama administration and federal courts have had to respond to the pressure, though the struggle to stop the pipeline is far from over.

In late September, contributors Ryan G., Ragina Johnson, Chance Lunning, Rene Rougeau, Cole Sutton and Brian Ward traveled in two groups to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to bring support and solidarity for the struggle. They contributed to a journal on "The #NoDAPL resistance". Below is the first installment--you can skip to part two here.

Destination: Standing Rock

Chance, Cole and Ryan: Once the car is packed, we will drive west out of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Our destination is the western bank of the Missouri River near Cannonball, North Dakota, where Native water protectors and their allies have gathered at the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps--the heart of the resistance to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

If completed--at a cost of $3.8 billion--the pipeline would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota more than 1,000 miles to Illinois. It would carry 570,000 barrels of oil a day along a route that crosses or runs under 209 rivers and tributaries, including the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Once refined and used, the pipeline's daily load of oil would emit at least 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

These are the stakes in the struggle to stop the pipeline, and we will meet those on the front lines, at the point where the DAPL would come close to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota
Standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota (Sacred Stone Camp)

For the Native Americans who are leading this fight, this is one more episode in a long struggle against the U.S. government. Treaties have been violated, Indigenous people forced off their land and driven into poverty--and now, they face the threat of a pipeline that could poison drinking water and destroy sacred land.

Solidarity is growing

Ragina: Standing in line at San Francisco International Airport, waiting for the first flight of my trip to North Dakota, I'm struck by the tide of support and solidarity for the struggle at Standing Rock.

The latest example from earlier in the week: Over a thousand archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, museum officials and academics spoke out against how construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline would destroy ancient burial and sacred sites and artifacts.

Resistance to DAPL has spread to other states--like Iowa, where water protectors are reporting that they successfully stopped construction. The fight in Iowa includes farmers who are protesting how Dakota Access has misused the state's power of eminent domain, under which it can take over real estate and other assets, but so they can be used for public purposes. DAPL is clearly a private entity.

Also this week, 50 Indigenous Nations representing First Nations in Canada and U.S. formed a historic treaty to fight future pipeline, rail and tanker projects that carry crude oil from Canada.

A whole new generation is awakening to the long history of resistance by Native Peoples--and to how all our fates and the fate of the planet are tied together.

Driving across the Plains

Brian: After waiting for the clock to turn 2 p.m., I leave work to pick up Sara, who bused up from Chicago in the morning. We start the 10-hour drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Bismarck, North Dakota, where we will meet Ragina.

As our drive continues through heavy thunderstorms, we feel the nerves, excitement and sacredness of where we are going. This is a historic time of resistance, but it's not the first time this has happened on the northern Great Plains.

Once we hit North Dakota, we see that the signs for state roads are labeled with an Indian head--a reminder of not-so-thinly-veiled racism. On roads with large numbers, they just stretch the Indian head to fit.

As night falls and we drive on, it's possible to imagine the time when this was Lakota land. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse would be proud of what their relatives are doing today.

Pros and cons according to the locals

Ragina: As I board the plane for the second leg of the trip to Bismarck, I strike up a conversation with a nice older man with a cowboy hat. He's friendly until I tell him I'm heading to Cannon Ball, to visit the camps that are organizing against the new pipeline.

I ask him what people in Bismarck think about the issue, and he says they are divided. Our conversation ends quickly when his boarding number is called--I get the impression the abrupt ending was to his liking.

On the flight, I sit next to Sam, a young beekeeper, who comes from several generations of beekeepers. His family has had farms in North Dakota for many decades. He's much more conflicted about the pipeline issue. He thinks the project will be a source of jobs, but he doesn't think the pipeline should go through the area where it is set to go.

Sam thinks that new pipelines will be safer than the exploding oil trains--there have been a string of these disasters in North Dakota, though none so devastating as the explosion that leveled the Canadian town of Lac-Mégentac in 2013. I point out to Sam that a gasoline pipeline in Birmingham, Alabama, just spilled 300,000 gallons, and that oil pipelines have a terrible record, too.

Sam paints a picture of what North Dakota has looked like since the oil boom and now the crash. Energy companies discovered they could produce oil by using the destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing.

Populations soared in places like Dickinson, just west of Bismarck, and Williston, the main boom city in northwestern North Dakota. At the high point of the boom, Sam knew people who were making $150,000 a year working in the fields.

Many of those good-paying jobs are gone with the wind now that the price of oil has collapsed.

Outside the airport, I find Austin, a 20-something cab driver. When I tell him that I'm headed to Standing Rock, he says, "It's an amazing community they're building there. I'm completely against what the oil companies are doing."

During the oil boom, Austin worked for a garbage collection agency that was hired by oil companies in Dickinson--he and his co-workers sorted through waste, wood and a lot of hazardous materials.

Austin has vowed to never work directly for the oil industry, but he's sympathetic to why people do. Jobs are hard to come by in Bismarck. The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and rent is up since the oil boom, even after its peak. It's common for Austin's friends to work several low-wage jobs, just to survive.

This kind of life drags you down, Austin says. At the same time, the people taking a stand against the pipeline has inspired him.

Headed to the camp

Brian, Ragina and Sara: We get up early to make the hour-long trek to the encampment. We take a slightly longer way to avoid a blockade placed on the shorter route.

We go through a town called Mandan, outside of Bismarck, which takes its name from a local tribe. This is standard throughout the U.S., but especially in the Plains states: Just about everything is named after a tribe or something related to a tribe, but with no acknowledgement of the historical displacement of Natives by these settlements.

We see endless rolling hills and a huge sky. The peacefulness that comes with moving through this place is interrupted by a caravan of police cars streaming past us, on the heels of a few cars loaded up with camping supplies. They could be county, state, highway patrol or Bureau of Indian Affairs police--it's unclear which.

At this moment, we realize the enormity of where we are going. This isn't just a gathering, it's a struggle for life.

Welcome to Sacred Stone Camp

Brian, Ragina and Sara: We turn onto a road with a handmade sign pointing us toward the Sacred Stone Camp--the area on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation started back in April to protest the pipeline. Signs say "No alcohol, no drugs, no guns." Someone else has added another slogan at the bottom: "No DAPL."

We are greeted with the excitement, like everyone is who comes to offer solidarity and support. We drop off our donations of food and camping supplies and get the lay of the land.

We're told it's about a 15-minute walk to the Oceti Sakowin (which means the Great Sioux Nation in English) camp. This larger camp isn't on the reservation, but on land claimed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which makes it more vulnerable to forces of the federal government coming in and kicking them out.

The Sacred Stone camp was begun first in April 2016, but as participants in the protests increased, the encampments spread. Within the Oceti Sakowin camp is the Red Warrior camp, which has been the base of the most vibrant and militant direct action protests.

As we walk to the Oceti Sakowin camp, our way is partially blocked off by a broken-down car that has been spray-painted, "No DAP, Save the Water" and "Protectors." This last slogan is a reference to what Native leaders of the struggle have been saying: "We are not protesters, we are protectors."

We come up around a bend to see the confluence of the Cannonball River and the Missouri River. There are hundreds of tents and teepees--which immediately gives us chills at the historic moment we're a part of.

We go to what has been called "Facebook Hill," the highest point of the camp and the only place to get somewhat decent cell phone reception, to check in at the press tent. There are solar stations to charge phones and laptops.

From this vantage point, you can see the entire camp, sprawling toward the river and beyond the small hills. There are over a thousand small tents mixed with teepees, and it's impossible not to think about generations of Lakota, going back hundreds of years, who pitched camps just like these.

We can see hundreds of flags whipping violently in the strong wind. Taking a closer look at these flags, we see Indigenous nations represented from all over the country and the world--flags representing Leonard Peltier, Omaha Nation of Nebraska, Cherokee Nation, Oglala Lakota, Ojibway Nation, Hiawatha Nation, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Forest County Potawatomi, the American Indian Movement. There is a flag of Palestine and of Iran, and an LGBT flag.

This is the first time in modern history that this number of Nations have come together in a united struggle--defying the long history of divide and conquer on the part of colonizing governments of the U.S., Britain and more.

The hope is in the defiance

Chance, Cole and Ryan: At the Sacred Stone camp, we are immediately confronted with the enormity of the task facing the protectors.

The lists of needed supplies, daily jobs and requests for people with specific expertise show just how difficult it is to maintain a camp that can support people as they take part in marches, rallies and direct actions.

Nevertheless, the mood at the camp is one of hopeful defiance. "There are a lot of people who come from fighting all these other resource extractions," says Justin Rowland, who has been at the nearby Oceti Sakowin camp for months. "We don't think the pipeline is going to go through."

Andreanne Catt, of the International Indigenous Youth Council, has been here for over three months. She comes from a family of American Indian Movement members and took the bus up from Kyle, South Dakota, followed closely by her brother.

"It's a life-and-death situation here," Catt says. "We're not just fighting for ourselves to have clean water. We're not just here because our parents said so. These younger generations and their kids and grandkids need clean water because even if the pipe doesn't burst now, it's not a matter of if, but when it bursts."

Kathleen Smith, who traveled from the Cheyenne River Reservation to be at the camp, talked about how this struggle is forging unity. "This has brought everybody together for one reason," she said.

Fentress, also from the Cheyenne River Reservation, wants to make people more aware of how the treaties that the federal government has signed with Indigenous nations have been continuously violated. Asked about the consequences of the violations involved in the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Fentress answered simply: "The destruction of life."

Solidarity outside the kitchen

Brian, Ragina and Sara: As we try to familiarize ourselves with the camp and its layout, we notice the number of people is a little sparse. We learn that there is an action happening at the construction site: planting willow trees and corn in the path of the pipeline. There is a certain beauty in this: as the bulldozers destroy the earth, the protectors are giving life to trees.

This information may explain why there were so many police cars passing by us on the way to the camp.

Tilting our bodies against the 30-mile-per-hour-plus winds, we stop by the kitchen. A lot of donations have come in, and a host of volunteers are cooking three meals a day.

Nearby, there is a fire going constantly in the community area, where folks can converse and express their opinions, while they get warm and get something to eat.

As we walk up, a Native family from Washington state and Oregon is speaking at the mic. They bring solidarity greetings and perform a prayer song for the camp. As we will hear throughout our trip, people are connecting the struggles of their own Nations against corporations impinging on treaty rights and sovereignty with the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The uncle at the mic talks about some of the current-day legislative proposals that, though they are put forward as generous, will make things worse for Native peoples. He says he is also involved in protests against a proposed liquid natural gas pipeline. Protesters rode horses for 250 miles to the state Capitol last year to draw attention to what amounted to a new attack on their water rights, in violation of the Treaty of 1864.

While looking for the uncle to say hello, we end up in conversation with his nephew Lakasha Yooxot Likipt (which means "touching lightning"), from the Niimiipu people (named the Nez Perce by the French in the 18th century).

Lakasha is a Marine veteran who deals with PTSD as a result of a tour in southern Iraq in 2004-05. This year, after watching footage from the demonstrations, he was inspired to come here to be part of what was happening at Standing Rock. It had lifted his spirits. He had planned to arrive two weeks earlier with his younger brother, but his brother tragically died before they could take the trip.

When we asked about Lakasha's tour in Iraq, he said: "It was difficult. The Iraqis are Indigenous peoples themselves. It was the same thing that we are seeing here. First Nations fought on both sides of the American Revolutionary War. I am done fighting for that."

"Egalitarianism is the goal," Lakasha says. "I tell my father it's should be called 'glocal' thinking globally and locally at the same time." What we are doing here, Lakasha said, will have an effect on the next seven generations.

Later, the MC calls for the person in charge of putting up solidarity flags around the camp: "If you are here anywhere, we need another flagpole. We have relatives that came from Norway. How cool is that! We want them to come forward and introduce themselves."

Two women come to the front. They are sisters, from the Sami People of Norway. The Sami are Indigenous people of the North who also live in Finland, Sweden and part of Russia.

This isn't the last call for more flagpoles. Over a dozen more flags need to be placed alongside the others. The spread of the flags, still snapping in the high winds, gives a sense of the breath of solidarity, not only among Indigenous nations, but the internationalism felt at Standing Rock. In the same day, there are visitors from Italy and Kenya, and more are expected.

At the end of Lakota prayers, they say, "Mitakuye Oyasin," which in English means "We are all related." The encampment has become an expression of this very thought. Solidarity is infectious.

Further Reading

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