The view at Standing Rock

October 4, 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, SocialistWorker.org 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 second installment--you can read part one here.

An "old Indian trick"

Brian, Ragina and Sara: About 70 percent of the tents in the camp are down from the high winds, and we spend a lot of the late morning and early afternoon helping people get them back up again.

When we head toward the media tent to try and connect with some folks from the Indigenous Environmental Network, we end up meeting Myron Dewey, who is Paiute from Nevada and who does the official filming of the camp's actions and broadcasts them via a live feed on Facebook.

He's struggling to get his tent back up, too. He tells us, "When you're done here, you will be fully Paiute." We share some laughs. Ragina and Sara say what nation they're from, and Brian jokingly says, "I'm just a white guy," but one who has been working for Indigenous rights for years.

We struggle to get the tent back up because it's still in pretty rough shape--we have to do some makeshift fixes to make it work. Dewey says to us, "Let me show you an OIT--Old Indian Trick," and we all laugh.


Connecting the struggles

Brian and Ragina: As the day moves on toward evening, we make our way back to Facebook Hill to interview King Downing of the National Lawyer Guild (NLG) at the legal organization's tent. King had worked with the ACLU for many years. He came to the NLG in March 2016 to be director of mass defense.

The NLG is here to provide legal support for the protectors of Standing Rock. Dozens of people have been arrested, including in the days after the Obama administration announced that it was pressing for the companies to stop pipeline construction.

We ask King about his experiences representing protesters from Standing Rock to Tulsa, Oklahoma or Ferguson, Missouri--they seem to be examples of people not being willing to take it anymore, but also having a sense of hope and solidarity. "It's clear that when people were in the streets in Ferguson or when they were marching around Eric Garner, it's like they had liberated some territory for a minute--it's very therapeutic," King replied. "If only other people knew. There would be more people joining the struggle."

King also talked about the resurgence of the campaign for Leonard Peltier, the Native American political prisoner who remains in jail on false charges stemming from the struggle at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation 40 years ago:

We wish that no one would be convicted or that it would just take a few sit-ins to change everything, but history has already taught us that it's going to get more serious.

They already admitted that they infiltrated Black Lives Matter in order to file a lawsuit against activists. So we're already beginning to see those old COINTELPRO-type tactics. Once that happens, it's only a matter of time before people are going to be arrested and railroaded. History will be the teacher for each generation.

There's a place for radical and progressive lawyers--there's been a tradition of them, even if you wouldn't think so. We need to let activists know who learn about the law, as well as the legal workers and lawyers, that the changes which happened in society weren't the result of great lawyering. It was the result of a movement that softened up the courts, so that we started to get decisions in favor of the people.

We asked King to talk about the connections between history and the reawakening of this new struggle:

There are a lot of Guild members who were part of legal support for the Black Power and American Indian Movements, for the Young Lords, the Feminist Movement and everything that has happened since then.

It's great to see them--the ones who are still alive. Because I can't say exactly they thought they would never see this again, because at first, they thought it would never end, but then the repression came. Now, though, they're alive to see it. We just want people to seek them out and get their advice on tactics and everything.


New neighbors

Sara: It's easy to be overwhelmed if you just arrived at the camp like we had. There's a lot of figuring out to do-- where to campout who to talk to, what's what. There are also a lot of interruptions in between. A lot of holding down lines to keep tents from blowing away, lending a hand to overwhelmed volunteers, occasionally slipping on prairie grass that I've never walked on before.

I get out one of the lawn chairs and take a breather. Some new neighbors have pulled up beside us in a white pick-up truck. I'm so used to seeing people coming and going that I don't quite notice as they put up their tent, until a woman and man walk up to us and ask to join in our little half-circle of chairs.

Her name is Jenna, and she's with her younger brother Jimmy. They come from Arizona, Navajo Nation. They bring with them the history of struggle against the uranium mines and poisoned water. We talk struggle, but also family stories, and Jenna and I bond over the fact we're both welders.

A little after the sun drops below Facebook Hill, we look up to see an older couple making a beeline for us, the husband a few paces ahead.

"Hey, have you seen security poking around here?" No, we say. "Well, somebody broke my grandson's tent! We weren't here last night, and some kids came and busted it."

For a moment, I'm worried, thinking maybe somebody had a grudge against his grandkid, But Jenna answers him: "It was the wind. The wind's been blowing all day, it broke everybody's tent. Look around."

"Oh," he says, "it was the wind?" He takes a moment and sees all the scattered and collapsed remains of campgrounds. Some have blown along the ground, while others are temporarily held down with rocks, waiting to be put back up when the many protectors return from the day's action or the workday.

Relieved, he turns back to us and asks, "Where are you guys from?" Phoenix, Chicago.

"Oh, wow, that's incredible!" He takes a knee, and I'm a bit taken aback by the level of gratitude. "You guys came all the way from there? Thank you, thank you for coming. I didn't think anybody knew about this but us."

"Of course we know," Jenna says. "The whole world knows!"


Solidarity at every hour

Brian and Ragina: After a long day, the wind finally dies down, and the temperature starts to drop. We're ready to get into our sleeping bags to get warm, and we still hear people speaking on the microphone in the communal area, expressing their thoughts and their solidarity.

The messages of support go on long into the night, along with storytelling, drumming and singing, people sharing dinner.

A man from the Potawatomi Nation in Wisconsin speaks about how his tribe "really understands the cause here and supports what's going on." The Potawatomi are working against Enbridge Line 5--a petroleum pipeline that is well over half a century old and is particularly concerning because it passes under the Straits of Mackinac that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

When the speaking goes quiet, it is to observe a moment of silence for those who are still in jail today for participating in protests.


Sharing fire with our relatives

Sara: The sun has set completely, and there is no moon nor light posts. Coming from Chicago, I'm only in a dark like this every few years, but never with a thousand other people.

Cooking fires and flashlights illuminate the edges of tents and teepees, and what was once a blustering wind is now just strong enough to carry the cooking smoke down to the river. The long line of flags towers over everything, and above us are a million stars and a stretch of the Milky Way. The planet Mars stands out as a small red glimmer.

The drummers are still singing, but you can also hear some terrible pop song from somebody's car radio.

I feel like I could sit here all night, and am determined to until Jenna emerges from her truck and asks if I want to walk from fire to fire with them. I tell her I'm shy, and she replies, "Not when you're with me!"

Walking up to complete strangers in the night is novel to me, so I let Jenna lead the way. Because of the total darkness, you really have no idea who you're about to meet around a campfire until you're standing in front of them.

We meet a young white couple from Billings with two small children--very sweet people, who express a sense of duty in acknowledging the centrality of Native sovereignty in this fight for all our water. "There's no way we could miss this," one says. "Impossible."

At the next fire, there is a Lakota family from South Dakota. After a few jokes about Blue Bird flour and all the Californians getting blown away by the wind, we hear a woman speaking over the microphone from the kitchen.

"Do you know what she's saying?" Jenna asks.

"Yes," comes the response, "it's a prayer. She's giving a prayer to the water." The family explains that the woman is Lynette Black Bear and point to a teepee in the distance where she stays. "She's been fighting a long time," one of them tells us. "She was there during the AIM occupation"--the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation more than 40 years ago.

We listen patiently to the prayer and ask around if anyone speaks their language. Most of us have a shared experience of missing the chance to learn our language. Our grandparents or great-grandparents, having survived the boarding school era, didn't want us to learn--possibly out of fear that we would have been beaten and ostracized like they were.

A couple more people come to poke around the fire, holding out cups and asking if we have any coffee to share. A pot gets promptly put on the fire.


Coffee around the fire

Brian and Ragina: We wake up and head to the kitchen to grab some coffee, with the hope of striking up more conversations. We set up around the fire to keep warm, and Lynette Black Bear notices Brian's sweatshirt: an Oglala Lakota College shirt. Her brother used to work there for 20 years, Lynette tells us.

We learn so much in such a short time from Lynette, who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and now lives in Seattle. She tells us she used to sneak into the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 to join the fight alongside AIM activists demanding that treaty rights be enforced and the corrupt tribal leadership, led by Chairman Dick Wilson, be impeached.

Lynette tells us she was active in Seattle this year around the Bernie Sanders campaign because he specifically reached out to Indigenous communities--which makes him one of the first presidential candidates among the mainstream parties to do so. She discusses the campaign they fought in Seattle to get Columbus Day changed to Indigenous People's Day.

When we ask if she sees similarities between the Wounded Knee occupation and the current Standing Rock resistance, her response is brief: "It's still the same fight."

Lynette is pulled away to give the morning prayer in her Native tongue of Lakota, and we turn to a man who has been standing nearby while we talked to Lynette. His name is Wonace (which means "they chase the buffalo"), and he is Standing Rock Sioux (Hunkpapa Lakota).

His family has lived here for generations--Wonace's farm is 30 miles away. He talks intently about Lakota history and the current struggle. He says how grateful he is for folks who come out to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. This, Wonace says, is "the awakening of people's spirit...Millions of people will march from the four directions demanding that they want a change to their governments, demanding corporations to clean up their messes."

Wonace embodies the word "community"--he talks about the need to "go around and help the people that helped us."

We speak a little bit about the military. Wonace says that he never swore allegiance to fight for the U.S. government and will challenge young Lakotas serving in the military about what they would do if they had to turn on their people. This reminds us of the conversation we had with Lakasha, who was a Marine deployed to Iraq--and the fact that Native Americans are the most disproportionately represented in U.S. armed forces.

We ask Wonace about the winters up here, since you can feel the change of season looming. He says that the resistance has until the end of October when the winter really sets in. The camps will have a tough time then. But pipeline construction will also have to stop by then or soon after, since the construction machinery can't operate in the depths of winter.

Hearing Wonace is a powerful experience. The Lakota and other Native Americans have been silenced for so long. Hearing their side of history and their life stories is an important guide to the movement. We could have listened for hours longer ourselves--but we had to return to our tent to pack up and get ready for the journey home.


Blockades and buffalo

Brian, Ragina and Sara: As we leave the camps, we take a different route back to Bismarck. Along the way, we see a beautiful buffalo herd to our right and left, and we can't help but become choked up at the thought of both the importance of the buffalo to Lakota culture and the tragedy of the slaughtering of buffalo by the U.S. government in order to destroy the food source of the Lakota.

We roll up to what seems like a blockade, but it's really just two large concrete blocks across the width of one lane. Members of what looks to be the state National Guard are just waving people through. What is the point of this? But then we remember: there is word that Native Americans coming to the camp have been racially profiled at stops like this.

Leaving the Plains, we realize that we have had the opportunity to read, write and speak about the high points of Native resistance throughout the centuries. Now we are living through one of those moments--and there are bigger things to come.

As Wonace told us, the Lakota will not forget the solidarity that has reached them in their struggle against the pipeline--they will go around the world to support the struggles of the people who came here. This won't be forgotten.

It's our job--not just the three of us, but everyone who supports the #NoDAPL resistance to carry the message of struggle around the country and beyond. Because this fight is for all of us.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives