The water protectors aren't backing down

Leonard Klein and Sara Rougeau report from the Oceti Sakowin encampment as the authorities threaten to move in against protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Water protecters at Standing Rock march to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (Rob Wilson Photography)

INDIGENOUS WATER protectors and their supporters are vowing to stand strong against threats by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear the Oceti Sakowin Camp on December 5.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been opposing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through their treaty land and under the Missouri River since 2014.

In April, the struggle took a new turn as the Lakota Sioux set up the Rosebud Camp on the southern bank of the Cannonball River, near the path of the pipeline construction. The camp has served for a launching point for peaceful marches as well as prayer ceremonies.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp was built several months ago on treaty land on the north bank of the meandering Cannonball, near where it meets the Missouri River. The Army Corps claims this encampment of Indigenous activists and supporters is trespassing on land under federal control, but the Lakota claim treaty rights to the land going back 150 years.

Now the Army Corps is threatening to clear the Oceti Sakowin Camp in just over a week's time. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's Chair Dave Archambault II said in a press release issued the day after the Thanksgiving holiday: "Today, we were notified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that on December 5th, they will close all lands north of the Cannonball River, which is where Oceti Sakowin camp is located. The letter states that the lands will be closed to public access for safety concerns, and that they will allow for a 'free speech zone' south of the Cannonball River on Army Corps lands."

But Archambault and the Lakota remain defiant:

It is both unfortunate and ironic that this announcement comes the day after this country celebrates Thanksgiving--a historic exchange of goodwill between Native Americans and the first immigrants from Europe. Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people. We have suffered much, but we still have hope that the President will act on his commitment to close the chapter of broken promises to our people and especially our children.

As one Lakota leader at a November 26 press conference: "There is not one Indigenous person here who intends to leave on any but their own terms. To the Army Corps that sent that letter, that letter means nothing to us, because this is treaty land."

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THE ARMY Corps claimed it needed to clear the encampment to protect protesters from the oncoming harsh winter conditions. But so far, the only thing the federal government has protected is Energy Transfer Partners' construction schedule. This is despite the fact that ETP has failed to get permits allowing its crews to drill under the Missouri.

Peaceful actions held on roads and along pipeline easements have been met by militarized police, private security, attack dogs, water cannons and pepper spray.

But despite the threats and brutality, camp residents are in the struggle for the long hall. Many winterized temporary structures are going up next to tipis and tents. The sound of hammers, saws and drills echo through the camp, along with songs, prayers and drumming.

The possible fate of the news structures if the Army Corps and police make good on their threats discussed during a direct action training last Saturday, which drew more than 150 people.

One participant in the training who had traveled from Michigan to be at the Oceti Sakowin Camp said: "I am making a stand here out of solidarity with Standing Rock."

Michigan has its own history of residents defending water and protesting pipelines. Many people involved in the struggle against DAPL reference the ongoing contamination of drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan. Solidarity with Flint residents was a central part of the November 15 national day of action for Standing Rock.

Josh, on his second trip from Nebraska to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, said he was still a bit shaken after the direct action training and role-playing. "It reminded me of a bad experience with state troopers back home," he said. "I came to the training because I never want to feel that powerless again."

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WINTERIZATION AND prayer ceremonies continue in defiance as hundreds and perhaps thousands of people travel to Standing Rock to show their solidarity.

Most prominent among them are people from many different Indigenous nations. Waylon and Emily, of the Taos Pueblo Nation, were skeptical about whether the threat to clear the camp would work. "Good luck," said Waylon. "There are too many people here; too many settled in." "It is a community already," added Emily.

Indeed, the camp, with its several thousand inhabitants, boasts seven kitchens, daily orientations and trainings, a sacred fire and a school.

"There is strength in numbers, and [the police and security forces] are scared of our strength," said Waylon, pointing to the razor wire along one bank of the river near the DAPL drilling pad site. "Evicting us won't silence us. We will pop up somewhere else."

Cars, campers and vans arrive hourly, despite the coming North Dakota winter and the Army Corps threat.

Mary came from Virginia, while her daughters Maya and Alia traveled from California to show solidarity with the Lakota. "I felt it was vital to share this experience with my grown children," Mary said. "The world needs healing. We need to see the interconnected of all life."

These spiritual themes are common to the movement and the camp. Banner after banner states "Water is Life" and calls out to "Defend the Sacred." Prayers, drums and singing can be heard around the clock.

"There's no place I would rather be," Maya told us. "Seeing what's possible is inspiring. The fact the Indigenous have welcomed us is inspiring."

The backward, planet-wrecking priorities of capitalism are constantly on the minds of water protectors and supporters at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

"This struggle can be a crack in the façade, allowing others to learn how entangled power and money are," said Mary. "We're conditioned to believe that they don't have agency and source. I need to go home and work on pipeline issues near me."

Alia connected the Army Corps of Engineers' complicity with Energy Transfer Partners with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which prohibited restrictions on corporations making political contributions on the grounds that corporations should have the same rights to free speech as U.S. citizens. "Money and politics is a threat," she said. "I'm scared for what is to come from our world when we have prioritized profits over people and the earth."

While we talked with Alia, Maya and Maya, the police surveillance drones are a constant reminder of the force lined up against the water protectors. Others who came to Standing Rock to show their solidarity said they were motivated by seeing the blatant police violence against peaceful protests.

"It's unreal to see Natives on horseback being attacked by police in 2016," said S.W. from Los Angeles. "When you see the headlines about the water cannons and the rubber bullets, the time to join this struggle is now."

For many, the struggle at Standing Rock is the intersection of different struggles. "With climate change, we need a sense of urgency," said Alia. "With Black Lives Matter at the forefront, we feel the urgency."

Asked what gives her hope, Maya, who had spoken at first about her fears, gestured back toward the camp behind her. "They're creating a culture here where you give what you can and receive what you need," she said. "Nothing is stronger."

Alia added: "These movements show us other ways of being and of growing. [As] one Native woman said today, 'We are all indigenous to this earth.'"