How the water protectors won at Standing Rock

December 5, 2016

The thousands of water protectors and their supporters camping by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation scored a major victory on Sunday, December 4, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it wouldn't grant a permit to builders of the planned Dakota Access Pipeline to drill under the Missouri River.

The announcement, a significant milestone in the effort to compel the government to recognize Native sovereignty over tribal lands, came one day before a deadline given to protesters to clear out of the camps they had constructed to oppose construction of the pipeline. Throughout the previous week, thousands of people had arrived to protect the camp from any attempt by law enforcement to uproot it.

Questions remain about what will happen next. The Army Corps has said it will consider an alternative route, and President-elect Donald Trump favors completion of the pipeline project. But for now, the pipeline is stopped, giving protesters time to continue their organizing efforts.

Here, we publish eyewitness accounts by contributors to from New York City--Leia Petty, Edna Bonhomme, Emily Brooks, Sumaya Awad and Dorian Bon--who traveled to North Dakota for this weekend to show solidarity with the #NoDAPL struggle.

Leia Petty

We started where everyone does--at the 9 a.m. orientation for newcomers in the Big Dome, a white dome structure erected by water protectors for larger ceremonial gatherings. It's also where the Saturday night Circle Dance took place, where camp councils focused on various topics--such as direct action, winterization and women's meetings--met and where Dr. Cornel West was scheduled to speak.

The orientation for newcomers began with prayer, like so much else at the camp--before and after meetings, daily walks to the river, and throughout speeches at the Sacred Fire. There is tremendous pride among the Indigenous leadership of the camp in sharing customs, prayers and dance with those arriving from across the country.

We were welcomed into a way of life that has been systematically stripped away for hundreds of years and kept alive in small pockets throughout the country. Standing Rock has provided a place where these customs are taking on a new life.

There were close to 300 newcomers at the orientation. As we were struggling to squeeze into the tent, someone quipped, "This is what it means to be all one people." Solidarity runs deep at Standing Rock, and it has quickly blossomed into self-sustaining and self-governing town, making Standing Rock the 10th-largest city in North Dakota, possibly larger once all of the 2,000 military veterans en route to protect the camp finish arriving.

Water protectors celebrate after hearing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision
Water protectors celebrate after hearing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision (ajplus)

The solidarity comes in many different forms. Some 700 Indigenous nations have representatives here, and their flags line Flag Road, which serves as the main street of Oceti Sakowin, the main resistance camp. It's the first time so many Natives have come together since the 19th century. This solidarity is shown by showing up, as the Lakota woman who helped run the orientation said as tears ran down her face: "We called for you, and you came. Thank you."

The question-and-answer session turned into an open mic session, in which people told where they came from and why they were here--from Indigenous nations, to delegations of chaplains, to individuals who found their way here on their own because they couldn't stay away.

Muhammad, an Iraqi-American, flew from Phoenix after a call went out over Twitter that the school they are building needed firewood. He flew in late Friday and made multiple trips back and forth from Bismarck, North Dakota, to help transport building supplies for the school.

Cornelia, a blind woman in her late 50s from New Hampshire, traveled three days in a truck carrying 238 straw bales after she heard they were needed as windbreakers. After delivering the hay bales they purchased, she helped wash dishes in one of the kitchens and said she loved the feel of the ice under her feet. Her friend Tim from Massachusetts worried she might fall as she played on the ice. She assured him she has a great sense of balance.

From the moment we arrived, it was clear that there was no way the Army Corps of Engineers would be able to carry out their eviction notice. In every direction, the camp was expanding, the numbers were swelling, and supply trucks were arriving with donations.

The infrastructure had simply become too massive--there are now nine kitchens serving three meals per day, and a medic camp with five different yurts dedicated to urgent care, herbalists, midwifery/women's health, acupuncture and body work.

On my last morning there, I unfortunately got sick. Yet despite the difficult circumstances was given immediate and incredibly compassionate care--from the people who helped me to the medic tent, to the nurses who cared for me, and the herbalist who made a specific tea for my diagnosed ailment.

There was an openness all around, greetings when you walk past your new neighbors on the roads, conversations while waiting for the bathroom, new friends made while eating at communal tables. When the time and place of the Circle Dance was communicated at the Sacred Fire, the announcer said, "If you don't know what a Circle Dance is, come find out."

Hundreds of people packed into the White Dome at 8 p.m., and hundreds more cycled through late into the night, many retuning to the main kitchen afterward for a late dinner. The singers and drummers stood facing each other in the very center of the dome with hundreds of people from all walks of life surrounding them, two-stepping a circle around them.

There was a self-organized security system, garbage collecting, donation sorting, fire keepers, construction, volunteer coordinating, winterization and direct action.

You could hear spontaneous calls and responses of "Mni Wiconi!" ("Water is life!") throughout the day and night. Some sounded like greetings, others sounded like battle cries.

There was also the more spontaneous self-organization of someone seeing a need and stepping in to address it. I met Joey in the main kitchen where I was working. He had planned to come for a few days and had ended up staying for weeks.

He had just finished building the Animal House, a rescue place for dogs without an owner. The first dog there had become separated from his owner, who was a medic with hypothermia and was being treated at a nearby hospital. He was now in good hands.

While I was in the medic tent, there was strategizing about how to handle the increased numbers of people coming in with injuries from falling on the ice. They were looking into metal attachments for elders, the main people at risk of serious injury from falling, to place on shoes. Someone then arrived to donate two snowmobiles they could use to transport medics and patients.

Respect and care for elders stands in such stark contrast to how the elderly are treated in the world outside the camp. Elder water protectors are being provided with better medical services inside Oceti Sakowin than is often available in their local community or through the criminally underfunded Indian Health Service. Seats are given up to elders, and their food is served first. At the main kitchen, lunch was running late and dozens of people waited while we went on food deliveries around the center of camp to ensure elders and fire keepers were fed.

The camp expanded massively throughout the weekend, with a line of cars as far as the eye could see as they waited to enter the camp all day Saturday and Sunday. There is no question that the arrival of military veterans, numbering in the thousands, was decisive in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deciding to deny the permit. They had hoped that their eviction notice, threats of fines and harassment of those bringing in supplies would deter solidarity. It was deepened instead.

My days at Oceti Sakowin gave a glimpse, more so than anything else I've experienced, of the power of self-organization--that if it were up to us, we would have an entirely different way of running things and relating to each other.

Edna Bonhomme

The Indigenous struggle for self-determination has been going on for more than 500 years, and yesterday's victory is a reflection of the incredible efforts of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have gathered to fight for clean water and land.

As one Lakota person said at the orientation, this was the first time in 140 years that neighboring tribes reached consensus on an issue. The Dakota Access Pipeline posed a threat--to incur further environmental damage, disturb sacred ground and undermine Indigenous sovereignty--and so this unified resistance brought the greed and profit of Energy Transfer Partners to heel.

On December 3, at the daily direct action meeting, which happens at 2 p.m., organizers described how the actions--whether they were marches or prayers--would be nonviolent. This dovetailed with the broader message of having no weapons, alcohol or drugs on site. This was a place where people would gather and resist with a clear mind and spirit.

After the direct action meeting, I spoke with Lisia Williams, a 36-year-old African American member of Service Employees International Union from Flint, Michigan, who came to Standing Rock in solidarity because of Flint's own fight for clean water. She said: "Water is life. History is being repeated. Labor will play an important role, but labor has to listen to the people and bring different elements to the movement."

When I asked a resident of Bemidji, Minnesota, why he came to Standing Rock, he said that his town was struggling with a company that had several pipelines going through their county. In a town whose population is 25 percent Native American and which has high unemployment, he immediately saw the parallel with Standing Rock.

On the night of December 3, I worked in the kitchen from 9:30 p.m. until 11:20 p.m. As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry before, this was the first time that I was in a multigenerational and multiethnic kitchen where people were laughing and smiling. People were genuinely happy to be there.

On December 4, early-morning prayer began at 6 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., as dawn was setting in, a history lesson began, in which a Lakota historian and teacher made parallels between surveillance under the Israeli occupation of Palestinians and the surveillance of Natives under the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He continued by dismantling the stereotypes that Native peoples do not pay taxes--in fact, they have paid taxes through the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act.

An Indigenous woman from the Pacific Northwest spoke about her tribe and its struggle to exist. I was reminded of the Palestinian solidarity group "Existence Is Resistance."

That same day, Cornel West spoke to an interfaith gathering of about 400 people about the need for solidarity and struggle. "Water represents the beauty of humanity," he proclaimed.

The beauty of the weekend was seeing everyday people run this whole community that has sprung up in recent months. People were there because of something greater than themselves, and they were infused with an unmistakable positive energy. In the end, they won because solidarity was strong and spirits were high.

Emily Brooks

We entered the Oceti Sakowin encampment at night, so we couldn't see the bustling landscape of tents, teepees and people until the morning. We were welcomed by a friendly camp security person who gave us directions to the location where we planned to stay.

We drove past a large red dumpster and a 10-foot-tall snowman named "S-NO-w DAPL" to a partially winterized platform tent. Our tent, which housed a wood-burning stove, had been built by New York City teachers who came before us to Standing Rock.

When we woke up, we threw on the layers and layers of warm clothing that had been donated by friends and supporters in New York and headed out into the cold.

In the light of morning, we could see the fully functioning community of Oceti Sakowin. The Sacred Fire situated off Flag Road serves as a space of prayer and communal gathering. The fire is kept burning at all times, and people make offerings of tobacco and sage. Tents around the fire provide coffee and hot water, post daily schedules and host music and messages of solidarity.

We went to the media area known as Facebook Hill to get press passes, but because of the massive influx of people, the tent had run out. Kids were laughing and sledding down Facebook Hill.

We went to one of the camp's nine kitchens to help out, but they were overwhelmed with volunteers. So we chatted with folks as we waited for a lunch of alpaca soup, bean soup and apple fritters.

Morgan, a student who had driven to the camp from Bar Harbor, Maine, was helping to prepare the meals. She was part of an environmental group on her campus, and they had attended some policy conferences to promote change, but decided that this wasn't getting anywhere. When they heard about the struggle at Standing Rock, they were inspired, and it clicked: Activism and organizing is more effective.

We helped carry plates of food to elders sitting by the fire. Even this small gesture was received with kind and generous expressions of gratitude.

We walked up Flag Road and toward the bridge where the pipeline construction forces were marshaled and where water protectors have been violently attacked by law enforcement. We approached and stood in front of a string extended across the path about 100 yards from the bridge and chatted with the camp security working there. He told us that this line had been drawn by camp elders.

From where we stood, we could see the barricades of trucks on the bridge and more vehicles lined up on the road on the opposite riverbank. Harsh spotlights lit the bridge from the opposite side, and a helicopter circled overhead. Seeing these forces assembled on the bridge presented a stark contrast to the camp and provided an ever-present reminder of why we were there.

As we walked back, we passed a man standing by a truck with a "Veterans for Water" bumper sticker as he passed out hand warmers to people walking by. He asked us to take them and give them to people who looked cold.

Next we came across three people butchering a large leg of beef, which later was served in United Heart kitchen as meat hash. It was delicious.

All around the camp, we saw people building new structures and winterizing existing ones. There was a centralized construction tent, which found ways to put people to work even if they lacked construction skills. Many people around camp were preparing to be there for the long term--or as long as it took to win.

We helped serve food in United Heart kitchen. More than 30 people were working to prepare a meal of turkey gravy, fry bread, squash soup, tamales, coleslaw and beans.

Sumaya Awad and Dorian Bon

On the morning of Sunday, December 4, the peaceful resistance camps along the banks of the Cannonball River were already bustling when we got word that there was an "important announcement" about to be made about the pipeline.

As word spread through the camp, hundreds of people began flocking towards the Sacred Fire eager to hear if the rumor of a victory was true.

With thousands around the fire and cameras rolling, Dave Archambault II, tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, announced that he had just received news that "the Army Corps of Engineers is going to deny the easement and is asking for a reroute and a full environmental impact statement."

Drums and jubilant shouts erupted in the crisp air. People embraced one another. Some wept as the realization sunk in that we had won an important victory in a long road of struggle.

He continued: "This is no coincidence, this is us...Over 10,000 people who self-organized here--you all did this!"

The celebrations continued with raised fists, more embraces and chants of "Mni wiconi!" Several Native leaders cried out, "Five hundred years of occupation, and we're not going anywhere."

Still, police helicopters continued to hover overhead, and Morton County sheriffs and construction officials occupied the hilltops across the river.

A second Indigenous leader stood up to address the crowd to point out that although this is a great victory, the fight is far from over. He said: "Although they are denied the easement, all that is to them is a penalty--$50,000 per day. They'll pay the fine. They're willing to violate the law with Morton County at their back."

Though the crowd felt empowered by what they had accomplished collectively, questions were posed about what this meant for the camp, the veterans and the coming months ahead.

The tribal leader continued: "We have to stick around and make sure that doesn't happen...We have to keep a presence here. We're not done yet. We're going to keep on fighting, we're going to keep doing what we've been doing here every day."

And beyond this, the question of the looming Trump presidency was also on many people's minds. "It's a victory for us today," Bashir, an Indigenous Muslim activist from the Cheyenne tribe in South Dakota, told us. "But we still have to prepare for Trump coming in. We don't know what he's going to pull out of his bag of tricks."

Another activist told us, "This may just be a tactic." But at the same time, everyone understood that today's victory would never have happened if the thousands assembled there hadn't risen to the occasion and stood united when they were told to disband.

At every mess hall, bench and fire pit, people discussed the victory--how would it impact other pipelines from Alabama to Canada? Will energy corporations start to think twice about the power of protest before sinking investments? Will banks reconsider loans to finance these projects?

One woman, an Iraq war vet, approached us as the celebrations were ongoing. Her message was simple: "We're still marching tomorrow morning. This isn't over."

Meanwhile, the camp kept growing. Cars and buses full of veterans lined up as far as the eye could see to enter Oceti Sakowin. With newfound confidence, water protectors are settling in for a long fight. Mni wiconi.

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