Standing Rock is what democracy looks like

January 3, 2017

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement permit needed by Energy Transfer Partners to drill underneath the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to complete a critical phase of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

While the Army Corps' decision isn't a final victory that guarantees the end of the pipeline, it is a major step forward that came as a result of determined resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and thousands of their supporters who traveled to North Dakota to join the protest encampments. Mara Ahmed, an artist and filmmaker who blogs at, describes her delegation's trip from Rochester, New York, to Standing Rock--and what she learned along the way.

A LITTLE after Thanksgiving break, I got a message from my friend Deborah Duguid-May, a priest at Trinity Episcopal Church here in Rochester, New York. She wanted to know if I'd join her and eight other Episcopalians (a group including three priests and two teenagers) on a trip to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the protest camps set up to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

DAPL is a $3.8 billion project expected to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil, every day, from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana all the way down to Illinois. Originally, the pipeline was slated to be laid north of Bismarck, but it was redirected towards Sioux tribal nations in order to protect Bismarck's water supply wells.

Sioux water protectors had been camping at the Standing Rock Reservation since April 2016, asking for a rerouting of the pipeline away from their water and sacred sites. They had been joined by protesters and tribal nations from around the world, who saw the pipeline as a violation of Indigenous rights.

At the Standing Rock protest camps
At the Standing Rock protest camps (Leonard Klein | SW)

We were to leave Rochester on Sunday, December 4, drive through the night and arrive at Standing Rock on Monday, stay for two days, and then start the journey back home on Wednesday.

The day of our arrival, December 5, was significant. It was the day North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had ordered a mandatory evacuation of Oceti Sakowin, the largest encampment north of the Cannonball River.

A showdown was expected that day between law enforcement and the 4,000 people living in teepees and yurts at Oceti Sakowin. They had managed to share a sacred fire under Arctic conditions and create a strong and well-organized community, but continued to be under threat.

Hundreds of protesters had been arrested since the summer, many under brutal circumstances due to the disproportionate and largely militarized response by local police and sheriff's deputies.

In view of this violence, thousands of U.S. military veterans were planning to gather at the camp on December 4, in order to form a human shield around Indigenous water protectors and their allies. We wanted to be a part of that collective resistance.

THE TRIP seemed daunting to say the least, but we all saw this moment of solidarity with Native peoples as transformative and historic, and so we embarked on our journey--seven women in a van and three men in a car--with a generous collection of supplies for the camp and backpacks and food for the road.

Being the only Muslim on the trip and knowing that the Standing Rock protest was completely nonviolent and deeply prayerful, I took verses from the Holy Quran with me. Verses from Surah Fussilat describe the power of good deeds to forge friendships where none existed before, and those from Surah Al-Hujurat talk about the diversity of nations and tribes, so that they may accept and recognize one another, and about how the most righteous amongst us is most honorable in the eyes of God.

We drove nonstop for more than 24 hours, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, across Indiana to Chicago, followed by Wisconsin, and then through Minnesota, to North Dakota and beautiful-sounding names like Absaraka and Spiritwood.

We hadn't gone far when we started getting texts from friends telling us about how after six months of resistance at Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had finally denied an easement for DAPL.

We were delighted but decided to continue. After hundreds of years of broken promises, constant infringements on Indigenous sovereignty, land and resources and the violation of some 500 treaties, it made sense to take government concessions with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I recalled an article by Jack Healy in the New York Times which starts with 76-year-old Verna Bailey reminiscing about how her home and community were lost when their land was inundated by the Army Corps' Oahe Dam project on the Missouri River, "part of a huge mid-century public-works project approved by Congress to provide electricity and tame the river's floods."

The project, Healy writes, was "a cultural catastrophe, residents and historians say. It displaced families, uprooted cemeteries and swamped lands where tribes grazed cattle, drove wagons and gathered wild grapes and medicinal tea."

DAPL is to be dug underneath a dammed section of the same Missouri River. This is why David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, explains to Healy that the pipeline is causing his people to experience a trauma that is "a residual effect of 1958, when the floods came."

WE HIT a snowstorm as soon as we reached North Dakota. The snow was heavy, the roads barely plowed. We continued to drive, straining to see where we were going. Someone mentioned Harry Potter, and how the scene reminded them of King's Cross Station and its symbolism in the book, a crossroad between what is real and otherworldly, between life and death.

Utility poles were somewhat visible and lent some interest to an otherwise blank canvas. The dried-up grass along the sides of the road took advantage of this empty space, poking its head through layers of snow and creating line after line of mysterious calligraphy. A brand new script just for us.

Unfortunately, the blizzard didn't yield, and we were forced to get off the highway and check into a hotel near Bismarck. Strong winds, freezing temperatures, poor visibility, and horizontal blowing and drifting snow continued the next day.

Portions of major highways were closed, and there were reports of numerous accidents, but we were able to drive to Rev. John Floberg's house in Bismarck, for some coffee and pie, Italian food for dinner and enlightening discussions about the situation at Standing Rock.

Floberg is council member and supervising priest of the Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock. Originally from Norway, with Indigenous Sami ancestry, his house is filled with paintings and mementos alluding to his roots.

My first thought was about the conflict and difficult history between Christianity and Native American cultures. In the astonishing documentary We Still Live Here, Jessie Little Doe Baird dreams of her Wampanoag ancestors (a tribe that hails from what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island) speaking to her in their native tongue, a language lost to her people for more than 100 years.

The film is about Baird's incredible quest to revive her ancestral language. It is an irony that translations of the Bible into Wampanoag, an important part of the destructive process of supplanting Native cultures and belief systems with Christianity, become a crucial resource for Baird's work.

But Father John seemed to be well entrenched in the local Indigenous community. He lived on the reservation for many years and raised his children there. He was well aware of Native American history and became emotional when sharing the words of Standing Rock elder Phyllis Young, who had declared peace with the U.S. military and forgiven the American government for the assassinations of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

This was the second time we witnessed a rugged, older man tear up when recounting their experiences at Standing Rock. While in Bismarck, and later at Oceti Sakowin, we witnessed a constant stream of army veterans filing into North Dakota and maintaining a presence at the camp. We had the opportunity to talk to one of them at length, at our hotel.

His voice broke when he tried to explain the spirituality he had felt at the camp. It was clear that Sioux beliefs had sparked and shaped the No DAPL movement--traditions, beliefs and ritual practices that had been banned for more than 50 years, until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

JOHN FLOBERG promised to drive us to Oceti Sakowin the following day, before we set out for Rochester. He was insistent that it be in four-wheel drive trucks.

The next morning, we started on our much-anticipated pilgrimage from Bismarck to Standing Rock. The reservation, swathed in snow and ice, was stark and beautiful, and the road to the camps narrow. There were countless cars stuck in ditches and summarily abandoned along the way. Towing companies seemed to be doing brisk business there.

In our conversations with Father John, we tried to learn as much as we could about life on the Standing Rock Reservation. The picture that emerged was disturbing.

Unemployment is as high as 79 percent, with an attendant poverty rate of 43.2 percent, and there are severe social problems, including gender-based violence, elevated suicide and high school dropout rates, food insecurity, low access to education and health care, and inconsistent access to electricity and running water.

Alcoholism has had a 100 percent impact on the Indigenous community, in that everyone is affected by it either directly or indirectly. The connection between alcoholism and settler colonialism is particularly striking for Native populations based in the Plains, as they had no knowledge of alcohol prior to the arrival of the Europeans, when it became an essential part of trade with fur trappers, merchants, miners and the military.

Floberg mentioned how George Custer's death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 was still vivid in the minds of many white North Dakotans, and this explained some of the racism and hate directed at Native Americans. On the other hand, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to bear down on the Lakota community. He called it multigenerational trauma.

As we drove across the reservation to the camps, I was constantly mesmerized by the beauty of the land, its allure and intensity. I returned to Jessie Little Doe Baird's mission to honor her ancestors in We Still Live Here.

In order to reconstruct the Wampanoag language, she consulted a large number of legal documents, submitted meticulously by her people, in their own language, to Boston courts, asking the government to honor its treaties and stop the theft of their land.

The Wampanoag did not have horses or carriages, and therefore, their feet were in sustained contact with the earth. In the Wampanoag language, the expression for losing one's land can only be translated in English as "falling away," for when the earth is taken from under one's feet, one can no longer be grounded in or anchored to the world. It's a descent into nothingness.

AS WE reached the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I felt overwhelming emotion. This place had galvanized aboriginal peoples from across the planet to come together and make connections between the environment, Indigenous rights, settler colonialism, the theft of land and water, capitalism, its suicidal excesses, and the power of prayerful and principled resistance.

Standing Rock is not only a template for solidarity, intersectionality and grassroots organizing and action, but it also offers us hope. It articulates an alternative way of being, one that is non-violent, deeply connected to the Earth as well as other living things and creatures.

On a trip to the Grand Canyon, I had bought a book by Stephen Hirst entitled "I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People." In the introduction, Hirst explains succinctly how European culture collided with that of the Americas.

Peoples of the "New World" saw themselves as being integrated into nature and belonging to it. In contrast, the Europeans saw themselves as free agents. They came armed with the Book of Genesis and the understanding that nature belonged to them. Perhaps that's why evolution continues to be a contentious subject--because it, too, asserts human subordination to nature, to the animal kingdom.

As we were to leave for Rochester that day, we stayed very briefly at the camp. We helped move some firewood for the medics and later sat by the sacred fire in order to be still and meditate.

On the way back, we talked about our reflections. My friend Melanie Duguid-May, who had taken copious notes throughout our interactions with Father John, reminded us that he had urged us to find out whose land we were living on and then forge relationships with those tribes.

As an immigrant, I have always felt like a settler on Native American land. I have longed for the permission of Indigenous communities to be on their territory. For me, this trip was a lot about seeking that acceptance, and so our work would continue once we got home.

Father John reminded us that democracy is not about elections but about people. On our way to Standing Rock, he stopped his truck, without a second thought, in order to tow a car out of a ditch. We got out to help push it together and once the car was back on the road, we felt a strong sense of exhilaration. Everywhere we went, we saw people volunteering to help and feeling responsible for one another.

After 38 hours of being on the move, driving straight from Bismarck to Rochester, contending with three different snowstorms, and maneuvering scantily plowed roads and closed highways, we got back home to New York.

The trip itself became an important lesson for us. It taught us that sharing everything and living by consensus decision-making can be hard. It requires patience and frequent negotiation, but it can be done. Maybe it's a model that's less clean-cut, more time consuming, and seemingly less efficient, in corporate parlance, but in the end we were richer for it and more equally served by it. Isn't that what democracy should be all about?

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