Here’s What It’s Like At The Standing Rock Pipeline Protest In North Dakota

At the Standing Rock protest, water is life.

Right about the time the news came in that construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline would be — at least temporarily — halted, it started to pour. For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the thousands who’d amassed to support their fight against Energy Transfer Partners’ plans to run 17,000 gallons of oil per minute within miles of the tribe’s drinking water source, it felt right: “Water is life” has been the common refrain throughout the camp, replicated in banners and chant and song. “I’m here to protect the water for future generations,” Faith High Oak, a member of the Mandan Tribe, said. “I’m here to support my people and stand up for what’s right and what’s wrong, and building a pipeline is wrong.”

The weather had been threatening all day, with massive, heavy clouds to the north and west of the Sacred Stone Camp just outside of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The camp, which has grown to over 2,000 Native Americans from over 100 tribes, has swelled over the last week; half of the people I spoke to had arrived the night before, caravanning in from as far as Arizona and South Carolina.

The camp is situated in a bend in the river, a smattering of trees covering a swath of grassy land mostly open to the elements. When you drive your car in from the south, you pop over a hill and suddenly it spreads out before you, like a mirage, or the promised land. One woman who’d driven all night from Iowa told me that all she wanted was to arrive during the night so that the first thing she and her two young daughters would see was the lights of camp, sprawling out into the middle of nowhere.

Camp is run with a startling efficiency: Using donations from tribes and countless individuals, they’ve managed to keep the ever-expanding area sanitary and organized. At the center, there’s a mess hall that serves three meals a day to whoever’s hungry; a mini school for children, many of whom have been taken out of school to be present for a different sort of education, where they can attend workshops and sift through the giant boxes of books and crayons and colored pencils. There’s spotty cell service — retrievable only on a rise in the camp nicknamed "Facebook Hill" — which, remarkably, has people, stranger and family alike, in constant engagement with one another.

That engagement goes on around makeshift fire circles, where people sat on blankets and talked about their journeys and how they’d slept and how the fight against the pipeline should continue. Nellie Bear Cloud, a member of the Gros Ventre and Crow Tribes whose Indian name is Earth Woman, was there with multiple members of her extended family, including three other generations of Earth Women — the youngest of which, six-month-old Braiylee, sat on her grandmother’s lap, fascinated by everything. “She’s been camping since she was one week old,” her grandmother said.

Over the summer, the temperature at the camp often topped 80 degrees, and residents regularly jumped in the Missouri River, which wanders on the border of the camp. But the weather began to turn toward fall, and as the wind grew stronger, people began layering coats, putting socks on with their sandals, and wearing blankets everywhere they walked. Down at the center of camp, those shivering in shorts sifted through the toppling piles of donated clothes as various speakers took their turns at a de facto open mic, announcing their affiliation, speaking a few words of their native language, and offering testimony, perspective, or history.

Around 11 a.m., a group of Native veterans gathered with sacred staffs, praying and burning sage before leading the camp down the road to the site where, last Saturday, a group of protesters (or “protectors,” as they prefer to be called) clashed with private security guards. As hundreds walked down the road, careful to keep behind the sacred staffs, some piled into the backs of pickup trucks, while a dozen people climbed on horses to flank the procession for the two-mile uphill walk. Treyvon Hall, who’d driven up from Scottsdale, Arizona, with a friend, grabbed a bandana printed with STOP THE SNAKE from a woman handing them out alongside the road. (The black snake, used to represent the pipeline, comes from Lakota folklore, which prophesies that a black snake would cross the land, bringing destruction and devastation.)

“I’m no stranger to protests,” he told me. “This is the intersection of Black Lives Matter and Native Lives Matter and environmental justice. Water is life! You can’t drink oil.”

At the site, a makeshift mini camp had sprung up with food, water, a porta-potty, and a few tents — presumably for those who watch the area lest Energy Transfer Partners starts construction again. Once the entire group gathered, they moved over a wire fence, carefully pinned to the ground, to where piles of dirt marked the place where the bulldozers had begun to dig on land that the Standing Rock Tribe has claimed as ancient burial and ceremonial ground. (Earlier in the morning, a man had shown me a thick report detailing each of the sites, where rocks were arranged in clusters that matched the constellations of the sky.)

Protesters gather outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 9, 2016.

“Our Mother Earth is crying,” one speaker told the crowd. “This is why we have come here to defend it. This is why our veterans are here to defend it.” An elderly woman, who’d been pushed the entire two miles in her wheelchair, was carried up the hillside and over the bulldozer-created ditches into the center of the circle. “This is our 86-year-old Sioux grandmother,” the speaker continued. Covered in shawls, she wore a bandana emblazoned with WATER IS LIFE; each time a cheer ran through the crowd, she broke into a wide smile and whooped.

After the ceremony, everyone scattered, hopping in cars to caravan the 45 minutes to Bismarck, where a rally was slated for the lawn of the state capitol building. Somewhere between the departure and the arrival, most heard a seemingly contradictory pieces of news — first, that a federal judge had denied the tribe’s attempt to halt construction on the part of the pipeline, and then, later, that the US government would voluntarily stop construction until it could “determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws.”

At the capitol, the rain was coming down in sheets. But no one from the Dakotas, or so many of the states from which the groups had traveled, is a stranger to bad weather. Young girls covered their dresses in plastic; others, including the teens who, earlier this summer, had run to the White House in their quest to have their protest against the pipeline heard by the president, shivered in their soaked matching T-shirts.

Different ages and tribe members cycled through turns on the loudspeaker, proclaiming their intention to continue to fight, and as the sun came out — first in hints, then as a massive blaze — the mood was joyful, but still cautious. As a Facebook post from the Sacred Stone Camp put it just hours after the decision, “Let’s be cautious about celebrating this. ... We have seen time and time again a consistent strategy from the State in these situations: string out the process, break it to us gradually to avoid a big confrontation, present the illusion of careful thoughtful review of the case, tempt us with promises of modern reforms...but then in the end make the same decision that serves money not people. So far this is just talk, not actions, and actions are all we should care about. Stop the pipeline, then we’ll celebrate.”

Dakota pipeline protesters at the state capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota.

That was the prevailing attitude on the capitol lawn, where teen boys and girls introduced themselves and flirted, toddlers ran around on the grass, and people took turns posing with a statue of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea, draped in a banner spray-painted with PROTECT OUR MOTHER. But others stood straight-faced with raised fists, or faced their banners directly at the two lines of stone-faced state patrol officers positioned, in army-like precision, between them and the capitol. As Amber Morningstar Byars, a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw, put it, “You know, these guys behind me, they don’t understand that this is their water too. This is their children’s water. They don’t get it.”

Read Anne Helen Petersen’s other dispatches from the Standing Rock Tribe’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline here and here.

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