I spent week at the Oceti Sakowin Camp from 11 November 2016 through 18 November 2016. It was far too short of a time. I felt at home there, among the water protectors. The camp technically begins on the reservation with a group known as the Rosebud Camp. Most of it is actually just north of a bridge with signs marking that one is leaving the reservation. It would be easy to just say it is on US Army Corps of Engineers’ land, however in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie the land of the Sioux stretches upward along the Missouri River and all the way along the Heart River, which flows just south of Bismarck and through Mandan. The camp barely touches that vast swath of land.
The camp is lined by the Cannonball River. The only road leading in lines the west of the camp, ND 1806. The part of 1806 immediately north of camp is completely blockaded by police 24 hours a day. This blockade adds a bit over a half hour to the journey to camp from Bismarck. It was established after police demolished the 1851 Treaty Camp set up further north which was actually blocking work on the pipeline. At night, the entire north end of the camp is illuminated by construction lights on hills set up by the police or Dakota Access construction workers. The sound of planes and helicopters are ever present. They are constantly watching.
The camp’s layout is fairly simple, there’s an entrance leading to a main road lined with flags from all the relatives who have come to visit or stand in support of the camp. Each of the roads leading away from the main road leads to campgrounds where people are living, tents for meetings, and kitchens where people eat. Just past the sacred fire is the volunteer and information tent. The donation tents are just behind the volunteer tent. There’s a hill in the southwest of the camp where the media people hang out and where many can get cell phone reception and, therefore, internet access. Consequently, this has become known as “Facebook hill”. It also has the most impressive, panoramic view of the camp. The layout of the camp will change a bit, especially with winter coming. The camp will compress, to make it easier for people to check up on others and make sure everyone is still alive and unclaimed by winter.
Along the main road, after the first road, is the sacred fire. This fire has someone to tend it every moment the camp is there. This fire must not go out. This fire is symbolic of the heart of the camp and it’s smoke is the prayers of the people of the camp. There is braided lemongrass, sage, cedar, and tobacco set out at the altar of the sacred fire for offerings of prayer and purification. Everyone who offers prayer is to start on the left of the altar, pray with their offering in hand, place the offering in the fire, then walk in a circle around the fire to the other side of the altar. People rise at 6am in order to gather around the sacred fire and greet the sun with prayer in a pipe ceremony.
Almost everyday I was there, there was a woman ceremony, or water ceremony, after the first pipe ceremony. We would gather over by the river. The men would line the way down to the makeshift dock, and the women would be escorted by the men lining the way down to the water. After the women were done, the men would follow until everyone was lining the bank. The ceremony is simple, an offering of prayer with tobacco was offered to the river. The person holding the pitcher of water would give you a small handful to offer to the river, then another small handful for you to drink and be aware of the blessing water is.
Every waking moment was filled with work and ceremony woven into a living prayer to the creator. Some people weren’t aware of this. That created a frayed edge on the weave as their aggression stuck out. The majority of people I interacted with were around to pray and stand peacefully with the Standing Rock Sioux on the front lines. This formed the backbone of everything happening. People would come from far away to present an offer of prayer at the sacred fire, this might be in the form of song, an offering, a ceremony, or prayer tie.
The most practical aspect of the camp was the direct actions. Direct actions are what most are calling protests. They are acts of prayer and ceremony to raise awareness, to pray for the Dakota Access workers and police, and to stop work on the pipeline or cause the state to lose money. Often times they would have a particular theme they would promote. These actions are met with mixed reactions. Some people get very upset about them, others smile and give peace and thumbs-up signs.
The day I participated in a direct action, the theme was missing indigenous women. Indigenous women would often go missing when the DAPL workers came to town. Another theme on the same march was meth and meth addiction related violence. There was a banner which was silk screened art the art tent. People wrote down the names of those they knew who had died this way. We convened in the camp preparing to leave as a helicopter chartered by the cops flew overhead. I hadn’t found a ride yet, but we all lined up and waited for cars with space. A few cars went by, eventually those in front of me hopped into a car. I waited until a truck came by and hopped into the truck bed. I laid in the back for nearly two hours while we drove from the camp to just outside Mandan, ND. I heard and occasionally looked up to see the helicopter was still following us, informing the rest of the police force where to meet us.
We arrived at the scene, hopped out of our cars and assembled around the truck with the PA system in it. They pronounced why we were here for and reminded us to pray. Several people spoke about their causes. We then all lined up along the railroad tracks as police continued to arrive. They brought in an empty bus for all the arrests they believed they would make. The rolled up the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), which worried me, however they only used it for pronouncing, “This is an unlawful protest! You are blocking a highway and the railroad. You must disperse.”
The action was going well, and we were standing our ground praying and asking the police why they stood on the side they were standing. “Do you stand with you family? Or do you stand with corporations?”, I asked, while someone else shouted, “By standing there, you will be remembered as being on the wrong side of history!” I continued praying and smiling at the cops. Smiling makes them very uncomfortable with what they are about to do. Eventually, one of the officers shouted, “He has a weapon!” while pointing at someone far away in the field. I turned my head to look back and saw who he was pointing at. He had a small thin corn stalk in his hand from the field he was walking through. I yelled back, “That’s not a weapon!” If you’ve ever worked on a farm with corn fields, you might know that, compared to a police baton and even the leaves of the plant itself, it could barely hurt anyone.
However, it was all he needed to see. It became the reason and motivation for using force. The entire scene changed. They started pushing us back. Our line was weak to my left. They immediately arrested five or six people. We started falling back. They almost successfully pushed us into two groups to more easily arrest us, but we managed to flow around a structure to join the rest of the protectors. While we were attempting to walk backward up a gravel incline, they arrested several people for not moving fast enough. They grabbed them pull them towards them and then threw them onto the ground, using their large zip ties to cuff them. Forced them up and pushed them along into the bus.
They started spraying us with pepper spray. I counted four long sprays total over the front of the crowd of water protectors. After that, the crowd started disbursing faster, but it could have been from us being pushed back towards the road. People started moving towards their cars and looking for the groups they came with. The police had already started towing cars away to impound. These were cars which were parked on the side of the road, not blocking traffic. I met up with a few people from my group. We continued to watch for the rest of our group as people streamed by. Because of the new shortage of cars, we picked up an additional 7 people who all piled into the truck bed with me.
We turned around and started heading back to the camp. We were met by a police road block. The stopped us and all of the traffic coming from the protest. They said they were looking for one person. They started searching all of the cars. I’m not sure if they only arrested one person. The bus, empty earlier, now half filled with water protectors passed by us. Everyone cheered them on and they all looked out the windows shouting cheers back at us. A group of officers with a camera came by us recording us all on video. People in the back of the truck with me shouted at them. I told everyone to remain calm, we didn’t need to give them any reason to arrest us.
Eventually, they said they found who they were looking for, a kid named Jessie from New Mexico. They let us go. As we drove over the bridge they had blocked into Mandan, ND we received a combination of dirty looks, cheers, thumbs-up, and peace signs from people standing beside the road and in cars waiting in line to cross the bridge to go towards where we came from. We drove the two hours back to the camp, all piled up in the back of the truck with my legs going numb from my inflexibility.
Over two dozen people were arrested that day. Was it worth it? Even though bail is often set at $1,500 for each person, the costs associated with deploying as many officers and using as much force as they did are probably higher. We stopped trains from running for at least 4 hours that day (and I heard protesters in another part of the country did the same that day). I think it was worth it. Direct action is to raise awareness, to be inconvenient, and to make people stop and think.
Why Do It?
While being a climate activist is fine and has a place and time. The Oceti Sakowin Camp is much more. Oceti means “hearth” or “fire”. Sakowin represents the number seven as indicated by a hand and the thumb and index finger of the other hand. It is the traditional name for the Sioux people and the seven indigenous peoples who have traditionally lived in Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. It is indigenous peoples’ fight to keep a land which is sacred to them. It is their fight for a future. It is their fight to hold on to what they believe is their first medicine, water. The cry of “Mni Wiconi” is a deep plea to Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila (Great Mystery/Spirit, Grandfather) for the first life sustaining medicine. There is a part of the land surrounded by water, near the Oceti Sakowin Camp, called Turtle Island. It is named that because of what it represents, the larger Turtle Island which is all of the Americas:
All of the creatures were together in the water. They wanted a place to stand outside of the water, but there was no land. The beaver went under the water to try to bring some land up with him. He was down there for just a short time and he came up empty handed. Then the muskrat went down under the water. He was down there longer than the beaver, but still came up empty handed. Seeing this, the turtle went down under the water. The turtle was down under the water for a long time, so long, the other animals started to think he wouldn’t come back. However, not too long after they started thinking that, he appeared with a hand full of mud. That became Turtle Island.
The actual land mass near the camp called Turtle Island is a burial ground and is sacred. It also has a drill pad set up, only waiting for the green light from the US Army Corps before they start boring under the lake. There are graves which have been dug up and sacred items which have been destroyed. None of this was reported by the company. None of this seems to matter to anyone except those whose ancestors were buried there.
Being a part of the Oceti Sakowin Camp means being a part of the Sioux peoples. It does not mean being there to serve another agenda on other terms. It means being there to help the Sioux people live in their traditional way and help them on their terms. It means being attentive. It means watching before doing. It means listening at the sacred fire. It means learning the ways of the people. There is a lot of information and culture passed around at the sacred fire. It is also a place where to consult with elders.
Equally important is being there to work and help out in any way needed. It is not a place for people to go and then just leave without helping out. I felt terrible leaving. I knew that very cold temperatures were coming and that much work was needed to prepare. I knew I needed to go around the country praying for everyone in this nation while always keeping the people of the Oceti Sakowin Camp on my mind.
The one thing I did right before I left was help a newcomer get plugged into the camp. She was all riled up, energetic about going out on a direct action, asking me, “Where should I go to be a part of the next action?”
I explained, “There might not be another one today and you should really go to the training before you meet in the morning to leave for one.”
“Oh, so where’s that?”
“It’s over on the other side of camp at 2pm.”
She looked at her watch seeing that it was only 11am, she asked, “What can I do until then?”
“There’s a lot to do around camp. There’s a lot of people here to take care of.”, I responded.
“Oh, I see. So I can help take care of people until then. What should I do?”
“I’m not entirely sure what the needs are this very moment, but if you go to the information tent behind the sacred fire, they should know what the needs are.”
“It’s over by the — Oh, come with me, I’ll show you,” I said as we head over to the tent.
She found out that people were needed in the four kitchens and that there was a long time (22 hours) until she could go on a direct action. I wished her luck as I had to be on my way and gave her a hug goodbye. I went to go pray over the camp and the water one last time before I left.
This camp is a community where each person’s survival now depends on how well people help each other. It was a little more idyllic earlier while the weather was nice and warm. Now, it is going to be quite a bit below freezing. Everything you do there should count towards warming bodies, mind, spirits, and souls.
I still encourage you to go and stand in support of our Native peoples. I just want you to be prepared with is expected of you and what you’ll need to survive. If you are unfamiliar with winter survival, please familiarize yourself with it. There will be people familiar with those skills, but you should probably prepare ahead of time. Beware that since Backwater Sunday, police have been authorized to use live ammo on people on the Backwater bridge (the north bridge). As long as we’ve been going on direct actions, the police have looked for any excuse to use force against us. They have outright lied about us having weapons and arming ourselves. I expect them to continue doing so. Prepare yourself to be flawless and to not give them a reason to escalate. Encourage others to do the same.
If you cannot personally take the risk to come to the camp, there are still ways to help out. Both http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/ and http://standwithstandingrock.net/ have resources to help donating. You can also help by spreading the word about what is happening in/around camp. The best direct sources of information have been:
- Official Oceti Sakowin Camp Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/OcetiSakowinCamp
- Unicorn Riot is reporting — https://www.facebook.com/unicornriot.ninja/
- The official Medic Healer Council — https://www.facebook.com/MedicHealerCouncil/
- Members of the Iktčé Wičháša Oyáte (some of these people are part of camp security) https://www.facebook.com/iktcewichasa/
- International Indigenous Youth Council — https://www.facebook.com/IIYCstandingrock/
- A photojournalist on the ground — https://www.facebook.com/Standing-Rock-Rising-1131347910264898/
- Kevin Gilbert reporting on the ground — https://www.facebook.com/kevin.happychappy
- Camp of the Sacred Stone (a different camp further south east) — https://www.facebook.com/CampOfTheSacredStone/
Please watch these sources for news, I will update this with other media sources, please share these far and wide.