DAY 1 (Friday, Dec 3, 2016)
Vehicles line Highway 1806 heading into Oceti Sakowin camp. Security stops every car passing through, counting heads and screening visitors. Up on Media Hill — the only piece of high ground with cell service — Danny Bravo and Marisa Shea, both from Lowell, Mass, are moving the legal tent. Tensions are high from multiple standoffs between water protectors and authorities, the most extreme one ending in the former being sprayed with water cannons in subfreezing temperatures. Now, with a North Dakota winter knocking at their doorstep, new, winterized shelters are being built every day.
Danny and Marisa have been volunteering at Oceti Sakowin since they arrived. Danny, formerly a fellow at the Boston-based Climate Disobedience Center, and Marisa, a substitute teacher in Lowell, headed to Standing Rock in mid-November in a caravan filled with donations for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was slated to cut through sacred land and a water source for millions of people.
“I decided to come out to Standing Rock because back in Boston I have been engaged in pipeline fights for a while, and seeing that there was a call by the people at Standing Rock for pipeline fighters to come out, show support, and do what they can, there was just no way that I could not answer that call,” Danny tells me. We first met in Boston while I was covering the protests of the Spectra West Roxbury Lateral pipeline; that project, which sits next to an active blasting quarry, went online Dec 1.
As an environmental activist, Marisa had participated in many of the actions in West Roxbury, but she went to Standing Rock as a human rights activist. “I had heard about what was happening on social media, and I think that the first time I really paid attention was when I heard that Native Americans are being charged with trespassing, which is, if you think about it, an absurd idea,” she says. “I sort of felt like if I don’t go, then there’s that saying, right, you’re on the side of the oppressor? If I didn’t go, how could I just let these things happen right underneath my nose? There was a call that they were going to welcome people to come if you want to come in the right way, in a good way, to help.”
Karan Karanfilian Doczi is a woman from Boston who founded the Medicine Wheel Solidarity Network, a group that consists of local New England Native American community members and “Settler Allies,” which was brought together in response to a call for solidarity organizing. Karan has been working since early August to organize actions on the East Coast; her husband, Tim Swallow, is Lakota. Echoing Marisa’s sentiment about coming to the camp and the movement in the right way, Karan says, “Anything that is done there, or here, should be done with the greatest humility that a human can have.” She further emphasizes the importance of non-Native allies engaging in respectful learning: “This reality may be new to you; when people see rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water cannons, however, this is not new to us. What you are part of here, this is very clearly violent, aggressive acts of genocide, and to us these are continuous acts of genocide. This reality has been a constant, violent, and aggressive human atrocity.”
Following a request for Lakota headsmen, the traditional name for chief, to come to Standing Rock in early August, Karan and Tim Swallow arrived in support of Tim Swallow’s brother, David Swallow, the headsman of the Oglala. This is the first time in 160 years — since the battle of Greasy Grass in 1876 — the Seven Council Fires, which consists of seven major groupings of the Sioux Nation, have come together. In that communal spirit, Karan and Tim Swallow spread the word on the East Coast, attended DC court hearings, and worked with non-Natives in solidarity actions that reflected the Lakota way.
“They should learn about the history before they come,” Karan says. “Lakota, Nakota, Dakota people. These are Sitting Bull’s people. Learn, not only about the history that has happened but we are still living in.”
DAY 2 (Saturday, Dec 4, 2016)
Solidarity is on full display as thousands arrive to join the Native people to protect clean water and sovereignty rights. Meanwhile, the sun is cooperating with a temperature in the upper 20s as allies Danny and Marisa continue to move boxes and furniture out of their former sleeping quarters. They’ve been volunteering with the Water Protectors Legal Collective since their arrival, sleeping in the legal tent each night to keep the various documents secure. Both take their job seriously, which consists of supporting water protectors on the ground, bailing those arrested out of jail, helping people navigate the courts, and assisting them in finding lawyers.
“One thing that I have been really surprised about since I got here is how emotionally expensive it is to be here,” Danny says. “I really feel called to be here, and this feels like incredibly important work and incredibly rewarding work, and I’m so thankful to be able to be here in this way; but by the end of the day every day, I feel very worn down, and supporting people through such traumatic things is a lot. It can be heavy, it can be hard.”
DAY 3 (Sunday, Dec 5, 2016)
Midday on Sunday, news breaks that the US Army is denying the easement to build the pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. This comes in the form of a memo from Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, who cites the need for an environmental impact statement with full public input and analysis to look for an alternative route to the pipeline.
In the camp, there is a mix of emotions.
“Just because they have denied the permit does not mean that this battle is over,” Danny says. “DAPL has already released a statement saying that they intend to continue drilling and intend to finish this pipeline without rerouting it. It’s certainly a time to dance and celebrate, but there is also space for crying. I think what this means is we always need to be vigilant, and we need to be aware when the state and other colonial forces send us a message that gives us good feelings it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve gotten what we want.”
Marisa shares the sentiment: “It’s an indication that when people push really hard and identify the people that hold power and the decision makers and put pressure on them, we can have wins … but pragmatically or practically speaking it doesn’t do much. I still think that it shows that we have power and we can win, and so people all over the country need to keep pushing.”
Over at the Sacred Fire, a central meeting place where prayer and intertribal communications take place, Natives, military veterans, and allies cry, hug, and pray. “We want to see it in writing and we want to see something that is substantially enforceable,” Karan says. “However, even with that, this is not over. It wasn’t celebrating for a lot of people; people needed that achievement, they needed to see what they were doing made a difference, ’cause it did … It’s partially we are very skeptical, because we have been through this before. They say things when it benefits them.”
Karan and Tim Swallow returned home last week to continue their work on the East Coast. Danny and Marisa came back to Lowell this week as more people have left the main camp. Meanwhile, on Dec 9, US District Judge James Boasberg denied an attempt by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to push an expedited approval of the completion of the South Dakota pipeline. A tentative court hearing has been set for February, and the Justice Department and ETP have until Jan 31 to file petitions with the court.
“They say things and break their word,” Karan said. “There was an accomplishment, and it did make a difference. However, acknowledging that this is not over, there is still a need to stand strong, hold space, remain. Everyone needs to keep fighting this from every angle. This will not be over ’til there is true sovereignty. This is beyond a pipeline.”
Kori Feener is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and photojournalist from the Boston area. She has had work featured in the Associated Press, AJ+, and Reuters. Feener’s documentary work has been screened at festivals across the United States, and she serves as a member of the Non-Fiction Cartel in Boston, a collaborative focused on short form documentary storytelling. In 2016 she served as a screener at the Camden International Film Festival and is currently an adjunct professor at Emerson College.