Woodsmoke drifted over the hundreds of tipis, yurts, travel trailers, and army tents in Camp Oceti Sakowin, which was more of a makeshift city than a camp. A line of colorful flags waved on the horizon representing the more than 300 tribes who had joined the Standing Rock Sioux in what is being called the largest and most diverse
gathering of indigenous tribes since the 19th century. For the next three days, we watched a constant stream of cars, trucks, and U-Hauls inch through the camp gates as thousands of military veterans arrived to support the protesters. The Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the land on which the camp is situated, had ordered the protesters to disperse by December 5. Protesters replied that the Sioux had never ceded the land, and vowed to stay put.
After setting up our tent, we followed the advice I’d received from someone who had spent several weeks at Standing Rock: “Walk the grounds and get to know where the waters run.” We spent the next few days doing just that, waking through the circuitous roads of camp and seeking out paddling stories.
Outside one of Oceti Sakowin’s large kitchens, which prepare donated food for thousands of people each day, we saw a young couple filling their backpack from a giant crate of yams marked “free.” Beside the crate were eight others, each packed to the brim with yams. Nearby, mountains of donated clothes were arriving by the trailer load. All the protesters we spoke with emphasized that they were prepared to stay through the harsh North Dakota winter or until the pipeline was defeated. When the Governor of North Dakota Jack Dalrymple said he would evict the campers for their own safety, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe responded: “The Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers [here]. It is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.”
Between the astounding number of winter-ready dwellings, the ample provisions, and the fact that the camp was still growing after nine months of occupation, it was clear many protesters were prepared to follow through on the claim. On the ground, people were pitching in to winterize the camp. We joined a construction crew for an evening that was building a plywood floor in an Army-surplus tent. Others volunteered sorting clothes, washing dishes, cooking meals. Those who were qualified provided legal advice and medical services.
On December 1, 10 people in two dugout canoes struggled into the camp after paddling 180 miles from the headwaters of the Missouri near Three Forks, Montana. David and I tracked down one of the massive wooden canoes just before it was towed out of camp. The 32-foot boat, carved out of an ancient red cedar, sat on a trailer behind a pickup. Its side was emblazoned with a leaping salmon, emblematic of its origins in the Pacific Northwest. Four crew members representing three Northwest tribes—Colville, Kalispell, and Coeur d'Alene—sat in the cab of the truck, preparing to drive home.
One of the expedition members, John Higgins, described the crew’s journey through the wilderness in Montana, where they encountered eagles, bighorn sheep, and coyotes. But the most impressive part, he said, was sharing a canoe with “four strong-willed women,” including 57-year-old Colville woman Patty Porter who often sat “hooting and hollering” in the front of the dugout.
Security is tight along the pipeline route, but the paddlers say they experienced surveillance long before they reached the construction site. The crew spent three days in Bismarck waiting out a snowstorm and fierce winds. As they prepared to launch for the final stretch, they noticed someone taking photos of them with a long-lens camera. When the paddlers approached, the photographer got into an unmarked vehicle and left. When they paddled over the pipeline's proposed route beneath Lake Oahe, security forces amassed on the banks, apparently believing the canoes could be part of a direct action. Since August, protesters have been chaining themselves to construction equipment and marching in the pipeline's path.
JP Pakootas, also of the Colville tribe, sat eating Ranch sunflower seeds in the back seat of the truck. She told us the most incredible part of the journey was the final three-mile paddle up the Cannonball from Lake Oahe to the Standing Rock camps. The river was already partly frozen, and crewmembers had to take turns dragging the canoes a few feet forward at a time. When they ice started to crack, they would nimbly fall back into the bow of the boat. Laura Yale, a documentary filmmaker who helped organize the trip, said, “If we’d waited one more day, the river would have been too frozen. We wouldn't have made it.”
Crewmember Virginia Red Star said, “The trip helped me remember my purpose, realizing what my people went through in the 1800s and what they still go through today. Being [at Standing Rock] makes me want to go work on water issues back home where kids can’t swim in some of our rivers because of mining [contamination].”
Patty Porter held a sign reading, “We are here to protect. Water is life.” The Standing Rock Sioux’s worries about leaking pipelines and drilling infrastructure are not without foundation. According to a New York Times report
, 18.4 million gallons of oil and chemicals spilled or leaked in North Dakota alone between 2006 and 2014. In 2011, the Silvertip Pipeline ruptured in Montana, spilling 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River, a tributary to the Missouri. Last year, another pipeline spill near Williston, North Dakota, leaked some 3 million gallons of toxic brine into the Missouri watershed. The list goes on. If completed, the Dakota Access Pipeline will cross more than 200 waterways on its route from the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota to its junction with other pipeline networks in central Illinois.
The next day, we met up with Norm Miller, an expedition paddler from Livingston, Montana, who kayaked from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean in 2004, retracing Lewis & Clark’s original route. Miller told me he worked on the Exxon Valdez cleanup in 1989 and that experience still influences his view of oil disasters today. “That was a huge eye-opener,” he said. “I compare it to trying to clean up a gymnasium with a toothbrush. It just doesn’t work.”
Miller took us to a pile of four canoes near the Cannonball River. Even from a distance, we could tell their hulls had been smashed. Residents of the camp directed us to Facebook posts
from the Michigan Cold Water Rescue Team, which claimed the canoes had been used in a nonviolent direct action on Turtle Island, a Sioux sacred site that was occupied by police and security forces. Soon after the protest, the rescue team claims, Dakota Access security guards had taken the canoes in the night and placed them behind a razor wire fence, where they remained for several weeks. In late November, a group of veterans returned the canoes to camp, but the boats had been damaged beyond repair. Every canoe had been gashed by power saws. Miller crouched in the snow beside the boats, repeating that the scene was “unreal.” He said, “Most people who have a canoe cherish their boat. To see them broken…it’s a crime and an insult.”
We never found the owners of the canoes in the chaotic camp. But we tracked down a GoFundMe
campaign that was launched to help the rescue team purchase new equipment.
Canoes haven’t been the only victims of clashes with authorities since the protests began. Nearly 600 people have been arrested and dozens more injured by attack dogs, rubber bullets, water cannons and concussion grenades. Camp organizers continued to stress that any direct action should be “prayerful and nonviolent.” Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the pipeline, earlier this month filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that construction delays have cost the company
$450 million so far. Protesters hope that if the pipeline is delayed until January 1, 2017, oil company contracts made with ETP will have to be renegotiated
, which could deliver a fatal blow to the project.
Miller introduced us to “JZ” Jones, a Marine veteran and frequent volunteer with the nonprofit Missouri River Relief, which organizes river cleanups. Jones said he’d joined the camp after he heard the call for veteran support. "You could write books on the offenses thrown on the people here,” he said. He cited Energy Transfer Partners’ rerouting of the pipeline through the treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux after the originally proposed route north of Bismarck was rejected over water contamination concerns. The new route brought the pipeline under Lake Oahe, which has its own bitter history for the Sioux tribes. In the 1960s, the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build five dams on tribal lands, including the Oahe Dam. The reservoirs flooded 55,000 acres of the Standing Rock Reservation and 150,000 acres of the nearby Cheyenne River Reservation, displacing people, destroying timberlands, and drowning fertile farmlands. According to historian Michael Lawson, “The Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other public works project in America.”
On December 5, hundreds of veterans who, like Jones, heeded the call to come support the Standing Rock tribe, asked forgiveness in a public ceremony for the U.S. military’s role in the Indian wars and dam projects.
The gathering of Native tribes at Standing Rock is more than a simple protest. While the common goal of stopping the pipeline is central to all camp activity, the elders’ emphasis on prayer--and their strict prohibition on alcohol, drugs, and weapons--has turned the camps into de facto training grounds for traditional culture and history. I overheard one man in his mid-thirties say, “I knew so little about my people before I got here. I’d forgotten how to pray. I didn’t even know how to set up a tipi! Can you believe that?”
Mark Kersey, a recently retired filmmaker from Virginia, said he and a friend were planning a source-to-sea canoe trip on the Missouri-Mississippi next year. When asked why he came to Standing Rock, Kersey said, “I'm a nature freak and I love this country. I see trouble for both right now.”
David met four men when he climbed a hillside to photograph the camp from above. One of them, a resident of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said of traditional tribal life in the area, “We weren’t nomadic. We had a contract with the stars and with the water. They told us where to go. We need to go back to that way of living.”
David and I were back near the broken canoes when we heard a call to form “the world’s largest prayer circle around camp.” People slowly filed into line and held hands. The line eventually stretched unbroken for a quarter mile before it twisted out of sight. Those standing close to us offered up prayers in multiple languages, each of them expressing gratitude for water. One man spoke about recognizing “our relatives, all the two-legged ones, and our greater relatives: the grasses, the winged, the rivers.” As we were still united in the circle, a runner came down the line winded and shouting, “The Army Corps denied the pipeline’s permit! It was just announced at the great fire. The Army Corps denied the pipeline’s permit!” Unsure whether to believe that their prayers had been answered by some synchronicity, the circle broke and people filed to the middle of the camp.
As we arrived at the central fire, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, took the stage. "I'm telling you, this is true," he said. "You know how rumors spread." He said he’d just spoken to Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, who told him the Army Corps of Engineers would deny Energy Transfer Partners’ easement to drill under Lake Oahe until an environmental impact statement was complete. The Army was also looking into rerouting the pipeline. Archambault told protestors they had won for now. “Go home and spend the winter with your families,” he said.
Cheers went up from the crowd. Fists shot into the air. Long-time residents of the camps embraced veterans who had just arrived that day, momentarily breaking the tension between Natives who had been in the camps for weeks or months, and the influx of mainly white newcomers. Snippets of Lakota victory song rang out.
Hundreds of people marched through the camp, singing.
The celebration would be short-lived. The next morning, Energy Transfer Partners would release a defiant statement, saying they “fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this administration has done today changes that in any way.” President-elect Donald Trump, who as recently as May
had between $500,000 and $1 million invested in ETP, has repeatedly voiced support for DAPL. With the pipeline’s future uncertain, thousands of water protectors vowed to stay in the camps until the “black snake” was fully dead, even as a fierce blizzard whipped across the North Dakota hills and many left.
The denial of the easement was the largest victory to date for the water protectors, a testament to the power of civil disobedience, perseverance, and unity in numbers. For one night at least, there would be celebration. Fireworks exploded above camp and people pounded drums late into the night. As I lay in my tent wrapped in sleeping bags and heavy coats, I heard a woman shout from a nearby tipi, “Mni wiconi!”
“Mni wiconi!” a voice replied from across the street.
I let the exchange reverberate around my tent. Since I'd arrived in Standing Rock, I'd noticed how the camp seemed to play the role of a supportive rehab for addiction. In addition to the ban on drugs and alcohol, there were counselors available, tents dedicated to fighting meth, and countless ways to participate in community prayer or communal work. Swaddled in my nest of synthetic insulation—derived from petroleum products—and thinking about my carbon-spewing flight home the next day, I realized this is not just a rehab for those with a history of substance abuse. The Standing Rock protests issue a challenge to our entire culture's fossil fuel addiction, and our history of leaving Native communities with the brunt of drilling's negative effects. Standing Rock reminds us that civilization once existed without oil, but never without clean rivers and aquifers. Mni wiconi. Water is life, whether we remember it or not.