Report From Standing Rock—Fierce Resilience As The Black Snake Approaches The River


The camp is a hive of activity, people splitting firewood, erecting a giant geodesic dome, patrolling on horseback, cooking food over wood heated stoves.

At the same time, the camp is struggling to recover from trauma resulting from last Thursday’s action by a multi-state armored police force. Elders who went out to pray were hit with rubber bullets, bean bag bullets, and pepper spray. A sweat lodge filled with people praying, was broken into and participants were dragged out and arrested. Police on all-terrain vehicles chased down horse riders, and one horse was so severely injured that it had to be euthanized.

Forty people were injured, according to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault. 143 people were arrested. People were strip searched, some were kept in what they described as dog kennels, chain link fence enclosures.

The trauma was deepened when man was caught speeding towards camp with an automatic weapon. The unarmed water protectors, as they describe themselves, pursued him, grabbed his gun to keep it pointed away from people, and walked him into a nearby lake where he was persuaded to relinquish his rifle. The Bureau of Indian Affairs police took him into custody, but has refused to answer questions about his whereabouts or whether he was prosecuted. DAPL identification was found in the glove compartment of his truck.

Then, in the middle of the night, a pick-up truck was spotted crisscrossing the hillside across the highway from the camp, and then a grassfire broke out, burning acres of the hillside. Eventually, helicopters turned up with buckets, scooped up water from the Missouri River, and doused the fire. But it was frightening to those in camp to see the flames across the hillside, creeping closer to camp.

This all happened before I arrived on, Monday, October 31. At a ceremony later that evening at the sacred fire – the central gathering place for the camp — Chief Arvol Looking Horse, one of the spiritual leaders of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, called on President Obama to step in. Roberto Mukaro Borrero of the International Indian Treaty Council, reported on a visit from a United Nations representative, Grand Chief Ed John, who spent two days at the camp collecting testimony about human rights abuses.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights once again will have a U.S. representative. How can the U.S. have any credibility at the commission when it is violating the rights of its own people, one person asked after the meeting.

A mediator, working on behalf of Arvol Looking Horse reported on her efforts to secure the return of items taken from those arrested and held at Morton County jail. Among the items was one of several sacred pipes carried by pipe carriers. To have this sacred item taken by law enforcement, even just temporarily, was traumatizing – think of what it would be like for someone to come into a church and remove sacred items, some explained. As men drummed and sang sun dance songs and women’s voices blended, the wind whipped the flags of the hundreds of nations who are represented at Standing Rock, and blew the smoke of cedar and sage across the crowd circled around the fire. When the pipe was finally returned, many were in tears.

Songs and prayers, words of encouragement and spaces for recovery are at the core of the healing happening here at Standing Rock.

A woman announced there would be a sweat lodge later that evening at the Rosebud camp for the women who had been jailed, and a four-day ceremony just for women. The trauma will echo through their lives for weeks or months, but the prayers and community support help.

The sun dance ceremony is one that requires extraordinary strength and endurance from participants, and yet it is full of a powerful joy. This camp is grounded in that prayerful strength and endurance. But it is under siege. Across the road, black scars from the recent fire cover much of the hillside. Overhead, helicopters and small airplanes take turns circling the camp, in apparent violation of the FAA’s no-fly zone.

The road to the north remains blocked by burned out vehicles and a police barricade, which serves to keep away those who would pray in the path of construction. The place where the winter “treaty” camp was torn apart by law enforcement remains inaccessible. Construction has now continued through where that camp had been located, and drone footage shows that construction has nearly reached the river.


The police claim to be simply doing their job of protecting private property. DAPL recently bought the former Cannon Ball ranch, where pipeline construction is happening now and where the water protectors set up their winter Treaty camp, just north of the main camp. But the ownership of this land is far from clear cut.  That land was illegally taken from us,” Chairman Archambault said to reporters in Bismarck following the Thursday confrontation. The land, according to the 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty, belongs to the Sioux Nation.

Like so many other places around the United States, the treaty was not enforced. But there’s another reason DAPL’s claim of ownership to this piece of land is questionable. The state of North Dakota has a law that prohibits corporate ownership of agricultural land. DAPL’s ownership of this ranch would seem to violate that law, intended to protect family ranching and farming.

Still, the full weight of state law enforcement, backed up by police forces from surrounding states, is coming down violently on the side of the dubious claim of DAPL to continue with a pipeline deemed too risky to put upstream from Bismarck, but just right for Native treaty lands.

“We’re standing up for water; that’s the most important thing,” Archambault said. “But what we’re up against is state officials supporting oil production. We have the federal laws that are flawed, that are wrong, that are allowing this to happen. We have unions saying we’re trying to shut down employment.”

“And who are we standing up for water?” Archambault asked. “All we have is support, all we have is unity, all we have are prayers. It’s strong. We still have an opportunity to stop this pipeline from putting water at risk.”

So the camp is in prayer and ceremony. The camp is in mourning. The camp is planning its next steps. The camp is building structures for winter. The camp is trying to recover from jailings; the confiscation by police of sacred objects, clothes, tipis, and horses; the knowledge that construction continues on the ridge nearby.

And the camp is putting out a call to clergy, human rights observers, anyone who wants to protect the water to come to Standing Rock, or to add their prayers, wherever they are. And the camp is putting out a call to President Obama: Do as you promised when you came to Standing Rock. Stand with the nation’s indigenous peoples.


IN the morning, the camp is cold and dark as winter sets into this northern landscape miles away from any city. A few stars peak between the clouds. The only electricity comes via solar panels and a few generators. But flood lights on the hill just to the south are a constant reminder that police are near. The flags lining the camp entrance break the steady, harsh glare with the motion of the wind.

At the main gathering spot, a fire has been burning all night. A small group is gathered there, some who are just waking and searching out coffee and answers, others who were up all night protecting the camp.

An elder walks over to the dark canopy where the microphone is kept. “It’s going to be a good day!” he calls out to sleeping campers. He speaks for awhile in the Lakota language, and then switches back to English. “Sun dancers, get up! Pipe carriers, get up! Christians, dust off your Bible and get up! The black snake is getting near the river. Get up and do something!”

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

First published in The Revolution Where You Live

© 2016 Sarah Van Gelder

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