We Are Not Protestors, We Are Protectors: Peace, Prayer, Love and War at Standing Rock Sioux

Last week Project 562 arrived at the ancestral territory of the Hunkpapa Oceti, also known as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. We came to stand in solidarity with our relatives, steadfast in their efforts to protect their land from the poisonous black snake called the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The expensive 3.9 billion dollar pipeline received its permits from the Army Corps of Engineers on July 25th, 2016. If built, massive volumes of crude oil will wind through the ancient burial and ceremonial grounds of Standing Rock Community, disrupting the culture, water supply, ecology, and safety of its people. Legal action to stop this thoughtless devastation was filed in federal court, and the decision about the project was imminent. Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, explains the stakes: “Not only would this [pipeline] threaten sacred sites and culturally important landscapes, it would also be dug under the Missouri River, just upstream of the Tribe’s drinking water supply. If there were to be a spill – which history has taught us is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’ – it would constitute an existential threat to the Tribe’s culture and way of life.”

Dallas Goldtooth

Dallas is the Keep It In The Ground Campaign Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

 Since initial project approval in April, community members have blocked the gates of the construction site, “the frontlines” as protectors call the area, and have since set up The Sacred Stone Camp, where protectors and allies can rest, seek solace, and ready themselves for action.

We reached the camp at midnight on Monday after 21 hours of driving straight from Washington State. We were first greeted by an Uncle who bathed our tired traveling souls with warmth and hospitality:

Uncle: Relatives, where are you from?

Us: The Northwest Coast, Tulalip and Swinomish.

Uncle: Pilamiya (thank you) for hearing our cry, thank you for coming all this way, we have been out here for months, and we appreciate you coming to stand with us. Our Native brothers and sisters have come from all four corners. At first we were just twenty people, and slowly our numbers have grown. Every day more of us have been arrested. Today they arrested a bunch of women. But our spirits are strong. We’ll win, because protecting the water is worth it. So thank you for coming all the way out here, just seeing you here gives us strength.

The Uncle tells us to drive down the road, we’ll see the camp on the left. The moon is full and the night is glorious. I’m a Northwest gal, in fact, I’d just spent three weeks on the water in a ritual canoe paddle, so the sight of the plains by moonlight is rare, and I have to say, it’s a sight worth seeing. Teepees aglow, smiles and hugs and handshakes, fire-lighting men, singing and drumming, the cricket roar, the sense of the land’s deep, eternal presence do something special to your insides. I closed my eyes that night grateful to know such spaces.

The next morning we gathered around a fire to listen to organizers and tribal leaders about the day’s plan. The previous day the energy developer Dakota Access had brought heavy machinery onto the graves of ancestors. Elders pleaded with protectors about the correct purpose, “Remember, we are here to protect the sacred in a peaceful way. ” Tribal leaders broke it down plainly: “If you are here as a warrior for yourself, then this is not the place for you, we are here to protect the water and the land, not for you to gain recognition for yourself”.

An activist Auntie takes the mic and makes things real about the goals and risks - “Respectfully, I’d like to tell you why we ran in front of those earth terrors yesterday … there was a lot of confusion about whether we should allow them to pass … we were told that they were given permission and we should let them through. We did not come all this way to watch the Dakota Access Pipeline tear up our earth. We came here to stop them! Traditionally, it was the women who declared war in our communities, because it was the women that lost their husbands and sons. And yesterday, when we saw them come here to rape our mother earth, we knew that it was time for non-violent direct action … And so a group of us women ran in front of them. Some of our girls were only fifteen years old! We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew it was what we had to do. They didn’t’ have weapons, they went with prayer and the men driving the earth terrors were forced to stop. Many of our girls are willing to go to jail or even die for this earth. They know it is that important to protect the waters and all else.”

So far, more than 20 people have been arrested on charges including disorderly conduct and trespassing onto the construction site, including their Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault.

We followed the prayerful procession from camp to the construction site. Teenage boys atop painted horses, women in moccasins and skirts with their children in tow, elderly escorted by younger cousins and Grandpas sitting on the backs of tailgates all follow the sacred chanupa. When we reach the construction site we are told to put our cameras away, that it is time to make prayers. The drum beat starts, holding the pace of the two stepping dancers as we face the north, the south, the east, the west. The prayers are done in Dakota, and then in English. We ask the grandfathers to be with us. To help us protect the water. To watch over our women and children. We give thanks for all living things. We give thanks for the opportunity to be alive today. And once these prayers are said, we begin the trek toward the Missouri River to continue the prayers, “trespassing”. On the river’s banks, more prayers are offered, songs are sung, the Missouri’s waters are thanked for their journey.

Standing Rock friends show me where the burial sites are. We offer tobacco and thanks to the ancestors. It is then explained why this place, known as “Cannonball” is sacred. In Dakota, it is called Ieninyanwakagapi, which translates to ‘sacred stone’– the place where the water whirls to create perfect circular sandstones. In the creation story, the first gift from the creator is water, and the second gift is the grandfather stone. It’s a pretty significant space. Imagine the possibility of tearing apart the Mecca for an oil pipeline.

The Missouri River has already been dramatically interrupted. In an article published by Winona LaDuke, “What Would Sitting Bull Do”, she recounts, “The 1944 Pick Sloan project flooded out the Missouri River tribes, taking the best bottom lands from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, the Lakota and Dakota. More than 200,000 acres on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations in South Dakota were flooded by the Oahe Dam itself, forcing not only relocation, but a loss of the Lakota world. The Garrison, Oahe and Fort Randall dams created a reservoir that eliminated 90 percent of timber and 75 percent of wildlife on the reservations. That is how people are made poor.”

Our serene moment of prayer and stories is interrupted by helicopters suddenly thumping overhead; fearful cries come from all directions. Grandmas yell, “Put all the women ‘n children in the center! Hold your ground! Water is life!” Some of the group runs to the top of the hill to see what is happening. Some pile into the pickups that have just arrived. We’re quickly escorted back to camp. I hop into a pickup with a bunch of young Lakota men, the moment is crucial, but it also brims with good, boisterous energy - “Matika, bring us home with you, we want to eat salmon, and walk amongst those ‘liberal marijuana smokers’, and we promise, we’ll bring ‘many, many horses’ with us.” (What are these lively lads of the Great Plains talking about?) We laugh all the way back to the frontlines.

Later that afternoon we met “The Runners”, an alliance of Oceti Sakowin youth and allies who left Sacred Stone Camp on July 15t, 2016 to run by relay the 500 miles from Cannonball, North Dakota to the district office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska. The Corps representatives refused to hear their message; so they decided to run the 1500 miles to Washington, D.C. to try to share their message with The White House.

 Danny Grassrope, 24, Lower Sioux, comments,

“We come with peace and we want to teach the world, not just Natives, that we don’t have to be violent. The reason we ran to Washington, D.C. is to bring awareness to President Obama as well as the all the United States about how much the pipeline is the people around the Missouri River. This isn’t just a Native issue. It’s time to unite. It’s time together. We are one family. This is one world. We are one nation. We get it, we aren’t the only ones occupying the United States, so it’s time for us to unite as people, as one. No matter what color or race you are. We are one people. We’re Native Americans, and we’re not doing it just for us. We’re doing it for all people. For the four legged. For the winged. For all things that need water. And we all do. Water is life for everybody … Mini Wiconi, we say, which means, ‘water is life’.”

At Standing Rock I have realized we are in the midst of a historic, transformative moment. It is the first time that the Oceti Sakowin have come together since the battles with Custer, 137 years ago. Oceti Sakowin is the appropriate name for the people commonly known as the Sioux, meaning the Seven Council Fires. The original Sioux tribe was made up of seven council fires, based on kinship, dialect, and geographic proximity. Sharing a common fire has always united the Sioux people. And in 2016, with this terrible encroachment again upon Mother Earth, vital waters, and sacred sights, the fire after so long is blazing again! Jack Dalrymple, governor of North Dakota, none the less has declared this incredible movement to protect the land and waters and people a state of emergency – scores of hundreds of Native people revering and praying for water and ancestral dignity constitute a state of emergency … This same governor blocked the pipeline from entering and endangering Bismarck, the state capital - an earlier proposal for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck was scrapped because it threatened the capital’s water supply. So the very decision to move the route south was meant to sacrifice Native communities for the oil gods and their human operatives.

D-Day finally came on Wednesday when the federal district court in Washington, D.C. would hear the case. On that day, Chief Arvol Lookinghorse led ceremony amongst hundreds of protectors standing together in a circle, while thousands of protectors joined Tribal Chairman Archambaul in Washington, DC for the hearing.

Eagles were brought to our ceremony and then were released back to the wild. For hours, song upon song was offered to the creator. Women standing to the east swayed in unison as they loaded their chanupas and prayed with a vigilance I’ve never witnessed. I couldn’t help but feel tinges of anger as I thought of James Boasberg, the U.S. District Judge making the decision about the fate of our relatives, and this land, way over there in the U.S. capital, never having felt the people’s spirit here. The same way I feel about President Obama, who, only two years ago, walked on the banks of this same river and made promises to the Oceti Sakowin. When the prayers finally ended, a woman entered the circle. She’d just returned from being “on the hill” where she had fasted for 4 days. She said that before she’d left, she had acknowledged a few protectors who would wait for her at the frontlines. While she was in the sacred space making her prayers, she asked the creator to bring more people to stand with the protectors who’d stayed behind. She returned to that circle enfolded by peoples from more than two hundred nations.

An announcement suddenly traveled through the crowd - Judge Boasberg had decided to take more time, until September 9, 2016 to make a decision. And so the people remain here, in prayer, and they are asking for all of you to join us.

I can’t help but think of Vine Deloria’s words, who was enrolled here at Standing Rock: “Who will find peace with the lands? The future of humankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things. Who will listen to the trees, the animals and birds, the voices of the places of the land? As the long forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors. That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that for this land, God is red.”

If you’d like to help, you can drive out to Standing Rock and sit in prayer with us. We need you. Or, you can donate to http://standingrock.org/news/standing-rock-sioux-tribe–dakota-access-pipeline-donation-fund/.

Chief Arvol Lookinghorse