Lessons and Reflections From Standing Rock

A week after the debacle that we are calling election day 2016 I was at the Jermaine McBean Art Show opening night with the family of Jermaine and my organizing family.  At the end of the event I was talking to Jasmen and Asa and they asked me if I would wanted to/could go to Standing Rock next week as a part of a delegation from South Florida.  I said I would try my best to do so. I am currently in a diversionary program so to do so I would need to get approval from the court.  After jumping through plenty of hoops I was able to get permission from the court to go to North Dakota just a day before we were set to leave.  

Asa sent out a great email with some fantastic information (listed just below this paragraph) that he received from the #NODAPL people but even with that I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had never spent extended time around indigenous folk so I was really excited about that.  I also was worried about the weather.  I had always said North Dakota was one state I would never want to travel to because of how cold it was and because …. I mean come on it’s North Dakota.  

Note: Special thanks to Paula, Tifanny, & Jasmen for doing the majority of the logistics in planning the trip. 

(Links sent by Asa – Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet, How To Talk About #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective, How to support Standing Rock and confront what it means to live on stolen land, Media Guidelines from Sacred Stone Camp)

The drive up was challenging as we were jammed pack with people and supplies.  As well as being ill prepared to deal with the eventual cold we would face.  We paced our way up to North Dakota and finally got there after about 42 hours.

The cold hit us like a ton of bricks while there and we did our best to stay warm.  Some of us requesting to sleep in the car and the emergency tent, wary of the possibility of shock due to the drastic weather change as well as to deal with ailments and illness caused by the trip.  

We also noticed the really terrible cell coverage and the erratic behavior of our phones. They would drop all the way from 50% battery to nothing in seconds and then minutes later come back to life without being charged back at 50% battery.  The cell coverage would go from 4 bars to nothing in moments.  No matter how many bars you had it was near impossible to get data to go through making checking social media impossible.  

We stayed on Sacred Stone camp and were oblivious to the existence of other camps.  We were a bit shocked by how many white people there were and how few indigenous folk and people of color.  After thinking through power and privilege and ability to just pick up and leave a job and responsibilities and have the resources to make it all the way to North Dakota we realized the racial dynamic shouldn’t be that surprising.

We began working all collectively on different projects throughout the camp until we were advised that there were in fact other camps that also had trainings and it was recommended that we attend the trainings and explore the camps before getting to entrenched in the work.  We really had the mentality of just wanting to give over all else but we decided to take this recommendation and go exploring for the rest of the day.  In our exploration we found out about the difference in racial dynamic and cultural dynamic of Sacred Stone Camp and Osceti Camp which we found to be the bigger of all the camps.  Osceti camp was much more diverse and had a lot more indigenous people there.  We also found the information for all the trainings.  

During these explorations we also noticed how incredibly communal things were.  You could go into any of the communal tents and take whatever you needed.  There was no request to barter or pay for anything.  If you needed clothes, medicine, tea, tents, blankets, food, water, etc. it was there for you to take.  There was also just a natural inclination to help.  As we walked past people working we would just ask if anyone needed help with anything as we saw them laboring away and they would tell us how we would help and we would work together and get to know each other as we did so.  Very unusual to the alienation of labor that usually happens in the capitalistic structures I have seen.  

That night we had to insulate our tent some more to deal with the cold and we also had to go pick up another comrade from the airport that night.  Her flight was set to arrive at Bismark airport at 10 PM and it was about an hour drive so we had to leave by 9 PM.  We used that time to insulate the tent some more and then all of us except the four of us who were staying in the emergency tent went on the drive to Bismark.  We also decided we would use that to make a supply run for the camp as a whole and for ourselves.  We were running through water very quickly and we also wanted to have small snacks available for quick meals and in between meals.  

As we were waiting for our comrades flight to arrive we began checking social media.  Since we were away from the campsite we were able to get service with ease.  As we were sitting eating dinner we came across a FB live feed from the camp that was showing water cannons being used in 19 degree temperature (not factoring wind chill) on the protectors that were involved in a direct action against the builders of the DAPL or Black Snake as the protectors took to calling it.  The video is being taken from a distance away on facebook hill which we later found out is the only place on camp that has any semblance of consistent reception because they do have WIFI devices and tech personnel there to help with facilitating the operations of the legal teams and others that would need internet access for the fluid function of the camp.  We continued to watch this grainy video from an hour away from camp and see flash grenades going off in the distance, hear the chaos of the night being broadcasted for millions across the world could watch via Facebook.  Our hearts sunk collectively.  We wanted to be there to help the people in the camp in whatever way we could.  We felt guilty for not being there even though we knew nothing of the possibility of an action that night before we left.  We wanted to go back immediately but we still had to wait for our comrade to arrive at the airport.  Finally when our comrade arrived we drove back to camp.  When we got back we were told that there were drives going back in forth to pick up people from the front lines and take them to medic tents throughout the different camps.  People had been pepper sprayed, tear gassed, had flash grenades thrown at them, shot with rubber bullets (some bullets were said to have had the rubber part taken off of them to increase the impact), as well as hit with the water cannons.  People were suffering from hyperthermia as well as countless other ailments.  We were concerned and scared about the thought of entering that intense battle brought on by Morton County Sheriff’s office but we knew we had to help in any way we could.  As we began to drive to the front with our van we were told we were not needed anymore.  They already had a 10 car caravan heading to the front lines and that would be enough to bring everyone back.  We turned the van around and headed back to camp and picked up a woman on the way back who was walking.  She said she was at the front lines but seemed to be making it seem as if it were a spectacle to be embraced and reiterated how much “fun” she had and even suggesting that the officers enjoyed it along with her.  We were a bit confused by this.  

The next morning we made it over to Osceti camp and heard more about the damage brought to the camp, and the people both physically and morally.  A young woman could have potentially lost her arm due to having a flash grenade thrown directly at her during the action the night before.  Hundreds of people were being treated for various ailments, the most common being hypothermia.  This reinforced our disconnection from the person in our car the night before.  This disconnection from the true conditions and intent of the camp would be a recurring theme.  

We attended the workshops which were led by a varied of racial background and all non-male identifying folk. They were very powerful and reiterated an idea that I would begin to hold very dear to my heart as my time in Standing Rock progressed.  The idea was “take what you need and give all that you can.”  This was very important as resources were so limited it is very important to only take those things that you absolutely need. If you are sick, see the medic, if you are cold, take some clothes, if you are hungry, then eat.  Overindulgence was strongly discourage and the constant evaluation on what you truly “need” was emphasized heavily.  On the other hand it was duly recognized that all you have is gifted you from the earth, from the land, and you owe that back to the land and all the things and people the land has also created.  So all that we had we shared with the people and the land.  That meant our possessions as well as our physical labor.  If we didn’t need it at that moment we gave it.  This was heavily rooted in spiritual practice.   Everything was heavily rooted in spirituality and prayer.  That was taught to us in the training and practiced throughout our time there.  Every morning there was prayer and before every action there was prayer.  Prayer for them was very much rooted in the chrishing of the land and all it provides for us and how much we need to protect and give back to the land.  I really valued that lesson greatly.  

The workshops were also incredibly indigenous people centered. There was always an ask for indigenous people to respond to a question or make a comment before it was then opened up to people of color and then white people.  This was an interesting practice I had never before seen and it was explained as a way to encourage others not to take up too much space and further colonize the land and opportunities of indigenous people.  

The direct action trainings and legal trainings were extremely thorough and valuable.  I really appreciated the time they took to put together these important and valuable trainings and now saw why we were told to explore and attend the trainings before working.  

Between and after the trainings we still found various ways to help by washing dishes, or helping cook, or helping build tents and things like that as we walked through camp sites.  

After our last training we went to the legal tent to fill out legal support forms.  Some of us had some legal issues that we had to be wary of as well as non-citizenship status that could be affected by an arrest at a direct action.  So we wanted to make sure to have the legal team be aware of that.  It amazed me how smooth they were running considering the thousands of people who come in and out of the camp on a regular basis.

At the legal tent we were also told about the cell reception issues we were having and how that is due to the planes flying overhead to survey our phones and jam our signal.  Some of us figured as much being that we have encountered similar technology used by Broward Sheriff’s Office at our actions but never to this level of consistency.  

The rest of the days on camp were a mix between working on camp doing construction type jobs, cleaning up, trash pick up, washing dishes, eating, staying warm (which was toughest when we slept), keeping from getting sick, and direct actions.  

The direct actions were intense.  The police officers from Morton County were extremely combative and underhanded.  They brought border control to one action to scare people that may have documentation issues from participating.  At another action they told the people they had 5 minutes to get to their cars before they began arresting people.  As people returned to their cars they were already towing them and they would snatch people up who had nowhere else to go.  We spoke to many people on the campsite about the holding cells as they waited.  The holdings were so full that people were being held in cages that they believed could be dog kennels.  Others were being transported 4 hours away to neighboring cities to use their holding.  

When we went to a county commission meeting with Veterans for Peace who acted on behalf of the camp to file a formal complaint about these behaviors of the sheriff department the county commission declared their committed support despite the urging by the veterans that these tactics are often discouraged as beyond drastic in war let alone to be used against USA citizens.

All this is being done to protect the building of a pipeline that isn’t properly permitted and has the potential to damage the land and water supply of the people trying to protect the earth and water.  The amount of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism in that idea is nauseating at the least.

Also the residents of the towns in North Dakota near the camp were full of anger towards the protectors.  In direct actions that happened in town we had racial slurs thrown towards us multiple times.  Stores would lock there doors near actions to keep protectors out.  There was provocation done by the citizens of the town speaking about how they don’t want us there and threats to act violently if we did not leave.

As we stayed in the camp though we were so inspired by the resilience of the people there.  The indigenous folk and their allies, for the most part, were so dedicated to the stopping of this pipeline and creating all the sustainable structures on camp to make that happen.  Making sure to honor the land and the original people of the land with each action. They were building actual structures to prepare for the winter cold which was only getting worst.  They were creating schools, mess halls, security buildings, etc.. The people there were constantly trying to solicit all the things they needed to preserve the safety, security, and stability of the camp so they could be in this fight for the long hall.  I was amazed by this.  So much more advanced than any organizing I have ever seen and heard of before including occupy.  

The camps though were not without their challenges.  Many white allies took this as a hippy retreat and escape from the capitalist world and didn’t see fit to contribute and live up to the “take what you need and give all that you can” ideals encouraged by the camp.  They took up a lot of space and offered constant critiques without contributing to growing those critiques and ideas into tangible solutions.  That is another valuable lesson delivered in the camp.  The importance of following through with suggestions and ideas instead of dumping them on other people.  I have experienced this constantly in movement work.  Where people will give me an idea that they have no desire or will to carry through and expect that I will do all the emotional and physical labor to deliver it to fruition.  I have also been a perpetrator of this practice myself.  A lot of these people had not gone to the training to learn these lessons shared with us by the indigenous leadership. They continued to perpetuate the ideas that were counter to the trainings and direction of the camp.  Many of these things happened at Sacred Stone camp and maybe because of the distance between this camp and Osceti camp that led to a bit of a disconnect between the mentality of the two camps.

There also were many complexities on camp between the indigenous folk and the various tribes on site who haven’t been together sharing the same space ever.  So finding common ground amongst colonized and displaced people I can imagine to be a challenge in itself.  

Even through these challenges the camp was such a magical place.  We left feeling drained, renewed and refreshed all in one.  The drive back was only 36 hours including a brief stop in sabal trail pipeline to leave supplies.  It felt like we brought some of that magic home with us as we began reentering our daily lives. The inspiration of the movement to create these tangible structures for the facilitation of resistance is something we seek to emulate locally while simultaneously uplifting the struggle all the way in standing rock.  I will never forget the 8 days plus spent traveling to and from standing rock and the time on camp.  I will always seek to take only what I need and give all I can in the basis of a spiritual connection to the land.  I will never be the same.

Continued… A week later

As I sit in a restaurant in Puerto Rico discussing the Mijente conference and the various learning experiences we have had it is brought to my attention that the army corp of engineers has denied the permit to the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The first thing that hits me is shock.  Why? Why would they deny the permit?  Why the sudden new found altruism when they were just recently seeking to remove the water protectors from the Army Corps of Engineers land in because they claimed they were concerned for their health during the cold winter but didn’t release a statement in concern for their health when they were hit by water cannons used by the Morton County Sheriff’s office in 19 degree temperature not more than a week earlier.  Were they genuine about their concern for the water protectors?  Is this denial of the permit a display of that.  I go on Facebook to see other posts speaking to Obama’s involvement in the pipeline being blocked.  I am frustrated by the exalting of the “heroes” named Obama and Army Corps of Engineers in some instances and thankful at the recognition of the political pressure applied by the Water Protectors at the detriment to their own livelihood and health as the key reason why the pipeline was stopped.  

The articles still make me question, is this real?  The Army Corp of Engineers have talks about rerouting the pipeline.  Then is the work really done?  I am still worried and concerned.  It doesn’t feel like it is time to celebrate but everyone is so overjoyed.  Calling it a much needed “victory for the people.”  I hope they are right.

The next day I get to the airport in San Juan named after an imperialist advocate and former governor of Puerto Rico.  While waiting for my flight I receive a text from Wendy, an amazing indigenous rights advocate that traveled with us to Standing Rock.  It reads

“yeah there is talk that DAPL will continue”

“Since it has to be built by January or most backers will pull out”

“And they will just take the fines”

“Yup”

I looked this up and learned that there are rumors that Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, will incur a $50,000 a day fine to continue building the pipeline.  The machine keeps moving, black snake keeps moving, and the people are left searching for more and new ways to stop the machine.  The people will continue to fight for victory.  One thing I learned at standing rock and will continue to spread to everyone I know is that the people will take what they need and give all they can.  This will not stop, we will not stop, we are who we have been waiting for.

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