Since April, protesters against an oil pipeline have been camping in tents, tipis, and trailers at a site just across the Missouri River from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
For a few days, I stayed at the camp, and met people who gathered there to support the effort.
The camp is known as Oceti Sakowin, meaning Seven Council Fires, a reference to the origin of the Sioux tribe.
The unarmed protesters call themselves Water Protectors. They are challenging the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, a 1,172-mile-long crude oil pipeline meant to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
The Standing Rock tribe has voiced worries that the pipeline, which is proposed to pass under the Missouri River, would inevitably burst, and contaminate their drinking water.
Energy Transfer Partners, the private company behind the project, has met protesters at the front line with dogs, tear gas, army vehicles, and guns. As the weather gets colder and construction moves slowly forward, the camp and Standing Rock Tribe continue their opposition of the DAPL, sustaining discussion about the future of energy and conservation.
The day I arrived, more than 20 campers had been arrested while returning from a prayer ceremony at a DAPL construction site. The next morning was quiet.
Early risers climbed “Facebook Hill” to watch the sun rise while charging their cell phones. Smoke began to rise from fire pits while a few cars left to go to the front line. Chatting with other campers revealed that there wasn’t going to be much direct action for a few days; time was needed to regroup.
Monitoring the Monitors
Every day, at sunrise and noon, a helicopter sent by Energy Transfer Partners comes from the north and flies around the entire camp. I asked a young woman if she knew why they did this.
“They want to look scary,” she told me. People pulled out their phones and filmed the helicopter making its daily rounds.
Smartphones are almost always being used at Oceti Sakowin. Although service is difficult to find below the hills, people record everything, streaming live on Facebook when they can, and posting their experiences on social media. As with police shootings, phone cameras have become mechanisms for protection at the Standing Rock camps and actions.
“People are getting more used to the idea that we need our phones and cameras out,” my friend Thomas told me. He was also camped with the Hoopa kitchen and was doing a lot of organizing within the camp. “We use our devices to prove that something is happening here.”
I heard rumors of moles hired by ETP or the FBI taking drone footage of the camp and recording conversations. Many people that I talked to were skeptical of these accounts, but everyone agreed that the camp was being monitored closely.
The main kitchen and sacred fire are situated on a low hill, right next to Oceti Sakowin’s entrance. The spot serves as the primary gathering place.
Most people come to this kitchen for breakfast and a late dinner. Everyone in the camp is invited to make use of a PA system. Elders and community organizers come first, but artistic performances, musical acts, jokes, and storytellers are always welcomed alongside history lectures, prayers, and appeals to the camp.
People have moved their entire lives to the camp, bringing their horses and basketball hoops with them to Standing Rock. Basketball provides a social and competitive activity during long, harsh winters, and young men bring old tribal rivalries with them to games, playing for the honor of their families and communities. At Oceti Sakowin, sports and horse-riding keep boredom at bay.
When the young children of the camp were not in classes at the makeshift school, they would roam the grounds with their bikes and skateboards, rolling down hills and makeshift jumps. Older youths would grab horses from friends’ campsites and ride them bareback through the camp.
I saw people sitting around their campfires chatting all day. Others put themselves to work doing physical labor, including cooking, chopping wood, and building kitchens or showers. The community feeling was one of a shared life.
Readying for the Cold
Winterization is a major point of concern at the camp. The campers cannot stay on the current grounds for much longer, and the site needs to become more organized and sustainable.
There are plans for solar homes and a couple hundred tipis, available for anybody who needs one. There is a constant need for donations and physical laborers. The camp ran out of water and firewood one day I was there -- both are needed daily for cooking and heat.
The camp did not have enough tipi poles for canvases, and was waiting on a group from Colorado to bring a truckful of poles. Still, campers said they needed more if they were going to provide enough shelter for people camping through the winter.
Thomas told me the organizers and Standing Rock Tribal Council want the camp to be a model for the world of sustainable living, depending entirely on renewable energy.
Standing for Peace
While getting lunch at the main kitchen, I ran into Arnie, whom I’d I met earlier that day. He introduced me to three young Mohican men he had traveled with to Standing Rock. I asked if I could take their photo.
Arnie asked me what I’d been doing since our breakfast encounter, where he introduced himself to me as an Amish man with two PhDs (he wouldn’t tell me what they were in) and asked me if he looked like a man with two PhDs. I studied his ensemble — socks with sandals, sweatpants, a long black coat, a baseball cap and a gray beard — and I told him no. Arnie laughed.
As we sat watching the morning’s announcements and prayers, he told me that the violence and hatred circling the Standing Rock movement reminded him of his own village, when a man murdered several Amish children. One of them had been Arnie’s.
“We need to not only stand for peace, but also make peace,” he told me. “In my town, after those children were killed, we got together some money and gave it to the murderer’s parents as a gift, because we knew they needed to heal. We made peace. We produced it. That needs to happen here, too, and everywhere really — we have to create peace and loving kindness. It can’t be effortless.”
“We Are the Mexica”
The Oceti Sakowin camp has drawn people from across the globe. One afternoon, a large group of youth and traditionally dressed dancers marched through the camp to the sound of drums. “We are the Mexica,” announced one of the dancers. He pronounced it as Me-she-cah.
“You know us as the Aztecs, but this is not our original name.” They brought a large group of teenagers with them, representatives from different tribes, to join forces with Standing Rock’s Youth Council.
The march ended at the main camp, where one of the Standing Rock elders told the crowd about the ancient Amazon prophecy of the Condor and the Eagle — two different ways of life, the heart and the mind — and of the potential for these two paths to join to create a new consciousness for humanity.
“Our Mexica friends have brought the Condor to the Eagle,” he said. “We must fulfill our potential.”
Protest and Prayer
Much of the conversation at Oceti Sakowin revolved around how to remain positive despite the difficulties the camp has to overcome.
Late one afternoon, I met a man who was deeply upset about the lack of constant action by the Council and by the elders. He felt that the whole camp should be rising every day to be at the front line, trying to stop construction no matter what.
When I brought up this encounter with Tribal Councilman Robert Taken Alive, he told me, “Protest is not in our native tradition. Our young people want to get up and yell and hold signs, but we are here to fight this battle with prayer.” I talked about it with some fellow campers over a late-night fire. Several people echoed Robert’s statement.
One young man advised us all that we needed to focus on turning negative talk and patterns of thought into positive ones. If we respond to others’ fears and worries with more fears and worries, we allow space for disunity. Without unity, he said, it all falls apart.
Council Brandon is a film student from Hartford, Connecticut. She is currently taking a gap year.