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Standing Rock: The ‘Test Kitchen’ for America’s Uprising

Tawny Cale wore a ribbon skirt and burned a bundle of sage the day she showed up in Rugby, North Dakota for a Black Lives Matter protest. The Standing Rock Sioux woman grew up in the sleepy ranch town just south of the Canadian border. She joined the high school cheerleading squad and marched in annual homecoming parades. It was her way of fitting into a community that was ninety-eight percent white. So, when Cale heard a racial justice rally was hitting her girlhood streets, her jaw dropped. She almost didn’t believe it.

“A Black Lives Matter protest in Rugby?,” she remembered thinking to herself. “I was so proud.”

Cale, 33, moved away years ago, got married, had kids, and then moved again. Each time, she made her life in North Dakota cities not far from her mother and step-father who still call Rugby home.

It was in early June, while visiting her family, that she learned of the Black Lives Matter demonstration. A group of recent graduates from Rugby High had filed for a protest permit, succeeded, and secured police escorts to help organize their peaceful march. But that did little to temper some neighbor's nerves.

Cale remembers the gossip that was circulating in the days leading up to the event. “Agitators are coming in by train. They’re going to destroy downtown; burn down city hall,” she rattled off. “People were so angry.”

The rhetoric reminded her of how locals reacted to the fiery demonstrations over the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock tribe. “After the NoDAPL protests started, I wasn’t as proud to be from Rugby,” said Cale, referring to the pipeline’s acronym, DAPL. The way she put it, the stand at Standing Rock had revealed a “casual under the surface racism”.

“It was sad,” she said.

Calling out such bigotry is now central to an uprising that began in Minneapolis and has spread to hundreds of cities and small towns around the world. In the U.S., the outrage has resulted in thousands of arrests, serious injuries, and National Guard troops being deployed. The catalyst was a viral video of yet another black man in America killed by a police officer – the death of George Perry Floyd. But his tragedy is just one of many like-minded tragedies that date back decades in our shared timeline.

In North Dakota, it should be impossible to speak of what is happening now without taking into account the recent history of Standing Rock, what I often referred to as the “test kitchen” for what to expect at the start of the presidency under Donald Trump. The presence of so many people who gathered on the borderlands of the reservation captures at the heart of today’s resistance – a stand against systemic racism, police brutality, and attacks on free speech. The most potent humility came from the legion of veterans who descended on the Dakota buttes with a mission that is also their oath: to defend the country against “enemies foreign and domestic.” At Standing Rock, this adversary was anyone advancing corporate-led violence in the name of greed.

But if Standing Rock and Floyd’s murder equally represent outrage over injustices, why then has one moment – a pipeline protest – been responded to so differently by North Dakotans than protests over the killing of a Black man? The answer may lie in a racial reckoning that has yet to unravel in the Great Plains, perhaps the sturdiest foundation of confronting the colonization of this country.

For Cale, she’s optimistic. She thinks the smallest act, a 50-person protest in the racially-segregated town of Rugby, could be a hopeful sign that North Dakotans are becoming aware. “I think people are doing a lot of inner work,” she said. “They’re realizing that saying ‘I'm a nice person’ is not the same thing as saying ‘I’m not racist.’”

I found Cale from reading about the rally in Rugby. I don’t live in North Dakota, but I’ve frequented the state, even before my reporting from the frontlines at Standing Rock. My return visits often include making the drive past Rugby toward the Indigenous homelands of my Turtle Mountain Chippewa father and grandfather. But by statewide standards, I know that even these family ties still make me an “outsider”.

For six consecutive months, I filed dispatches from the demonstrations at Standing Rock beginning Sept. 3, 2016. That was when DAPL security guards sicced dogs on a group of Native American protesters attempting to stop pipeline construction that day. Crews had begun to scrape away at lands considered sacred to the Lakota. Days earlier, tribal officials told a judge that ancient artifacts were buried there. Months later, North Dakota state energy regulators issued a $15,000 fine to the pipeline company after historic cairns were unearthed on the disputed lands. According to state records, neither Dakota Access or its operator, Energy Transfer Partners, has ever reconciled their debt for the desecration that occurred there.

Just as viral video sparked global outrage over Floyd's apparent suffocation, Democracy Now!’s news clip of the dog attack galvanized activism at Standing Rock. And just like the aftermath of Minneapolis, the videoed violence kept rolling. There was the tense standoff on Highway 1806 in which police pulled Joseph Hock of the Mackinac Bands out of a sweat lodge as he prayed (Oct. 27, 2016), and the night Sophia Wilansky nearly lost her left arm from explosives as police weaponized water cannons in subfreezing weather (Nov. 20, 2016), and then there was the police raid that resulted in Marcus Mitchell losing sight in his right eye after being shot at close range with a bean bag round (Jan. 19, 2017). The latter incident was the night I was also trampled on by a line of sheriff’s deputies. Two weeks later, I was arrested while on assignment despite displaying my press pass to police.

For the veterans, what drew their ire most was the water cannon incident. The next day, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeir defended the police action as a measure to help keep “everybody safe.” But obviously, “everybody” did not include the protesters or “water protectors” who, like Floyd, may have lost their life. That night, on Nov. 20 as hypothermia set in, grassroots medics tended to victims in a makeshift clinic set up in a casino hotel room.

John Lewis, the 80-year-old Georgia congressman and civil rights activist who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, said when he watched the Minneapolis videos, it reminded him of the 1955 murder of Emmit Till and the “sham trial” that soon followed. “Justice has been denied for far too long,” Lewis said in a statement. These sentiments ring true, today, at Standing Rock. But the fight is far from over.

Oil now flows beneath the Missouri River but a federal court in Washington D.C. has recently ordered the DAPL to shut down. Judge James Boasberg declared the project was fast-tracked and called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental review. The ruling was what the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had been demanding all along with hopes that the pipeline stay shuttered for good. “It is the only way to right some small measure of the historical wrongs that the government has perpetrated on the Sioux nations throughout history,” said tribal chairman Mike Faith in a recent op-ed.

Indigenously, the Oceti Sakowin or the Seven Fires of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people are renowned, if not revered, for their ultimate resistance and resilience to colonization including their victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876; their tragic bloodshed at Wounded Knee in 1890; and their activism at Wounded Knee, again, in 1973.

Then as now, this history serves as a living force in the immediate American condition; a critical link to understanding what may be the hardest circumstance for North Dakotans to reconcile with, overall: white supremacy and the impact it continues to have on the First Peoples of these lands.

“There’s just so much of our history that’s not taught,” said Cale who studied to become a high school English teacher. As an example, she referenced the massive 1950s Army Corps of Engineers dam project that flooded out tribes from their most fertile homelands. For Standing Rock, this forced families onto the fierce windswept uplands to make way for Lake Oahe. It’s a recent memory the Lakota live with everyday but that was so easily erased in the minds of so many others. Few were aware of this history before the pipeline protests began.

“No one knew it was a town beneath that lake,” said Cale. “The intergenerational trauma felt from this experience is still a thing.” From these narratives, she hopes it helps open others to an understanding that the chronic poverty that permeates reservation life is sourced from real suffering. “These problems didn’t just stem from nowhere,” she said.

Even if Black Americans represent only 2.5 percent of the statewide population, it is another marginalized group that’s more visible, Native Americans, that help tell the story of North Dakota inequality. In between these two flashpoints - NoDAPL to Floyd - are recent telltale signs to consider: the delayed murder investigation into Spirit Lake mother, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, the reservation-based voter ID law that negatively impacts the Native vote, and the ongoing battle over the DAPL. Combined, these events represent the steady burdens that systemic racism continues to breed.

In this regard, a protest in Rugby is exactly why Cale and others have responded so emotionally to the small event (Cale said she cried) - because outrage over injustice should be universal, everywhere - and for everybody.

“North Dakotans have a sense that when big events happen, they happen far away, in other states,” explained Cale. “But these are things happening in our own backyard and not from outsiders, but literally, the Indigenous Peoples of these lands.”