(Left) Gibby, from Pawnee, Oklahoma, looks out over Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock at dusk. He has camped there for nearly two and a half months. (Above) Campers sit on “Facebook Hill,” one of the few spots in Oceti Sakowin one can receive cell service.
I cut northwest through the ﬂat farmland of South Dakota, past small tractor dealerships and gleaming silver grain silos. Grass and wheat ﬁelds slowly gave way to velvety golden hills, dappled by royal blue lakes. Soon, the Missouri River appeared—a rich azure snaking through the land, ﬂowing south toward the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. An hour north, thousands have gathered at Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation—my destination—over the last several months to protect the river, protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Oceti Sakowin (pronounced oh-chet-ee sack-oh-ween), meaning “Seven Council Fires,” is the main camp of the Standing Rock protests. Citizens from between 200 and 500 Indian nations have set up camp at Oceti Sakowin this year; ﬂags from the nations whipped in the wind on poles lining Crazy Horse Avenue, the camp’s main artery. The pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners—a division of the same company that almost bought Tulsa’s Williams Companies before the price of oil plummeted— has a proposed route from the Bakken and Three Forks crude oil production areas in North Dakota 1,172 miles to Patoka, Illinois. If completed, it will carry 470,000570,000 barrels (19-23 million gallons) per day. Direct protest efforts began this past March and have ramped up in recent months. Camps on the Sioux reservation and surrounding federal land were
as small as a few people, to start, and have grown to populations of over 9,000, according to Kalyn Free, an Choctaw citizen and environmental and Indian lawyer in Tulsa who visited Standing Rock in October. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of other Native Americans, indigenous people from around the world, and non-native allies, see DAPL as an immediate threat to farming and drinking water, ecosystems, wildlife and food sources surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries. On November 4, the Army Corps of Engineers asked that DAPL halt its construction. Rumors of a 30-day pause in construction as a result of negotiations between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Corps circulated Oceti Sakowin camp. The Corps, however, said it was only a proposal. At present, Energy Transfer Partners is in the process of constructing the drill pad for drilling underneath Lake Oahe, but has not yet received the easement from the Corps. The drill has been delivered. “This Bakken pipeline is no different than the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Dallas Goldtooth, organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Keep It in the Ground campaign. “It threatens the sacred waters of the Missouri, it threatens the very sensitive waters of the Ogallala Aquifer … it is attempting to lock our country into more fossil fuel dependency … We must keep this oil in the ground for the beneﬁt of all future generations.”
The current camp exists on federal land that was originally promised to the Sioux under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. “Honor the treaties” and “Mni Wiconi” (“water is life”) are common rallying cries. By now, millions of people connected via Facebook have seen pictures and video of Native and non-Native protesters (who call themselves water protectors) at Standing Rock clashing with police and DAPL security. Frequently, these posts use the hashtags #noDAPL or #standingrock. Many of the images are disturbing— showing nonviolent protesters being beaten with batons, shot at with rubber bullets, attacked by dogs, faced with Humvees and long range acoustic devices (LRADs), and tear gassed and maced by heavily-armed ofﬁcers wearing riot gear and gas masks. The press has been slow to catch up, though smaller reporting outﬁts like Unicorn Riot and Eco Watch have been keeping close tabs for months. In the wake of several mass arrests (including the arrest of 141 protesters on October 28) and a surge in police presence, national media coverage has increased. As I entered the camp early in the afternoon on November 3, I steeled myself for what I imagined would be daily, violent clashes between protesters and police. What I found was different.
roads are dirt and camp ﬂoors for the most part are tamped-down ﬁelds. Soon after arriving, I participated in a direct action training, during which newbies were given the rundown on camp operations. “How many of you are from the northwest?” the trainer asked the group—about 80 people clustered in a small wooden building. A few people raised their hands. “Ok, how many of you are from the east coast?” More hands. “Alright, how many of you are police ofﬁcers?” The group laughed. He took us through the camp’s direct action principles: We are protectors, not protesters. We are peaceful and prayerful. Isms have no place here. We are nonviolent. Respect locals. No weapons, or what could be considered a weapon. Property damage doesn’t get us closer to the goal. All campers must get orientation. Direct action training for all who want to be in action. No children in potentially dangerous situations. We keep each other accountable. This is a ceremony, act accordingly.
Oceti Sakowin is nestled beneath Highway 1806, and ﬂanked by Missouri River tributaries and hilly ﬁelds of long grass. Its
Oceti Sakowin is a place of prayer and ceremony. Its residents are asked to practice FEATURED // 23