We woke up in sleeping bags in the front seats of the car to foggy windows and bright light. It was early morning, but already the sun seemed to be high over the Sacred Stone Camp in Standing Rock, North Dakota. We had arrived at 3am after driving 22 hours straight from Vancouver, and our plan had been to wait for morning before approaching the camp we'd heard so much about.
However, before we knew it the spotlights and automatic weapons of the National Guard checkpoint on the road towards the camp had appeared out of the inky darkness and it seemed like stopping there would be a bad idea. The soldiers had let us through, and it hadn't been much farther down to where the alert, firm and friendly faces of the Sacred Stone Camp security had received us. What a contrast! We pulled into the camp and fell asleep with the realization that this place didn't seem to sleep, and visitors who had travelled great distances and arrived at odd hours were nothing out of the ordinary here.
The idea to drive down to Standing Rock had taken root quickly. I had written an article about this struggle of indigenous nations and their allies in defence of their self-determination and the environment in the last issue of Fire This Time. We watched closely as the camp, which was established by the Standing Rock Sioux in April, kept growing as part of efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). We watched as heavy equipment dug up burial sites and police guns were drawn, arrests made, pepper spray fired and attack dogs sicked on those peacefully demanding the halt of the unapproved construction of a pipeline which plans to transport 450,000 barrels of hydraulically fracked crude oil per day.
We watched as government and corporations pretended to turn a blind eye to repeated reaffirmations that this pipeline has not received, free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous nations whose traditional territories it was literally bulldozing through. We watched as they ignored the obvious – that the proposed pipeline route which runs under the Ogallala Aquifer (one of the largest aquifers in the world) the Missouri River (the longest river in the United States) unnecessarily jeopardizes the lives and water supply of millions of people.
The Journey to Standing Rock
We watched until we could watch no more. When the article was finished and the newspaper sent to press, the Fire This Time Editorial Board agreed that Noah and I should go to Standing Rock. We took off after his nightshift - headed South and East to a place we'd never been to stand with and record a struggle which had become an important and inspiring focal point of the international movement against pipelines and for climate justice.
As we rolled through Washington State, Idaho, Montana and finally into North Dakota we listened to the radio and checked social media updates from the #NoDAPL hashtag. The skies were clear, but it felt like we were headed towards a storm as we heard news that a U.S. District Court Judge had denied the request for a injunction against pipeline construction by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Soon after news came that the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior had issued a statement asking for a halt of pipeline construction for 20 miles on either side of the Missouri River while they reviewed the permits already granted. We also found out that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Amy Goodman, a Democracy Now reporter who had documented on video the assault of camp members with pepper spray and attack dogs by a private security firm hired by the Dakota Access pipeline company.
The Life of the Camp
So when we had woken up that morning and cracked open the doors for the first time, we were not quite sure what to expect. What we found was a camp and a community committed to the long term struggle against the pipeline, and aware of the insanity of leaving the future of people and planet up to corporations and their friends in government.
We found massive support from other indigenous nations who are all undergoing their own struggles of land and water defence in their territories, but who understood the importance of Standing Rock as an example and precedent for the overall fight. As we walked through that huge camp for the first time, we saw tents, trailers, teepees and people from practically every state and province who had come to be part of the camp. We also found immediate friendliness and greetings, and no one who was particularly impressed by our 22 hours of travelling. Many had done the same or longer. Most had been in the camp for quite some time and had no plans of leaving.
The road through the camp was lined with hundreds of flags which different nations had brought when they arrived to support the camp. When the strong winds picked up through the valley, the sight of the flags taking up a big patch of the sky and the sound as they rippled in the air was something we will never forget. By the time we left the camp the entire road in was almost completely filled with flags, which also included one from Palestine and another from the Veterans for Peace group.
Three weeks later and I still have the familiar smell of fire and ash on my clothes. There was an important central fire in the camp's main gathering area, which was kept lit around the clock. When delegations arrived they would be received here. Most shared their reasons for coming to the camp, what they had brought for donations, as well as prayers and their own dances and songs. Important camp announcements about news developments, camp updates and volunteer requests were all made here as well. Late into the night people came in front of the fire to share their own songs, stories dances, and ideas about the struggle before us.
The other fires that never went out were those of the kitchen adjacent to the main meeting area. It never slept either, as there was always wood to be chopped, dishes to be done, and preparations done for the next meal. Feeding thousands of people 3 meals a day is no easy task, but it was always done and always delicious.
A few times a day there would be an announcement on the microphone asking for volunteers to help unload a new truck or van full of donations. They've also raised over $850,000 dollars through online crowdfunding for legal fees and the expenses of running a 24/7 camp which feeds and accommodates literally thousands every day. Standing Rock North Dakota could be pretty easily described as the middle of the middle of nowhere – but the camp felt incredibly connected to the outside world.
This was even though you had to walk up “Facebook Hill” to get cell phone data reception. It's also where the media tent was located and where we heard Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network give a press conference about the recent developments. Young, articulate and passionate – he was a good example of a lot of the movers and shakers within the camp. Our interview with him is also printed in this issue of Fire This Time.
We were also able to interview several other people to try and give some voice to the strength and unity within the camp. We interviewed Big Mike, an indigenous hip-hop artist from California who understood exactly how the fight at Standing Rock fit into the overall historical abuse of indigenous nations by the US government. Jean Roche, of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee gave an update on the struggle to free Leonard after 40 years as a political prisoner, and how this connects to Standing Rock. We also interviewed four young Pueblo women from Arizona who had come together for the trip to Standing Rock and have now created a new group called the Pueblo Action Alliance. They have now already sent 5 caravans to Standing Rock, as well as coordinating their own campaigns for environmental justice in New Mexico. Reyes, Ahjani, Towana and Tamara were the last people we interviewed, and their sincerity and conviction were powerful to see. If these were the voices which were readily available when people turned on the television or radio, many would have a different perspective on the depth and importance of these issues.
There is a Fire Which Never Goes Out
Trying to summarize the camp is challenging. It was beautiful to climb up a hill with new friends and look over the land and the river, and how perfectly the camp fit into the landscape. It was beautiful to see young children who could explain why the camp was important, elders sharing their experiences, and young people leading a fight they knew would have huge implications. It was beautiful to see the life of the camp as horse races were organized, comedy groups performed and veteran support groups met.
As we pulled out to leave the camp on what must now be the busiest intersection in North Dakota, preparations were already being made to dig in for the long, harsh winter. Everyone there is aware that there has never been a pipeline project stopped after it was under construction, but no one feels like this is a good reason not to stop this one.
A Facebook post from the Sacred Stone Camp put out after the announcement of the government delay summarized the perspective, “Let’s be cautious about celebrating this. … We have seen time and time again a consistent strategy from the State in these situations: string out the process, break it to us gradually to avoid a big confrontation, present the illusion of careful thoughtful review of the case, tempt us with promises of modern reforms…but then in the end make the same decision that serves money not people. So far this is just talk, not actions, and actions are all we should care about. Stop the pipeline, then we’ll celebrate.”
The 22 hour drive home involved a lot of reflection. Finally able to connect to the internet for more than 5 minutes, we were flooded with all of the updates of Standing Rock solidarity actions happening around the world. As I write this the camp is still going strong and the solidarity actions keep flowing, but the pipeline is still being constructed in other areas and many more arrests have been made by increasingly militarized police against peaceful land defenders.
We arrived in Vancouver just in time for Noah to get to work and myself and others to participate in a Standing Rock solidarity rally in Vancouver. The lessons are clear: We need to fight, we need to fight united and we need to know that any victory in defence of self-determination and the environment is everybody's victory. So many indigenous nations are doing the “heavy lifting” of the fight for climate justice, but there needs to be strong, consistent support from non-indigenous forces who understand that we all need water to drink, air to breath and a healthy planet to live on. There is already another period of international solidarity actions called from October 8 to 13. We should all participate. We absolutely cannot leave the important decisions about the future of humanity and our planet to those corporations whose only motive is profit and who have already shown such a blatant disregard for both. We must demand, “System Change Not Climate Change!” and “People and Planet Before Pipelines and Plunder!”
To the organizers of the Sacred Stone Camp: Thank-you for allowing us to participate and document the struggle. We will be back! For current updates check:
Follow Thomas on Twitter:@thomasdavies59
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