Letter from Standing Rock
By Joe Gioia
Special to the Shawangunk Journal
If there’s an old part of Mandan, ND you don’t see it from I-94, only the usual new glass box, big sign establishments and car dealerships, most flying large American flags. Exiting at Main St. and turning left onto ND Rt. 1806 (the year, incidentally, Lewis and Clark passed through here on their way home), you go south seven miles before finding the National Guard roadblock: armed young men in cammo fatigues, and two giant cement cubes staggered in the north and south lanes so that cars must snake carefully between them to get through.
The land is beautiful; green rolling hills, low and long, with scrub oak and cottonwood trees, starting to yellow, sheltered in the draws. The broad Missouri River is visible on the left, and after another twenty miles on that side, a long ranch fence with dozens of homemade banners, the first sign of Standing Rock, a place where Native American protesters have camped since August, aiming to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project intended to carry oil from the enormous Bakken shale field in western North Dakota under the Missouri here to a depot in southern Illinois.
Standing Rock is really four encampments; the first, a scattering of tents, is on either side of 1806, about half a mile from the main camp, which sits on approximately forty acres in a small valley on the Cannon Ball River. You pass camp security, stern young Indian men with walkie-talkies, and proceed down an inclined dirt lane lined with dozens of flags, each representing an Indigenous tribe or group assembled here.
This is the Seven Council Fires Camp, where between 3,000 and 4,000 people, the number changes constantly, have lived since demonstrations began. Tents pitched directly across the Cannon Ball, named for the round rocks found in its waters, make up the Redbud Camp. This is on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and behind it, on another bend of the river and hidden by a line of hills, is the small Sacred Stone Camp, a religious refuge.
Seven Fires camp has two centers, a social one, a small tamped grass plaza surrounding a sacred fire circle, where you find the main cook tent, medical facilities, school, message boards, and public address system, and a political/religious one some distance away: a long tipi lodge, held up by many poles and reportedly not erected in over a century, is at the true axis of the camp. Here ceremonies of welcome to tribal delegations are given outside, while inside sacred objects from many nations are kept strictly guarded, to be seen and handled only by medicine men. Here elders are said to be forging a new treaty to govern relations between tribes across North America, a genuine pan-Indian movement.
Solid information, it should be noted, is hard to come by. The number of represented tribes, and of the smaller camps inside the larger one, is impossible to say with certainty. It is, nevertheless, a lot. Specific details are always shifting anyway, and a feeling of the organized ad hoc prevails. You learn quickly that Standing Rock is a learning experience for everyone involved, native and settler, elder and youth.
The legal services tent, a two-peaked, fatigue green Army surplus number, is at the top of Facebook Hill, the highest point of Seven Fires Camp where cell reception is modestly available (WiFi was still a work in progress). By late September, nearly everyone arrested in earlier actions had been arraigned and released, their trials set for January. One woman, on a warrant from Nebraska stemming from a protest there, was extradited back. Facebook Hill also has a small media tent, another medical tent, and an Army shelter of Desert Storm tan, covering a good 300 square feet, which is a meeting place available to all.
The hill presents a startling view of the past and present. At least fifty large tipis, of mainly cream colored canvas, some with brightly painted totem animals or patterns, are surrounded by a tide of more up-to-date camping gear—brightly hued nylon domes from Cabelas, North Face, and REI—and more provisional blue tarp affairs. Five or six pony corrals also dot the camp, some formed from ranch-grade steel gating, others of old school wood slats and fence wire. However penned, the horses are beautiful: dappled, highly spirited, and very well kept. Young riders, some saddled, others bareback, come and go, reminders of finer times on the western plains.
There is, in fact, a distinct atavistic shock involved in stowing your gear in an Army tent and then scanning a large Indian camp from a hilltop with a pair of binoculars. One sees now, as then, a site of constant activity. Sound carries extremely well; voices of people, horses, and dogs, cars and chainsaws, birdcalls and the endless cadence of crickets hiding in the broad-bladed prairie grass. Flags and banners, flying everywhere, snap in the Dakota wind, which can top twenty miles per hour before calling undue attention to itself.
The only light at night comes from campfires and, eventually last week, a half moon, strong enough to interfere with the view of the Milky Way. After dark, songs, cries, and drums from the assembled bands that have arranged themselves in the greater whole call and answer across the field. This can go on quite late.
A deep rest then comes easier than true sleep. You drift off quite without noticing, only to resurface. The boundaries of the daytime self dissolve, replaced by a sense of being part of a greater whole, of every sound and creature around you, human, animal, and wind. Night passes with neither the deep sleep, nor bitter insomnia, usually found in houses.
Everyday something needs doing. A generous array of port-o-sans, donated and maintained by the Standing Rock Reservation casino, seven miles further south, are cleared by septic trucks early each morning. Fires are fed, food prepared, wood chopped, provisions and donations sorted, trash carted off, kids schooled. Last week the Crow nation donated a buffalo that was blessed, killed, then dressed for eating. Pawnee brought several tree-length logs, unknown on the Great Plains, which were chain sawed into short sections to be split into firewood for all.
Perhaps Standing Rock’s most radical statement is an immense goodwill demonstrated everywhere at all times. Over four days, I didn’t encounter a single instance of anger, aggression or ill will. Neither was there a hint of alcohol or illegal drug use, hard or kind, all strictly forbidden. There are sure to be infractions in a village of 4,000 souls, but tribal security, a very visible presence, quickly deals with any bad actors. Caffeine and nicotine are in abundance, however, and tobacco, loose and in cigarettes, is freely burned for prayer, and widely exchanged as gifts of fellowship and thanks.
Many intend to stay through the winter, and plans are underway to move onto the Rez. Seven Fires Camp is located on so-called treaty land, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is mainly unsheltered from winter wind and sits on a spring flood plain. The greatest problem facing organizers is determining the needs for fall, and the move to winter camp. A general meeting last week defined subjects for smaller group action: health, financial accountability, public relations, security, food prep and distribution. A census is planned.
While Standing Rock tribal Chairman Dave Archambault handles outside affairs, and was in Washington last week, camp decisions are divided among several elders, all of whom spoke at the winter planning meeting. Men and women in their 60s and 70s, they are shown profound respect and no accord can be reached without them.
There is more is going on at Standing Rock besides protecting a river and its sacred sites. Evidence of a great awakening is everywhere under the sky there, of old ways shared and new ones accepted. There are tipis and smart phones, drums and social media, sacred fires and solar panels, ponies and 4x4s. What appears to be a lasting change in the American Indigenous community, for thinking and acting in a good way, has started.