I went with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship for 4 days to Standing Rock. We stayed in Oceti Sakowin Camp where we worked hard to contribute more in supplies, energy, and work, than we took.
This is a historic moment, fraught with peril and promise. What is happening near the village of Cannonball, North Dakota, in the camps is both a continuation of a resistance that has been going on for 500 years and a new flowering of courage and community that has never been seen before.
The name Oceti Sakowin is the proper name of the Sioux people. It refers to the seven council fires or the seven individual bands of the Sioux based on kinship, dialect, and geographic proximity. The bringing together of these council fires in one place signals the unified resistance of the Lakota/Nakota/Dakota peoples. The last time they were unified like this was in 1876 before the Battle of Little Big Horn, or as they call it the Battle of Greasy Grass. Since the uniting of the seven council fires representatives of hundreds of tribes have joined the camp in solidarity making this an unprecedented gathering of native peoples in known history.
There are a lot of intersecting dimensions to this situation. It’s an environmental conflict because the primary goal of the resistance is to protect the Missouri River watershed from being poisoned by having an oil pipeline built through it. It’s also about the militarization of our police and the increasing use of chemical weapons and other violent tactics. It’s about governmental collusion with corporations, and resource extraction. It’s about race – specifically it’s about how the white residents of Bismark objected to the pipeline and were heard, but the objection of native Americans is being ignored.
It’s about all of these things, but prior to all of those I think it is important that we understand the Standing Rock resistance as a continuation of a story of indigenous resistance to settler-colonialism that is centuries old. The history of this nation is a history of conquest and theft. America was founded on stolen labor and stolen land. Labor stolen from Africans and Land stolen from Native Americans. Every time it has been advantageous to extract some resource from the land our government has colluded with private interests to kill or relocate the indigenous people in the way. That is what is happening right now at Standing Rock.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is being built directly through land which belongs to the Sioux according the the 1851 Treaty of Laramie. Even more significantly, the pipeline is being built directly through portions of that land which are sacred to the Sioux and where their ancestors are buried.
I am a descendent of settler-colonists mainly from Scotland. I live on stolen Chinook land in the Willamette River watershed commonly known as Portland, Oregon. Heading to Standing Rock I was painfully aware of the ways I have benefited from this history of colonialism and I longed not to further replicate the sins of the past in the way I approached camp Oceti Sakowin. Solidarity is tricky work. It’s easy to end up centering your own experience instead of the experience of the people you’re there to support. I’m not convinced our delegation entirely succeeded. There were definitely moments where I felt like a clueless white man lumbering around and making a mess of things.
Honestly, short term trips like mine are pretty problematic. Camp Oceti Sakowin is very crowded right now and they really need people who will pull their weight. North Dakota winters are cold. Some people are showing up who are taking more resources and energy from the camp than they contribute because they’re under prepared. I’m grateful that our delegation was able to contribute both out of our financial resources and our skills and energy. Most of my time there was spent building shelves and tables for one of the kitchens.
Just as important as what we do, however, is how we do it. If you go make sure everything you do there is indigenous centered. Submit to the ethos of the camp. Learn the etiquette concerning the sacred fire, interacting with elders, and participating in ceremony. And remember that everything is ceremony. Everything should be done in an attitude of prayer.
As I was told by one longtime resident and leader in the camp, “Remember that you’re not entitled to be here. This isn’t your land. These aren’t your resources. This isn’t your history. We want you to come, but come correct.”
My last day in the camp was Thanksgiving, a holiday which sanitizes our history of genocide and perpetuates a false narrative of harmony between settlers and Native Americans. On that day I took part in a large direct action where thousands gathered at the base of a hill which the locals call “Turtle Island”. The top of the hill is a burial ground where no one should walk lest they disturb the spirits of their ancestors. The police have encamped on top of the hill and use it as a barrier to keep the water protectors away from the construction site of the pipeline.
For hours that day the crowd prayed and called for the police to please come down off of the hill.
Never has it been so clear to me that the violence we commit against one another and the violence we commit against this earth are one and the same sickness. The Lakota/Nakota/Dakota peoples call everyone relatives. Even settlers like myself. Even those militarized police battalions. Despite centuries of colonial violence continuing right to this present moment they see us as one human family. Which means those ancestors we trample on are our own. The people we hit with chemical weapons, shoot with rubber bullets, and spray with water during freezing temperatures are our siblings, our cousins, our relatives.
We live at a time when the colonial ethos of conquest and expansion has brought us to the brink of disastrous and irreversible climate change. The indigenous resistance at Standing Rock is trying to keep our water pure, and our air clear not only for those living today but for countless generations to come. More than that, they are trying to restore to us our humanity. We who have forgotten our connection to the land. We who have lost our sense of the sacred. We who seem not to understand that Water is Life.
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