In case you’ve been living in a cave, here’s the deal: Opposers of the $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline have been gathering in Standing Rock, North Dakota, for months to exercise their American right to peaceful protest. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux, scores of Native American tribes have banded together to resist the pipeline project, which they believe will pollute the Missouri River (the tribe’s primary source of drinking water) and damage sacred land and burial grounds. The Standing Rock Sioux are suing the Army Corps of Engineers for not consulting them about the DAPL, but the legal battle hasn’t immobilized construction.
Relations between police and protesters have grown increasingly tense. One week ago, an explosion badly damaged the left arm of a young woman from the Bronx; some claim the police threw a grenade, though police deny it. Law enforcement officers have sprayed protesters with water from a fire hose (in freezing temperatures), tear gas and rubber bullets. The Army Corps of Engineers just recently informed the Standing Rock Sioux they have until Dec. 5 to vacate entirely; but according to NPR, the Standing Rock’s tribal leader Dave Archambault II has promised the protesters will remain.
The FLC caravanThe student body at Fort Lewis College is comprised of about 36 percent Native American undergraduates, so it’s no wonder they are passionate about this battle. A caravan of 55 people (42 students total) in 12 cars left Durango on Nov. 22 to drive more than 16 hours to Standing Rock and spend their Thanksgiving break among the protesters. Anthony Nocella, assistant professor of sociology at FLC and one of the primary trip organizers, says he gathered folks from Durango, Aztec, Farmington, Mancos and Bayfield, making it one of the largest caravans leaving from a university or college in the United States.
In preparation for the cold, caravan members winterized their tents with tarps and packed warm sleeping bags (no swanky hotels for these guys – they wanted to camp in solidarity with the other protesters). “We know it’s going to be a struggle, but that’s part of creating positive social change,” Nocella told me from the car on his drive up. He has been involved in activism for 25 years, aiding in organizing mass demonstrations both nationally and globally. Nocella met with and trained caravan participants for weeks so they could better deal with possible aggression from police. “We’re going to eat together, have moments of silence at the beginning and end of the day, and give as much labor and support to the people up there as possible,” Nocella said.
Media manipulationThis is the first protest for many Fort Lewis students, and several admitted their families worried about them attending after seeing footage of Standing Rock on TV. While in North Dakota, Nocella witnessed police yelling at protesters, inciting and telling lies. They accused protesters of putting weapons in their bags, when they were merely bottles of water filled with milk (to soothe their eyes in the event of pepper spray). “They were trying to manipulate the narrative,” Nocella said. “The word is getting out, but it’s so dominated by one perspective. Smaller papers are trying to tell the truth.”
There’s a saying in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The stories that get the most hits are filled with drama, bloodshed, ruckus. Readers eat it up. Sidney Kabotie, a Native American FLC junior whose mother is a Crow from Montana and whose father is a Santa Clara Pueblo and Hopi from New Mexico, was shocked by the discrepancy between his experience at the protest and what he had seen via mainstream media. “They focus on the moments that are hostile, cars burning and police using brutal force,” Kabotie said. “But really, the experience was beautiful, to be a part of a community on such a huge level. It didn’t matter where you came from. You could walk into any tent and they would offer what they had to you.”
Personal connectionsIt is natural that many indigenous people feel strongly tied to these issues. Citing the bitter history between Native Americans and their country, Kabotie feels his people have long since been shunted aside, but their voices are being heard this time. “It really hurts to watch my indigenous community be stepped on by the agendas of large corporate entities in it for monetary gain,” said Kabotie. “They see these natural resources as dollar signs, not sacred. This process has been ongoing for over 500 years. Everybody thinks Native American people don’t even exist on this planet anymore, that we’re all extinct. It’s not true. These ways of life are still going strong.”
Damon Young, an FLC junior, has a mother who is full-blooded Taos Pueblo and a father who comes from Hopi in Arizona. Young says there are similar water settlements going on constantly in small communities across America. For him, this battle is being waged to preserve a spiritual connection between people and the earth, which he feels is being shattered by the DAPL and the disinterest of big corporations. “In Native American culture, we pray for the rain, for the food we eat, the water that comes through to irrigate our lands,” Young said. “We’ve been doing that for thousands of years.”
But a person needn’t be Native American to care. Marissa Anderson, another FLC student, says the DAPL is important to her because she’s human. “We’re all part of the human race, and it would be horrible on my part to not partake, when I have so many brothers and sisters in my backyard who are suffering,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to stand up and give people their voice back.” Nancy Wickham, an FLC alumnus who lives in Bayfield, believes this shouldn’t be a fight left to the indigenous populations. “I’m a mom,” Wickham said, when asked about her particular ties to the people of Standing Rock. “I’m going to demonstrate my respect and solidarity with people who are putting their lives on the line to protect water.”
Lessons learned on the sceneUpon their return from Standing Rock, caravan members were elated and humbled. The expansive campsite of the protesters was described to me as a kind of mini-utopia, where everyone lived together in peace with a common goal. It’s a shame something so destructive was necessary in order to bring about this harmony.
Caravan members reported more than 200 indigenous nations represented at Standing Rock, and more than 400 different countries. They met citizens of Egypt, India, South America, New Zealand, Ecuador, Brazil, Ireland, Ukraine, Sweden and more; people who had traveled from all over the world to be a part of the movement. Ceremonies were going on 24 hours a day, and there was perpetual prayer. “No one was homeless or hungry,” said Young. “Food was served until 2 or 3 am. There was music, songs and dances everywhere, from every kind of tribe. And there were also non-native performing artists.” Young himself sang several songs to the crowd.
It wasn’t all serenity. On Thanksgiving Day, Kabotie says the caravan members journeyed by boat to Turtle Island, a sacred burial ground. They all stood at the base of the island in “peaceful prayer” – but the police didn’t see it that way. “They were accusing us of being threatening and violent,” said Kabotie. “We were holding hands, saying we weren’t there to fight. They were standing on sacred land, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets and concussion grenades and pepper spray. That’s like bringing weapons to a cemetery. It was terrible and disrespectful and it was scary, to be threatened by police officers who are supposed to be our protectors.”
Because so many students from FLC journeyed to Standing Rock (they were the largest college caravan during their time there), many protesters and activists wanted to speak with them. People were literally lining up, Kabotie and Young said, including Colorado representative Joe Salazar; Simon Smith, one of the only Native Americans on CNN; Dr. LaNada War Jack, the first Native American student to attend University of California-Berkeley; and journalist Myron Dewey, currently embroiled in a lawsuit for capturing human rights violations at Standing Rock on camera.
Members of the Durango caravan cooked food, built fires and permanent structures, donated medical supplies and sifted through other donations. On their way home, they felt inspired to organize an impromptu rally in Denver, for which more than 100 people showed up on a Saturday night. They held another protest on Sunday evening in Durango.
Trump administration President-elect Donald Trump, who recently owned $1 million of stock in the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, has made it known he supports the DAPL project and wants to speed up permits for more oil and gas pipelines after taking office in January.
“I don’t really have faith in anybody, but especially not Trump,” said Anderson. “Even if we set aside all the stuff he’s said about human beings – he doesn’t care about the environment!” Wickham agrees that Trump’s administration will likely have a tremendously negative impact. “He’s doing exactly what a lot of people want him to do – run the government like a business,” she said. “But if we’re not active and vigilant right now, we’ll have no say-so in January.”
Young believes people of extreme privilege struggle to understand why drinking water or sacred ground could match the importance of greed and cold, hard cash. “We only have one planet and limited resources,” he said. “These people in charge, they’ll have anything they want. They’re privileged and not worried. But we are still around, and we actually need water.”
Of anyone, Kabotie has the most positive spin on the incoming 2017 administration, seeming to find this election has brought people together in fierce resistance. “There’s a deterioration in peoples’ faith in humanity and in the functionality of our government,” he admitted. “But it’s lighting a fire under peoples’ butts.”
Helping back at homeDurangoans can help without traveling to North Dakota. Protesters have built permanent structures in the campgrounds, so it seems they mean to stay through the long, cold winter. You can send donations (http://standwithstandingrock.net/donate), supplies, and be sure to spread awareness any way you can. “You can’t just read the headlines,” Anderson said. “There’s people who have been at Standing Rock for months. Look into things, dig, try to figure out what the truth is.”
Talking might seem a passive exploit, but quite often ignorance is dashed and education spread through simple conversation. “People need to be talking about the human rights violations that are happening there,” said Wickham. “This is 2016, this is the United States of America, and there is a warzone in our country. Talking about it is what we need to be doing.”