A couple weeks ago during UNM’s fall break I traveled with three other graduate students, Alin, Sabrina, and Jackie, to Standing Rock, North Dakota to show solidarity with the water protectors, the native men, women and two-spirit people, and activists from all over the world who have gathered at the site to protect and prevent the ongoing construction of the North Dakota access pipeline. The trajectory of the pipeline runs right through sacred land that is protected by Native American treaty agreements. Aside from the cultural, spiritual and patrimonial stakes at risk with the execution of this project, the proposed pipeline which will carry crude oil from North Dakota down to Indiana, risks contaminating the Missouri river. The Missouri River provides drinking water to the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock, as well as many other native tribes, farmers and ranchers around the area.
What began as a concentrated opposition to the Dakota access pipeline has bourgeoned into a global social movement, calling for greater awareness and respect for Native American treaty law and indigenous human rights, as well as an intensified consciousness of water rights, environmental dangers and climate change. The movement has gained widespread attention and support through social media channels and recently millions of people registered their Facebook location statuses to Standing Rock, North Dakota to show solidarity with the activists, who’ve endured quickly intensifying threats in recent weeks. Additionally, this was a tactic to confuse local police, who’ve been using Facebook location statuses to identify people traveling to the area, and target them for arrest.
We left on Wednesday evening, October 12th, after our last classes for the long weekend. We packed up the car with tents, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, and boxes full of children’s books and other miscellaneous materials that had been donated to the Standing Rock camp by The Raza Graduate Student Association- a student run organization that seeks to provide a community and network for Chicano/a and graduate students at the University of New Mexico. We hopped in the car, turned on some music, and set off for our long, sixteen hour drive north, calmly anticipating the cold to set in as we departed sunny Albuquerque.
After each taking turns driving a four hour shift, some of us dozing, some of us chatting, some of us struggling to do work, we finally stopped for lunch in a small town in South Dakota, just an hour or so away from our final destination. We pulled into the empty parking lot of one of the only restaurants in town and noticed a sign in the window, “Closed. No Water.” We figured there must have been a problem with the restaurant’s pipes and we got back in the car to go to the nearby gas station to at least use the bathroom and get some snacks. As we made our way to the restrooms the clerk behind the cash register told us that the bathrooms were out of service, the water had been cut off for the entire town. It was almost too perfectly foreboding. In that moment we were able to sense how much of a little town’s operation relies on water. Without water we had no food, no bathrooms. Life stops without water.
When we finally arrived at the camp, exhausted and excited, we parked the car on the grass, set up our four-person camping tent, and dropped off our donations at the donation tent. Then we made our way to the kitchen, a large tent with burners, refrigerators and sinks, and offered to help with dinner. Some of us were sent to the tent next door which had stacks upon stacks of canned goods to fetch tomato paste and green beans, while others chopped garlic and kneaded dough for fry bread. As we were working, a small squabble broke out. One of the volunteers had been preparing hot sauce to cook and preserve for the winter, when the head cook told him that he was over-stepping his boundaries, taking up too many burners, and that the priority at the moment was getting dinner ready for the hundreds of hungry water protectors. Although this could have been seen as a small miscommunication, the implications seemed to run deeper. In the midst of the confrontation, a large, sturdy man came in from outside and also scolded the volunteer, reaffirming the authority of the head cook. The man had been sitting outside the door keeping watch. I realized that he was a security guard. This makes sense given that there are a lot of potentially dangerous items in the kitchen, but it also made me realize that, symbolically and practically, the kitchen is a source of power, the epicenter of the camp that keeps it running, fueling the people and the movement. No wonder the kitchen was also a source of minor power struggles and disputes. After working for a couple hours we left and made our way back to the tent. We ran into a woman outside who was looking for the kitchen and when we told her that we had just spent some time volunteering she said, “You know, the kitchen is the most important part of this camp. Without the kitchen, this camp wouldn’t exist.” And, again, we thought, “Without water, the kitchen wouldn’t exist.”
In the evening, after finally eating dinner (which was delicious, by the way), we walked around the camp looking at the various poses of people making fires, sipping tea, playing music, and watching their dogs run freely about. We stopped at a large tent that was right next to ours where a school bus full of people (yes, a literal school bus) from New Orleans had set up camp. Inside they were playing folk music, dancing and relaxing. One woman stirred a large pot of herbal cough syrup that she handed out to anyone in need in little glass mason jars. She was originally from an indigenous tribe in South Dakota, but currently lived in New Orleans, and had traveled up with her two young children to show her support. She said that the cough syrup was her contribution to the camp. Everyone there had a different way of contributing, whether it was handing out much-needed cough syrup, preparing food, protecting and risking arrest, lifting morale through song and dance, or simply being there, present and in solidarity.
The following day we spent the morning doing work in the casino (because, after all, we are still graduate students), and on our way back to camp we were stopped at the entrance and told that everyone had left for an action. We quickly turned the car around, picked up an extra straggler, and drove off, following the car in front of us, with no idea where we were headed. We followed a speeding caravan of cars through the rural, dirt roads of North Dakota, speeding to one location, turning around, and heading to another. The police had blocked off all of the sites that we were trying to access. After several hours of driving on a wild goose chase, we headed back to the camp, exhilarated but disappointed. Our eyes had been opened to the reality of activism—sometimes just getting to the site of protest is in itself an impossible hurdle.
In the evening we again spent time walking around the camp, listening to prayer circles, soaking in the scent of incense and fire smoke, and making conversation with other activists and volunteers. When we first set off on our trip, most of us thought, “I can’t believe we’re driving over sixteen hours to North Dakota for fall break.” But almost everyone we spoke to at the camp had traveled even greater distances, from North Carolina, New Orleans, Maine, and Hawaii, to name a few.
After walking around the camp for a while, we ended up back at the big tent of people from New Orleans. Again, they were singing, playing music and handing out food. A circle had formed around the musicians and in the crowd we met two men who had been commissioned by Sundance Film Festival to film a documentary about the Standing Rock movement. “Look,” said one of the men, “all the musicians have little microphones attached to their collars.” Indeed, amidst the rustic look of everyone in the tent, the makeshift living room and diverse, folky ambiance, the beautiful song was being recorded. Just as we had noticed the importance of the kitchen the day before, this time we were struck by the life blood of music that ran through the camp.
The next day we were awaken by a man on the loud speaker calling for everyone to wake up and head to the south camp for prayer. We were all exhausted and decided to try our best to sleep through his loud, echoing voice. “You didn’t come all the way here to sleep in,” he said. It was true. We hadn’t. We got up with everyone else and drove over to south camp while it was still dark. Everyone from all of the different camps had congregated and the elders were leading everyone in prayer. The prayer quickly transitioned into a pep-talk for the day’s action, reinforcing the axiom of peaceful protest—“we pray for our brothers and sisters, but also for the people whom we are fighting.” After the prayer we all hopped in our cars, loaded up on gas, coffee and snacks, and followed the massive caravan of cars to the site of protest. This time, everyone was steady, determined, and highly organized.
The caravan extended for miles and we drove for about an hour, one after the other, to the site. A few miles away from the site, the police had blocked the road, so we all parked our cars and got ready to march, instead. The protector leaders stood in front and gave us directions. Beside them were the warriors, or protectors who were willing to risk arrest. The warriors and leaders marched first, spoke to the police officers, and then motioned for the rest of us to move forward. We marched for roughly three miles in, watching as the cop cars in front slowly regressed, bit by bit. Every few miles, the leaders stopped and asked us, “We have two more miles to go. Do we continue, or do we go back?” Everyone shouted in unison, “We continue!” Special attention was paid to the elders in the group, to make sure that there was adequate rest time and that we walked at a reasonable pace. Staying together was an utmost priority of the leaders. Many people held signs reading “Mni Wiconi”, Lakota for “Water is Life”.
Once we reached the site, there was a line of about 40 heavily armed police officers with military tanks. The leaders, along with an environmental lawyer who worked as a liaison between the protectors and the police, approached the officers and asked them if we could stay to pray on the land. They agreed. And there in front of a line of armed police officers we held a peaceful demonstration with people praying, singing, chanting, shouting, or simply standing silently in solidarity. The vision was impressive to say the least. Once we had completed the demonstration we all walked back to our cars. Some went back to collect cars to begin caravanning people back to where we had parked, and also to bring snacks to the group of hungry marchers. Luckily, not one person was arrested that day. In hindsight, that seems kind of amazing considering how many water protectors have been arrested since then. As the leaders reiterated more than once, “We come together and we leave together.”
Since our trip, there have been many more arrests and threats against the water protectors. However, their brave work has also continued to gain more and more attention. According to a new York Times Piece from November 2, Obama Says Alternate Routes Are Being Reviewed for Dakota Pipeline, "President Obama, in his first remarks on the violent standoff over an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, cancelled on both sides to show restraint and revealed that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route for the project." However, the water protectors are still calling for the project to be halted altogether.
Also, since our return, we have made some efforts to continue our activism from afar, hoping to spread awareness about the issue through various university channels, as well as personal communities and networks. The more people talk about this issue the more impact the water protectors' activism will have.