Two things to know:
First thing: Going to Standing Rock for the brief time we did, it is impossible not to feel inspired for the Movement, and for all of us. As we drove over yet another barren snow-covered bluff in North Dakota, here suddenly is a massive camp with rows of colorful tribal flags flapping in the wind and hundreds of tipis and makeshift shelters. Native people from all over the country have united in numbers and from a variety of tribes the likes of which has never been seen—older people are here who have been in other social justice fights before, and younger people are here too, for whom this is their first activist moment. Also, some long-time non-Native activists from various organizations and movements are here; also veterans. All kinds of people are here, coming together for the common cause of protecting the water, uniting in a message that people’s lives are more important than corporate profits.
As one person said, everyone is coming with their own histories, their own baggage—some are coming despite deep historical conflicts—and coming together and trying to work together, uniting in prayer—a word we keep hearing again and again. “We all stand together here in this camp,” as one person said. Standing together in prayer to defeat the endless greed and anti-humanity of corporatism, the poisoning of the Earth by fracking and oil, to kill the “black snake,” to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in its tracks.
Second thing: It’s cold. Bitterly, relentlessly, brutally, breathtakingly cold. We were only there a couple of hours, and by the end our faces were so numb it was hard to make words. There are three main camps. There’s the Rosebud camp; the Sacred Stone Camp, which is the original Standing Rock camp; and there’s what people called the Oceti Oyate, or All Nations Camp.
All organizing at the three camps is centered on keeping people warm. Firewood and propane are the most important things. People walk around the camps, always checking on the perhaps 750 to 1,000 people still there (down from the approximately 15,000 people there at the most populous moment when the veteran’s contingent came at the beginning of December), all to make sure everyone is safe. As someone you’ll meet in a minute, Curly, said, “We want to make sure we win, and we want to make sure no one dies while doing it.”
These people are real warriors and fighters, and as another person you’ll meet soon, Little Wind, said, “We’re not just doing this for us. It’s not just about being Native. It’s about everybody coming together and realizing that we have to live differently. We’re praying for their families too, and their grandchildren, and their future generations.” Here are the voices of a few of these warriors and fighters. One is the leader of the Rosebud camp; another is a non-Native first-time activist from Idaho; and lastly, we talk with a sister and brother team from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Here are their thoughts and their stories.
Clarence “Curly” Eagle Hawk: “I’m here to fight to the end of it”
Clarence Eagle Hawk—or “Curly” as he likes to be called—is in his fifties, and is, according to several people at the Rosebud camp, the designated leader of that camp. He’s busy. As we talk with him, several people come up to ask his permission to do this or that. This is what he said in between giving permissions:
“This ain’t no pow-wow. These are all prayer camps. All the songs you hear are prayer songs.” He looks so deeply into my eyes it’s hard to concentrate.
“[We’re fighting for] the water. To keep this pipeline from going under the Missouri River. ‘Cause if it breaks there’s gonna be a lot of people dying from here to the Gulf of Mexico. They got so many cops over there. You call them public safety? Answer that question, you know? I’ve seen [water protectors] get tear-gassed. I’ve seen them get shot by rubber bullets. I’ve seen that water cannon spray all of them. In this country. Never expected to see that. We need to stop this pipeline. Stop all the pipelines. Stop this fracking. All they worry about is their money. We don’t care about that money. That money is dirty.”
“I’m here to fight this ’till the end of it,” he pauses and laughs, “I hope it’s soon ’cause I’m getting tired of it.” The cold is absolutely undeniable. “We need more people,” he says. The camp sits on a flood plain and come March and April everything they have built will have to be moved to a new location. They need more physical bodies to stand up and protest at the camps, and more people to help relocate the camps, but only people who are physically able to work and withstand the cold. Did we mention the cold? It’s a dangerous kind of cold. “That’s the spirit that I fear here. I don’t want nobody to die here. If they got an illness, stay home. Get better. Then come back. If you’re not ill, come on, we need you.”
Rumors circulate about possible raids on the 20th of January, and for many people we talked to, this was on their minds. Curly talks about the likelihood of this happening and about what might happen if it does happen, but really, as he admits, nobody knows.
Claire Everson: “I will leave a changed woman”
We meet Claire Everson on top of a hill overlooking the three sprawling camps. Claire is from Boise, Idaho. She’s in her early-thirties and has been here for a couple of months. “This is my last week,” she says with a laugh, “Though I’ve been saying that for a while now.” We make the mistake of not recording our initial conversation, so she kindly wrote out a few of her thoughts over email, which we read after we got back:
How come she came? “I have a natural propensity to get pissed off when things aren’t fair and just, and have learned recently the power of showing up with your body to stand for what you want to change in the world. So here I am.”
What has she learned so far? “I know I will leave a changed woman, that’s already happening. I feel much more confident and powerful in my natural abilities as a woman. The Lakota women are traditionally seen as the backbone of their community and even though men and women each have specific roles in the family and community, neither is seen as more or less valuable than the other. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to be a strong and independent woman by adopting very masculine traits because those hold more value in the white-patriarchal society I grew up in. I’ve learned out here that the value I put on “women’s work” was the first road block in sincerely feeling equal to men. The natural strengths and unique abilities I have as a woman are only as valuable as I decide them to be. Being out here has taught me not only the importance of them, but now I’m taking pride in them. … Women are the culture keepers, the first teachers, the big picture seers, the holistic communicators and healers of this world. The women here have shown me how critical it is at this point in history to see and understand that.”
As we speak to Claire in the cold at camp, she tells us about the work of a Lakota woman from South Dakota she’s been helping. The woman is trying to support the particular needs of women, the elderly, and children at camp. Claire is wearing a traditional Lakota women’s skirt, meant to symbolize how women hold up the underlying support structure of Lakota society. She tells us that she wasn’t the skirt-wearing type before. As we talk, her skirt whips in the wind.
Little Wind and Big Wind: “My heart is whole here”
Little Wind is young, probably a teenager, and is working as part of security at the entryway of the All Nations Camp. She is maximally dressed, with big boots, a big hat, and a thick army jacket. When we ask her if it would be okay if we interview her for a minute, she looks petrified and then goes to get her older brother, Big Wind. He comes out of a makeshift shed with “Water is Life” written on its front and gives us the side-eye.
He’s concerned that we might be FBI. We’re not really sure what to do. After a minute we tell him that we’re with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and that our presidential candidate, Gloria La Riva, ran with Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and suddenly we’re in and it’s all good. We talk with Big Wind for a few minutes. At first, Little Wind stands to the side with some reserve, but after a few moments, she joins in too.
Big Wind and Little Wind are both from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and have been at the camps on and off since August. First Big Wind: “I heard about this in July, and me and my sister, we really thought about what our ancestors would’ve wanted. We wanted to be here to support. The Fort Laramie Treaty effects a lot of people–it doesn’t just effect people that are from the Hunkpapa Lakota Tribe. It doesn’t just effect Standing Rock. And the Movement doesn’t just effect Standing Rock, either. It effects 18 million people’s drinking water. And I thought that was really big. … This is historically Treaty land, so that should be respected.” We all hop back and forth in the cold.
“This isn’t gonna stop here. This is the largest Native American gathering, you know, since immemorial. We have warring tribes letting go of the past angst, just for this Movement. And the Mni Wiconi Movement, it doesn’t stop here either. ‘Water is Life,’ everywhere. It’s not just here. ‘Water is Life’ in Flint, Michigan. These days in America, we’re very complacent, apathetic people. But this is a spiritual Movement. We’re fighting corporate greed, while we’re fighting police, while we’re fighting ourselves. All without guns.”
When we ask him what he means by “ourselves,” Little Wind jumps in: “We’ve had to get comfortable, with, like, being uncomfortable. You know, usually you shower every single day, and worry about how you look, and what your appearance is.” And here it’s different. The priorities are different. And what does it feel like to be doing this? “I feel like I finally found my home. Like, my heart is whole here.” She pauses. “There are some days, you know, that you miss your other home. But then, like, what would you do if you went back? You’d fall back into your old ways, because you’d have all those other distractions taking your brain away from the real problems—the real things that are going on in the world.”
They take breaks from talking with us, either checking cars that come in—making sure there’s no alcohol or drugs or firearms let into the camp—or to scream, “Mini Wiconi!” into the wind at the top of their lungs. Sometimes people from other parts of the sprawling camp cheer and scream in return. It’s a beautiful sight.