When word went out in late November that the water protectors at Standing Rock were facing forceful eviction, our New Jersey team co-organized a solidarity mission to stand with them. In a matter of just a few days, six local activists and organizers gathered thousands of dollars worth of donated supplies, pieced together our own winter camping gear, rented a car, and drove the approximately 1,700 miles from Highland Park, NJ to the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Located on un-ceded treaty lands just north of the Standing Rock Reservation, the camp had become the spiritual and physical center of the historic “Water Is Life” movement, uniting over 600 indigenous nations and popular international support in the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. When we arrived at Standing Rock on the evening of December 4, the camp was bustling with activity. Thousands of military veterans and allies from all walks of life had also arrived that day to stand with the water protectors against the ongoing police violence and repression.
After a warm meal and a good night’s sleep in our tent, we were awakened by chants of “Mni Wiconi”, which means water is life, over the camp’s PA system. Over the next several days, we would hear that phrase repeated all over, used as a warm greeting, a rallying cry, and a guiding principle for the prayerful pipeline resistance. After mustering the courage to leave the warmth of our sub zero sleeping bags, we exited our tent and participated in a water ceremony on the banks of the Missouri River.
After the ceremony and a breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches, we joined hundreds of new arrivals in the daily orientation meeting, held in a large geodesic dome structure near the center of camp. We were educated on the missteps of other well-intentioned allies and visitors, and encouraged to remember that we are guests on sacred land. We were thanked for answering the call to solidarity, and urged to work together to build a new legacy of human relations for the protection of water and life.
Stepping out of the dome after orientation, I was surrounded by people working to build that legacy together. Winterized structures were being built and erected. Kitchen crews were busy making sure everyone was well fed. Medics were attending to those who needed attention. Food, water and all sorts of donated resources were delivered to camp throughout the day, and were sorted and delivered to the places they were needed. That is not to say that mistakes weren’t made, and that some needs went unaddressed. But thanks to the dedication of these volunteers, 15,000 people were able to organize and sustain themselves against brutal weather and militarized police violence, all through an economy of compassion and mutual aid.
After participating in the direct action training offered at camp that afternoon, I walked up to the media tent on “Facebook hill” to request permission to document and share my experience with other protectors and supporters back home. While waiting in line I watched a few water protectors experiment with a new drone they acquired to continue creating their own media. Moments later we received news that the Obama Administration had rejected the easement for Dakota Access to drill under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The news was greeted by joyful yet tepid celebration. There was a big ceremony that night in honor of the water and all those struggling to protect it, and there were conversations throughout camp acknowledging that the fight was far from over. This caution was prudent, as the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline issued their own statement declaring that nothing in the Army Corps decision would deter them from drilling under Lake Oahe as planned.
The next day I joined a march to the site where police have for months maintained a blockade of Highway 1806, the main road in and out of Standing Rock. It was at this site two weeks earlier that peaceful water protectors were attacked with pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, sending dozens to the hospital, some in critical condition. With thousands of veterans now at camp and leading the march alongside indigenous leaders, and an influx of major media coverage to document what was happening, there was no violent response from the police as we marched to the blockade. Instead, the biggest challenge was staying warm and safe amidst the increasing winds, heavy snow, and dropping temperatures from the oncoming blizzard.
Witnessing the solidarity between US veterans and natives along the march, and the compassionate courage embodied by camp participants, was a transformative experience. It reminded me of the stories I’d heard of the “blessed communities” of the Civil Rights movement, and how they used compassion and love to resist injustice while modeling the kind of society they wanted to live in. And it reminded me that Native Americans have lived in harmony with this land for longer than I can imagine. And on the same day as our march, thousands more veterans participated in a ceremony to apologize for war crimes and the ongoing, violent displacement of indigenous people waged by the US government for over 500 years.
That night the blizzard intensified, and we were forced to hunker down in our rented car, heading out into the cold only as our bladders demanded. We went to bed in our tent early, and tried to sleep while listening to the wind gusts that whipped our fly cover and rattled our 4 season tent frame. We woke up the next morning safe and warm, but with a blanket of snow covering us in our sleeping bags. As we left the tent we saw that others had fared worse, as many tents were completely ripped apart and destroyed by the wind. After talking through the worsening weather situation, and being consulted by the medics at camp, our group of 6 decided to cut our mission short and leave camp later that afternoon.
What Standing Rock means for the mainstream environmental movement
The water protectors at Standing Rock have successfully turned the struggle against Dakota Access Pipeline into a clear moral issue - pitting the profits of massive oil and gas companies against the basic human right to clean water. This is something the mainstream environmental movement has largely failed to do. With a clear over-reliance on high dollar lobbyists and lawyers pursuing insider strategies, as well as tendencies towards competition and bickering amongst themselves, Big Greens have struggled to build a broad-based, democratic movement that invests in and follows the leadership of the communities most impacted by environmental injustice. Meanwhile, the resistance at Standing Rock has helped unify and energize the grassroots behind a shared moral framework and towards a common goal – the protection of water and life. The courage and resilience demonstrated through prayerful, non-violent direct actions to delay pipeline construction have played a major part in this success. Direct action at the point of pipeline destruction has thrust the exploitation of the fossil fuel industry onto the international stage. In doing so, water protectors have exposed millions to the ongoing history of injustice against the native peoples of this country, and the shocking militarization of the Frackopoly.
Joining and Supporting The Water is Life Movement
While a short term victory has been won, and many have left Standing Rock during these brutal winter months, many water protectors remain at camp, continuing their vigilance amidst the looming threat that the incoming Trump administration will reverse course, or that Dakota Access will simply ignore the Army Corps decision and drill under the Missouri River. Those at camp are asking for allies to come and join them, and to direct needed resources to sustain them through the winter.
And there is so much solidarity and power we can manifest right now. We can start by educating ourselves on and actively supporting the struggles of indigenous peoples in and near our own communities.
We can take action by divesting from the Wall Street banks that are attempting to profit off the destruction of water and life, and organize our friends, family and community members to do the same. And we can take action early and often to resist the Trump agenda.
In a time of great uncertainty, anxiety and fear for the future, the water protectors have reminded us of the power of prayer. As our movements for water, life and justice embark on a new year of struggle, our collective hope manifested by prayer in action will be needed now more than ever. The water is life movement shows us that when we actually listen to and act in solidarity with frontline communities, aligning our strategy behind shared values, and working selflessly towards common cause and against common enemies, we begin to unlock the potential for transformative political power. This moment requires us to continue building the new legacy that emerged with great hope at Standing Rock. As we prepare for the many challenges ahead, mainstream environmentalists must remember how to act like a movement.