Five Days At Standing Rock

The sprawling camp that delayed a transcontinental pipeline for months drew people from around the country to stand up to the government.

DECEMBER 19, 2016 — Near Bismarck, ND: “Water is Life” is the breaking chant of Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It’s part of the daily water ceremony at the Cannonball River. It’s said during protest. It’s an appropriate response of agreement. It can be a statement, a greeting, a prayer, or all these simultaneously.

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Oceti Sakowin Camp is a sprawling network of roads, shelters and people. The itinerant composition makes the camp unwieldy but for a core base of residents. Over the 5 days from Dec 1–5 I witnessed campsites that were recently abandoned be reclaimed by an incoming population and then return, altered slightly, to an abandoned state. This characteristic makes the camp and its management foreboding and unexpectedly friendly all at once. Knowing where to go is nearly impossible yet getting there (due to the generosity of others) is somehow always fairly simple.

There are mysterious forces at work at Oceti Sakowin Camp which make fully grasping its existence difficult; Tribal Elders are powerful but largely unseen. Security at the gate is often a simple question of whether you’re returning or new, yet taking a photograph can quickly summons an on-the-spot inquisition. Sacred ceremonies are declared or exhausted without warning; prayer is often spontaneous. But somehow it all works.

The generosity afforded me as an outsider (and if I’m honest, a skeptic) was most often quick and selfless; clearly generosity abounds in this place. The selfless presence of the Veterans is no different. The interviews I did all tied back to a single motivation: the outrage at the severity of the police response (an arm being nearly “blown off” during a past action is cited most often). Protecting land and water also factors in but, it seemed to me, in a more obligatory role. That makes sense if you think of it in terms of people getting hurt now and people getting hurt later but there is also a sense that the government must be confronted and freedom from the same defended. The veterans came to defend land and water but also people and perhaps freedom.

The physical manifestation of this defense was complicated. Like Thermopylae the physical bridge over Cannonball is narrow with an approach sided by hills. The soldiers desired to forcibly defend this bridge or at least forcibly question the point of defending it at all. Tribesmen worked hard to keep order and avoid confrontation both inside and outside the camp. Reconciling the arrival of a few thousand trained Veterans with “peace” is a tall order but somehow held true.

On Sunday the Army Corps of Engineers released a statement opening the widest door yet for rerouting the pipeline. The news, slow in arriving, led to a quick celebration just before Sunday the 5th. The mood shifted from resigned defeat to the victory of winning a battle. By morning the enthusiasm had faded, replaced by a renewed fervor to address other grievances around the world. “We will stay,” said an elder woman near the Sacred Fire. (She declined to named.) I asked how and for how long but the answer seemed rehearsed, “We will stay until the pipeline project is over.” But then, like much of my experience of the camp, a little patience and a simple question (“What about the easement?”) and a more earnest truth is revealed; “How stupid do they think we are,” she asked.

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Serial entrepreneur and photojournalist. Husband, father, global citizen.

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