Unarmed and Peaceful
I became aware of the Black Snake, a 1,172-mile conduit slated to carry crude oil from North Dakota to southern Illinois back in early November. An activist friend of mine reached out to help create a set of graphic messages that would support the resistance and water protectors fighting for water and treaty rights on the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Reservation. Not only were they up against DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners LP but also the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Governor of North Dakota had invested interest in the pipeline (along with leading Republican candidate Donald Trump) which was originally planned to cross the Missouri river north of Bismarck, ND. Which coincidentally has a 92.4% white population. No way was it ever going to threaten that city’s water supply.
Recognizing the environmental and economic injustice, we wanted to help in anyway we could. So I created a series of t-shirts, buttons and bandannas. All proceeds to to go in support of protecting the anyone at the camps. As I quickly learned – the water protectors needed much more than what we were offering, but it was the best I could do. Also – this was well before winter set in and the November 20, 2016 police use of water cannons and rubber bullets.
My friend convinced my I needed to visit the Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone and Rosebud camps around the time of these unlawful police violations. I was nervous but committed to seeing first hand what was happening within the camp, also the city of Bismarck.
Hotel Steakhouse Dinner
I arrived via flight from Portland, OR to Bismarck November 26, 2016.
I arrived to my hotel and unpacked, it was dinner time so I headed to the nearest steakhouse, sat at a table in the bar and ordered. There were a handful of people enjoying conversation at the bar, mostly middle aged, I assumed locals and a few that had just finished their shift. A woman and her husband glanced over a few times and whispered to each other. I knew they could tell I was from out of town, even though I thought I was in costume, wearing my red, white and blue american flag hoodie. Wrong, waiting quietly for my food, they sniffed me out quickly. The woman then turned and shouted across the bar, “So…What’s your story?” I shot back “What do you mean?” I wasn’t in the mood for conversation.
She: What are you doing here?
Me: Eating dinner.
She: Oh, your not one of them protestors are you?
Me: What, protestors? No I am just passing through.
A younger disheveled man was sitting down further at the end of the bar joined in. He stated he was there to report on the situation as an independent journalist. The woman said how she just wished these people (you) would just go away, they had no business coming to her town messing up things, blocking traffic and making her life difficult. She couldn’t even drive to the mall without encountering some extra traffic and other distracting nuisances. Uhg. This reply set me off. It felt ignorant for a local to be upset about her shopping when so much was at stake just miles away, not to mention the millions of people and wildlife affected further south when that pipeline leaks or bursts. Yes pipelines exist, yes the leak all the time. Context. So I yelled out to her “Yea, I am here to help protect our environment, YOUR environment, I am here for you.” “I knew it!” she exclaimed. Her husband looked away. Not wanting any conflict, but I could sense his disapproval. She really wanted to know why I was there? What I was up to. I told her this is not just about protecting their water – but hers, all of our water. She strolled over and took a seat at my table. She began sharing the fact that previous pipelines had destroyed her own fishing business years ago. So, naturally I would think she could understand the extreme injustice that was occurring, and have some level of compassion for those suffering the exact same fate. But my guess was inaccurate. She was fed up with everything, mainly the fact that her life as usual was disrupted. My guess is she may have settled out of court and received cash for the loss of her business, I will never really know. Just then her husband stood up and they both headed for the door. Never to be seen again. She waved and thanked me for doing what I was doing. Which confused me more.
Colonization at Oceti Camp
The next day I caravanned south to Cannonball with a native couple I met at the airport. George, a kind man in his 60’s and his wife who had been to Oceti in the summer to help build a kitchen. We stocked up with water, food and other supplies and headed south. The drive was easy enough, the roadblock on Rt 1806 added around 25 minutes. Once we arrived the camp felt chaotic. The people looked worn, tired and broken. I imagined security would be tight, but we drove right through the gates with a wave from a young native american, perhaps because I was being escorted. We met immediately with George’s friends and began gathering supplies, tools, for winterizing the tiny 8×10′ kitchen shelter. After about an hour of attempting to get organized I went for a walk, curious about the camp, I set off to take a few photographs. The Oceti sacred fire was still lit, and many were gathered paying homage with gifts of tobacco and sage. A few men stood up and grabbed the microphone and shared announcements about upcoming orientations and someone’s misplaced cell phone. There was a general sense of weariness in the air for sure. There was little to no conversations happening on around me. Everyone was kinda stumbling around, trying to stay warm, not too many smiles or nods. A native elder (I believe he said he was Apache) suddenly began angrily addressing the small group over the PA system. He stated we was a humble man, from a poor tribe. He was sick and tired of seeing all the colonization happening within the camp. Seeing folks bringing in truck loads of hay, wood, stoves, fuel, tools, and building shelters for themselves, while others with more inadequate resources were freezing in their tents. The haves and the have-nots. I assume this man was not used to living in these conditions. Like many that had traveled to the tundra conditions of North Dakota, folks were ill-prepared and used to living in warmer climates. His anger was justified. I could feel the outrage at the same old shit playing out, and better understand the complexities of being there. Context. The camp had grown enormous and winter was kicking in. Looking out over the camp suddenly you could see a mini-USA being built up, and quickly. I felt bad as I looked out while he as speaking and see two younger visitors taking selfies in their stylish ponchos along the main road into camp. I spoke my peace into the fire, added a fistful of tobacco and walk on. Down the road I came across Red Warrior Camp. Within the Oceti camp, Red Warrior represented the more direct action and militant or active group, with AIM members. Oddly, their camp was fenced off with signs asking you to check in with security before entering. Walking near the fence (rope line) I see two young white women talking, I walk under the rope and approach them asking if they new Jim Northrup, my only contact I was given before entering camp. Yes, they had heard of him, but not scene him that day. They immediately asked what I was doing there, and why the hell I had a camera around my neck inside their camp. Foolishly I told them I was taking photos, but respectfully not of Red Warrior. Not feeling welcomed, plus their disinterest left be a bit cold, so I continued on to Sacred Stone.
Most Important Work
Sacred Stone camp was also disorganized, but the spirit was strong and positive. I found a smaller group sitting around the fire there and asked if I could help in anyway. There was fire to be split, but no axe. Supplies to be moved, but no one there. This continued for some time until an elder sitting at the fire asked me if I could help him. He could see perhaps that I was fresh to camp, with just a but more energy than the others? “Meet down at the river, I have some important work for you to do.” OK, now we are getting somewhere! I can contribute. On the banks of the river I see a small dome about 15′ in diameter and 6′ tall and young 20-something dude poking at a huge bonfire with a shovel. He says nothing, keeps poking. We sit in silence, staring into the fire and then the skyline. The sky is darkening and I can see the Dapl security lighting. It looks like the equivalent of about 10-15 football stadiums lit up at night. I wonder what it must cost the taxpayers of North Dakota just to be operating this massive stadium lighting system – day and night security. It feels, a bit, uh, extreme. Strange against the emptiness of the landscape, the teepees and yurts. I was getting really cold, the night air was settling in, bitter, biting, anything exposed was freezing. A handful more 20-something hippie dudes show up and embrace. I imagine they spend time at the annual Burning Man events. These guys are living the committed life here. I did not ask a single question from any of them, but sensed their tribal brotherhood. Without asking, I knew they had been through the front line experience. Traumatized warriors ready for healing, praying and purification.
I have participated in a sweat ceremony in my life. Sauna, yea. Sweat lodge – I had only heard stories. I was a bit nervous as everyone began stripping down. Oh no, I thought what did I get myself into? I stopped myself from running out of there, and began stripping off my clothes. Before I new it all 12 of us were inside the small sweat lodge. It was dark and smelled of dirt and dank body oder. The earth felt warm and comforting, like the elders voice. He began recounting his own fall from grace. His drug addicted past and his eventual return to Lakota tradition, ceremony and prayer, how this saved him from the outside world of greed and drugs. Disconnection. Isolation. Fear. The elder asked if anyone had questions. Naively, I mustered up the courage and asked how in the Lakota tradition do we see our enemy? The elder replied, that enemy is not seen from the perspective of Lakota, rather we pray for everyone, for those that do not understand. I felt honored to be a part of this circle. Slowly the room temperature rose as each stone was carefully added to the small carved out pit in the center of the lodge. The space was radiating with anticipation and heat. I felt I could handle this, then suddenly the flap went down and water was thrown onto the stones. Whhhhhhhoooosh. I felt the first wave of heat and cringed but held my ground. Not too bad I thought. The elder broke out in prayer, singing. I could here but not see others moaning and breathing strenuously. Whhooooosh, another bucket of water and I could feel my skin melting, it was getting harder to breath. I looked toward to the exit, wanting to leave ASAP. I felt the young dude next to my grab my leg as he went down face first toward the earth. I was trying to move closer to the edge of the lodge, away from the center best I could, to get a cooler breath of air – but none could be found. So I laid, listening and breathing into the earth. My face pressed against the dirt. Wondering how long we would be there. And then another bucket, another song and another bucket. My hand were tingling and I was short of breath. Lots of moaning, almost screaming and other sanskrit prayers were shared. I remained only with my breath. The voice of the elder fell off into the distance. It felt like survival mode, the closest I have felt to not being in my body, but also feeling its weight and weakness. I was either going to pass out or vomit at this point. And then, finally it was over the flap was opened. I am not sure how long we were in there, maybe an 30 mins maybe 2 hours? It had begun to rain, freezing rain, which the elder explained was a good sign. I crawled for the door barely making it, and felt the freshness of the falling rain. My skin prickled with the sensation of every drop, like small pin pricks. I sat staring into the night sky, breathing sighs of relief. Cleansed. I felt I survived something, and transcended some of those fears I had carried into the sweat. Sweating has the ability to place the body in a state of euphoria. It brings you into the present moment, and leaves you feeling alive, clean. That evening the first blizzard arrived. I headed to the Prairie Knights Casino and within hours I was sitting listening to one of my childhood musical heroes Jackson Browne, along with a badass performance from Bonnie Raitt.
This article provides a good timeline of the NoDapl resistance.