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What can’t be seen: A reportback from Standing Rock

As you round the corner off of Highway 1806, the site of Oceti Sakowin is hard to miss. Thousands now call Standing Rock home but for many, it’s always been. The resistance at Standing Rock is a beautiful sight. It looks like driving into camp and bearing witness to the teepees and yurts being built by Water Protectors. It’s the tribal and organizational flags that line Flag Row, reminding us of the global solidarity that exists within this struggle. It’s walking around camp to see folks sharing meals, hand warmers, and campfires. It’s sharing space with a national contingent of grassroots community groups and leaders from indigenous led organizations to hear what a Just Transition framework looks like on Native land. It’s the blessed Water Ceremony that is held daily before sunrise. It’s artists making banners and signs for the next non-violent direct action. It’s our Seattle caravan of community organizers checking in daily to see that we all keep each other safe and the people who fight with us whom we have yet to meet.

The infrastructure that exists at Standing Rock is deliberate and exists to keep Water Protectors safe. With thousands coming in and out in a week’s time, holding orientations for new arrivals, legal clinics, and allyship workshops was integral to every person’s integration into camp. Our caravan of dozens of people of color community organizers felt the dominant presence of white people at camp, a reminder of how time and resources are barriers that keeps many of us from fighting many struggles. We were lucky though. We were sent off by our community with prepared meals for our journey, donated winterized gear, solar usb phone chargers, and of course – much needed supplies to deliver to those staying through winter and money to donate. No doubt that even though we were over 20 strong there were dozens more with us in spirit. During new arrival orientation we were told that prayer is central at Standing Rock, that it is grounding and leading the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline. We were asked to practice prayer the entire time we were there. I practiced this ask in silence and in group settings around the Sacred Fire (a main congregating point at camp). Even though it is not my place to question tactics, I couldn’t help but wonder, “who sees prayer?,” but I did it anyway.

On the heels of a presidential election cycle—where fake news made headlines and my Facebook feed became an echo chamber of the Seattle social justice choir— it wasn’t until we arrived at camp that I began to understand the immense repression and surveillance that exists within and around Standing Rock. The sight of the Morton County Sheriff’s department, egregiously taking up space at the top of a sacred burial site, threatening acts of aggression on a peaceful and prayerful crowd on the holiday, was nothing short of abhorrent. In spite of this, Indigenous leaders continued to hold a ceremony in honor of Native elders before them. Even with helicopters constantly flying overhead, phones spontaneously turning off and on, and witnessing friends get arrested and detained for holding a silent prayer in a Bismarck shopping mall – I felt (mostly) like “we have this”.

During the early evening hours of Friday, November 25th most of the camp had received word of the December 5th forced evacuation deadline that was originally placed by the Army Corps of Engineers.”

At Standing Rock we were told there is only one way to be present – “be useful.”  For us this took two forms 1) help organize the infrastructure of the camp whether that is sorting donations, cutting firewood, cooking, or providing a service (medic, lawyer, builder, etc) and 2) participate in prayerful non-violent direct action. During the early evening hours of Friday, November 25th most of the camp had received word of the December 5th forced evacuation deadline that was originally placed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The general mood was somber. After two days of participating in non violent direct action and with December 5th looming, the urgency to build winterized, semi-permanent spaces gave me the sense that this deadline would not deter the resistance. What’s more thousands of veterans were arriving that same day, signifying the broad reach of this movement for human rights and Indigenous sovereignty. And so with the ask to be useful still in mind, we walked across the river Saturday morning to the Rose Bud camp to help build a yurt for the International Indigenous Youth Council. This felt like the best way to be of use for our limited time.

Over the week we were at Standing Rock, the camp swelled from approximately 6,000 Water Protectors to over 10,000 in a 48-hour period. By the week’s end, however, the camp had shrunk back down to its original size. Although our caravan rolled deep into North Dakota, the organizers that live inherently within all of us were already discussing rolling delegations, ways to strategically fight the pipeline from Washington State* and what else we can do to show up for Indigenous sovereignty. In spite of news that the easement for the almost $4-billion-dollar pipeline would not be granted by the Obama administration, Water Protectors are not leaving Standing Rock until Energy Transfer Partners leaves North Dakota with an unfinished pipeline.

When Indigenous leaders shout Mni Wiconi, it doesn’t mean ‘water is life’ for those upstream and not those downstream.”

Water is Life signThe denial of the final permit sets a remarkable precedent for Indigenous sovereignty in this country. However it was also a missed opportunity for the residents of Bismarck to end the pipeline project altogether when it was rerouted and find a just transition out of the fossil fuel industry. Mni Wiconi, the Lakota phrase for “Water is Life” can be heard throughout the camp several times a day. Mni Wiconi became a part of my prayer for this fight. When Indigenous leaders shout Mni Wiconi, it doesn’t mean ‘water is life’ for those upstream and not those downstream. Mni Wiconi is not about ‘not in my backyard, but yours’. Mni Wiconi is about fighting for Indigenous sovereignty everywhere. I have no doubt Water Protectors will fight until this incredibly violent pipeline is squashed for good.

A week fresh into my return to Seattle, I think about Standing Rock every morning when I wake. I think about the people I met and the kind faces that took care of me, took care of us, and how we all took care of each other. I think about how, without being a part of this beautiful resistance, and practicing the prayer they asked us to, the icy car accident we found ourselves in just hours after leaving Oceti Sakowin could have ended very differently. I learned that even if you can’t see prayer, you can feel it, and all its precarious and wondrous outcomes.

*Join us in the resistance January 5th, 2017 – #DefundDAPL Day of Action

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