Posted by: Castan Centre | December 21, 2016

Standing up for Standing Rock

By Amy Myers

Two weeks ago, I went to Standing Rock in North Dakota. As it would turn out, this was the day before the Army Corps of Engineers announced they would not grant the easement. There is a Lakota prophesy that describes a giant black snake that will run across the land and wreak great destruction. Many members of the Lakota Nation consider the snake to be the almost 1900 kilometer pipeline which has been partly constructed. As an Australian, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have witnessed the dedicated work of the Water Protectors, and to have learned about the long history of indigenous resistance to U.S. colonization from those who had experienced it firsthand. At Standing Rock, the Lakota were joined by over 100 other tribes to protect their land from the pipeline.

I encountered two hurdles on my journey there. First, I learned before I flew out that my car rental booking had been inexplicably cancelled, and there were no other cars available anywhere near Bismarck, my original destination. My only option was to reroute my flight to Minneapolis and drive the eight hours through the night from there. Then, when I finally neared Cannon Ball, ND, I discovered the police had blocked the quicker, more direct route on Highway 1806, and so I took a further detour that added another 45 minutes to the journey.

When I arrived, the sun was barely up and the countryside was covered in snow; despite this, several people at Sacred Stone camp were already getting the day started. The camp felt still and prayerful. Later that morning, in flagrant disregard of the no-fly zone above the camps, a light plane and a DAPL helicopter circled the broader protest encampments. Their presence shattered the calm and I feared they were there for surveillance. Several people at the camp told me to put my phone in airplane mode to avoid potentially having my data collected.

Having seen the media accounts of water cannons, vicious police dog attacks on protesters, chemical warfare being used against unarmed protesters in the form of tear gas and police shooting people with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, I arrived anticipating trouble. One woman I spoke with that weekend warned me to make sure I was wearing thermals because police were taking protesters’ outer clothes from them and leaving people in small pens, sometimes for up to two days; she added that “police are harsher if you look native.” My first day, on two hours’ sleep, I helped dig a latrine hole and sorted some donations. I felt such profound gratitude for the indigenous Water Protectors who had been there for months before me; I was glad to help, even in some small way.

On Saturday afternoon, U.S. veterans began to arrive en masse. I could feel the excitement building throughout the camps. It was moving to see all of that support from members of the military, who planned to form a human shield around the Water Protectors. Some 200 people attended Sunday morning’s Direct Action Meeting. We prayed. We were reminded this was a peaceful protest and we must not allow the police to antagonise us. We signed Jail Release Forms, deciding whether we would prefer to be bailed out immediately or wait with those we were arrested with. We were reminded not to waive our right to remain silent and that we should not expect the police to obey the law. Toward the end of the meeting, a veteran got up and said he had been used as a pawn in the past, sent to a foreign country to fight another battle over natural resources. He said he killed people while abroad and suffers daily because of it. He told the group he came to Standing Rock seeking forgiveness and atonement, so that he could move on from his past actions. I cried when he said that. I would also cry a few hours later, when I learned that the Army Corps announced they were denying the easement needed to complete construction.

I have never experienced anything near the depth of solidarity and resilience of this movement as I did during my two days at Standing Rock. The conditions out there are truly extreme. Every day now I check the weather in Bismarck and think of the 1,000 or more people still there. Today it is mostly sunny and -2 degrees Celsius.

After having witnessed it, I now understand that Standing Rock is not primarily an environmental issue, as some have whitewashed into being. It is principally about indigenous sovereignty, founded on spiritual and cultural rights. Seeing all of the various stakeholders come together in solidarity is a significant moment in history, though of course it is those who live on the land threatened by the pipeline who will have to primarily bear the impact of the consequences if the project continues.

The awe-inspiring work of the indigenous and tribal groups that led the fight against the pipeline has no doubt helped elevate the movement’s visibility. The intersections and teamwork of the myriad groups and communities who have joined them – environmental, racial justice, faith-based, and government accountability organizations – has helped as well. Some of the indigenous people I spoke with, however, attributed the success to the realization of a generations-old prophesy that predicted people will come together on this land to lead an uprising against a common enemy. A Water Protector told me she had asked a police officer on the bridge “What side would you have been on in Selma?” He didn’t have a response.

Am amended version of this was originally published on the Center for Constitutional Rights blog.

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