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Commentary: From the front lines at Standing Rock, ND

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The Dakota Access Pipeline

By Dave Taylor

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Special to The Sopris Sun

Writer’s note: I am not an expert in Native American culture and affairs, nor do I pretend to be. I can only share what I have learned from my personal experience as an outside observer and from doing further research.

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The young man eyed me carefully as I drove up to the security gate of the Spirit Camp earlier this month. He was in his early twenties, a bandanna around his forehead. A couple of others who were also manning the entrance glanced up as well. After all, my 2007 Yukon was sporting Colorado plates, and I look nothing like a Native American. I decided to speak first:

“Hi, I am here to meet some friends from the Cheyenne River tribe,” I told him and I could see him perk up a little.

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“Cheyenne River,” he said, “that’s my tribe,” and he smiled proudly.

“I’m here to meet (I told him the names of my friends) and I brought supplies,” I said.

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“What kind of supplies?” he asked.

“Winter coats and warm clothes donated by my community. We support what you are doing here,” I told him as he nodded and pointed to several large tents off to my right.

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“That’s the supply tent. You can park anywhere next to it and someone will help you unload if you need.”  One of the other men walked up smiling.

“Colorado! Welcome brother, it’s good to have you here!” the second man said, and just like that I was welcomed as a part of the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP).

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I drove in between rows of flags that lined each side of the main road and stretched for a quarter mile. Various tribes and communities from around the world brought the flags in a universal show of support. There were city and state flags and flags from countries as far away as Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Tribal flags dominated the display, colorful and defiant. The camp itself was a mash up of tents and teepees, campfires and singing and drumming. It was getting dark so I found my friends, unloaded the clothing that had been donated by friends here in Carbondale and settled in for my first night camping next to a large colorful teepee with painted leaves and a drawing of a buffalo on the side. I would be sleeping and camping out of my car for the next few days.

Showing solidarity

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I came to Standing Rock to show solidarity with the protest against the DAP. The controversial pipeline was initially rejected by the city of Bismarck to the north, due to concerns of leakage and pollution of water resources. The pipeline was then conveniently pushed further south, adjacent to the Standing Rock reservation on what are historically sacred tribal lands. The camp is also known as the Sacred Stone Camp and the area contains a state historical designation for the Medicine Stone, which has been documented in non-native culture as far back as Lewis and Clark.  The area is home to numerous ancient campsites and burial sites. I was told that the location of the Spirit Camp was a favorite camping spot for Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band of Lakota. The construction of the pipeline will both threaten the ancient sites as well as the Cannonball River and Missouri River itself, which is the main water source for the Standing Rock reservation.

I expected the protest to be quiet, as I had heard that the Department of the Interior and the Corps of Engineers had requested that Energy Partners Ltd, the parent company of the pipeline project, halt construction while the archeological claims of the Lakota were re-examined.  The media was reporting that the company had agreed and construction was halted.  That proved not to be the case.

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The next morning I was awakened to the sound of a bullhorn imploring everyone to line up for an “action.” My friends were off cutting wood to supply the camp for winter, so I grabbed my camera and began asking anyone I could find what was going on. No one wanted to talk to me. I was an outsider and my questions were politely ignored. At the camp next to me I approached an older Lakota man. The camp flew the flags of the American Indian Movement and the Wounded Knee siege.  I asked him what was going on, if there was to be some sort of confrontation. He looked away and mumbled something and went back into his tent. We would later become friends, once I had been properly introduced, and I learned that he had been at every Native American Indian protest since Alcatraz, and he allowed me to interview him on camera and was quite animated. That morning, however, he wanted nothing to do with me. The best I could determine was that there was going to be a political rally in Bismarck later in the day and the group was going up there to protest and speak. I decided to stay in camp, wait for my friends to return, shoot some footage and try to arrange some interviews. There was an official media tent on a hill a few hundred yards away with a solar charging station for phones and some limited wifi. Several times I went over and tried to register and get press credentials but everyone was gone for the action so I was on my own.

Reason #2

The other reason that I came to the Spirit Camp was to gather footage for a documentary I have been working on for over a year with the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe. It is not about the pipeline. Rather, it focuses on the cultural genocide of the Lakota people through the many generations of the boarding school years, when their children (and the children of other native tribes) were taken from them for “re-education” in church-run boarding schools that for decades were rife with horrible conditions, abuse and corruption. In fact, while this gathering has been described as representing the largest gathering of different tribes in history, I have had the sad experience of witnessing another such “gathering” of representatives of tribes from all over North America — at the children’s cemetery at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the most famous of the boarding schools. There the graves of children from every tribe rest next to each other in an eternal display of mournful solidarity and shared tragedy. Here at Spirit Camp, as in Carlisle, different tribes, with some traditionally sworn enemies camping next to each other, have gathered together as representative pages in the history of native peoples in the United States.

Seventh generation

One of my Cheyenne River friends works with Lakota youth. His personal mission is to educate them about their culture and help them to rediscover who they are as a people. The reservations have one of the highest suicide rates among young people in the nation, and addiction and alcoholism are formidable demons. Each year he takes struggling teens on a two-week horseback retreat to teach them what it means to be warriors for the people. In their culture, being a warrior is less about warfare and more about honor and integrity and being of service to the tribe and caring for those who are unable to care for themselves — values that seem to have been lost in many modern societies.  

I was fortunate to be introduced to, and then interview members of the youth council. These are members of the Seventh Generation, prophesized by Black Elk as the force for reuniting the Sacred Hoop, which represents the “continuity of the Lakota people” and which was broken through their suffering and mistreatment, beginning in the time of the Wounded Knee massacre. Black Elk and Crazy Horse had visions of the hard times to come and Black Elk predicted that after seven generations there would be a transformation of spirit and the Sacred Hoop would begin to be mended. These young people spoke with eloquence and passion of their determination to reconnect with their traditional ways and culture and the responsibility they feel for protecting the few resources they have left — including the water.  Everyone I talked to echoed the same sentiment:  

“We have had so much taken from us, and we have so little left. We are not going to give up the water. Without the water, nothing can survive.”

I was reminded without blame or judgment, that I am a Wasi’chu, the Lakota word for the Europeans who came to their land. It means, “the one who steals the fat” (takes the best for themselves), and is a name that has been reinforced throughout their history. It is a history that isn’t taught in schools here in the United States and represents a toxic shame that in my opinion would be better acknowledged rather than denied and allowed to fester within both cultures, native and non-native.

Part of the mission of the Seventh Generation is to awaken the enlightened wisdom of the traditional ways — respect for the earth and all life; gratitude for all we are given; the nobility of caring for each other (these are my paraphrases) — to both their own people and to the wasi’chu. They believe, as do many that our culture has poisoned itself and out of the ruins a new movement must arise that is in harmony with nature.

There was talk among many of the establishment of a new nation, a new “tribe” so to speak, at the Spirit Camp, which would be comprised of members of all tribes and societies and would be a model for surviving the collapse of economies and governments. That collapse has also been prophesized by the elders along with an admonition to carefully prepare. For sure, the energy of the Spirit Camp was positive and full of hope and pride — very different from what I have felt in the reservations I have visited. The “rez” is universally described by the Native people in terms such as “depressed and depressing,” “like a prison camp,” “lifeless,” and many said they wanted to leave permanently and live at the Spirit Camp.

Later that afternoon, the “action” motorcade returned with a defiant declaration of victory. Besides the political rally, they had succeeded in peacefully shutting down five different work sites. The pipeline workers had packed up once the protestors arrived in force and there was a big rally at camp with speeches and prayers.

“Peaceful” needs to be emphasized. The Direct Action Principles are posted all around the camp and include: We are Protectors; We are peaceful and prayerful;  “____isms” have no place here; Respect the locals; We are proud to stand (no masks); No weapons or anything that could be considered as one; Property damage does not get us closer to our goal; Direct action training required for all taking action; No children in potentially dangerous situations; We keep each other accountable to these principles; This is a ceremony. Act accordingly.

The more publicized physical confrontations have been few and occurred when groups of protestors witnessed heavy machinery starting to dig in areas considered to be sacred burial sites. The feeling was that here was no time to seek an injunction as the work was beginning immediately and groups of protestors, led by the members of the youth council among others, jumped the fence and trespassed in order to stop the machinery. Guards with pepper spray and dogs confronted them and several were bitten as a result but the work was halted. I was also told anecdotally of horses being shot with beanbags from shotguns and in at least one instance, a horse dying as a result. For the most part however, the actions and confrontations have been peaceful.

Feeling at home

Over the next few days I began to feel more and more at home.  I was granted press status and given a press pass that allowed me some legitimacy with my camera.  When it was time to leave I found myself wishing I could stay longer. The winds were cold and brutal and I don’t envy those who will stay for the winter. Even the best-made camping tents were having trouble withstanding the constant onslaught of the wind gusts of 30 to 50 mph. Tents were ripping and collapsing and some simply blew away. The teepees were standing tall and strong, however, and I hear that more are being brought in for the winter.

Some have asked me what do they need? Almost everyone I talked to said the same thing:

“We need your prayers and we need you to make your voices heard to your representatives. Please do that for us.” You can voice your support at the following website:—stand-with-standing-rock/.

Since returning, I have heard of another situation where native land is being threatened with oil and gas exploration and drilling without their consent, this time even closer to home. H.R. 5780 (the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act) is being called an unprecedented federal land grab of Ute native lands on behalf of private corporations next door to us in Utah. It is cloaked inside language and a title that disguises the potential affront to our neighboring Ute brothers and sisters. The above link can also be used to voice your support for defeating that measure.

Since returning

When I began the long drive home, I gave a Lakota gentleman a ride to the Pine Ridge Reservation about six hours south. We had good conversation and I reflected on my experience. Although I was eventually welcomed and treated warmly in almost every situation, initially I was often looked at with suspicion and distrust as an outsider. I would briefly experience the sting of discrimination and the awkward feeling of being stared at with prejudicial glares. I wonder what it must be like to have that be a person’s daily reality.

Dave Taylor is the owner of Cool Brick Studios and produces music as well as various video and film projects.

Standing Rock update

In the past week, tensions have increased between protestors, the Morton Country Sheriffs Department and private security contractors hired by the pipeline. Tactics used to suppress protests have crossed the line into civil rights violations according to legal observers on the ground and include: unwarranted use of pepper spray and rubber bullets; excessive force used in arrests; targeted vehicular stops against protestors for minor infractions; the designation of five persons or more as a “riot” in order to levy more serious charges against the protestor than simple trespassing. These tactics are designed to weaken the resolve and strain the financial resources of those supporting the protest. Those wishing to support the protestors are urged to contact the White House at 202-456-1111 or send a message to Ask President Obama to support the peaceful protest and act on behalf of the 17 million Americans who depend on the Missouri River for their clean water.

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 27, 2016.