A few days ago, I arrived back home from a small stint of time in the Standing Rock Reservation, where I've since only begun grasping all that happened around me. The following posts are my attempt to reconcile one of the more important weeks of my life. I'll begin with the history lesson you'll find below, followed by my personal experiences in future posts. My hope is that I represent as thorough an idea of what's happening at this camp as I can, and through that, maybe inspire some form of positive change. These men and women protesters, protectors of their sacred land and water, can inspire in us the momentum we, together as a nation, need to create an America we are proud to call home. With all of our resources, both natural and cultural, it speaks volumes that we haven't already.
But maybe we need a catalyst to start this reaction.
Standing Rock is the 6th largest Native American reservation, spanning both North and South Dakota. Originally a part of the Great Sioux Nation, including the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people, the territory spanned America’s Great Plains, 500,000 square miles of rolling hills and big sky sharing a symmetry that mirrored the cultures living upon it. However, US expansion in the mid 1800s was tenaciously eating away the Native peoples’ land, many of whom were nomads, systematically claiming property (which was already a foreign idea) and assimilating the indigenous population at gun-point. In 1868, after years of war, the Native Americans of the region and the US government made treaties that would guarantee the sovereignty of certain lands to certain tribes, though at precious cost to their culture. Among other lands, the Sioux got the Black Hills, where each root and hoof were considered sacred; where each footstep was followed with solemn prayer.
So, of course, in 1874, General George Custer, along with his 7th Cavalry, decided to wander through the Black Hills, where he just happened to have stumbled upon large gold deposits. Thus began a gold rush through the heart of sacred, sovereign land, where illegal US gerrymandering broke apart both nations and states and consequently began The Great Sioux War. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. And though Custer finally got what he arguably deserved, the Native Americans lost that war. They were left with several smaller reservations, including Standing Rock, while losing the Black Hills in the process. Because you can’t hold a soul in your hand like you can a gold nugget. You’d think that’s part of a soul’s value, part of the importance of maintaining it, but no, we didn’t see it that way. We just saw gold.
Then we broke that treaty and took more land, our intentions not hidden, but arrogantly flaunted. The goal being to balkanize the tribes, taking away their power and absorbing them like an evil twin might to their sibling while in utero. According to Tribe, a book by Sebastian Junger, “Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” but rather the opposite. “Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.” And yet, we forced these indigenous people into our world like a gladiator is forced into the arena. Welcome to the United States.
Fast forward one and a half centuries and we’re still at it.
There’s a phrase that most Americans should find terrifying. A phrase that smacks of authority and decisiveness, where even the questioning of it could lead to personal catastrophe. That phrase is “eminent domain.” This is the right of our government legislature to take lands according to what they feel is for the greater good. Maybe to build roads, hospitals, or other public utilities. Sounds harmless, right? But the “greater good” also includes economies, meaning more money, involving legislators casually known for their corruption. Not land-owners and certainly not Native American tribes. And what’s even more disastrous, once the 3rd parties get the okay to build, they aren’t obligated to use the land in the way they said they would. This is US government regulation.
This is what the Energy Transfer Partners acquired in order to build a pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa, and thereby the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and Lake Oahe, to Patoka, Illinois, where the oil would be processed for distribution. Incredible amounts of oil. Once processed, up to 375 million gallons of gas a day.
Let’s put that into perspective, as my intention is not to be too one sided. That’s disaster relief. That’s streamlining efficiency that could be an economic boon to our nation. That’s jobs and prosperity and fuck it, I’m going to be one sided. That’s bullshit. Driving to North Dakota from South Carolina, I saw fields of wind catchers, their elegant spindles slowly spinning to capture energy from the elements without the worry of industrial fallout. These turbines blossomed like giant metal flowers, showing us progress through elegant design. Solar panels have grown in efficiency by leaps and bounds. Hydroelectric power is on the rise and that’s not even taking into account geothermal energy or all of the other myriad ways we can make energy without endangering our world and civilization.
We all know that oil is made up of constituent poisons that destroy entire environments. The plants choke on each particle, while animals ingest, inhale, or simply drown in it. "Devastating" is word that is often used to describe the damage spilled oil causes to the world. We've known this for years. It isn't anything new.
On April 1st of 2016, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, an elder of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, took her grandchildren with her and established the Sacred Stone Camp as an act against the Dakota Access Pipeline being created, which was an immediate threat to Lake Oahe, her tribe’s chief water source. This is her private land, and is now a sanctuary for prayer and peaceful protest. Since it’s inception, Sacred Stone Camp has had a flood of protesters, many of whom are part of other Native American tribes, of which there are over 300. It’s the largest assembly of such tribes in over 100 years. While I was there, I also met a lot of people who had to fly across an ocean to get to us. It seems the world media covered it better than our own by far. And why wouldn’t they? It’s not like they had a vested interest in hiding it. But ours did.
It wasn’t until construction workers bulldozed a huge plot of land designated sacred to the Sioux that any media began paying attention. When the Sioux tried to peacefully intervene, the private security that Energy Transfer Partners had hired decided to set dogs on the protesters, who were bitten ravenously, sometimes on their forearms, sometimes their faces. Horses had pit bulls leaping up to bite at their haunches, causing them to panic and almost throw their riders. Pepper spray swept across crowds of people like an unholy baptism, searing the corneas of people fighting for their world.
The sheriff claimed that their protests were anything but peaceful. I call bullshit for two reasons. One is that this was sacred ground and the people digging into it knew that. Wars have been fought for FAR less. The other is that escalation of force denotes how aggressive the opposition is. If all the private security used was pepper spray and none of them were hurt, then it was a peaceful protest. The sheriff is a lying piece of human garbage, by the way. I’ll get to that during another post, but make no mistake. He is absolutely full of shit, is hurting innocent people for corporations, knows it, and doesn’t care. On the bright side, he’s a law-enforcement officer with a lot of power. Goddamnit.
Anyway, by October millions of people had seen the video of how the protesters were treated. As more people flocked to the camp, more police and military showed up, armed with riot gear and crowd-control weapons that relied on the operators to have humanity. But in their minds, they’re at war. And in war, humanity is in short supply. So, yes, maybe they used hoses to spray water onto the protestors in below freezing weather. Maybe they did aim for the women, children, and elderly first. Maybe they shot directly at people with rubber bullets, rather than bouncing them off the ground to ensure they weren’t lethal. Maybe they used gas canisters that could explode, say, while a 14 year old girl was trying to throw it back. Maybe they lied about how violent their opposition was in order to secure the backing of American citizens. But hey, it’s a civilian war, right? Thin blue line between order and chaos, good and bad, right? Fucking justice, right?! Who are they protecting? Who are they serving? And once you answer that, answer this: How can this be?
I arrived on December 3rd as part of a veterans’ initiative to support those at Standing Rock. Once thousands and thousands of veterans showed up at once (and I’ll get into all of that later as well), the Dakota Access Pipeline was refused permission to dig by the US Army Corps of Engineers until a reassessment of the environmental impact could be made. So Energy Transfer Partners laughed at them, saying they’d pay the fine and keep digging, because money talks. That’s America, where the elite can buy whatever they want at the detriment of those they stand on. They even bragged about it, rubbing it in the faces of every American who believes in their own freedoms, spitting on the idea of the American Dream so that they can buy another yacht. But I think the real tragedy is that no one is surprised. Everyone saw this coming.
Because this is America.
Land of the fooled.
Home of the bought.
But it doesn't have to be.