On Assignment at Standing Rock: Transmissions from Oceti Sakowin

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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On October 7, 2016, the board of directors of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) unanimously approved a resolution expressing solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). It was a powerful statement from one of the nation’s foremost intertribal organizations and the 37 tribal colleges and universities that it represents. The resolution went on to assert, “Be it further resolved, that the American Indian Higher Education Consortium calls on federal regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse the approval of the pipeline and to justly collaborate with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as it exercises its sovereign right to protect its resources, Treaty rights, waterways, traditional homelands, and sacred sites.”

Carrie Billy, AIHEC’s president and CEO, personally travelled to Standing Rock to visit the Oceti Sakowin camp in a show of solidarity. She had an AIHEC flag especially made for the occasion, and delivered it to longtime tribal college leaders and Standing Rock residents Deborah and Ron His Horse Is Thunder who were standing on the frontlines in resistance to DAPL. AIHEC’s flag joined the flags of hundreds of other organizations and Indigenous nations from around the world.


The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers recent decision to deny an easement to drill under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, which are just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, was a major victory for the tribe and tribal sovereignty. It brightly illuminated the power of direct action. But it also would never have come to pass had it not been for the resiliency and sheer determination of the Standing Rock Sioux and all of those who lent their support and stood steadfastly by their side.

In this great struggle against “the black snake,” many people laid their bodies on the line, risking arrest, incarceration, and physical harm. There were many confrontations. North Dakota state authorities and DAPL’s private security force regularly used pepper spray, tear gas, attack dogs, water cannons, concussion grenades, and firearms loaded with rubber bullets against nonviolent demonstrators who were armed with nothing more than words and paper signs. Such was the case on October 27, when police stormed into an encampment of water protectors and arrested and incarcerated scores of people. Among those jailed were Deborah and Ron His Horse Is Thunder.

At AIHEC, a flurry of emails and text messages ensued. While many tribal college students, faculty, and staffers had travelled to Standing Rock and stood on the frontlines, the arrest and incarceration of two highly regarded leaders and educators sent shockwaves throughout the tribal college community. At Tribal College Journal we decided the time had come to go and stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. A few days later, I was barreling north over the highways of the western Plains heading towards the Great Sioux Nation.

I’ve read that it can take up to 24 minutes to send a transmission from Mars back to Earth, which is roughly how long it took to send a Facebook message from the Oceti Sakowin camp. Upon my arrival, I quickly discovered there was no reliable cell phone service, and although one could sometimes find a signal atop of “Facebook Hill,” the highest point at the camp, it could be a painstaking and time-consuming process. I could never quite figure out if it was the wind conditions, the position of the sun, or maybe the planes circling overhead that caused the erratic reception. It certainly took some patience, and a little willpower!

For the four days I was there, I sent (or tried to send) regular Facebook updates. Some of these related to direct action events, but many focused on the prevailing spirit of unity, solidarity, and volunteerism that sustained this historic movement. What follows are those transmissions that I sent during that first week of November. I have made some slight edits and included the failed posts that never made it up on our page. To be sure, it’s a snapshot in time, but I think they capture, at least in part, why the stand at Standing Rock was victorious and will be remembered as one of the great chapters in modern American Indian history.

* * *



I’m about ready to take off from Albuquerque for Standing Rock. I’m planning on staying in western Nebraska today and reach Standing Rock tomorrow. I’ll be at the camp all weekend and will give updates as often as possible. Stay tuned!

* * *



As I was crisscrossing the Great Plains on my way up to Standing Rock this evening, I headed east on Highway 96, a remote stretch of road with more coyotes than cars. Heading north off that highway is the even more remote County Road 54.

If you drive eight miles down this road you will come to Sand Creek. 152 years ago on a cold November morning, Colonel John Chivington ordered his volunteer cavalry force to attack a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. Chief Black Kettle flew an American flag at the camp as a sign of peace and most of those there were women and children. None of that mattered because when the dust cleared, scores lay dead.

As I had not planned to visit this place, it was hard not to wonder if this was merely a chance encounter. I hope so, because it seems that many people today who put profits above people have never read a history book. And if we forget the past and the lessons it has to offer, we are doomed to repeat it.

* * *



Midafternoon yesterday I lost sight of Blanca Peak, the eastern sacred mountain that demarks Diné Bikéyah. For the rest of the day I skirted the western edges of the Comancheria and spent the night in northeastern Colorado. Today, I’m heading north on US Hwy 385 and have almost 600 miles to Standing Rock.

* * *



I spent most of today traveling through the Great Sioux Nation, as defined by the Treaty of Fort Laramie. I arrived at Standing Rock at twilight. It’s late now, I’m beat, and I wish I could have my sciatic nerve surgically removed, but I’m here. I plan on heading over to Sitting Bull College in nearby Fort Yates tomorrow morning. After that, I’m off to the Oceti Sakowin camp. I’ve heard the internet connectivity is spotty at best, but I’ll do my best to keep you posted!

* * *



Last night, shortly after I arrived, I made my way down to the Prairie Knights Casino for a feed and to see what was afoot. On the short walk to my car to retrieve my USB cable, I noticed license plates from Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota, and Ontario. The casino bar was a hive of activity, with a vast array of journalists and activists of various stripes and persuasions. They came from near and far. I spoke with journalists from France, listened to writers from Japan and Taiwan, noticed a cadre of activists from Jamaica, and there are concerned citizens from tribal nations across North America. They all are here to support or report on the escalating conflict which seems destined for another round of raids, arrests, and incarcerations.

* * *



The internet connection and cell signal here are nonexistent. Some have reported that the outages are recent, perhaps due to an overload of activity or to more nefarious reasons. Sitting Bull College, however, remains a connective bulwark, which is how I’m posting this message now.

On the upside, there is a tremendous amount of support and passion for Standing Rock.  That, for certain, is not lacking. I hope that it can all be channeled in a way that halts the proposed pipeline and brings justice for the Lakota people.

* * *



As I was getting my press badge, I was told to check in with the Red Owl Legal Collective, a group of lawyers who are offering pro bono legal services for anyone who is arrested and incarcerated while engaging in civil disobedience. One of the questions they asked was, “Would you prefer to wait for arraignment, or do you want immediate bail?” As bail would entail a future arraignment hearing, probably a few weeks down the road, I chose to wait for arraignment. I hope my publisher is o.k. with that!

* * *



It sounds like something is brewing for tomorrow. Not sure what, but I was informed that the authorities are targeting those with press badges (i.e., people like me) and that I should expect to have everything confiscated if arrested. Of course all of this is happening on what is known as “the frontline”—land where they are presently digging for the pipeline. They’re inching closer to the river, but the Water Protectors, who are the vanguard of the struggle, are watching closely. If something goes down tomorrow, this is where it will be.

* * *



In preparation for any direct action, all participants are expected to attend special training sessions. Recently, law enforcement has been using both tear gas and pepper spray on the Water Protectors. Signs at the sacred fire ring offer recommendations on how to protect against such an attack. While any sort of mask is discouraged, protective eye wear is not. But protectors are advised to use silicon-based goggles, not plastic ones, as the latter traps tear gas and causes more damage. Also, it’s best to remove contact lenses before any direct action because if you attempt to do so after a gassing you risk also removing the cornea of your eye and permanent eye damage. Ear plugs are also recommended and it’s suggested that you seal them off with duct tape.

Here are the direct action principles posted at the sacred fire ring:

  • We are protectors.
  • We are peaceful and prayerful.
  • “isms have no place here.
  • We are non-violent.
  • Respect locals!
  • We are proud to stand. No masks.
  • No weapons (or what could be considered a weapon).
  • All campers must get an orientation.
  • Direct action training is 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.
  • Property damage does not get us closer to our goal.

* * *



One cannot help but think of this place as a warzone. There are planes and helicopters constantly circling overhead. Hwy 1806 is impassable, blockaded with burned out vehicles. Armored vehicles patrol the road. There are heavily armed police and security forces looming on the hill across the Missouri River, watching and waiting.

When I first arrived at the scene yesterday, a young man at the entry point informed me that the Rosebud and Sacred Stone camps were safely on the Standing Rock reservation, but that the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, rested on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land and that in theory could be raided and evacuated at any time. That was a little alarming to hear, but I knew realistically such a thing wouldn’t happen. Although the bright lights from the pipeline construction site glared down on us at night and planes continued to circle overhead in the darkness, I was able to sleep at night. I must confess, if anyone other than Barrack Obama was president that may not have been the case.

* * *



One of the first things you will notice at the Oceti camp is a profound and sincere spirit of cooperation and unity. People work together, show respect, and are happy to be here.  They recognize that they are making history and that this moment will be remembered for generations. Regardless of how this ends, someday their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will proudly remember what they stood for and how they conducted themselves.

* * *



Camp life here at Oceti Sakowin is all about volunteerism, which just so happens to be the theme of our fall issue (check it out!). Food banks and dining halls are set up throughout the camp. People volunteer their time, serving, cooking, stocking, chopping wood, and cleaning up. There has been a tremendous number of donations and now there is a surplus of clothes, food, tents, sleeping bags, and other gear. It is this spirit of volunteerism that sustains this camp, this movement.

* * *



The weather here in North Dakota has been uncharacteristically warm. Highs have been exceeding seasonal averages by over 20 degrees and by noon everyone dons a t-shirt or tank top. It’s disconcerting and even disturbing to see such temperatures in what is supposed to be the coldest state in the continental U.S., a stark reminder of the climate change that this pipeline will only aid and abet. Ironically, the warm weather has boosted morale and encouraged folks to come out and camp for the weekend. Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College, put it best, “This is the Creator’s way of showing his support.”

* * *



Although temperatures during the daytime reach into the 60s, nights drop close to freezing. Everyone dresses in layers; at noon you’re in a t-shirt, but by 10pm you need a winter coat and hat. Despite the cold, the Oceti Sakowin camp barely sleeps. There is about a four-hour window at night when things quiet down, but much of the night is a cacophony of generators, circling airplanes, drumming, and singing.  And then, at 5am sharp, someone at the Sacred Fire circle clicks on the p.a. system and announces, “Wake up warriors!”—a jarring reminder of why we’re all here.

* * *



One of the most impressive facets of the various camps here is the food. There is an array of mess halls about, most of which are staffed with volunteers who are professional chefs or people who really know how to cook. Each day they serve breakfast around 7am, lunch at 1, and supper at 7pm. And it’s not just beans and mash—it’s chana masala, vegan black bean burgers, roasted squash and new potatoes.

Now, as many of you know, I love mutton stew. But the other night they served a venison stew, made with deer that had been butchered that morning, which should go down in culinary history as one of the greatest concoctions ever presented to the human palate.  I will stop short of saying it was better than Irene Alva’s mutton stew (love you Irene!), but I will dream of it for years to come.

* * *



Over the last few days there have been several different direct actions. The first occurred on Saturday afternoon when a group of about 100 or so marched up towards the barricade that blocks Hwy 1806. The tension was high with each step and some sort of confrontation seemed imminent. However, the situation resolved itself without incident and we all returned to camp peacefully.

On Sunday there were two separate direct actions. The first took place in Mandan, about 55 miles from Oceti Sakowin and just outside of Bismarck. It was a peace march of forgiveness and reconciliation; demonstrators sought to diffuse some of the anger and resentment from the previous days, issuing a statement that they held no ill feelings toward the police and recognized that they are merely actors and not the policymakers or pipeline decision-makers. It was a poignant move and, I think, an effective one. The second direct action took place on “Turtle Island,” a point in the Missouri River where federal lands abut private property that is being excavated for the pipeline. Demonstrators there crossed the river by canoe and began marching up the hill toward the construction site. A phalanx of police and security confronted and eventually pepper sprayed them.

While the Oceti Sakowin camp and, more specifically, the sacred fire serves as the main hub of activity and where Standing Rock tribal leaders offer direction and set the tone for the day, this movement is largely democratic. It is not highly centralized, top-heavy, or controlled by one or two dominant charismatic leaders. Unlike, say, the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, which was directed by AIM and had clear leaders in Dennis Banks and Russell Means, the movement here in Standing Rock is a loose intertribal—even extra-tribal—confederation of various groups who all share the same overarching goal of stopping the pipeline, but which approach it through different channels and tactics.

* * *



During my entire time at Standing Rock, carloads of people came and went. While some had been there for months, most come for a week or a weekend. They come from near and far; I met a vet from St. Petersburg, Florida, a young student from eastern Maryland, people from Southern California, Pittsburgh, New York, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Washington. They were Native and non-Native, and some were from abroad—places like France, Jamaica, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and England. Although no official census has been taken of Oceti Sakowin and its satellite camps, I would venture to guess that the population hovered around 2,000 people.  Indeed, maybe “camp” is the wrong term. Perhaps “village” better. 

One day, I heard a woman from California complain about the “weekend warriors.” She had been at the camp for a long time and seemed worn down, tired, and a little grumpy. Her grumbling caught me off guard and contrasted with the prevailing positive energy and sense of unity. She had done her tour of duty and needed a rest.

Indeed, at least in part, what helps sustain this movement is the constant influx of new and fresh faces. Those arriving at the camp are excited to be there, ready to help, and happy to be a part of this movement. They took vacation time, cut classes, and drove or flew hundreds of miles to be there. These new, wide-eyed recruits exude a positive energy that uplifts spirits; they are a reminder that the people of Standing Rock are not in this alone. When I first pulled into the camp, I could see it in the face of the young Lakota man who welcomed me. He shook my hand and simply said, “Thanks for coming.”

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I finally arrived back in Albuquerque late last night. It was quite the journey and I’m so glad I made it. As a former tribal college educator, I can say that there are innumerable learning opportunities for TCU faculty and students. Deborah His Horse Is Thunder pointed these out in her recent article, “Stand with Standing Rock”—check it out. If you are able, take the time and go. It is one of those rare opportunities to be a part of history.

On the last day I was there, a tribal elder discussed the importance of sustaining this movement. He thanked all who came to show their support and said “We can’t do this alone.” With the election behind us and political change to come, now, more than ever is the time to take a stand with Standing Rock.

* * *

Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal and the author of Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism.

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