Beginning last year, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation became ground zero in the battle to protect water resources, sacred sites, and tribal sovereignty. The dramatic events there, broadcast internationally, brought forth a tremendous outpouring of support, but also a sobering reality check on the influence of the petroleum industry and the power of the Oval Office. The struggle also produced a handful of high profile leaders who helped articulate the Standing Rock Sioux’s position, concerns, and ultimate goals. One of those leaders is Ron His Horse Is Thunder, former president of Sitting Bull College (SBC) and a past chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Although His Horse Is Thunder enjoys spending his days tending to his ranch, he remains politically active and currently serves as Standing Rock’s director of tribal transportation. He is a licensed attorney and comes from a family that has a long tradition of fighting for social justice and civil rights. He has also been a champion of tribal sovereignty, especially in the realm of higher education. Besides serving as president of SBC, he served as president of the American Indian College Fund and, most recently, as interim president of Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago, Nebraska, where he stabilized the college after it suffered a series of leadership crises. Along with his wife Deborah (see “The Protector”), he also does some consulting for their firm, Wiya and Associates LLC.
TCJ caught up with His Horse Is Thunder at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference in Rapid City. Always open and affable, he sat down and spoke about the recent historic events at Standing Rock.
How are things there at Standing Rock these days?
Standing Rock is trying to get back to some sense of normalcy. Most of the camps—all the camps—have been closed. There were three [main camps] from the summer to the wintertime. At the end, two more were created. The Black Hoop Camp, that got shut down as well, and Cheyenne River created a camp called “Four Bands,” and that’s still there but there’s hardly anybody there. They’re very selective about who they let in, mostly tribal members. They wanted to keep prayer the central theme of the camp—prayer as well as the idea of Lakota culture. So it was built around prayer and Lakota culture. As more and more people came, some came with their own agenda. So [it was] not just a camp of peaceful prayer; some came in with more of an environmentalist perspective that pipelines are wrong and oil should be kept in the ground.
So this changed the camp. [Prayer] was what Cheyenne River was trying to get back to. They would’ve been ousted too, but they found private land. Sacred Stone [and] Oceti Sakowin were built on [Army] Corps land, so that’s why they were ousted. These camps were on the exterior boundaries—Rosebud [camp] and Sacred Stone were on Corps land, within the exterior boundaries of the reservation. It didn’t make a darn bit of difference, if you were on Corps land, the feds could tell you to leave if they wanted to.
You were actively involved in the movement to stop DAPL. How did you first become involved?
Sacred Stone was the first camp. When they first opened it they did so by asking riders to come in—horse riders who have participated in various rides in Indian Country. The Wounded Knee Ride, the Dakota 38 Ride, as well as other rides. They had a prayer ceremony at the tribal offices south of Cannonball. They asked us to ride on horseback up to what would become the Sacred Stone Camp. That would have been in April 2016. So that was my first initial participation in Sacred Stone. The riders were asked to come in and ride to the camp and then there was a ceremony and the camp was officially opened.
There was only a small group of people who actually camped—15 to 20 people in April and May. Then in June it grew and grew more. There were 250 people by August. The area they camped in was a small confined area, and the tribe officially endorsed Sacred Stone Camp in June. We promoted and endorsed the purpose of the camp. And so when August rolls around and you have 250 people there, there wasn’t enough room. Then the tribe officially opened the Oceti Sakowin Camp and put the call out for people to come and assist. They said to come and stand with Standing Rock in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So in June, July, and August, we were always sure to bring food or supplies down to Sacred Stone Camp. By the first week of August, they sent a message out to come and join us. Tribes, large groups started showing up. When that hit the media, in mid to late August, it exploded. That’s when it really took off. When the tribal chairman got arrested, that hit the media that caused it to grow exponentially. That as well as when the DAPL employees brought out the dogs. When the dogs came out it hit national news and the camps grew even more.
I’d like to discuss how the camps evolved. Can you elaborate on that?
The Rosebud Camp almost immediately evolved. As people came in from neighboring states, they camped in clusters of their own. So Rosebud [tribal members] camped in their own camp over on the south side of the river. It was really part of Oceti, Council of Seven Fires, they just camped on the south side of the river.
Red Warrior Camp was initially part of Sacred Stone. Somewhere in May or June they were camping with Sacred Stone. When the big camp opened up, when their membership grew, they decided to move over to Oceti Sakowin. Their leadership came from reservations where they had already been actively opposing pipelines. They were actively engaged in opposing pipelines before they came there. But because they had experience fighting pipelines in the past, they were versed in nonviolent methods of protesting, and so they were the ones in many ways leading the charges in going to the worksites, the pipelines, and leading the protests there.
Sacred Stone was created as a spiritual camp, not with the intention of being a protest camp. Oceti Sakowin was built around the idea of prayer and spirituality. Red Warrior Camp was created to actively engage in demonstrations and protesting. There was another incident that caused it to grow. That’s when Red Warriors began locking themselves down to equipment. That was another incident that went nationwide and caused hundreds of people to come in.
Initially, the people at the Red Warrior [camp] were Dakota, Lakota, Nakota. But when things started happening that they got national exposure, people from tribes across the country came in. Many started bringing their tribal flags. And then, shortly after that, tribes started endorsing by tribal council resolutions, sending elected delegations in. And the camps grew again. This happened in a short period of time. We’re talking a four-week period when it went from 300 to 2000 in August. By the time September came around there were at least 2000 people in camp.
In those first months and over the summer, what was the mood or energy like there at the camps?
During the first couple of months, as the camp grew, they started to leave camp and go up to the road entrance to where the pipeline would be. So it was about a two-mile hike up the highway. There were workers that would come in so they would march up there and demonstrate, stand alongside the roadway, and demonstrate against the workers going in or out. And as more and more people started showing up, those became larger and larger.
At first, with Sacred Stone, there were people who were in charge there. But as it grew, and more and more people came in, the leadership lost control of this diverse body of people. When Oceti Sakowin started, you go from 200-300 at Sacred Stone to 2000. The leadership was lost. So as more and more people showed up, the goal changed from moving the pipeline to stopping oil altogether. So there was some confusion on the goal they were trying to get across.
As you no longer had a handful of leaders that [people] looked to, that’s when Red Warrior started driving demonstrations. Official tribal leaders—people wouldn’t listen to them anymore. The traditional leadership of Oceti Sakowin couldn’t control them.
By late August, the idea of the Seven Council Fires and the traditional leadership became very muddled. You had outsiders who truly outnumbered the people there. It’s when they got outnumbered by all the other people who didn’t understand the Oceti Sakowin and traditional tribal leadership—when there became more [outsiders] than Lakota-Dakota people—the leadership could no longer control the camp, and set the direction of the camp and how it would operate on a day-to-day basis.
A lot of activists who came in said they understood prayer, but did they truly? Would they truly be guided by it? It’s like Christianity, where you had the beginnings of Lutheranism—they believed in the idea of prayer, but did they listen to the traditional leaders who were there before them?
We as a tribe have to pull back from endorsing everything that this camp does. We were there as a tribe actively engaged in supporting the camp right up through October, assisting anyone who came to the camp. But in October, the tribe said they couldn’t do this anymore. Red Warrior began dominating as to when protests would take place. So the tribe pulled back in terms of personnel. As a tribal employee I was out there every day, but there came a time where we pulled out.
We paid for many of the services in the camp. We paid for the port-a-potties, we paid to have the dumpsters, we brought in the water. That was one of things that helped it to explode. We brought in our emergency management team. The state assisted us in bringing in their water tanks, but within two weeks they saw something they didn’t like and they pulled out [in the] first [or] second week of August. That sent out a cry that hit the media, and so we had donations of water coming in from throughout the country. We solved the problem by bringing in the tanker the tribe owned.
When I went to Standing Rock last November, I joked that Oceti Sakowin was the most cosmopolitan town in North Dakota. In your view, what were some of the benefits and challenges of having such a massive influx of people from all over the world?
The benefits are that you learned that you don’t stand alone, with both people and supplies. It was great because the more people that showed up, the more media showed up. As the camps grew, the media grew and got word out across the country. It showed that it is possible to create a coalition of people [that] when brought together could make a difference. And that was the biggest message—all the people who were fighting against oil and pipelines, and for cultural resources—that there is now a large network of people and resources that will assist.
It also has caused attention to the tactics that law enforcement engage in when putting down demonstrations and protests, and how best to combat those local efforts when they put down those protests. The flip side of that [is] that government has learned too—[how] to quell or disperse large groups of protesters, or creating laws that make it difficult to have large demonstrations, or to stiffen the penalties for those who do protest making it harder for people to exercise their constitutional right to gather. The State of South Dakota said it was illegal for more than 20 protesters to be together at one time on public property. You can get a license, but it is restricted to not more than 20 people. That one will be challenged; you’ll need to get a group of people together to have it challenged.
The state of North Dakota had a bill introduced six or seven weeks ago that said a motorist could not be charged if they ran over protesters. It didn’t pass, but it was introduced by a legislator. Another [bill] that caught my attention: many of the protestors wore masks because they had been sprayed with mace. Since many of them had been shot with mace, they found that a bandana covered with apple cider vinegar would limit the effects of the mace. The medics figured that one out. North Dakota proposed a law that you could be arrested if you wore a mask.
Looking back, what were the three most critical moments of the movement?
Everything went fine, right up until we get into September. The dog attack was a pivotal point because it showed us the length at which law enforcement officials would go even though these were DAPL mercenaries. So that was critical.
Closing of the North Camp, and then the tear gas, Black Water Bridge, the night they brought out the water hoses—those were critical in terms of engaging in demonstrations. It showed the extent to which corporations and law enforcement would go to quell this movement.
So in terms of demonstrations, those were the most critical. But in terms of the entire movement, when the Obama administration called for a full environmental impact—that really showed everybody that environmental impact statements can be required by the law if we force the government to do it. The government initially granted them an environmental assessment because the corporation does the assessment, not the government. And an EIS has to be conducted by the federal government; it’s much more stringent. So when the Obama administration did this it showed people that if we don’t stand placidly aside we can make the government live up to its regulations.
In your view, what would have made the greatest difference in the outcome?
Everything needed to be started a year ahead of time—we waited until the pipeline was actually being built—so people could truly get in front of these pipelines way in advance, so that it’s not in your backyard before you actually do something.
The tribe said no to this two years ago, but we stopped there. We didn’t pursue it. We didn’t get engaged at that time, and we should have been engaged at that time. We should have had a strategy to file in the federal court system opposing this thing two years ago. [We] could have mobilized people at that time. But this has taught us something—if you’re going to do this, do it in advance, not when it’s at your doorstep.
The next fight this country is going to see is going to be this XL Pipeline they’re going to resurrect. We know that’s coming, so better get engaged now.
What is the future of oil in Indian Country?
Each tribe is going to have to make up its own mind in how they deal with oil. Some tribes are oil rich and they may tap into that resource. But that’s going to be up to each tribe and its membership. They are all sovereign nations and they make their own decisions in whether they choose to exploit it or not.
There is an oil reserve under the Standing Rock reservation; we choose not to tap it. It’s a lower reserve, lower and deeper, so the oil industry hasn’t knocked on our door to tap it. Someday, when it becomes economically viable to do so, they may come to our doorstep. But I sure hope they don’t allow it. I don’t want to see it on my reservation.
There will be what we see in other places: rich Indians and poor people. They’ll all suffer from non-Indian workers, lots of traffic, oil spills, and all the other social ills that come with the oil industry. So I don’t want to see that so that a few tribal members can get rich. All the drugs, and prostitution that comes with this—there will be a shortage of housing, do we want to deal with that as well?
Tribes in the next four years are going to find themselves in a difficult place with the budget initiatives of Trump, [such as] the abolishment of the low income energy assistance program which [enables] people pay for their wintertime utilities or heating costs.
It’s in education where the federal government owns large parcels that can’t be taxed by the states. The federal government provides for these schools that are for air force bases and Indian reservations. They’re abolishing that too, which means millions of dollars going to schools that have Indian children going to them.
We have to be very conscious of making efforts in developing alternative energy sources to power our homes or we will forever be at the whim of big oil and the change in the political climate where they eliminate programs like low income energy assistance.
In closing, do you have any last remarks on the events at Standing Rock and what it all represents in the grand scope of history?
The camps at Standing Rock may be closed, but the movement that began there that united tribes hasn’t died. That is going back to the homelands of the people who came to help us. They all learned what we can accomplish if we stand united together. We can challenge both the corporations and the state and federal government when they encroach on our lands. But we must be vigilant and become very active, not to let them get to our backyards before we protest.
One of the taglines that has come out of all this that’s a signal to stand together—Stand with Standing Rock—is a unifying cry throughout this country. That’ll become something we talk about when we have more protests. “I was at Standing Rock, I stood with Standing Rock.”