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Mni Wiconi

Dispatch from Standing Rock

Photos by Joseph Rushmore

Editor's Note: On Monday, November 14, the Army Corps of Engineers decided additional discussion and analysis are warranted before granting an easement to Energy Transfer Partners for drilling under Lake Oahe.

I cut northwest through the flat farmland of South Dakota, past small tractor dealerships and gleaming silver grain silos. Grass and wheat fields slowly gave way to velvety golden hills, dappled by royal blue lakes. Soon, the Missouri River appeared—a rich azure snaking through the land, flowing south toward the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

An hour north, thousands have gathered at Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation—my destination—over the last several months to protect the river, protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). 

Oceti Sakowin (pronounced oh-chet-ee sack-oh-ween), meaning “Seven Council Fires,” is the main camp of the Standing Rock protests. Citizens from between 200 and 500 Indian nations have set up camp at Oceti Sakowin this year; flags from the nations whipped in the wind on poles lining Crazy Horse Avenue, the camp’s main artery.

The pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners—a division of the same company that almost bought Tulsa’s Williams Companies before the price of oil plummeted—has a proposed route from the Bakken and Three Forks crude oil production areas in North Dakota 1,172 miles to Patoka, Illinois. If completed, it will carry 470,000-570,000 barrels (19-23 million gallons) per day.

Direct protest efforts began this past March and have ramped up in recent months. Camps on the Sioux reservation and surrounding federal land were as small as a few people, to start, and have grown to populations of over 9,000, according to Kalyn Free, a Choctaw citizen and environmental and Indian lawyer in Tulsa who visited Standing Rock in October. 

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of other Native Americans, indigenous people from around the world, and non-native allies, see DAPL as an immediate threat to farming and drinking water, ecosystems, wildlife and food sources surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries.

On November 4, the Army Corps of Engineers asked that DAPL halt its construction. Rumors of a 30-day pause in construction as a result of negotiations between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Corps circulated Oceti Sakowin camp. The Corps, however, said it was only a proposal.

At present, Energy Transfer Partners is in the process of constructing the drill pad for drilling underneath Lake Oahe, but has not yet received the easement from the Corps. The drill has been delivered.

“This Bakken pipeline is no different than the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Dallas Goldtooth, organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Keep It in the Ground campaign. “It threatens the sacred waters of the Missouri, it threatens the very sensitive waters of the Ogallala Aquifer … it is attempting to lock our country into more fossil fuel dependency … We must keep this oil in the ground for the benefit of all future generations.”

The current camp exists on federal land that was originally promised to the Sioux under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. “Honor the treaties” and “Mni Wiconi” (“water is life”) are common rallying cries. 

By now, millions of people connected via Facebook have seen pictures and video of Native and non-Native protesters (who call themselves water protectors) at Standing Rock clashing with police and DAPL security. Frequently, these posts use the hashtags #noDAPL or #standingrock. 

Many of the images are disturbing—showing nonviolent protesters being beaten with batons, shot at with rubber bullets, attacked by dogs, faced with Humvees and long range acoustic devices (LRADs), and tear gassed and maced by heavily-armed officers wearing riot gear and gas masks. 

The press has been slow to catch up, though smaller reporting outfits like Unicorn Riot and Eco Watch have been keeping close tabs for months. In the wake of several mass arrests (including the arrest of 141 protesters on October 28) and a surge in police presence, national media coverage has increased. 

As I entered the camp early in the afternoon on November 3, I steeled myself for what I imagined would be daily, violent clashes between protesters and police. 

What I found was different.

Oceti Sakowin is nestled beneath Highway 1806, and flanked by Missouri River tributaries and hilly fields of long grass. Its roads are dirt and camp floors for the most part are tamped-down fields. 

Soon after arriving, I participated in a direct action training, during which newbies were given the rundown on camp operations.

“How many of you are from the northwest?” the trainer asked the group—about 80 people clustered in a small wooden building. A few people raised their hands. “Ok, how many of you are from the east coast?” More hands. “Alright, how many of you are police officers?”

The group laughed.

He took us through the camp’s direct action principles: 


We are protectors, not protesters.

We are peaceful and prayerful.

Isms have no place here.

We are nonviolent.

Respect locals.

No weapons, or what could
be considered a weapon.

Property damage doesn’t get
us closer to the goal.

All campers must get orientation.

Direct action training for all
who want to be in action.

 No children in potentially
dangerous situations.

 We keep each other accountable.

 This is a ceremony, act accordingly.


Oceti Sakowin is a place of prayer and ceremony. Its residents are asked to practice the seven Lakota values: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, and wisdom. Each day, before sunrise, campers awaken to prayer and songs, broadcast over a loudspeaker. Then, a question is posed: “what are you here for?”

Throughout the day, circles of men sing and drum, sage is smudged. At the center of camp, a steady flow of people kneel at the perpetually burning Sacred Fire to offer blessings and prayers. They greet each other with Mni Wiconi, “water is life.”

The same day I arrived, over 500 clergy of various faiths from around the country came to engage in a direct action prayer walk. One of the clergy members was Joseph Boyd, intern minister at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church, who traveled with two congregants, Deborah and Elizabeth, and his wife, Jennifer. I joined them at their camp that evening.

“We walked down to the bridge, past the burned van and formed a circle,” Boyd said. “Many clergy and lay members sat up on the hill. All these clergy with their stoles, crosses, rakusus—that was the police’s view. There were easily 30 cop cars, and snipers of course. As soon as we started at 9 a.m. the helicopter started to go over us, back and forth, back and forth. You see it almost all day and night.”

Deborah, who is Cherokee, gestured to floodlights on a hilltop just to the northeast of camp. 

“And you see those lights?” she asked. “They shine those into camp all night.”

“John Floberg, who led the clergy, went to the site before we did the walk,” Boyd said. “He said that, immediately, a police officer approached him with an M-16 and a bull horn and said ‘What do you want?’”

As we talked, roaming horses grazed on grass and announcements from the loudspeaker echoed throughout the camp.

“When we heard about Standing Rock, for me it was a call to be here—and not just for clergy, but for all people of conscience,” Boyd said. 

For many, Native and not, that call has meant leaving work, home, friends, and family to support the protests at Standing Rock, and the issues they represent—Indian rights (and by extension, human rights), and environmental responsibility.

“Before we came here I had a really limited idea that this was a regional and native issue,” Boyd continued. “It is, and it’s not. Seeing the Missouri River [first] in Kansas City opened me up, like—wow, this isn’t just in North Dakota, a place I’ve never been. It impacts all of us.” 

“I spoke with two young men,” said Elizabeth, another All Souls member. “Both of them had been arrested. They were told they were blocking the road and needed to get off. So they moved to the shoulders. One of them was praying. To be arrested for sitting on the side of the road, or sitting and praying on the side of the road—it seems like it couldn’t happen in our country.

“Indigenous people are treated secondary to their resources. The resources are what is considered important …Their rights and homes are not respected. Their burial grounds are not respected. It’s about the resource.”

“Yes, we’re all here because of DAPL going through burial grounds and sacred land,” Boyd said. “But this is bigger than that. This is a place of prayer, which I interpret as a place of intention, something that is really lost in our culture. It’s something the church is supposed to help people to do, but Standing Rock is doing it in a way that is very effective.

“This is all ceremony. It’s not just about a service on Sunday morning; it’s a way of life. It’s a way of being in relationship with the land, to each other, and in very simple ways—sharing meals, talking around a fire.”

As the sun set, song and dance began around the camp. Dancers participating in round dance songs held hands and invited non-Native allies to join in. They step-stepped around the drumming singers, smiling and praying, faces lit by fire or solar-powered heaters until it was time to sleep.

The next morning, campers were at work early, crewing up for jobs at the volunteer tent. Some trained in nonviolent direct action or cooked in the camp kitchens. Others offered therapy, massage, and medical assistance to those who needed it.

In preparation for the coming weather, the camp holds winterization community meetings twice daily in the meeting hall, a large army-green tent with wood stoves. In the three days I was there, three yurts were built—one of which is now a midwife center—and several teepees and a geodesic dome were erected. Multiple small homes and buildings were under construction.

At a winterization meeting, one visitor, a man running for the Ohio state legislature, suggested maps of the camp be posted so people would know where to go rather than having to ask around. 

“We’ve done that,” said Johnnie, the meeting facilitator. “And then we’ve had infiltrators … For now we’ll do things the old way. People have to visit with one another.”

“Everything we do here is a prayer,” he continued. “How we greet each other, how we share, how we walk.” 

The majority of the direct actions at Standing Rock that have resulted in violence and arrests were prayer walks. What that looks like to an outsider is this: a large group of people walking with intention together, in prayer, towards a sacred site, the barricade on the highway, the river. When DAPL construction plowed through Sioux burial grounds on September 3, the protesters were on a prayer walk. 

Gibby, an Absentee-Shawnee and Eucha Native from Pawnee, OK, who has been “adopted” into the Pawnee tribe, first went to Standing Rock over Labor Day weekend. He was there when the burial grounds were destroyed.

“Labor Day, it was warm. Everybody was walking around with a real good feeling,” he said. “Everybody here was in prayer mode … That was when the dogs attacked. We just went up there to pray, up to the road where they were going to dig. Past the bridge, up the hill. It’s a pretty awesome site to see—everybody with their banners, supporting the water, saying Mni Wiconi, ‘water is life.’ Someone came running back and said they were bulldozing. The whole crowd ran up the road and [DAPL] was still working. They hit burial sites. Old folks’ stuff. The way it all went down—you saw the first two people in there and then those bros jumped in front of the bulldozers. One got slammed. Women and children went through the fence trying to stop them. It was emotional. Everyone was crying.

“Why would you do that? Bulldozing their land, tearing it up, no regard to anything. And the dogs, the attack dogs, the same day. That’ll be instilled in my mind forever. It changed me. For one, it changed my decision to stay home. I left [for Oklahoma] on Tuesday after Labor Day. When I got home it wasn’t a matter of decision making. I washed my clothes, got everything I needed, left my summer gear, and came back.”

Gibby is part of a large group of Native Americans and campers who are settling in for the winter, or longer. He estimates he’s met 50 Oklahomans since he’s been at Standing Rock. 

Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. is one of many who made the trip from Oklahoma. 

“Oklahomans should care about this because in this country we have growing dependence on fossil fuels even tough we have issues with climate change,” Hoskin said. “These issues require us to look at alternative energy sources. And irrespective of whether we have pipelines, communities ought to have a voice on where those go and what resources they impact. As pipelines come through Oklahoma in and near communities, what’s happening in Standing Rock ought to be a wake up call. It can happen here.”

On the Friday night Gibby and I spoke, a large influx of campers, many non-Native, descended on Oceti Sakowin. By Saturday afternoon, the camp would run out of community water. 

“I’m here ‘til it stops,” he said. “I got grandbabies and that was one of my main things when I came up here … I want them to have fresh water. I want them to live in a world not full of disease and greed.”

“See all these cars?” Gibby asked, gesturing to a line of vehicles on the highway waiting to enter camp. “If they’re not about it-about it, they’ll be gone Sunday.

“There’s a lot of people here to take pictures of the front. It’s not about that. It’s really not. We’re here to stop it, not to be famous on Facebook. If you come here to pray, pray. If you come to help the medics, help the medics. If you come to be at the front, get up at the front … It’s not always an action, it’s a prayer walk. We go down there and pray—and not just for the water, but for everybody. Even the officers. All those people over there? We know they’re doing their jobs.

“This is a worldwide thing. It’s not just for us in America. There are kids dying over diamonds in Africa. It’s because of profit. But none of us are going to get money if we stop that pipeline. The money isn’t there for us … As long as we’ve got clean water to drink, we’ll be fine.”

Gibby has been camping with the Pawnee for much of his stay at Standing Rock, and next to his camp is an Oglala Lakota (or Oglala Sioux) camp. They often cook for Gibby and his friends and family. Historically the two tribes were enemies, warring and raiding one another. That they are camping together and eating together is historic.

“This has never happened before,” he said. “Us staying on their land, sharing meals.”

Oceti Sakowin is historic for other reasons, too.

On Saturday, November 5, the camp held a prayer ceremony. The elders of the camp decided there would not be a direct action, or a prayer walk—seen by the outside as protest marches—ending in a clash with police. The Army Corps of Engineers had also asked that tribal leaders help “diffuse tensions between demonstrators and law enforcement.”

The prayerful action was held in a field—the seven Sioux clans were gathered together, via representatives from each tribe. Armin a Nakota Sioux from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, told me this type of gathering hasn’t happened since the days of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief who died in 1890.

Upwards of 1500 people encircled the elders, drummers, and singers. Using no microphone, one leader told the crowd of how the Sioux were once considered the greatest light cavalry in the world, until their horses were stripped from them. While horses are a symbol of the tribe’s strength, he said, they are also a symbol of its collective cultural trauma.

“Today,” he continued, “the horses come as healers.”

Minutes later, on Highway 1806 above us, nearly 40 horses and riders rode into camp, through the flags lining Crazy Horse Avenue, and joined us in the field, ending inside the circle. As the drummers sang, the riders rode around them.

The ceremony continued with prayers, songs, and speeches from elders and leaders. Near the end, another procession made its way down from the highway: a group of teenagers that ran for nine days over an estimated 1400 miles, some from Arizona and some from New Mexico. One of them, a Hopi-Navajo boy, spoke.

“150 years ago my people were forced to walk over 400 miles to Fort Sumner. We were not forced this time,” he said. “We chose.”

Meanwhile, snipers poised on the hilltops beyond the camp. DAPL and police flew a security plane and helicopter overhead, looping around Oceti Sakowin, as they do each day and night, partially—but not fully—drowning out the drum and song.

See more from Standing Rock in the gallery below. For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Monty Little.

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