Do you know that feeling of being called? Like a force has taken hold of you and is pulling you towards something? Well, that’s how I came to be at Standing Rock in frozen North Dakota. And those of you that know me can confirm I hate the cold!
As a white woman in America at this moment, I needed to stand with our Native American leaders and show solidarity. As a mother of small children that are learning early “American history” from the perspective of the colonizers, I needed to go. I want them to hear the side of our Native people. My kids and theirs will inherit this earth, and so I can’t stand on the sidelines of the climate crisis and not protect our planet.
And I needed to go as the Executive Director of ActionAid USA. We defend land and water rights by working with local people around the world. And injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
On an intellectual level, the connections between the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the thousands of struggles waged by indigenous people living in poverty and exclusion that ActionAid supports in every region of the world, were already obvious to me. I was amazed, however, to witness the extent of the similarities between #NoDAPL and environmental struggles across the Global South – both in terms of the power of the Native-led movement and in the shocking response by the government and the company they’re protecting. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed in the United States of America and in the Great Sioux Nation, and not in Guatemala or Honduras!
ActionAid believes in investing in local problem solvers. People who know their context and reality better than we ever can, and who offer up innovative solutions. So I went to Standing Rock to listen, observe and honor the Native-led movement. I stacked wood, held the hand of an Elder as he spoke about his experience of healing those hurt in the struggle, lined up to protect a sacred fire from the police, and stood poised to help warm those hit by water cannons in sub-zero weather or flush chemicals out of their eyes. But I also channeled the support of people on the front lines of natural resource struggles around the world.
Across many of the countries where we work, we’ve seen an increasing trend of collusion between corporations and the State, which come together to shrink the political space for those impacted by energy projects and to crush any protest using force. An alarming number of environmental and human rights defenders have come under extreme attack and even have been assassinated, like my longtime ally Berta Caceres, when they have warned of the environmental and human impact of extractives projects or land rights violations. Standing Rock shows that America is not immune when it comes to conflicts over resources between Native peoples and big corporations, and the militarized response to earth protectors.
According to international law, even in times of war, soldiers or police must not target medics. The US constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and says the police mustn’t target members of the press. But at Standing Rock, where I carried a press badge to help share stories across continents, it made me a target.
There were scores of accounts of medics and press being targeted by the police with rubber bullets, water cannons, chemical weapons, and for arrest. I could hide my badge, but the medics had to keep their red crosses visible in order for the water protectors to be able to identify them.
The accounts of violence by the militarized police on peaceful Americans are only now starting to hit the mainstream press. Hundreds of people were injured, in some cases severely, and hundreds more are suffering from post-traumatic stress both from the encounters with the militarized police and also from the experience of North Dakota jails. People arrested were bussed to a jail, where they were given a number, which was written on their skin. They were strip searched, sometimes paraded naked or in a base layer in front of police or protectors, before being put in dog kennels to await their court appearance – on average for 24-48 hours after the arrest. By the time I got to Standing Rock it was well below freezing outside, and unheated indoor temperatures were also unbearable.
It wasn’t the confrontations with the police that will remain with me long after this pipeline project is abandoned – it is the deeply spiritual movement of people that came around behind the leadership of Native American elders, and succeeded in overwhelming the collusion of power and wealth with prayer.
When you entered the camp – passed the signs that prohibit alcohol, drugs, firearms or weapons of any kind – you were greeted by a person and invited to join the next ‘orientation’. You learned the protocols of the camp – how and when (or not) to join a sacred fire, approach an elder, what you can photograph, and what you couldn’t. But the primary purpose of the orientation was to lay down the spirit of the Water Defenders Movement – and that was a spirit of prayerful nonviolent resistance. Every meeting, orientation, training, gathering, or action of any kind began and ended with prayer. Native American prayer and ritual, but all participants were invited to add their own prayers – in whatever tradition or way was their own. We were taught how to engage each other as ‘relatives,’ to help anyone who was triggered to return to a prayerful place.
Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
This gave a tremendous amount of discipline to the movement, and those that could not remain prayerful and nonviolent were asked to leave by the Native American leadership. Even on the front lines with the militarized police, if anyone showed any form of aggression towards the police, the Native leadership would talk them down, and de-escalate the situation on the protector side of the line. It was clear that they believed that if we water protectors took the moral high ground and remained peaceful at all times, recording but not retaliating to violence on the part of the militarized police, that ultimately this resistance and the deep prayer it was grounded in, would overcome. And it has!
In the same way that I was called, the people standing at Standing Rock called thousands others! When the violence hit its peak, thousands more people came to join the Water Defenders – risking arrest and personal bodily harm. And when the Army threatened to empty the camps and drive them back from the pipeline project, even more people came. Thousands of veterans deployed to create a human shield around the Water Defenders.
And then the prayers were answered. As the thousands of water protectors braced for the onslaught of winter and potential conflict with the police, the Army Corps of Engineers announced on December 4 that they would not grant permission for the pipeline to dig under the river and that there would be an environmental assessment. This is exactly what the Standing Rock tribe had been asking for all along.
Victory! While there will still be more struggle to come as the process continues, and we have no doubt that the company will persist and try to overturn this judgement, the prayerful Water Defenders can spend the winter healing at home and with their families. Up until the announcement, all indications from the government and the corporation was that they will push through with this pipeline – but the powerful and prayerful presence of an ever-growing number of water protectors won out.