It’s 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 20, 2016. I’m sitting on the side of a hill on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation next to Sarah and MJ; two people that I’ve since become exceptionally close to. We spent the previous day and a half bumbling our way to Bismarck from UIUC in a Prius. Along the way, we lost a quarter of our luggage, were stopped by a snowstorm, and received a speeding ticket in Minnesota. But in this sobering moment, all of those endeavors fall to the wayside.
We’re overlooking a shocking encounter between a militarized police force and hundreds of civilian protesters on opposite sides of a bridge that crosses the Cannonball River. Police stand stoically side-by-side in riot gear parallel with the water on the North and civilians stand on the South. One officer uses a water cannon to soak a crowd of people from the top of an armored vehicle. Mind you this is in sub-zero temperatures. Periodically, we feel the shock of a concussion grenade or see the slow, creeping diffusion of tear gas as people try frantically to escape its path. Minutes earlier we were in the midst of it, trying our best to hand out water, eyewash, and emergency blankets to those worst affected.
After about two hours of this, we flee to a hill out of concern for our own safety. I can hear Sarah talking to someone, trying to make sense of the situation. The stranger says she has been at camp for a week working diligently to organize supplies and build infrastructure. She goes on to explain that this action isn’t at all normal. The police are being especially aggressive, using baiting tactics to excuse their belligerent behavior toward the peaceful protestors. As they talk, I can only stare at the escalating events, mesmerized as if I were watching a fire burn. It’s simultaneously hypnotizing and horrifying. The conversation ends with the stranger declaring that we’re on the precipice of an apocalypse. That’s extremely hyperbolic of course, but in the moment it’s absolutely chilling.
Ten minutes later and we’re standing locked arm in arm with a group of strangers, one of which is leading some sort of meditation. In the moment it feels right. I understand now that these are the moments to be weary of.
There exist two distinct and dichotomous cultures at the camps on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. I’m not talking about indigenous and non-indigenous.
Though many of the allies that travel to North Dakota do so with good intentions, there are plenty that treat it like an event. There is no doubt that the No Dakota Access Pipeline Movement has made Standing Rock one of the most culturally significant locations in North America. However, No DAPL is not a fashion, so don’t go intending on having an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience. There is a specific purpose guiding this movement, and those that choose to be at camp should put all of their efforts into achieving the ultimate goal of stopping the pipeline.
I should say that we met a lot of good people doing great work. There was a group of lawyers on Oceti Sakowin Camp that volunteered to handle any legal issues from those who are detained during peaceful the protest. They assured us that if we got into any sort of trouble during an action, they would have our backs.
There was a teddy bear of a man who went by the name Banana (Josh) that worked tirelessly everyday building infrastructure that would keep people warm during the brutal winter.
The camp cook, Brandon, worked all day and all night in order to provide food that would sustain the workers and protesters. These are all people that understand that having a movement endure is an ultra-marathon. It requires intense passion and consistency.
The army Corps of Engineers recently made a statement saying they are halting construction of the pipeline and are potentially rerouting it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean it will definitely be moved. Although many have found this a cause for celebration, there is still work to be done — like divesting from oil and bringing justice to the Native Americans who have been oppressed for so long. People that treat causes like No DAPL as if they are fashions are wrong. If you’re truly down for the cause, then show up.