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Voices from Standing Rock: Why Standing Rock is Still the Frontline for Policy Reform


Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;

And in the lowest deep a lower deep

Still threatning to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

John Milton — Paradise Lost, Book 3.

Approaching the Bear

In the first week of his presidency, Donald J. Trump released a memorandum to expedite the permitting process of Dakota Access. Standing Rock has become a uniquely potent leverage point against the policies of the Trump Administration. Offshoots are popping up around the world. Public opinion is largely in favor of rerouting Dakota Access. In light of Trump’s memorandum on Dakota Access, the Honorable Judge James E. Boasberg will hold a review of the easement denial and instatement of the EIS on January 30.

In camp, the spirits were like embers beneath the dry twigs of this news. The flags lifted in a faint breeze coming out of the north. My friend Little Crow and I wander the blue icy streets looking for stories to tell the world.

We run across a news team from Japan awkwardly scouting the terrain for people to interview. The anchor is cordial and handsome middle-aged man. He begins his interview with a woman from Florida with dark circles under amber jaguar eyes. His producer, a modest but strong woman in a fur hat, hovers between the camera operator and two quarrelsome dogs. The black dog has three legs and a tennis ball in her mouth, while the blond-haired male incessantly tries to hump her. They bark and skirmish around the crew mid-interview. There’s an absurd humor to the situation that doesn’t really translate here.

After they conclude, I ask the anchor why they are interested in Standing Rock. He was provoked by Amy Goodman’s coverage of the dog-bite incidents. Then he tells me about a US military base being built in Okinawa, Japan, near pristine coral reefs, and against the will of the Japanese public. There’s genuine yet refrained sadness about the anchorman. It occurs to me that both Japanese and Native Americans have been the victims of US imperialism. While Native Americans were the victims of an unprovoked attack, Japan was the aggressor in WW2. Both have paid for it since and clearly continue to do so. It seems once you break someone’s will to fight, you can do almost anything to them. The three-legged dog violently resists the cocksure advances of the mutt on her tail. Her missing leg seems to make the act of submission harder rather than simple. She sits like a sphynx, refusing to give him the angle.

The streets are mostly deserted now. Thousands have served and left. People are beginning to unbury structures and break them down. There is a meeting being held in the geodesic dome with a representative from the United Nations. The smoke from the barrel stoves billows out into the winter sun while the Water Protectors testify inside. Their testimonies will be given to the UN in addition to those submitted in the previous two days during the “Training Workshop on Human Rights, Treaties, and the United Nations,” held at the Prairie Knights Casino Hotel. I’d sat in on them alongside a man from the ACLU and was reawakened to the lived experiences of people at Standing Rock. The people mostly spoke with inexhaustible conviction as voices trembled and tears periodically were dabbed away.

Testimonies to the United Nations

Photo taken from back of room, audience fills seats at tables

Water Protectors and natives testify before the UN. Prairie Knights Casino Hotel, Fort Yates, North Dakota. Photo credit Ari Herman.

A tribal official described the historical features that were deliberately bulldozed in direct violation of the National Historical Preservation Act and disturbing the bones of their ancestors.

There were repeated stories of targeted police harassment by law enforcement officials, from intimidation during routine traffic stops to inhumane treatment while incarcerated.

Another elder testified that she and others were strip searched by Morton County and sent up north to Devil’s Lake.

A young man recounted being shot in the eye and then the back of the head on January 18th with less lethal rounds by police; medics pulled lead pellets from his eye and cheek that were covered with a strange yellow substance inside the beanbag rounds.

A woman had her hair tested after being in camp and discovered direct exposure to three different kinds of pesticides, one identified as Rozol[1].

A man’s pregnant wife was shot by a concussion grenade while working in the support lines on November 20th (aka Backwater Sunday). He fears taking it to trial by the same government that shot his family.

All things considered, these injuries are mostly recoverable. Had this occupation camp been held in a country without our protections, we might have been killed for opposing the oil industry and state policy. Amnesty International thought so, and advised leadership to not drive alone at night. It is fair to assume that this pattern of brutalization will only increase under the Trump Administration, however, this is not the first time that the first world has exploited indigenous people[2].

From 1492, non-native people have been the beneficiaries of westward expansions with a mite-makes-right philosophy. Today, on a global level, all of the great superpowers compete for dominance and geopolitical control, and natural resources are central. Books like Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins chronicle the domination of developing nations through a complex manipulation that invariably leads to an acquisition of their natural resources, their UN votes, and heavy influences in their political systems. Perkins states that the members of the communities where extraction occurs are paid just over 1% of the profits. This imperialism is branded as an economic development. If imperialism were an FDA reviewed drug, side effects would include ecological destruction and the corrosion of community fabric.

Would you recommend we approve it?

Gas pump at sunset in North Dakota

Pit stop at sunset. Cannonball, North Dakota. Photo Credit Ari Herman.

Regardless of our ignorance or indifference to this process, corporations (and secondarily you and me) have been the beneficiaries of those policy decisions. Standing Rock is a microcosm of this same pattern except on domestic treaty soil. So, in an inevitable reversal of fate, our own resources are being extracted from the Bakken to be sold to international energy markets at the sacrifice of our community health and ecological safety. Fracked oil, as produced in the Bakken, can require 10 gallons of clean water from the aquifer pumped up with solvents and lubricants[3], to produce one gallon of unrefined crude. It will take another ice age to restore that aquifer.

At this point in the movement, our primary material needs are the same as they’ve always been: fuel (wood, propane and gas), food (grown and distributed using petroleum), and water. Wind and solar collectors were set up to capture the free energy and stored in batteries. It has set an interesting precedent for localized power grids.

The alternative energies to wean us off oil require the use of conflict minerals – cobalt specifically[4] – in order to compete. Unfortunately, the side effects of cobalt mining are devastating large sections of the Congo as you read this on a device with cobalt in it. However, the benefits may outweigh the costs. When we envision a world with many decentralized power grids that utilizes wind and solar into deep cycle batteries in every neighborhood instead of burning coal and petroleum, it seems worth it.

So I ask myself, is any meal or novelty anything other than the murderous enslavement of someone thousands of miles away? An apologetic view would argue that those people need jobs too, right? Perhaps so, but they also need legal rights. You can be sure that they don’t if our own native communities here are appealing to the UN because the United States has deprioritized their well-being.

Visions and Leaders

Water Protectors testify before UN in Oceti Sakowin (Standing Rock, North Dakota/Treaty Land)

Water Protectors testify before UN in Oceti Sakowin. Standing Rock, North Dakota/Treaty Land. Photo credit Ari Herman.

Little Crow and I go peak in on the UN testimonies. People sit in a crescent shape around an old native man holding a curved staff with a dream catcher on it. He’d been up since 3am praying. He implored that we take care not to resist the police if they raid. He is worried someone will die. His body gives off a strange vibe. I couldn’t exactly attribute it to posture or to his speaking voice. He is a medicine man. Then I remembered my dream from back in November.

I had a vision in my first week at Standing Rock. To preface, it is the custom of the Lakota, and many indigenous nations, to keep visions and dreams private. They are like medicine pouches, whose meaning is revealed fully in time. It may take years to understand a vision. But I’m going to hazard the risks of sharing it here.

In my dream, I saw a medicine man standing amongst his people. Then he froze and his face became twisted. His eyes rolled up and he began floating over the earth. I heard choking and gagging but he did not move. He seemed frozen in time, his face going pale. Entities from another dimension were drinking his blood. He was dying… With a snap, his head vanished leaving only a cartoonish bloody stump. His head had been taken to their realm. This had happened in the past – but his head was talking to me – telling me how they get you: lifting you from the earth and draining you out.

I was certain the stress had gotten to me. Interdimensional vampires drinking human blood? Had I gone mad? Can one become un-mad? The vision was scrawled on the inside of my skull like a cave painting. It was a scarecrow for me standing over this Oceti Sakowin. Regardless of reality, it was real enough, even if only a metaphor for something else entirely.

Across America, church attendance is at an all-time low, as is the belief in God[5]. Because all cultures organize themselves around a central principle, there is what Leonard Cohen called a “spiritual thirst” arising from the crumbling confidence in organized religion. As we stand in the checkout lines of our grocery stores, we see the polytheism of celebrity culture in the magazine racks next to the candy. What that means I cannot say, but it feels like a clue.

People, in the context of their geography, develop religious stories that relates to their primary needs. For the Sioux, it was the buffalo. For the Tlingit it was salmon. In many Native American cultures, the three sisters (corn, squash, and beans) were central. Almost all other cultural practices pivoted around the security and health of these resources.

The tapestry of American society is still largely Christian. What is lost in the story of Standing Rock are the fundamental commonalties between Christians and Water Protectors. Both groups believe in a supreme being (God or Great Spirit, which I will call ‘Beloved’ herein) that reciprocally loves them. The greatest schism is how Water Protectors associate faith and place. Christianity is indiscriminate of the soil, because the soil it seeks is in the human soul. This is a human-centric (or anthropocentric) idea. Water Protectors, by contrast, are ecocentric, effectively making them a land-based faith, placing humans inside of a context of stewardship (rather than dominion) over their land.[6]

In one way or another, we all seek a stronger relationship with the Beloved, but the fact remains that Christians and Water Protectors are (at least) as concerned with spiritual matters as political ones.

Water Protectors believe that building suicidal infrastructure projects is a prescient warning for disasters awaiting generations to come. When I ask myself why Standing Rock still endures, it is most likely due to the confidence in the intrinsic goodness of one another – including those shooting them – as children of the Beloved.

Upon my return to camp, I met a man who was recently released from jail. He was arrested in prayer at the front of the bridge. Through his faith he entered into a place of fearlessness as the police closed in around him. They gently, but with necessary force, pushed him to the ground. Then they unnecessarily sprayed pepper spray into his eyes and mouth while bound in four pairs of zip-tie handcuffs. The irritants remained all the way to the station which took over three hours. Weeping in recollection, he told me that he prayed the whole time to disassociate the pain. In his cell, he tried to clean himself with a small drinking faucet. He begged the deputy to help him by holding up his dreadlocks which kept falling into his face. The man told him it wasn’t that bad, but acquiesced. After a few minutes the deputy began to choke from the fumes and left.

The man said he was no leader, he said. He served Great Spirit. His courageousness was awe-inspiring. Perhaps the only qualified leaders are those that follow something greater than themselves.

Spiritual Thirst

The late Christopher Hitchens emphasized that the logical moral foundations of western civilization existed independent from the idea of God. His aggressive defense of anti-theism and adversarial stance to organized religion hinged upon the notion that human beings can have access to their own moral compass independent of rules such as circumcision, not mixing dairy with fish, or eating shrimp. These rules made sense in a world with food-borne illnesses and hygiene issues. In a sense, so did beheading non-believers and apostates who threatened the cultural operating system (religion/state collusion). Even the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ seems to be a good idea for people to look to – let yourself know you are loved by God, no matter what, even though if he/she exists you might piss him/her off.

But what does any of this have to do with Standing Rock?

One of the successes of Standing Rock is how the movement doesn’t need central leadership and has never operated with it consistently. Leaders come and go, which has its disadvantages, especially against a very organized opponent. However, each individual does garner a simple tool that I have rarely seen in the default world – real, honest prayer to their concept of a higher power that holds all of existence in its considerations – centered around fresh water.

Water is shared like the night sky is shared. The former’s meaning is absolute while the other is relative to the changing stories of the people beneath them. The story, like the water[7], is an inextricable part of the human experience. We need to change that story now. Let that story protect the water and oppose policies that injure it – as though perdition itself were the cost of failure. Because, like every human society before our own, if we cannot organize around the water and social fabric of faith that underpins everything we share, we are going to hit a breaking point when they run dry.

This is far more important than a quarterly dividend of those invested in Dakota Access, although I understand they feel differently. The sands of politics are shifting. This Trump Administration is taking aim at Standing Rock. North Dakota has a new governor, and to his credit, he came here personally to meet with tribal leadership. Independent of all leadership, the Water Protectors are surrounded on all sides, but their convictions remain as they clean up camp before the biblical and literal flood waters come in spring.

In a show of solidarity from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal leadership, Oceti Sakowin has been offered to relocate a quarter mile south of the floodplain where it sits now. Water Protectors will remain in Oceti Sakowin until Morton County or the flood forces them out. The latter will likely be the ultimate end of Oceti Sakowin, because the dumbest thing Trump and Morton County could do is make martyrs of those who stand with their higher power in defense of the sacred. It is an issue that goes far beyond Bismarck and Standing Rock.

More than a racial issue, it is a state vs. state issue. In the long run, indigenous communities will need two of three things for real and true sovereignty: UN representation, strong independent economies, or a standing army. Without the first two items in this list, Indian Country will continue to be at the mercy of US state policy acting in its self-interest.

From the frontline,

Your feral correspondent

Obviously, we cannot turn back the clock. But we are at a point in history where we not only can, but must pick and choose among all the present and past elements of human culture to find those that are most humane and sustainable. While the new culture we will create by doing so will not likely represent simply an immediate return to wild food gathering, it could restore much of the freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity that we have traded for civilization’s artifices, and it could include new versions of cultural forms with roots in humanity’s remotest past. We need not slavishly imitate the past; we might, rather, be inspired by the best examples of human adaptation, past and present. Instead of “going back,” we should think of this process as “getting back on track.” –Richard Heinberg

[1] Meyer range buffalo under quarantine for Rozol poison. Donovan, Lauren. Jan. 21st, 2017. Bismarck Tribune.

[2] How Developing Countries are Paying a High Price for the Global Mineral Boom. John Vidal. August 15th, 2015. The Guardian.

[3] Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas. Union of Concerned Scientists.

What Chemicals Are Used. Frac Focus. Accessed 1/27/17.

[4] The Cobalt Pipeline. Frankel, Chavez, and Ribas. Sep. 30th 2016. The Washington Post.

[5] U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious. Nov. 3rd, 2015. Pew Research Center.

[6] The Primitivist Critique of Civilization. Richard Heinberg.

[7] Water Lust: Why All the Excitement When H2O is Found in Space? Bruce Lieberman. Oct. 4th, 2009. Scientific American.

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