From the Frontline at Standing Rock

From the Frontline at Standing Rock

Greg Rogove—drummer with Devendra Banhart and frontman of Rogov—spent Thanksgiving in North Dakota. In the wake of the Sioux tribe victory, he shares his experiences.
December 5, 2016, 4:13pm

Greg Rogove is the frontman of Rogov and Devendra Banhart's longstanding drummer. When we discovered the LA-based musician was traveling to Standing Rock in North Dakota to volunteer over the Thanksgiving holiday, we were curious to hear about his experience, so we asked him to tell us about it.

I want to start off by saying that this is my singular and brief experience at Standing Rock. By no means is this the entire picture of the camp or the underlying issues. In my account below I hope to convey the atmosphere of the situation as I experienced it in a way that doesn't compromise the efforts or interests of those who have been dealing with the Dakota Access Pipeline for months—some for years. As I was finishing this story, the news broke that the Army Corp of Engineers denied the permit to pass the pipeline under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation and that they were investigating alternative routes. This is an incredible turning point and I suppose turns this story into a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what's become a successful protest.

A few days before Thanksgiving I had gathered wetsuits, wool socks, emergency blankets, and a chiminea to add to a bevy of donations a group of friends were delivering to Standing Rock.   In a last minute flurry of phone calls and texts I had decided to join them and help the water protectors / protestors in whatever way possible. I had been following the issue and contributing to various friends' GoFund me campaigns, but suddenly a door opened for me to actually lend a hand in person. I couldn't imagine a better way to spend Thanksgiving. Two of us had to return by the end of the week so we caught a flight to Bismarck at dawn a couple days before Thanksgiving, while four others started the drive from California to North Dakota. They made the 30-hour trek, stopping only for fuel and bathroom breaks. 

Eventually we arrived at the Oceti Sacowin camp. Pulling up to the entrance, the guard asked us if we'd been there before, to which we responded no. He then said, "Welcome home," and ushered us through the checkpoint. Driving along the dirt road lined with flags from the various Native American groups in attendance, we headed straight to the health center to unload the medical supplies we'd brought to donate (space blankets, first aid kits, milk of magnesia to flush tear gas from protesters eyes), eventually finding the proper location for the other goods—warm clothing, blankets, and winter gear. In addition to a general medical bivouac, there were Tibetan-style tents adorned with placards: Acupuncture, Massage, Doula.

In the de-saturated, overcast light we took in the expanse of the camp: the fires and smoke spiraling into the sky; the teepees, RVs, tents, and buses providing shelter for some 3-5000 people; the porta potties, elaborate makeshift kitchens, and piles of wood waiting to be chopped. During our time there an unmarked plane ceaselessly circled the camp, which many thought was somehow scrambling cell service. At night it flew without lights, like an eerie, Big Brother. We experienced service blackouts, messages marked delivered that never actually arrived, and year old texts that hopped to the top of the message feed. Meanwhile, our cell GPS frequently seemed to constantly misroute us and other volunteers and protesters, making navigation around the camp extremely difficult. This, along with the giant floodlights surrounding the construction zone to the north, gave the entire camp a dystopian feel, and yet despite this, the atmosphere among those assembled—the representatives from various indigenous groups from across the country, war veterans, college students, and activists—was one of unification and support. Togetherness in the cradle of division.

One evening, a veteran shared his experiences from the protest frontline. He'd been shot at by the police with rubber bullets, bullets that were almost two inches in diameter, topped with a grey rubber bulb and finished with a black plastic base. For our part we spent most of our days at Standing Rock helping prepare a massive Thanksgiving feast. We were on Turkey duty, carving hundreds of birds donated from an organic farm in California and produce from various sustainable farms in the Hudson Valley. The meal was initiated by tribe leaders with the help of activist and entrepreneur Judy Wicks. They had originally planned to cook for 200 people, but with increased interest and a healthy bounty of donated food, they ultimately served close to 4000. Jane Fonda was also in attendance to lend a hand.

On Thanksgiving day they shuttled protesters in shifts from the camp to Standing Rock high school. The people cooking and serving were volunteers from all parts of the US and the air of camaraderie and purpose was palpable. Before serving the meal the school principal and her sister, the superintendent, gathered the volunteers, expressing their gratitude for our efforts. I was struck by the strength of their words juxtaposed with the softness of their tone. They spoke of great resolve and vision, yet didn't hold back the tears. In fact, most of the speeches we heard exhibited power and vulnerability in perfect balance.

Of course I can't help but touch on the actual issue at hand. There are a few elements that seem important to consider moving forward from this protest. Regardless of the dark history of colonization in the United States, broken treaties, and government acts that left the original Dakota and Lakota territory a fraction of what the government originally allotted, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the oil company behind the pipeline, was not engaged in any illegal land use. Simply put: they weren't breaking the law. There was, however, a double standard at the heart of the pipeline routing. The ETP originally proposed to pass the pipeline under the Missouri River north of Bismarck, the predominantly white (89 percent in 2015) capitol of North Dakota. The Army Corp of Engineers apparently advised the ETP to find an alternative route during their environmental assessment of the project and temporarily accepted the river passing near Standing Rock. A potential environmental hazard near indigenous groups was somehow deemed acceptable, but not for Caucasian communities. This led many people to call out "environmental racism." We had the superimposition of an environmental and human rights issue, but not a legal one. Fortunately with enough noise from the protest the Army Corp decided to do what was right from an environmental and humanitarian standpoint by denying the permit.

The human rights concerns continued at the frontline of the protests themselves. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had repeatedly called for peaceful protest and prayer. My experience in talking to people around the camp only supported that mission. However, the police had reported aggression from the protestors, including those assembled throwing bottles, racial slurs, and burning cars. Those who had used violent tactics were asked to leave the camp. The water protectors, or protestors, were not spraying the police from fire hoses in sub-freezing temperatures, they were not using pepper spray and concussion grenades, and they were not wearing riot gear and standing behind armored vehicles. The focus was to remain peaceful.

I hope that Standing Rock will become a precedent-setting protest as we move into the uncertain era of Trump politics. In the wake of this election it seems there may be myriad issues that require civil disobedience, and the ability to gather together and stand up for our inalienable rights is essential. The success at Standing Rock offers proof that peaceful protest can initiate meaningful change. This is an important victory for environmental and human rights issues but there is and will be more work to do.

Click here for more information on Standing Rock.

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