An eagle feather hangs from Joe CrowShoe’s red bandana, and ski goggles hang around his neck, in case of tear gas. The cold wind bites his cheeks as he waits on Highway 1806, where a razor wire and concrete police line cuts across the Backwater Bridge.
He and about 30 others — mostly young, Indigenous men — are waiting for the 400 women who are en route from the camp, walking in complete silence to the frontline of a now months-long resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where they will pray. It is the Sunday of American Thanksgiving weekend and CrowShoe is prepared to act as a buffer, if need be.
“People are being hurt out here,” he says when asked why he came down from Alberta to North Dakota two months ago. The Brave Dog Society warrior from the Picane Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, is here to “take the bullets so those elders and women don’t have to.”
Before thousands of veterans arrived at the Standing Rock encampment this weekend to provide a “human shield” for demonstrators, who call themselves water protectors, it was people like CrowShoe who played that role.
“Yeah I took a rubber bullet to the shoulder,” he shrugs. “But I think the worst was I wasn’t wearing gloves and we were holding a line, and those batons on my knuckles.” He counts himself lucky that he hasn’t succumbed to hypothermia, or nearly lost an arm, like one woman did.
“On Dec. 5, when they come in supposedly, this is a one way trip,” he tells VICE News, referring to the date the Army Corps of Engineers says they will close the encampment due to safety concerns now that it’s winter. “They’re taking me out in zip-ties, they’re taking me out in a body bag. I’m not leaving.”
Previous actions have ended with police firing rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at protesters. Hundreds have been arrested. Luckily, the women’s prayer walk on Nov. 27 ends peacefully.
“You’re being taught that our people are still here.”
People on the front lines and warriors, who are mostly younger Indigenous men, have literally dropped everything to make this stand alongside the Sioux of Standing Rock, who are fighting a $3.8-billion pipeline they fear will poison their water supply in the area and destroy sacred burial sites.
They have left behind their apartments, pets, families and relationships to join this resistance movement.
CrowShoe left behind his classes at the University of Calgary, where he was studying philosophy. “I don’t even know if I’m enrolled anymore,” he says.
His family is concerned for his safety, he says, but they respect him for being here.
“When I came up here, I told them, whatever happens, happens. They respect that. They know that I come from a warrior society. They know I’m ready to lay down if I have to. I guess they’re worried, but you have an obligation to your community, and if it’s your life, it’s your life.”
Two weeks after he was hit with a rubber bullet in the back of his leg, Roy Murphy, a 23-year-old frontliner from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington State, still feels pain when he walks.
It happened on Nov. 20 — the night police used water cannons on protectors. Murphy arrived on the Backwater Bridge to find people being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with water in freezing temperatures. In the fray, he spotted an elder step forward to pray. “It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen,” he told VICE News. When he saw the police spraying water and shooting in the elder’s direction, he stepped between the elder and police to protect him, and encouraged others to do the same.
“I told people to guard him.” His instincts told him something would happen. That’s when the rubber “less-than-lethal” bullet hit him in the leg, he says.
He has no regrets. His primary role is to protect the vulnerable, and ensure everyone is united.
But the front line resistance has also taken an emotional toll on Murphy. “There are a lot of people who are going through post traumatic stress disorder after this,” he says, counting himself among them. He has trouble telling the story of what happened because of the trauma it has caused.
Even the sound of drumming during actions and prayers brings back painful, vivid memories. Each drum beat hits him like a bullet. He says he is praying, “but the noise of the drum has changed me.”
CrowShoe was there that night, too.
“It hurt my spirit to see our people being hurt, more than the bullets hurt,” he recalls.
But he and Murphy are here because they are part of something bigger.
The camp is “a beacon of hope,” CrowShoe says.
“It shows us that our people are still united, and that’s something we need to see, because we’ve been ripped of it, not on accident but on purpose. We’ve been broken apart in all ways. And seeing this, and schools in there, and all the little ones running around, you’re being taught that our people are still here. It’s sparking something that’s bigger than this pipeline.”