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The Final, Messy, Defiant Days of the Standing Rock Camps

Defying the government and even the local tribes, a stubborn group of activists remains camped out in North Dakota.

On January 24, President Donald Trump issued an executive order intended to speed up construction on the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which the Sioux Indians consider the "black snake," a fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy. For months, the pipeline had been blocked by high-profile protest camps established by the Standing Rock Sioux and filled with activists who traveled from all over the world. Under Barack Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers had in December denied an easement needed to complete the pipeline's last unfinished bit, which came near the Standing Rock reservation—a proximity that the tribe said would infringe on their sovereignty and potentially pollute their water. Many "water protectors" saw this as a victory and left. But Trump's government rapidly reversed that decision: The easement was approved on February 7 and construction has already begun, despite the tribe's last-minute effort to block the DAPL in court.

The largest protest camp, Oceti Oyate (the "people's camp") is on land managed by the Army Corps, which has ordered the remaining 300 or so activists (down from a December peak of more than 10,000) to leave by February 22. Any remaining campers may be charged with a misdemeanor that carries up to $5,000 in fines or six months in prison, according to an Army Corps spokesperson.

Some occupants plan to relocate to other camps, but many appear ready to defy the local authorities, the federal government, and even the Standing Rock Sioux themselves, whose leaders have been asking activists to leave for months.

"We've raised the vibration of this land so high, I think people would stay even if the pipeline is stopped," says Dennis Romaro, 25, a Chumash from California. "Everybody here is somehow disconnected from... modern society, money, and currency... and we start to see a sense of unity throughout this dynamic. I have to stay here forever."

Currently there are five camps, which activists refer to as "prayer camps." There's still a Native American presence in these places, but most of the remaining activists are young and white. Rosebud and Sacred Stone, both long-established, have roughly 300 people. The Cheyenne River camp has about 20 people, mostly veterans and Cheyenne River Sioux. The newest camp, Rise of the Seventh Generation, has about 40.

The unseasonably warm temperatures have turned Oceti into a shallow, slushy lake. Many structures are being relocated to higher camps (one set of compost toilets has gone to the Rise camp), but the kitchen will stay, says Brandi-Lee Maxi, a 34-year-old. "We'll still be here, feeding whoever's left in the resistance camp, the liberation camp. This is basically the front lines, and it is treaty territory. As a Lakota woman, I'd like to remain."

A structure in the camps flooded by recent snowmelt and rain

The lowland is dotted with skeletal teepees, half-built plywood sheds, and massive piles of abandoned tents, blankets, and clothes. The camps are about 70 percent cleared. The hum of circling helicopters competes with the rumble of bulldozers that shovel trash into piles and piles into dumpsters.

An activist from California, Senai (who refuses to give his last name), shouts at the Lakota men operating the bulldozers: "You're just doing this for money! You're selling out your land for money!"

"This is my home! Go back to yours!" one of them responds.

The bulldozers are funded by the Standing Rock tribe to clear the camp before spring floods wash trash into the river. But some activists think these fears have been overblown, and the National Weather Service says the flooding will likely be minor.

Activists have nicknamed Standing Rock chairman Dave Archambault II "DAPL Dave" and are angry that tribal leadership invited the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to help clear the camps. BIA agents have arrested camp leaders both in the camps and at the reservation casino, leaving many activists camera-shy and worried that federal agents are building cases around their social media footprints. On February 17, the BIA set up checkpoints outside of the camps, ensuring that no tents or building materials make it into Oceti or Sacred Stone.

Tribal representatives did not return requests for comment about clearing the camps, but the Standing Rock Sioux Facebook page has repeatedly mentioned concerns about flooding, escalating police tactics, and general safety and liability. Casino spokespeople have told the Bismark Tribune they are losing revenue due to the camps. And in a statement released February 1, Archambault said, "The fight is no longer here, but in the halls and courts of the federal government." He's been urging banks to defund the pipeline and promoting a Native-led March on Washington on March 10. In a recent interview, he told the Guardian that a continued activist presence may lead to further oppression of his people.

Sacred Stone, which contains a permanent dining hall and school, is on reservation land owned by LaDonna Allard and her family. On February 16, BIA agents delivered papers naming Allard a potential "co-trespasser" on her own land, giving both Allard and the activists ten days to either "show cause" that they are not trespassing or evacuate camp. The papers state that because the tribe has a 67 percent stake in the land, it must consent to all "occupancy." Via email, Nedra Darling, a BIA spokesperson, wrote that "without a lease or the consent of all landowners" anyone living on the land is trespassing.

But Allard believes that she has the required consent and that a tribal resolution passed in June authorizing the creation of Sacred Stone still stands.

For now, both Oceti and Sacred Stone remain, even though over the weekend the tribe's bulldozers were joined by Army Corps bulldozers, sent in to demolish Oceti—and despite a particularly brutal clash with police a couple of weeks ago.

A sculpture at Sacred Stone called "Not Afraid to Look the White Man in the Face"

The first night of February, following a vision in a sweat lodge, a handful of activists set up seven teepees on top of a hill legally owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind DAPL. (This move was not endorsed by the tribe; police later referred to them as "rogue" campers.) The next morning, a larger group of activists went up to bring breakfast and finish the work.

Ryan Flesh, from Washington State, was in Oceti digging a tent out of the snow when other activists ran past shouting, "They're breaking through the barricade!" Flesh estimates that more than 100 campers rushed up the hill to the Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806, the site of the most severe clashes with law enforcement in November.

"The police pushed us back and formed a line and... the National Guard steps in front of them with their riot shields, at which point we thought something more was gonna happen," Flesh says. "But what they were doing was just being sure... they could bulldoze a path to the western high ground camp, then drive the big trucks up there so that they could arrest everyone."

On the hill, 76 activists were surrounded by officers as they set up the final two teepees. When they finished, they linked arms and circled a fire, singing as officers tugged arms and hair and the backs of jackets. Eventually, officers kicked out the backs of their knees, forcing activists to the ground.

The activists say they were made to kneel in the snow, where many of them kept singing. Some were punched or hit with batons or had their faces held to the ground. They were loaded into vans and school buses, then transported to the Morton County jail, where they were caged and told to strip to their base layer. Their hands were zip-tied behind their backs, and they boarded the buses again, with no heat and the windows open, for a ride that would deliver them to various prisons.

Ethan Petersen, 23, says he saw a woman urinate on herself after repeatedly asking to use the restroom. About a dozen activists were on the bus nearly six hours, all the way to Fargo, according to Donald "Duck" Longsoldier.

"They had some guys in zip ties real tight. The guy next to me, his hands were all purple, but I got out of mine early. But I didn't want to let them know I had them off," Longsoldier says. Other activists independently recount the same story of the "guy with blue hands," who cried and begged officers to loosen his ties.

Longsoldier moved to sit beside the man, taking the position next to the open window, and held his hands in his own. "I was just holding them, because I knew if I rubbed them, it'd hurt," he says. Then another activist moved to the other side of the man, sandwiching him in body heat, and took his hands so that Longsoldier could rub his back and chest. "He was freezing," Longsoldier says. "We kept telling the cops, and they didn't care." (The high was eight degrees that day.)

When they reached Fargo, Longsoldier was moved from the group holding cell to the solitary drunk tank. He says this happened because he told a corrections officer that he'd like to file a complaint about the transport procedure. He was kept in the tank for a few hours and forced to blow into a breathalyzer before rejoining the general population.

The activists who have been around for months say that, as tough as this treatment was, it was tame compared to earlier actions that involved water cannons, mace, and flash-bang grenades.

According to Rob Keller, public information officer for the Morton County Sheriff's Department, they haven't received any official complaints.

"Until there's a report, which will be followed up, these are only accusations," Keller says. "When you are arrested, there are certain things that have to happen to process the person through the system, to ensure the safety of everyone."

Three times (twice under Obama and once under Trump), the American Civil Liberties Union has requested that the Department of Justice investigate suspected civil rights violations and send federal observers to Standing Rock.

Oceti at sunset

The week following the arrests of the 76 activists on the hill, camp crews worked constantly to provide food, clean bathrooms, and dispose of human waste. But there were others who seem unsure how to spend their time.

People chain-smoked in enclosed kitchen tents (and wondered aloud why they can't shake the "camp cough") and streamed weeks-old Democracy Now! interviews. They discussed direct action for blocking pipeline construction—strategies that, with their dwindling numbers, seemed implausible. They debated various legal strategies, such as filing tort claims and, more dubiously, claiming that as a sovereign person under common law, a court without a jury does not have jurisdiction over them.

At Sacred Stone, about 70 veterans representing two veterans group, both originating from a highly publicized December campaign to bring vets to support the Natives, were building arctic shelters and a new kitchen on high ground. After the eviction notice, they stopped construction to plot their next move.

"If we're asked to leave, we're going to facilitate a safe exit for our members and any other veterans and community members," says Mark Sanderson, founder of one of the groups, VeteransRespond. "It's not good for veterans' well-being to get involved in any sort of confrontation with law enforcement." (VeteransRespond's Facebook page now discourages more vets from coming.)

An eviction will leave some vets, such as Sharon Bates, at loose ends. Bates, 56, helps in the school and kitchen and had been planning to stay at Sacred Stone indefinitely. "I don't have a life anymore. I don't have anybody to go back to. I've even let my address go," she says.

Rosebud, just across the river from Oceti, lies on Army Corps land and reservation land. The Cheyenne River Camp is also on leased reservation land. So far, neither have received an evacuation date. Rise of the Seventh Generation is on 70 acres of privately owned reservation land, and its organizers plan to screen campers, to keep out both infiltrators and "antagonizers." According to its caretaker, Brandon Green, unlike at Sacred Stone, the tribe is not a majority owner.

"It takes disaster to learn a lesson, but in the process, we unify."—Dennis Romaro

The situation is uncertain for the camps, but no matter what happens, Jean Paul Roy, 54, a tribal councilman with the Flandreau Santee Sioux, thinks there are victories in Standing Rock "that will probably never be out in the mainstream."

By this, he doesn't necessarily mean the defeat of the DAPL, which seems unlikely. But, he says, the movement, which was started by youth, has empowered young people growing up in a tradition that privileges elders: "It's given them purpose and the will to fight for the next generation to come."

Romaro echoes these sentiments. "If DAPL didn't start this whole pipeline thing, there wouldn't be any of this," he said. "It takes disaster to learn a lesson, but in the process, we unify."

To many—particularly those not on the ground at Standing Rock, those who don't call their friends "sister" and "brother" or mention "Creator" in casual conversation, those who haven't sipped the herbalists' fire cider to ward off a cold, or eaten fry bread in a tent kitchen, or posed questions to the sacred fire only to have it leap in a seeming response—this may seem like a hollow and high-priced victory. But to some people in camp, it's everything.

Cheree Franco is a writer and photographer, mostly working in Arkansas, Mississippi, New York, and Pakistan.