At Standing Rock, a Fight for Basic Survival
There, along the banks of the frozen Cannonball River, incense from a smoldering bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass drifted eastward, marking a wedding ritual for a young couple who had fallen in love while trying to stop the Dakota Access pipeline.
“We wanted our friends to share this awesome event with us,” said Faith Meckley, who married Alex Televantos on Saturday, January 28.
The couple, two self-proclaimed water protectors, or protesters, both in their early twenties, had flirted with the idea of marriage shortly after the holidays. But when President Donald Trump ordered a temporary immigration ban on Friday, Meckley and Televantos asked a fellow camper, an ordained minister, to legalize their union the next day. The groom is here in the U.S. on a visa waiver program, although not from any of the seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by Trump’s order.
“We had, for a long time, been talking about me going home to Australia,” said Televantos, a resident of Canberra. “We just didn’t want to take any chances. We knew we did not want to be apart.”
The newlyweds living among the dismantling encampments on the borderlands of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation are not the only ones reacting to the dramatic first days of life under President Trump. Tribal council members from across eight districts spent all of Friday lamenting over the new political realities.
“Who’s to say Trump isn’t gonna do away with everything,” questioned Duane Claymore, the councilman from Wakpala. The district is about 40 miles south of the tribe’s headquarters in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Claymore’s comments were in partial reaction to Trump’s executive memorandum earlier in the week that called on the Department of Army to expedite the environmental impact statement over the contested Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), an action that was set in motion on Tuesday, Jan. 31 when the Acting Army Secretary, Robert Speer recommended the easement approval for the pipeline. The tribe has vowed to legally challenge the move.
But the elder councilman was also responding to news that had only surfaced hours earlier. Two state lawmakers had introduced a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to give North Dakota oversight of its Indian reservations. The proposed legislation was quickly rescinded three days later, but it caught the attention of tribal leaders.
“HUD housing, for instance—we can’t count on programs like these to be available in four years,” Claymore grumbled.
“We were sitting high with the Obama Administration,” tribal chairman Dave Archambault II said. “Now we’re going to have to fight for everything we got.”
After nearly a year of protesting the $3.8 billion dollar pipeline, it has taken only a week for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to reset its focus from a fight to protect its primary water supply from a potential oil spill to an immediate struggle for basic survival.
During the movement to stop a “black snake,” the term that pipeline opponents use to describe the crude-oil project, Standing Rock became a model for indigenous self-determination. Now, it may be an example of targeted retaliation and greed, both at the local and national levels. The notion is that members of the Republican Party, annoyed over Standing Rock’s activism, is also convinced that tribal entitlement programs and, more importantly, indigenous rights secured by Treaties, have seemingly run their course.
“This whole movement has helped Standing Rock prepare,” said Archambault. “We’re going to have to get innovative.”
A Bridge for Peace
Since Trump’s executive action over the Dakota Access pipeline, a steady stream of journalists have started turning up again at the tribe’s Prairie Knights Casino and Resort. Those who booked early were able to secure one of its 200 hotel rooms before it sold out on Saturday night January 21. Many of the accommodations have been reserved by water protectors who are relying on the resort for shelter during these winter months.
But even with stable lodging revenue, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has repeatedly bemoaned that its slot machine and table game earnings have taken a drastic hit. Water protectors aren’t gambling. Meantime, the tribe blames a months-long militarized roadblock for driving residents of Mandan and Bismarck, its target casino customer, away.
On Wednesday January 25, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum toured the halls of Prairie Knights with Archambault, the first time a state leader has engaged with the tribe in such a way. Archambault shared a brief history about the property that first opened in 1993 followed by its hotel two years later. Back then, the business venture was meant to be an economic lifeline for Standing Rock. Now, it may be a source of debilitating hardship.
“For this tribe, we’ve always paid our bills,” said Archambault. “And now we have a president who doesn’t like Indian casinos. There’s a chance that he could do away with them.”
From its casino revenue, the tribe has an annual budget of $9 million to fund infrastructure projects, early education programs and healthcare initiatives, to name a few. According to its chief financial officer, Standing Rock now has until the end of February before Prairie Knights starts to cost the tribe more money than it brings in. The forecast includes a $3.2 million injection appropriated in late December from half of the tribe’s legal defense fund — charitable donations intended to keep up the fight against DAPL.
As a financial solution, Standing Rock is now holding out for the reopening of Highway 1806 at a river crossing known as the Backwater Bridge. Dismantling the blockade would mean, both literally and symbolically, bridging two sides that have been fiercely at odds—those who support the pipeline versus those who do not.
But at a critical moment of repairing state and tribal relations, rattled by months of conflict and still with no definite end in sight, the state’s new Republican governor has approached the process with a series of mixed messages.
“Our main concern is public safety,” said Burgum from a press conference held hours before his meeting with Archambault and others at the casino. At the media event held in Bismarck, the former Microsoft executive unveiled a new public relations website, NDResponse, directly targeting the ongoing protests near the reservation.
“People have to become more discerning in what they read and what is a trusted source,” said the governor, who on this day also signed his first bill, an $8 million loan from the Bank of North Dakota to continue funding police and its guarding of the pipeline construction. The state’s credit line now stands at $25 million, including the $17 million withdrawn by former Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
Despite Burgum’s unquestionable support for the pipeline, his outreach seemed to win points with tribal and camp leaders who aren’t used to lawmakers paying so much attention to them.
“He seemed really genuine,” said Menape LaMere, a Dakota/Ho-Chunk native and an appointee of the Oceti Sakowin Headsman Council, part of the multi-tiered camp leadership.
LaMere attended the lengthy talks at the casino that lasted as long as five hours. He also sat in on two other private meetings. A fourth was called on Sunday night, a community-wide gathering held at the casino; it was the only one the governor did not attend.
According to LaMere, the bridge blockade was the centerpiece of every conversation. By Friday night, after a third round of talks, the camp leader sounded hopeful.
“The bridge is coming down,” LaMere told me, suggesting a dismantling could happen as early as the weekend. But he was quick to follow up. “I just can’t tell you when.”
By Monday, as contractors hired by the tribe began cleaning up the main camp, there had been no changes to the blockade. Rather, there were more concessions from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. In a statement, it said it would consider removing security wire and jersey barriers, in stages, if the camp clean-up continued and if protests at the bridge came to an end.
Meantime, supporters behind a campaign to boycott the Prairie Knights vowed to stay away.
“They think we will be running back to PKC to dump money if the bridge opens up,” read one comment online.
After all those meetings, some going past midnight, the situation hadn’t seemed to change. Instead, it raised genuine questions that the Headsman had posted on Facebook days earlier.
Can we make peace on that bridge?
Can the bridge actually bridge gaps?
Can battlegrounds become a place for healing?
On January 20, when the Standing Rock Tribal Council voted unanimously to close the camps—that, by some accounts, at one point had grown as large as 14,000 people—it was partly because of renewed clashes that erupted at the Backwater Bridge.
Marcus Mitchell, a 21-year-old water protector, was there on the night of Wednesday, January 18.
“All I could feel was blood and the torn-off skin from my face,” Mitchell said. He was reading from a prepared statement before a United Nations expert who had arrived at Standing Rock with the International Indian Treaty Council to gather testimonies of alleged human and Treaty rights violations.
Mitchell, 21, had a blackened left eye stitched up from injuries that he had sustained on the bridge that night. Transported by ambulance to Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck, he was hospitalized for days.
“I was shot for what?” the young Diné man rhetorically asked Pavel Sulyandziga, a member of the UN Working Group on the issue of Human Rights, Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises. The UN body monitors alleged abuses by companies like Energy Transfer Partners, who according to Democracy Now! hired private security firm TigerSwan to orchestrate militarized policing of the Dakota Access pipeline and other surveillance operations.
“I was expressing my freedom of speech. Me as an American citizen,” said Mitchell. “It is our birthright to express ourselves freely.”
Mitchell’s shared testimony given on Monday, January 23 followed a wave of weekend demonstrations over Trump’s inauguration. And in response to the President’s first week of executive actions—the pipeline memos, the Mexican border wall, the so-called Muslim ban—it sparked what many are calling a resurgence of America’s protest movement, a turning point perhaps inspired by the gathering at Standing Rock where at the end of 2016, it became a reminder of the influence that people-power can have when pitted against inequality, historic abuses and injustice.
To be sure, legislation has been proposed in ten states that would criminalize freedom of speech and civil disobedience—including in North Dakota, where the months-long movement to stop the pipeline has unfolded.
At the state capitol in Bismarck, seven bills have been introduced in direct response to the anti-pipeline demonstrations, including a proposed law that would allow motorists to run over and kill protesters so long as the collision was accidental.
At a time when tribal leaders have called for water protectors to close their camps and leave, it’s testimony from young activists like Mitchell who continue to make a case for why the water protectors at Standing Rock should remain—pipeline or no.
“This is a reminder that police brutality is real,” Mitchell said, pointing to his battered eye. “We can’t be scared. I don’t want to tell my grandchildren that I did nothing. No. I’m staying.”
We Are All Oceti Sakowin
On that sun-drenched Saturday, the afternoon when Meckley and Televantos were married, puddles of water had started to muddy the main road where hundreds of flags with tribal seals still stood flapping in the wind.
It was the first real sign that spring was on its way to soon thaw out the prairie and usher in floodwaters from winter’s near-record snowfall.
“We know we have to leave the area, but we also have to stay and protect that water,” said a man who goes by the name of Curly.
The Sicangu Oyate man had become the designated leader of the Rosebud camp, the tight-knit community of tribal members from the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation along with their allies, living mostly in tipis lining the south side of the Cannonball River across from the main Oceti Sakowin camp.
Curly wore a red bandana snugly wrapped atop of his head as he glanced over the icy riverbed to where a bulldozer was digging into small mounds of snow-covered tents loaded with objects unknown and buried by the winter’s storms.
“We’ll clean up. We have to,” he said, then glanced up to a ridge above the camp. “And then we’ll move to higher ground.”
The conversation was one Curly had held earlier in the day with two agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency had agreed to send in as many as 40 officers to assist in cleanup efforts at the Rosebud camp, a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over concern about the threat of potential spring flooding.
“We’re treating this like a humanitarian mission, really,” said David Little Wind, assistant director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services. Little Wind was concerned about the optics of police presence. “We just want everyone to know we’re here to help, not to push anyone out.”
The reality of moving the camps, a dot on the map that will forever be remembered as a place where indigenous unity came alive—where a rare and euphoric history was made—is only now starting to sink in. But what is perhaps more unclear is what happens next. Of the 600 or so campers who remain, the majority are resolved to stay on nearby private lands away from the floodplain.
“There’s only a few of us left,” said Michael Little Feather, a Chumash native from northern California. The 44-year-old had arrived at the Oceti Sakowin camp in August battling drug and alcohol addiction. He said he’s been clean ever since.
“I have a purpose in life,” he said, and mentioned that he’d be calling on his younger brother to join him at Standing Rock. “It’s hard when we see our own people subject to drugs or alcohol. But I look at my old life and my new life, and I was a monster, but I’m a healer now.
“I’ll continue to stand in prayer, and if they arrest me, they arrest me.”
As periwinkle skies arrived early Saturday evening, a bulldozer plowed into the heavy snow on a plot of allotment land just south of the Rosebud camp. It was private property situated on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The chairman of the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Harold Frazier, was working to secure an agreement to lease the land from its owner, an individual tribal member. The plan was to establish a relief camp for Cheyenne River tribal members and their allies who wished to stay and fight the pipeline.
“They didn’t even ask us,” complained councilman Claymore.
That day, the council deliberated about whether to stand by its resolution calling on all visitors to leave the reservation by February 19. The representative from the district of Cannon Ball, Cody Two Bears, mentioned that residents reportedly had started to receive threats from some of the more militant protesters.
Phyllis Young, a tribal member, former American Indian Movement activist and one of the leading elder voices behind the pipeline struggle, stood up to speak.
“We are all Oceti Sakowin, forty-thousand members,” she reminded the council, referring to the Great Sioux Nation, which includes the Cheyenne River Sioux.
Young also referenced a shared history of negotiations it had had with the tribe over mineral rights secured decades ago during the federally backed construction of dams along the contested Missouri River.
“They are owners of the mineral rights,” she said, signaling that the Cheyenne had a right to be there. “It’s not just Standing Rock.”
Then she whittled down the debate over whether the remaining water protectors should stay or go as “inner-tribal politics at their best.”
By the end of the council meeting, which lasted an entire day, no new decisions about the camps had been made.