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Manning: A Powerful Presence of Feathers, Sage, and Social Media

Water protectors are using social media to correct erroneous reports of violence at the Sacred Stone camp in North Dakota.

Last week, water protectors from the camps near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, engaged in peaceful non-violent direct action at three different Dakota Access Construction sites. And despite the peaceful and prayerful atmosphere at all three sites, the Morton County Sheriff's Department quickly released a statement alleging that the demonstration turned violent, and that one unidentified Dakota Access security worker was assaulted by “protestors” as knives and guns were wielded.

Water protectors on the ground vehemently refute this claim, and they contend that the allegations of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department are completely fabricated.

Still, just days later on September 28, police confronted water protectors with armored police vehicles blocking the road, and with shotguns drawn, as water protectors gathered for another peaceful action.

The unarmed water protectors reported being terrified, and many made frantic and fearful pleas over social media calling for support and help. 

A police officer raises his weapon at unarmed water protector. Courtesy Leland Dick.

“Please share and make everyone aware!” Linda Black Elk posted on Facebook. “COPS WITH GUNS DRAWN APPROACHING UNARMED PEACEFUL PROTECTORS.”

For many water protectors, social media has become a means of documenting actions in order to counter the continued false narratives of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

The tactics of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and Dakota Access continue a tragically predictable pattern of villainizing peaceful protests in order to justify excessive police, security and military presence.

It is critical that the voices of water protectors on the ground be elevated. 

Nick Tilsen, an organizer and executive director for Thunder Valley CDC, was among those present at the prayerful action Sunday as well as the action where the alleged violence occurred; the same alleged violence that prompted excessive police force later in the week. 

In an interview with Sonali Kolhatkar of the show “Rising Up with Sonali,” Tilsen said of the accusations of violence and the attack on a security worker “is 100-percent wrong. This false accusation is totally made up.”

Tilsen said the allegations were nothing more than propaganda.

“By the time we got to the construction site, all of the workers had packed up and left, because they saw us walking for a quarter of a mile,” Tilsen said. “We actually didn’t have interaction with the security guards or interaction with the workers that day.”

According to water protectors and journalists on the ground, all actions that day were peaceful. Additionally, women, children and elders continue to be among those standing in prayer for water and life. 

The first peaceful action on September 25 took place much earlier than the action where the alleged violence took place. This earlier action was at a Dakota Access construction site in South Dakota, where a handful of water protectors gathered before daylight and strung over a thousand small prayer ties across Dakota Access machinery.

Manape Hocinci Ga, a representative of the Sioux Nation of Indians under the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, came from Winnebago, Nebraska, and participated in that action before daylight. That action also took place before any Dakota Access construction workers were on site.

“Our intention was to wrap the machines in prayer to let them know that we are here,” Ga said. “The prayers are going to hopefully change the hearts and minds of the people operating the machines.”

Prayer sticks (thin dowels with cotton prayer ties) were also placed on the road in the path of construction in that same area.

Prayer ties were strung across Dakota Access machinery on September 25. Courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

“We wrapped prayer ties around some of the hardware that does the scraping, like the buckets,” Ga said. “Then we hung prayer ties from the door, then we wrapped them around the cabins. Others soon showed up with waduta (prayer flags) and they hung those from the door, too.”

In order for Dakota Access construction workers to begin work, they would have had to simply remove the cotton string of prayer ties. No damage was done to the machinery, and after saying prayers, the small group of water protectors left the construction site.

“Prayers were left there, and we want them to know,” Ga said. “Prayer has been leading this whole thing, and that has also been tied to direct action. So even though there’s nothing going on within so many miles of camp, we’re staying active.”

Later that morning at around 9 a.m., a caravan of water protectors left the Oceti Sakowin camp to launch another direct action. This collective action is where the Morton County Sheriff’s Department reported supposed acts of violence. 

“We drove to one construction site about a half an hour away from the camp,” said Jade Begay, Diné, of the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org. “That action involved a small walk from the road to the construction site where banners were carried to the site. There was singing, and prayer, and a handful representatives from different groups said a few words.” 

Women plant willow tree seedlings in the path of Dakota Access construction on September 25. Courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

Begay, a filmmaker, was on site to document the action. After opening prayers and shared messages of unity, women and youth led a symbolic action of planting sacred plants. 

“Women of the various camps planted willow trees, and then the youth council representatives spoke. They said that planting of willow trees symbolized planting new seeds, and putting something sacred in front of the pipeline,” Begay said. “The willow tree is a sacred plant and they wanted to send the message to construction workers that this is where they drew the line.”

Child, corn planter, and elder at peaceful prayer demonstration on September 25. Courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

Carl Meyer, Mennonite, from Rapid City, South Dakota, who was also present at the action to stand in solidarity, reiterated that the event was completely peaceful.

"Today, I saw women, men, children and elders in prayer, planting willow trees in the path of the pipeline, interrupting the destruction of the earth,” he Meyer. “As a white man of Christian settler ancestry, I recognize that it's my people who have brought the earth to a point of environmental crisis due to the extraction of fossil fuels, and I feel it is my responsibility to stand in solidarity with all people who believe in a path of respect for the earth and a better future."

After the planting of willow trees, the group of approximately 300 water protectors left the construction site, and continued to the next site, where, this time, corn was to be planted in the same symbolic fashion. 

"This time, it was the youth and the elders who planted a corn stalk right in the pathway of the pipeline. Corn is a sacred plant to many indigenous cultures,” Begay said. “The message is also that we need these things to live. A lot of our cultures have been dependent on willow to build and corn to eat, and to have these plants, water is needed. We also need to stay in relationship with the corn and the plants, but to do this, we need water, and this pipeline is threatening the water resources in this area.”

Children sit atop Dakota Access pipes at a prayerful demonstration on September 25. Courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

Begay said that all actions were peaceful, and contrary to the statements made by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, there were no Dakota Access security guards even present. 

“And I didn’t see anybody carrying a weapon or raising a weapon at all. I saw people raising feathers, and sage, and their cameras,” Begay said.

A handful of police actually stood by at the roadside, and observed the event, Begay said. Had there been any violence or physical assaults of Dakota Access workers, police on site surely would have intervened. 

Clearly, all reports from the ground maintain a unified narrative -- the actions of water protectors continue to be prayerful, peaceful and symbolic. Yet the fact that such a peaceful and culturally symbolic action could continue to be so diametrically twisted as violent, raises serious concerns of the ongoing corrupt tactics of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department making false and unverified accusations.

And while many of us can scoff at the never-ending slew of fabricated reports from Dakota Access and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, beginning with the earliest, and later disproven, allegations of pipe bombs and shots fired from water protectors, we must be prepared to counter their very dangerous claims, as these outright lies become justification to put water protectors in extremely dangerous situations, time and time again.

The concerted efforts of some North Dakota conservative media outlets and the Morton County Sheriff’s department to push propaganda to the public raises even greater concern, for their actions together are not only unethical, but their collaborative actions are oppressive.

Now, perhaps even more so, it is critical that the voices of those on the ground be elevated. Continued efforts must be made to protect the human rights of water protectors, their rights to safety, and their First Amendment rights to protest peacefully against a multi-billion-dollar corporation that threatens their most basic source of life and wellbeing.

Unarmed women, children, elders and water protectors of all backgrounds are unsafe, and they are being targeted, villainized and abused. We have to do something about it.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.