Colonization tragically forced many indigenous people to forget and forsake our innate connection to Earth. But many of us today are beginning to remember. What is taking place in Standing Rock is awakening what once lied dormant in so many of our people: the Earth is our Mother, and Water is Life.
It was late at night when I drove into the conjoined Oceti Sakowin and Red Warrior camp in Standing Rock. I set up camp in the rain with my sisters, crawled into bed, and eagerly anticipated waking up wrapped in the energy of unity that next morning. That is exactly what happened.
Water defenders on the frontlines on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota on August 17, 2016. Courtesy John Heminger.
We woke up to sounds of joy- laughter, conversation, and warm greetings of “Good Morning.” We woke up to lingering fragrances of camp fires, coffee, and smoldering sage and cedar. Near our camp was the central gathering place, where early risers were already congregating over coffee, while others were making huge amounts of breakfast over open fire.
People of all tribes and many ethnicities gathered. I admit, that I was a little giddy just at the site of a blond gentleman there with his family — a wife and two young children. I admit, that I have been conditioned if not traumatized while living in the Dakotas for the last decade to expect much less than warmth from the majority of non-Natives in the area. But what I immediately saw in the camps at Standing Rock was pure unity of humanity. Unity for Earth, and solidarity for life. And it was beautiful. There were several non-Natives present, standing with the Lakota and Dakota people of Standing Rock as fellow human beings.
Friends and relatives who were there for weeks at the Sacred Stone, Red Warrior, and Oceti Sakowin camps oriented new comers, and shared emotional stories of bravery. They recounted events from the past week when the first non-violent actions of water defending were carried out and the first arrests were made.
We basked in their energy. The powerful energy and joy from those most intense moments endured, even days after the peak of the conflict between water defenders and Dakota Access Pipeline workers. Construction had been halted, and campers stand by guarding the water, awaiting a ruling.
On the weekend of August 19 through 21, the camps in Standing Rock swelled dramatically, nearing three or four thousand, according to some estimates. Caravans of several cars from out of state poured in day and night. Busloads of people, and truckloads of supplies came. The central gathering area drew more and more newcomers, many of whom took to the microphone to read resolutions passed by their respective tribe, or to offer a prayer in their indigenous language from afar.
Young men sang songs from Haudenosaunee territory in the northeast, and Navajo women from the southwest stepped up in numbers to make frybread for the growing camp. Women and men of all nations stirred huge pots of soups and hot dishes on the fire. And as new groups entered and unloaded their donations and expressed their support, that beautiful feeling grew more palpable each and every time.
We showered each other with unity, strength, and love, and the outpour flowed continuously.
What many outsiders might not know, is that the gathering of hearts and minds in Standing Rock is truly an ensemble of some of the most brilliant indigenous intellects, the most respected of spiritual leaders, the most seasoned organizers and environmentalists, and solid organizations known for defending the sacred.
It was a great surprise that I even ran into a beloved college professor, whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Indigenous lawyers and paralegals were there, too, teachers, youth, and college students, veterans, government employees, entrepreneurs, medical doctors, athletes, runners, writers, journalists and photojournalists, musicians, artists, and entertainers. They were all there, and many still are. Mothers and grandmothers, children and even precious, tiny babies. Grandpas with their horses, and young men helping individual family camps with everything under the sun, from gathering wood, to delivering supplies.
Water defenders gather along the banks of the Missouri River on August 20, 2016. Courtesy John Heminger.
You couldn’t have assembled a more powerful and able group. Today, we are stronger and more capable than ever to stand up to corporate greed and American attacks on all that we hold most precious. These are the defenders who stand together in Standing Rock.
Tribes from coast to coast were everywhere in the camps, flying their tribal flags and making new relatives. And I was delighted to run into relatives from across the Rocky Mountains, fellow Shoshone and Paiute people, coming together in the land of the Lakota and Dakota.
After spending only a few days there, I regrettably returned home to tend to “life on the outside,” as some have called it. I left deeply imprinted with the love and passion of thousands. I left changed, and like many, I am still adjusting to being away, leaving behind a power unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Standing Rock Chairman, Dave Archambault II, articulated that feeling of longing and bitter sweet separation that so many of us can relate to as we departed camp. In a message shared on the Standing Rock Sioux Facebook page, he wrote, “it was like coming out of the Sundance; I didn't want to go.”
Chairman Archambault closed his message, “I just kept thinking about the camp and I'd close my eyes and pray for everyone there and the future of our people. Praying for good long lives for all our nations.”
The Sacred Stone, Red Warrior, and Oceti Sakowin camps mark a place of strength and prayer. A bona-fide place of power. Water defenders and prayerful warriors hold the post, still, along the Missouri River in Standing Rock. Many caravans continue to come and go. Supplies and bodies are still needed. Prayers must remain constant.
When I close my eyes, I can still see the mist in the camp in the morning and feel the power in the shaking voices of the women who stormed in front of moving machinery to stop the pipeline construction as they told their stories late into the night.
Standing Rock has changed us forever. Our hearts are with the water, the land, and with each other. Today, we stand armed with the medicine of unity and prayer, and the strength of our ancestors. Still standing for water. Still standing for life.
In so many ways, we have already won.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.