I had been reading and watching everything I could on the Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against big oil.
Watching the events that unfolded two weekends ago, I was in tears. Seeing the construction company workers and private security guards antagonizing the water protectors into provocation, literally throwing stones to protect one another.
I couldn't believe it, in 2016 and our brothers and sisters were being treated poorly on their own land. Then later, the press release from Morton County Sheriff’s Department was debilitating. The words hurt: “guard” dogs attacked the protectors and they were maced...there were “weapons,” which the “rioters” used to jab and assault the workers and security officers. This is all alleged, because no law enforcement was on the scene and they only took statements after the fact from the “security officers.”
I was visiting my childhood friend when she asked if I wanted to drive with her to the Sacred Stone Camp. My answer was everyone's answer. I will be forever thankful for the opportunity, and the people that made it possible for me to go and experience the power of the People.
We drove from Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is over a seven-hour drive just to get to Bismarck, North Dakota. To the south, about 45 miles was the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Sacred Stone Camp.
There were three construction signs informing us that Highway 1806 was closed. We came upon a police blockade. There were six police vehicles and about three to four officers—that we could see.
The officer asked where we were going. “The casino.”
“Are you aware there is a protest ongoing?” Yes.
“Be careful, there will be pedestrians along the side of the road.”
We wondered what would have been the response if we had said we were actually headed to the Sacred Stone Camp…would we have been detoured? It would have doubled the travel time to the reservation.
We drove passed the sacred site that was recently desecrated by the Dakota Access bulldozers. We were greeted at the main entrance by camp volunteers when we arrived. We were directed to the media tent at the top of the hill to the camp. We watched the remainder of a press conference with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II and the leaders of the protectors.
We were registered as media by the Indigenous Environmental Network, Executive Director, Tom Goldtooth. I watched as Chairman Archambault, Dallas Goldtooth and Melanie Benjamin gave interviews to Al Jazeera News.
From the top of the hill, we could see the whole camp. The women's camp, where we were supposed to meet our contact, Tanya Aubid, was at the very back of the camp, along the trees and water. This is where they stayed for the past several months. It was their home. And it was one of the most beautiful lands I have ever seen.
Nearby, my eyes were drawn to a red sunshade. There was a Hotinonshon:ni Confederacy flag, a red Warrior Society flag, and a women’s warrior flag flying around it.
We walked down the hill and entered the camp. The main path was adorned by flagpoles on each side. There were so many nations' flags. I was in awe. This is us. We are here. We are still here. Again, we saw more Hotinonshon:ni and Warrior Society flags flying.
Pride. Respect. Love.
We walked through the camp. We tried to find our contact, but she was on a horse when we arrived and was milling about the camp. We learned she is one of the leaders of the protectors.
We saw the red sunshade from earlier, off to the right. I started walking towards it and recognized a young boy in a warrior sweatshirt from one of our community members Facebook posts. Elated, I introduced myself and asked if they were from Akwesasne. I met Darlene Gray. I told her who my parents were. She immediately knew “me.” We were welcomed into their camp.
How easily we found Akwesasro:non (Mohawks from Akwesasne) in a camp of thousands. What were the odds? Stacy Huff arrived, fresh from the public showers at the marina 10 miles away. I hugged her, happy to see her, even though we just met.
Across from their new home were sweat lodges, and on the side—the Missouri River.
People walking by, came to sit down. There were children running about. There were non-Natives at the camp. It isn’t just Indigenous Peoples against the “white man” and big oil. It is everyone’s fight.
We sat down around the fire pit. It had recently gone out, white ashes flew into the afternoon air. Stacy told us about the patrol groups, the four fronts. The base camp, the camp across the river, the Red Warrior camp. How people were chosen for duties according to their strengths. How the possibility of arrest was imminent if you went to the front lines.
Not long into the conversation, people were rushing through the camp. Yelling. There was a meeting called by the Elders. They wanted to talk to the camp about the National Guard. Some were yelling that the National Guard was coming.
Previous to our arrival, there were rumblings that the Governor of North Dakota had the Guard on standby in anticipation of the outcome of the case brought by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. People were saying that the Guard could be arriving later today. My mother and sister were messaging me to be careful, they read the troops were coming in too. I had no phone service to answer them; I was okay for now.
The camp erupted. Protectors hurriedly rushed to base camp. I was separated from my friends, as they decided to walk to base camp. Stacy and I started for it in her car. She said if anything were to happen, to stay in her car. As we got to the base camp, the People settled.
Men, women, children, elders, from all different tribes standing with non-Natives, we listened to the Elders and Chairman Archambault speak. He quelled the rumors of the National Guard. He said the camp should not live in fear. He would not let any armed forces enter the camp, and disassemble it. He reminded the protectors that Judge James Boasberg’s decision was not final. If the decision is in favor of the Energy Transfer Partners, the Standing Rock Sioux would appeal it. It would not be the end. It was the beginning.
The fear that had spread through the camp ceded.
He told us to remember that violence is not always outright and asked everyone to not use violence in the days to come, including our words and body language. To continue to pray. As we know, they want us to provoke them. If there was violence, the DAPL would have no problem putting their black snake in the ground, in our waters. Everyone’s waters. There are so many waters connected to the Missouri River.
After they spoke, the Elder asked everyone who knew the song, to sing with her. It was a Sundance song. A man came around, burning cedar in a coffee can. We smudged ourselves. Another man passed out tobacco to everyone. I balled some up in my hand and closed my eyes. The song overcame everyone. When I opened my eyes, everyone had their hands up in the air. They were giving their power to the People, to the prayer and accepting power from our Brother, the Sun in return. It felt as if I was standing with family. I was.
Later, a speaker asked everyone to head to the shores of the Missouri River. The canoes from Coastal tribes were arriving from the west on their 2016 canoe journey themed “Don’t Forget the Water,” Teqwu?ma?. They were from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Canada...the newly arrived water protectors totaled more than 60 people, transported halfway across the country, in only eight vehicles!
Each of the leaders of the canoe families spoke. They told us who they were, where they were from, what they went through to get there and why they answered the call to action: All in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. In support of humanity.
There were war cries, chants of "water is life," "respect our waters," songs, both hands in the air, one fist in the air, in strength. A man at the anchor of one of the canoes had tears in his eyes. He tried to hold them back. He was all of us.
Next to me, a man had come down the small hill to be closer to the shore. He just started singing, two other men joined him. They were compelled. The protectors beat their drums and sang “Tunkashila,” a welcoming song for the water protectors. As in our traditions, they all asked permission to come ashore. The people cried, “Aho!” To honor and welcome them. The canoers came ashore and integrated into the camp.
It started to rain and grow cold. The media started to pack up. The sun started to set. Our day at the Sacred Stone Camp was coming to an end. With sadness we made our way back to the car. All day, we felt like we belonged there. In that moment, that was our purpose, to be there. Wishing we could stay and proud of all the people that were.
We left the camp and drove back through the blockade. The police officers were no longer standing there. In their place were four National Guard soldiers—posted in universal camouflage patterned uniforms. It was clear, the National Guard was certainly present now. Chairman Archambault’s words rang: He would not let them enter the camp.
We were waved through, leaving our brothers and sisters. We would go home and continue to follow the protectors, share each other’s social media posts and pray for them. Pray for the water.
The Sacred Stone Camp is one of the largest gatherings of North American Indigenous Peoples, in our modern recorded history. We give strength to those protecting our lands, water and future generations.
With the decision of Judge Boasberg denying Standing Rock’s injunction to stop construction of the DAPL, remember Chairman Archambalt’s words, “This is only the beginning.”
We believe this to be true as the Joint Statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior Regarding Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers addressed what Judge Boasberg did not-- “the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects… it is now incumbent on all of us to develop a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.”
Yes, an interest greater than that of big oil.
We are water. Water is life. Mni Wiconi. Kaiatakeha'tshé:ra ne ohnekanos.
Jori Kaniehtakohe Rourke is from the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and is a proud member of the Wolf Clan. She is employed by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, for the Office of Tribal Council.