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OCETI SAKOWIN: Lighting the Sacred Fire at Standing Rock

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s multi-year fight to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline focused international attention on the Lakota people’s spiritual teachings to protect their first medicine, Mni Wiconi, sacred water. Despite ongoing lawsuits by tribes to stop the flow of oil, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order expediting the pipeline on his fourth day in office. Barring a court victory for the tribes, oil could be flowing by June 2017.

The 1,172-mile pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, runs within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, rerouted from original plans near Bismarck, North Dakota after residents expressed fears it could contaminate their water supply, the Missouri River. The reroute intrudes through Lakota Treaty lands containing hundreds of funerary sites and sacred places along the Missouri, the Mni Soce. When DAPL announced construction plans last summer without securing all legally-required permits, it sparked protests, legal action by several Lakota nations, and a spiritual uprising of youth, some of whom organized a run to Washington, D.C. to deliver an eagle staff and petitions signed by thousands to stop the “black snake.”

And it lit a fire of resistance in the hearts of thousands.

Greg Grey Cloud, Crow Creek Sioux founder of Wica Agli, brought the Sungwatogda (fearless horses) to Standing Rock in August to help stop the pipeline.

Greg Grey Cloud, Crow Creek Sioux founder of Wica Agli, brought the Sungwatogda (fearless horses) to Standing Rock in August to help stop the pipeline.

There is a Lakota prophecy that speaks of a great Black Snake, zuzeca sape, that will cross the land and bring destruction and devastation to the people. For many indigenous peoples, that snake is the pipeline. The prophecy says that when the black snake goes underground, it's going to be devastating to the Earth.

More than 300 Native nations came to Standing Rock by fall of 2016 to demonstrate support with resolutions, donations, flags, songs, ceremonies, and buffalo and salmon to feed the people. Supporters from around the world streamed in to engage in prayer, peaceful protests and civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. The encampments at Standing Rock overflowed—at its peak, some 18,000 people created the ninth largest town in North Dakota.

But in late October 2016, the military presence increased, and more than 300 people were arrested in one week as hundreds of soldiers and police in riot gear used rubber bullets, pepper spray, military equipment, boats, helicopters, drones and airplanes to remove water protectors from the path of construction. “It was like a war zone out there, except in a real war, both sides are armed. The unwarranted violence against peaceful protestors was outrageous,” said attorney Joe Heath, a Vietnam veteran and human rights lawyer sent to help by the Onondaga Nation.

For many, it was yet another military assault against Lakota people defending their homelands, reminiscent of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the 1863 battle of Whitestone where more than 300 Yanktonai were killed only 70 miles away—nearly half of them women and children. Given that bloody history, traditional Lakota leadership and medicine people, working with tribal government, resolutely kept to the message of prayer and peaceful resistance. As in past Indian wars, the spiritual foundation of ceremony and prayer guided many peaceful actions and strategic decisions at Standing Rock.

Horse Medicine

Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, plays an instrumental role in Lakota society for which he was trained since childhood. He inherited responsibilities for the sacred bundle and will carry it for life. On family land in Green Grass, South Dakota, he and his family live a traditional way of life raising more than 60 horses, mostly Petran Thoroughbreds he often uses for spiritual rides and in ceremony.

“My name is Sunkawakan, Horse Man. That’s what my grandmother called me,” Looking Horse said. “When I was very young, they taught me about the horse ceremony and explained everything to me. She told me we have to take care of the horses because they have healing powers and we’re going to use them in ceremony for the people.”

In the 1970s when he was in his early 20s, he went on a sacred run to protect the pipestone quarries. An elder told him she dreamed he performed a horse dance ceremony. He said he didn’t know the ceremony, but years later a man from Sioux Valley, Manitoba approached him while on a spiritual ride from British Columbia across Canada. “This elder wanted to do a horse dance for us, so we set that day aside and they put the ceremony together,” Looking Horse said. “He asked me and a Cree man to sit with him and told us he was going to teach us how to run the horse dance ceremony because he wasn’t going to live long and wanted to pass it on. So he set up tipis and taught us the ceremony. When we left there, he told us ‘Take the ceremony and run it. Don’t worry about things, it will fall into place.’ When I heard he passed on the following year, I was sad, but I realized that I now had no choice but to keep that ceremony going. He said I would get a pipe and everything else I needed to run it, and I did. Not many people know that healing ceremony today.”

In October 2016, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archchambault II reached out to Looking Horse to discuss bringing the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires, up to Standing Rock to unite the people. The Great Sioux Nation originally was made up of Seven Council Fires, and sharing a common fire always united the tribes. Keeping the peta waken (sacred fire) was important, especially as they traveled. Coals from the previous council fires were carefully preserved and used to rekindle the council fire at the new campsite. Tribal historians said the last time the Oceti Sakowin came together in this place was in the late 1800s, during times of war and great hardship.

“Everything we do, we take it to Yuwipi ceremony, that’s how we get our answers,” said Looking Horse months later in spring 2017. “We all prayed together and asked that Oceti Sakowin be set up until we could get the DAPL permit denied. Then we put out a call to bring all nations to Standing Rock to protect the Mni Wiconi. We called for our traditional people, the medicine people and horse societies to come help us light the sacred fire.”

Jon Eagle, a veteran and tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux, remembers the night they received instructions to bring the Oceti Sakowin together. “On October 27, when Morton County moved on the North Camp, we realized that the people were having a trauma response,” Eagle recalled. “They were acting out of anger or fear. People were experiencing combat-like experiences without being trained for combat. But even those who have been trained come out of combat carrying something.

Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Arvol Looking Horse and 40 riders bring the Horse Nation into the main camp at Standing Rock to light the sacred fire.

Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Arvol Looking Horse and 40 riders bring the Horse Nation into the main camp at Standing Rock to light the sacred fire.

“There were five Lakota camps that were organized, the Oglala, Sicangu, Kul Wicasa, Ihuntuwon and Hunkpati. We met with all of them one night after the North Camp had been raided and they asked us what should we do now. The answer was in the sky. The Oceti Sakonwin constellation was over the camp that night. In ceremony we were told that the Hunkpapa needed to light the fire, so a call went out to the horse societies to come so Sunkawakan Oyate could help the people because of their healing abilities. Many in camp felt abandoned by the people of Standing Rock, so a call went out to the Hunkpapa to gather. That day when we lit the fire of the Oceti Sakonwin, we also lit the fire within.”

Lighting the Sacred Fire, Uniting the Nations

On November 5, delegations from the Seven Council Fires of the Oceti Sakowin gathered south of the main camp along the Mni Soce to reignite the sacred fire and establish the "Horn" of the nation, a camp layout where seven tipis are placed in a circle formation.

Nick Estes, Kul Wicasa (Lower Brule Sioux), a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, explains that the camp Horn is the historic and symbolic political organization of the Oceti Sakowin. Four nations represent the eastern Dakota-speaking people, the Mdewankantonwan, the Wahpekute, the Sissintonwan, and the Wahpetonwan. Two nations represent the middle-territory Nakota- speaking people: the Ihanktonwan and the Inhanktonwanna. Lastly, the largest most western nation is the Lakota-speaking people: the Tintonwan.

“The old ones say that we are a Star Nation, Wicahpi Oyate,” Estes explained. “The constellation now known as the Big Dipper for us is the Canupa, or pipe. The seven council fires of our nations are represented by the seven stars in that constellation, all unified under the pipe that our most powerful prophet gave to us. They say the White Buffalo Calf Woman, Pte Cincila Ska Win, who brought the first pipe and spiritual teachings, was a celestial being. They say what is in the heavens is also on earth. We organize ourselves politically according to this teaching.

“When the Horn was constructed, not just the Oceti Sakowin camped,” Estes added. “Allied Indigenous nations were welcomed to set up camp as well and sometimes granted a platform to speak. The Horn was usually only constructed during summer ceremonial seasons when people gathered for large trade fairs or sun dances. Either way, it was called and created as needed, often in times of great crises.”

So on that warm, sunny Saturday as heavily armed military surveilled from a nearby hill, the people gathered in the heart of the camp, at the Horn, to start the ceremony, a spiritual call to all nations for prayer and healing. “When we arrived on horseback to start the sacred fire, more than 10,000 people were there to support us,” said Looking Horse, who rode his favorite horse Drifter. “According to Oceti Sakowin, the Keeper of the Pipe is in the center, so I rode into camp and stood at my place at the Horn. That’s when we started the fire.

“In ceremony we pray to the West for our horses, and it was a pretty powerful feeling riding in from the West, bringing the horse nation in. The West represents the Wakan Oyate, the Thunder Beings, and on March 21 every year we have a ceremony to pray for the Wakan Oyate and the horse nations. We do these prayers because the White Buffalo Calf Woman brought us seven sacred ceremonies to sustain the people, then the buffalo ceremony and horse ceremony. From that time on, our ceremonies start with the Canupa, and we honor the horse nation in our ceremonies.

“This is the only way. The Canupa you carry, and ceremony,” Looking Horse said. “This is the message we are carrying for this generation right now. As Lakota, we carry our messages on horseback or running with an eagle staff, so we rode through camp from the West, then clockwise because that’s the way Wakan Tanka showed us how to run our ceremonies. To start a ceremony you have to lay the grass down clockwise, and after the ceremony is over we leave nothing behind so the grass stands back up. That’s the honor and respect that we have for our sacred places.”

As more than 40 horses and riders moved into the center of the prayer circle at the Horn, they rode clockwise. All the horses were marked with a circle on their foreheads, a symbol dating back to the creation of the horse nation. “That’s the spiritual connection represented in that circle, from the Great Spirit to Mother Earth, the water and that sacred fire,” said Looking Horse.

Sundance families and medicine people brought their individual Canupa to the circle with children up front, then women and men on the outside as the horses continued to circle. Shortly after, a delegation of 40 young runners from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe arrived carrying strength, fortitude and hope from their 1,200-mile cross-country trek to Standing Rock. The runners were introduced, and brought many people to tears as they spoke of tribal histories of running in fear from the cavalry that slaughtered their people, burned their homes and crops, and poisoned their water. This time, they said, they ran to Standing Rock with courage, strength and pride.

Faith Spotted Eagle of the Brave Heart Society and Dallas Goldtooth, Keep it in the Ground Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, explained the ceremony to the gathering as a large stack of wood was assembled for the fire. Spotted Eagle emphasized the importance of proper protocols to honor the ceremony, including women wearing long skirts to show respect.

Sicangu Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog.

Sicangu Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog.

A vibrant leader who helped revive traditional Lakota women’s societies, and a professional PTSD counselor, she recalled how Brave Heart Society grandmothers were reeling from the blatant destruction of sacred sites by DAPL: “Brave Heart is shaken because in the old days this society retrieved the dead from battlefield and re-interred relatives into the ground from the old scaffolds and oversaw the protection of remains. One had to have a Brave Heart to do so.”

Looking back on the ceremony now, Spotted Eagle emphasized that everyone has a role to play in the historic rebirth of united Lakota nations: “The rebirth of the Oceti Sakowin is what happened at this sacred, multi-component site along the Cannonball River in spite of rubber bullets, water cannons, biased courtrooms and incarceration of water protectors. The John K. Bear Winter Count [a calendrical history of the Lower Yanktonai Dakota written in Dakota text] recorded a Sundance in 1715, among many other ceremony sites. It is a ceremonial site for the Cheyenne, Arikara, Mandan, Ihanktonwanna, Ihanktonwan, Hunkpapa, other tribes and families. That is why when the prayers were laid, thousands of people felt those prayers and came. Despite all of this and the numerous burials present, North Dakota and the U.S. government did not consider us human enough to honor our dead, and plowed through them with capitalistic speed. First Nations educator Augustine Park calls it the ‘politics of grief,’ when we are not accorded the same respect as other humans. In order for settler colonialism to be successful, we must be eliminated, which will never occur.

Brave Heart Society founder Faith Spotted Eagle.

Brave Heart Society founder Faith Spotted Eagle.

“The Standing Rock Camp and defense for Mother Earth will be recorded on the Native Winter Count of 2016-2017 as a grand ceremony that has changed things forever. When the appointed Headsmen, Women's Council, spiritual advisors and elders at the Horn of the Oceti Sakowin put the sacred fire to sleep, that fire was relit in the thousands who came or prayed in their home circles. Each person who went to Standing Rock has a version of what happened, and it is all valid in each of the diverse campfires. As we carry the fire from Standing Rock in our hearts, it is important not to create hierarchies where we put ourselves above others who were not there. Spiritual and cultural unification occurred all across Turtle Island and will impact our futures. A unified Turtle Island of more than 500 tribes answered the call, and now we have more work to do—for the grandchildren.”

As the day lengthened, spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog recalled the power of prayer to help the people during the first Wounded Knee massacre, the second Wounded Knee, the Oka raid on Akwesasne Mohawk in Canada, and many other assaults on indigenous peoples. Several other leaders and medicine people added powerful, encouraging words. As the prayers and songs started, those with medicine from their homelands were invited to add it to the fire, and many stepped forward.

Dallas Goldtooth was then asked by leaders to light the sacred fire. Goldtooth and Tyson Flute retrieved the hot embers from the Sisseton-Wahpeton fire nearby in the camp.

“I carried the hot embers in a buffalo horn filled with straw and bark,” Goldtooth said. “It was a historic moment for all those attending, a fact that often overwhelms me when I think about it. It was a moment where in the face of our common enemy, Dakota Access, we as Oceti Sakowin decided to assert our resistance and unity. I ponder how often our communities and tribes face obstacles on the path to justice, and yet also struggle to unify in resistance to such things. That's what inspires me about that day, that moment. By lighting that fire, we reinforced the spiritual foundation of our struggle towards justice, and no matter what happens with Dakota Access, win or lose, that spiritual fire cannot be extinguished." By late afternoon, as the three-hour ceremony went on, two small airplanes circled above, attempting to spook the horses and disrupt the songs and prayers of the hundreds circled below them. It was a powerful reminder of the colonial mindset and military assaults taking place a half-mile away as water protectors tried to keep police and DAPL security off burial sites and were repeatedly blasted by police with pepper spray and tear-gas canisters.

But the spirits were there, the buffalo nation was there, and the horse nation’s medicine was working as the winds constantly shifted, sending fine mists of pepper spray back in the direction of police in riot gear. The tear gas canisters they threw started small grass fires, but the water protectors put them out after they tossed canisters back. Police gave up those tactics and the planes circled higher, but continued to monitor a prayer they didn’t understand. The horses, the medicine and the people carried on as the fire blazed brightly.

The Horse Nation arrives at the Horn to help heal the people in ceremony before the sacred Oceti Sakowin Fire is lit.

The Horse Nation arrives at the Horn to help heal the people in ceremony before the sacred Oceti Sakowin Fire is lit.

“These ceremonies were outlawed until 1978,” said Looking Horse, who worked for years to promote passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. “Since then, there have been a lot of ceremonies that have come back strong. So once we did our circle and prayers, the spiritual fire was lit. Once we started the fire, many people said they could feel the power when they drove into camp. We have to believe everything is going to turn for the good. When we start our ceremonies, it overpowers everything. We had the flags and prayers of more than 300 Indian nations standing with us. That’s more than the United Nations in New York.”

On December 4th, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit to stop the pipeline permit was denied in federal court in Washington, D.C. But within minutes, President Barack Obama’s administration intervened to deny the final permits required. The Army Corps of Engineers announced it would instead conduct a full environmental impact review and explore alternate routes. “Our prayers were answered when the permit was denied,” said Looking Horse. “As time went on, we were told in ceremony that we needed to put the sacred fire out. Some of the people wanted to keep it going, but we were told in Yuwipi ceremony. A lot of people don’t understand the significance of the ceremony— we have no choice. We got our answer to put the fire out. The message was to take the ashes back to the four directions. Our prayers from Standing Rock are everywhere.”

Water protectors later started another fire to keep the spirit of the remaining camps going, and many traveled to new resistance camps in Iowa, Nebraska, Arizona, Minnesota, Michigan, South and North Dakota. There are Lakota youth running to the East this month to visit all the resistance camps set up against the pipelines, carrying the spirit of Standing Rock with them.

Water protectors carried ashes from the sacred fire to the four directions and beyond. "Our prayers Standing Rock are everywhere," said Looking Horse.

Water protectors carried ashes from the sacred fire to the four directions and beyond. "Our prayers Standing Rock are everywhere," said Looking Horse.

The elders told Looking Horse that someday there would be white animals being born, a warning sign of hard times to come. Since then, in our time, white animals are being born all over the world. They are said to be messengers that Mother Earth has a fever.

This spring, the rarest of births occurred on the Sisseton-Wahpeton homelands—white buffalo twins, a boy and a girl. “I was honored that the tribe asked me to come and pray, so I went to do a ceremony,” Looking Horse said. “I told the people this is a blessing and it’s also a warning. But it empowers us to carry on our ceremonies and reminds us that we must stand together even stronger in our traditional ways.

"So I encourage people to offer tobacco ties and prayers, and to put down tobacco everywhere we go. I tell our young people we are in critical times and I truly believe that the white buffalo twins are a sign that the spirits, our grandmothers and grandfathers, are here with us in ceremony. We can’t go wrong with these gifts guiding us.”