by Andras Corban-Arthen
This is a report on the trip which my son Donovan and I recently took to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the camps of the people who, as Water Protectors, are trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was a very intense and full experience, and I cannot possibly do it justice within the limits of a blog post. The photos which accompany this article were taken by one of the camp’s official photographers, and are published here with permission.
In October, we received a copy of a call by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota nation, asking religious leaders of all traditions to join the people who had gathered at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He wrote:
“We are asking the religious leaders to come and support them, to stand side-by-side with them, because they are standing in prayer…If you can find it in your heart, to pray with them, and stand beside them…because the Police Department and the National Guard, they would listen to each and every one of you.”
I have a great deal of respect for Chief Looking Horse. I’ve met him several times over the years, and participated with him in a couple of panels and other events at interfaith gatherings. He was one of the main speakers at the Indigenous Plenary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City last October. Though I don’t know him well, I have always been impressed by his wisdom, his commitment, and his willingness to reach out to all peoples on behalf of the Earth. I had already been thinking for several weeks about going to Standing Rock, and his message fueled that urge even more.
Then I received a more personal message from Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder from Minnesota who was also one of the speakers at last year’s Indigenous Plenary, asking if anyone from the Parliament was planning to go to Standing Rock in response to Chief Looking Horse’s call. She thought it was important for the Parliament to make an official statement regarding the situation. I took that as a very definite sign, and asked the EarthSpirit board of directors if it would be possible to send me there. They agreed that I should go but, out of concern for my health, suggested that someone else should accompany me. I asked my son Donovan, and he immediately changed his schedule so he could come along.
My next step was to approach the Parliament’s Board to tell them of my plans to go to Standing Rock. The Indigenous Task Force, of which I am a member, set out to write a statement, along with our Executive Director and staff, that I could take to North Dakota. Lewis Cardinal, the chair of the task force, also began contacting people at the camps to let them know we were sending a statement.
Grandmother Lyons invited us to stay at her campsite, and also to take part in a water ceremony she was going to lead. Some of my other Indigenous friends helped me to find local contacts, to get a better idea of what to expect. A Sioux man from Standing Rock was particularly helpful, even as he painted a fairly grim scenario. The police, he said, had blocked off the main highway to prevent access to the camps, so the only way to get there from the Bismarck airport was to make a long detour that added about 45 minutes to the trip. He also said that we should be prepared to be stopped randomly and harassed by the authorities, and stressed that we shouldn’t lose our cool no matter how much they might try to provoke us. He asked me if I had any connection to the United Nations. I told him that I was one of the Parliament’s U.N. delegates, and that I had an access photo badge. He suggested that I take it with me and wear it at all times, because the police tended to respect the U.N. Needless to say, this was not particularly encouraging.
After flying to Bismarck, North Dakota, and renting a car, Donovan and I had an early introduction to the level of police presence at Standing Rock. We had stopped at a traffic light in the town of Mandan, where we were supposed to turn onto a road that would take us down to the camps, when we noticed several police vehicles approaching the intersection, coming from the direction toward which we were supposed to go. It quickly became evident that those vehicles were merely the head of a long caravan: cruisers, armored cars, police vans, ambulances, sheriffs’ trucks, and one empty school bus – over forty vehicles went by while we waited.
A bit later, we found out that there had been a nonviolent protest action near the pipeline, and that about two dozen water protectors had been arrested. The vehicles we had witnessed had been taking them to police headquarters, where they would be booked and placed inside large chain-link dog kennels which had been set up as temporary containment cells. Once the protesters had been bailed out, they would return to the camps in the school bus. Apparently, this scenario is enacted on a fairly regular basis.
Because the main road to the camp was blocked, we had to go down using the backroads, a route which required us to make two major turns. At each of those turns, there was an unmarked car parked just off the intersection. But for a couple of instances over the weekend when the cars were empty, each time we made those turns the person inside the car raised a camera to take a photo of our vehicle; the authorities, I was told later, were recording every license plate going to and from the camps. As we got closer to our destination we saw lots of law enforcement personnel, many wearing tactical gear, and more cruisers, police wagons and armored vehicles. The place felt very much like a militarized zone, grim and forbidding.
In sharp contrast, our arrival at Camp Oceti Sakowin felt like we had come upon an oasis full of life in the midst of a barren desert: dozens of colorful banners on tall poles, voices singing, drums pounding, the smell of wood fires and of food cooking, young men riding bareback on gorgeous Appaloosas, and tents and tipis, cars and RVs as far as the eye could see. It looked like there had to be at least a couple of thousand people at the camp.
After finding Grandmother Mary Lyons and her family, and our friends Robin and Nsasi from Minnesota, we went around and explored a bit, then settled down for some good conversations with Mary and her folks. One of the people who came by to talk was Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Tom and I
remembered each other from the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and we chatted a little bit about his experiences there. Tom’s son is one of the camp’s organizers, though he was away that weekend, so Mary gave Tom a portable carport she had brought as a donation to the camp, to pass on to his son.
I wanted to find one of the people that the Parliament had arranged for me to meet, so I could hand him the statement that the Indigenous Task Force had drafted. Mary suggested that we go to the central fire, where a lot of different activities were held, and see if he was there. Though we had no luck finding him, Mary talked to some people and came back to say that they would like me to read the statement at the fire, if I didn’t mind sitting there for a little bit and wait for my turn to come.
As I was waiting, the two-dozen or so people who had been arrested earlier that morning returned to the camp after having posted bail. They were brought to stand in a line by the fire, and then seemingly everyone in the camp came by to shake their hands or hug them, one by one, and thank them for their willingness to stand up for their convictions. The whole thing took maybe half an hour, but in that brief and deeply moving time, the purpose of the camps became very apparent to me: they are there to provide spiritual, emotional and physical support to the people who put themselves at grave risk every few days, engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience by standing in the way of the pipeline and getting arrested in the process. The camps provide the environment in which the actions are carefully planned; they provide encouragement and moral support to the protectors; they offer them backup during the actions, to insure their safety as much as possible; they follow the protectors to the police headquarters once they’ve been arrested, and arrange for them to make bail, and bring them back; and then the camps receive them upon their return with love, with gratitude, with food, with healing. It’s a perfect example of what real community is about.
Of those who’d been arrested that day, roughly half looked to be Indigenous. Most of the rest were white, including a couple of elderly people. Then there were four young African-Americans, all wearing hooded sweatshirts with BLACK LIVES MATTER boldly written in the front. Given the political and social climate in the U.S. today; given the widespread racism that has been crawling out of the ruins of our national denial, triggered by the election of the first black President in history; given the senseless acts of violence perpetrated against unarmed black people by civilians and by police officers unworthy of the title; given all that, the thought of those four young people taking the kind of risk they took, deliberately and openly approaching law enforcement personnel to commit acts of civil disobedience which they knew would land them in jail, took incredible courage. In so doing, they modeled for everyone what solidarity really means, the importance of all of us standing together for each other.
A few minutes after the ceremony ended, someone came over and asked me to go up to the microphone to read the Parliament’s statement in support of Standing Rock, which I gladly did. I had also brought similar declarations from EarthSpirit and from the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, so after reading the one from the Parliament, someone else came and collected all three, saying that he would pass them on to the camp coordinators. Several people came over in the next little while to tell me they were grateful for the statements of support, and to ask that I pass their thanks to the respective organizations.
While I was sitting by the fire, I had a very interesting conversation with an Indigenous woman who was seated next to me. She was curious to know more about the Parliament, because she remembered hearing something about it a while ago. I gave her a brief description of it, and talked in particular about the Indigenous Assembly we had organized in Melbourne in 2009, and the large and very prominent Indigenous program we had at Salt Lake City last year. She asked me if there had been any friction between Indians and non-Indians at Salt Lake City, and explained that she has usually felt friction between both camps, even when they are together to work for a common purpose, so she wondered if there were any events, such as the Parliament, where that friction wasn’t present. I told her I was very familiar with what she was describing, and that there have occasionally been varying levels of friction and tension between Indians and non-Indians at the Parliament, though I had felt it much less at Salt Lake City, and hoped that meant that we were making progress in reaching greater understanding and respect. I said to her, in turn, that in the short time I had been at Camp Oceti Sakowin, it appeared to me that it was pretty free of that kind of tension, and asked her if that was her experience as well, and – if it was – why she thought that might be the case.
She replied that, for the most part, people were getting along together really well, which she ascribed to the fact that, when the camps started, the great majority of participants were Indigenous, so that even if they came from different areas and nations, they shared a very similar culture. By the time that a number of white people started arriving, the “Indian way” had been solidly established, and the newcomers had to adapt to it. She said that, while Indians are very used to functioning within white culture, the opposite is not at all true, so the newcomers were told, “you’re welcome here, we can use your help, but if you’re going to be here, you need to do things our way.”
In her opinion, that worked out fairly well for most of the summer, but she said there had been some friction lately, as more non-Indians arrived. “Some of them come because they think it’s a cool place to be, because they want to play at being Indians. But that’s all wrong, it’s not about making them feel special, it’s about working hard for the reason that we’re here, to stop the pipeline.” Other white people come “to save us,” she added: they bring an attitude that they know better, that they have fancy college degrees, all kinds of advanced skills, and that they’re going to step in and fix everything. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m gonna make it all better for the poor savages, if they only get out of the way.’ Well, that’s just colonialist bullshit, we don’t need that. We have cultures that are as old as the Europeans, we know what we’re doing. People with that kind of attitude don’t last very long here.” According to her, several people have been asked to leave recently because of that.
Most white people, she said, tend to see what’s happening at Standing Rock just in terms of the pipeline, as an isolated incident. Indians, on the other hand, see it as the latest battle in a struggle they’ve been waging for hundreds of years, a struggle to preserve their lands, their cultures, their lives. She thought this was one of the most important things non-Indians needed to understand.
The next day, Donovan and I joined Mary Lyons and a group of her family and friends to walk down to the blockaded road to participate in the water ceremony. The police had placed two large, rusted trucks across Rte. 1806 to prevent access to the camp, and there were several cruisers and security vehicles parked just on the other side of the blockade. We had been asked to only go so far down the road; getting any closer to the trucks would trigger the police into action, and the camp organizers didn’t want anyone provoking them outside of the planned protests.
Grandmother Mary had asked us to bring water from places that were important or sacred to us. We brought water from the Munlochy Clootie Well – an ancient healing spring in Scotland – and from Glenwood, from a point where the waters of four streams converge. The ceremony itself was very simple: Mary spoke for a bit about why we were there and
about how Water is Life, then asked those of us who brought water to say something about where it came from, and then to pour it onto the ground to bring blessings and healing to the land.
Before heading back to Bismarck and the airport, Donovan and I stopped by to see Devorah Rosenberg, an old friend from Western Mass. who was working in the main kitchen. It was heartwarming to see someone else from home at the camp. Soon after we returned, my niece Ember Arthen-Cheyne, who is a former Army medic, drove out to Standing Rock to offer her services at the medic tent, and was planning to remain there until the end of December.
I am very grateful for the support of our community in enabling us to make the trip out to North Dakota, and I encourage everyone to lend any help you can to the people who remain in the camps and are now preparing for the harsh winter months ahead.
Addendum: Just today, it was announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had turned down the permit for the pipeline company to continue excavations on what are legally held to be federally-owned lands (the Sioux claim otherwise). Though this is being widely trumpeted throughout social media as a decisive victory for the Water Protectors, it is likely too early to tell what it actually means. There’s no question that this decision is a very important development, and that there is much cause for celebration in the moment. How long the moment will last, however, nobody really knows. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that, in barely a month-and-a-half, there will likely be a dramatic change in Washington, and today’s decision could be reversed. Friends at Standing Rock inform me that the camps are continuing to prepare for the winter, and that they could still use our support.