Standing Rock:  Its Meaning

by Courage the Activist

What you’re witnessing in North Dakota right now are all seven bands of the Lakota together again after 150 years. You’re witnessing 12,000 people roughing -20° F nights to gather in prayer and exhaust more forms of non-violent direct action than I’ve ever seen a movement employ. What you’re witnessing are 300 tribes that have found a common fight to wage: a gathering of the nations who have prepared one another, as relations, for a spiritual battle.

Of course, we’re talking about a $3.7billion oil pipeline, 1,200 miles long. Approved by the Army Corps of Engineers without even consulting the Sioux Nation, it is forcefully being built and drilled under the Missouri River, which it should be made clear, is virtually the Sioux Nation’s only source of natural water. The Missouri connects to enough rivers, including the Mississippi, to contaminate the water supply of 18 million people if DAPL is built and breaks. In the last 20 years there have been 11,119 pipelines that have broken. Another broke nearby last week.

There’s a disturbing pattern of every major pipeline running through Indian land. The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally going to run through Bismarck, ND, but was quickly moved down to Indian land when that city’s [92% white] population didn’t want it there. The route of the pipeline also ironically runs through unrecognized treaty land. Some have called this the last American Indian war. In retrospect for Natives, the wars have been endless: for our land, then our gold, then on our culture and now over pipelines.

Personally, I am a Mestizo/Oglala Lakota and humanitarian; I was just turning 28 when I saw the 27 burial sites bulldozed and the attack dogs unleashed on unarmed families. After witnessing these atrocities, I went there to work. I went there to fight.

But little did I expect to find the beauty, mindset and values I had struggled to find where I live now in L.A. I’m referring to the unending conflict Natives still have in this “coast-to-coast shopping mall” you call USA, because of how starkly different non-Native values are from ours: Pursuit of a career as opposed to a simple pursuit of happiness, property/ownership over sharing, looking out for number one as opposed to thinking of your community first, working for money instead of working for a purpose, etc. To a Native, a city like LA can feel like a place of separation and selfishness, overwhelmed by social degeneration caused by its own obsession with property-ownership and prioritizing profit over caring for all its people. Which has resulted in a desperation that’s being thwarted by a dysfunctional security culture that only serves to intensify the cycle and the frustration. As a Native whose culture has community at its centerpiece, I have to say your society is a self-destructive one.

So imagine my surprise going to a place with thousands of American Indians who all had the same story as I did? Standing Rock was a new world remade in the spirit of the old. There was absolutely no alcohol. No drugs. No weapons. Every morning we were awoken by drummers and singers. Elders and leaders spoke over the microphone about what the whole community had to learn that day. I remember one dark morning before dawn, during a pipe ceremony, where I was shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people in a circle singing exactly when the sun bloomed across the horizon. I remember a water ceremony in the cool brisk morning air by the river where we offered a prayer in the form of tobacco one by one, first women, then as a sacred “Two Spirited” LGBT man like myself, a tradition now honored at Standing Rock after I started their first camp for LGBT American Indians.

I remember the spirited yells at sunset. I remember Mexican and US Natives reunited again. I still feel the warrior paint on my face riding in the back of a truck holding a flag, with 110 cars behind us. I saw Teepees, Tibetan yurts and Chinese tents next to each other. I learned to ride a horse. I skinned a buffalo. We had schools and teachers, kitchens and cooks, delicious meals, medical tents and doctors, herb tents, supply tents and everything you could possibly need gifted to you within hours upon arriving. But most distinctively: no concept of money. Therefore greed couldn’t exist, or homelessness, or desperation born from not being cared about, or liabilities that outlawed compassion. I never heard of anything being stolen. Everyone was genuine. Not a single person was on a script like some drone programmed to obey orders. But at the same time we were organized and went over our principles every day; above all: to remain peaceful and prayerful.

Yet despite there not being a single confirmed report of a weapon to this day, I witnessed the most violent police brutality, committed by Morton County, I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Rubber bullets were fired at close range that blinded a young woman in one eye. Mace was blasted on people to the point of some elders being covered in it. Pepper spray canisters were hosed on people unable to move, half-submerged in a freezing river during the same water ceremony I mentioned earlier. Flash and concussion grenades were fired directly into crowds that led to a woman losing her arm. There were a number of cops without badges (some not even cops).

Sound cannons (IRADs) were used for long periods on crowds causing internal organ rupture for some. Police attempted to arrest more people en masse, leading to us having numbers written on our arms and being kept in large dog kennels. Police barricaded highway 1806 with burnt cars chained onto cement barriers knowingly blocking requested emergency vehicles.

Snipers shot our horses dead. Buffalo thought to be a menace were held in captivity with no food or water. Prayer sites where ancestors were buried were surrounded with barbed wire so workers could dig into the ground. Police destroyed a bridge we built for elders to walk over and pray in that area. Water cannons were used on hundreds of people in sub-freezing temperatures trapped on a bridge that resulted in 167 people being treated for hypothermia.

Live Facebook feeds would get cut off and taken down and our footage drones were shot down and conveniently banned, while armed drones to be used by police were made legal. A journalist was intentionally shot during an interview for no reason, and a filmmaker who filmed one action was charged with conspiracy: a possible felony with 45 years in prison. The list grew everyday, yet practically all these atrocities, despite video evidence, have been largely whited-out in the corporate media. Despite the Army Corps’ denial of the easement to drill under the river, Dakota Access has announced they will drill anyway because they can afford $50,000-a-day fines.

What time do we live in? Because I no longer know. What I do know is that no one has more fight in them than an American Indian. Life as an activist today shouldn’t have to be like this. At the beginning, I said that this was a spiritual battle. Standing Rock has not only reminded us of what it means to be American Indian again, we have come to realize that your world has something very timely to learn from our world.

Namely, balance in all things, especially in your societies, and respect for the earth and its inhabitants, especially for things that are different from your way of life. We can’t always control what we create! You can’t eat money! You can’t drink oil! There are no jobs on a dead planet! Native people know that now is the time for us to make a stand. Standing Rock is not just a place, it’s an idea: that after 500+ years of greed, genocide, disease, land theft, prison camps (now reservations) and the disembowelment of our cultures in boarding schools, now could be the time to stop repeating the same crimes against a peaceful people and finally turn it all around. History and the world are watching us.

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