I moseyed over to Bismarck, North Dakota this past week to find out what was really going on at the Standing Rock Reservation, with this “protest” of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I learned two main lessons. First, this is a classic case of egregious political corruption in which the governor, in collusion with private (foreign) corporations, is sending police, sheriffs, and even national guard troops to beat the hell out of citizens in violation of their most fundamental civil rights—in this case, non-violent demonstrators exercising the right of assembly. It’s blatant, constantly one-sided, and enraging. I saw and experienced it first hand, inquired of it, challenged it, and got confirmation that there is only one side to the story.
Second, the two encampments, Oceti Sakowin especially, are truly prayer sites. They are holistic spiritual enclaves in which a spirit of traditional stewardship for the earth is nurtured and non-violence trained. The Lakota are genuine water “protecters,” not protesters. At the Sacred Stones camp, there is a constant drum beat and educational focus to this spirit, designed to “change the hearts” of the mercenaries to re-engage the spirit of stewardship in them. This is by far the dominant tone of the entire operation.
Not since 1845 have so many Native American tribes united in such spiritual enclave. The pow-wowing around sacred fires, the inspiring tribal flags lining long roads in camp, the youth riding their pinto horses on the circumference, lining a high ridge, and the profuse neighborliness and helpfulness of all gathered bears evidence to this spirit. The place is a home you never knew you had until you arrive and settle in.
“The line” of confrontation is at Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806. I decided to drive south on it from Bismarck first, rather than joining the protectors coming northward, trying to cross the bridge alone. Passing one “road closed” sign after another, I finally reached the National Guard post and was stopped.
Guard: “The road is closed.”
Me: “Yes I know, but it said ‘local traffic only,’ and what traffic isn’t way out here?”
Guard: “No traffic can go through, the bridge is too damaged, it’s too dangerous.”
We negotiated, then I said I’d walk over.
Guard: “The bridge is severely damaged it’s too dangerous.”
Me: “To walk over? It can’t hold my weight? Don’t you have about 200 police personnel with armored vehicles standing on it? No room for one more 175 pounder? I’ll tread lightly. Tell me, does the National Guard routinely handle road closures?”
Guard: “No, I’m…”
Me: “Tell you what, I’ll walk down the bank and wade across the water. Surely the bridge could take that.”
Then I simply started out on my walk. They physically prevented it, a force now grown to perhaps a dozen, from two originally, with two vehicles added. “Touching me makes this a police action. The National Guard does not engage in domestic policing except under martial law.” They didn’t seem to care.
Taking the detour and arriving at Oceti camp, I gave my donations, helped with some construction and serving of food, and then had a frank talk with the Red Owl Legal Collective in their tent. This started with, “Why shouldn’t all these police, sheriff department personnel, and the rest be rounded up by US Army forces for trespassing on sovereign treatied Lakota land?” Turns out that the crimes committed by officials are so many that lawyers are having trouble keeping track of them and are formulating class action suits galore. So I helped fund the effort: “Sue the eyeballs out of these people.”
The police accused protesters of rioting on the night I left, and attacked them. But livestreamed video shows a police riot setting fire to the land nearby through their canisters. Protectors kept putting them out. You really have to see firsthand: mercenaries firing (rubber) bullets point-blank at unarmed Sioux, Ojibwe, and Cheyenne, casually spraying them with tear gas, pepper spray, and newly added water cannons since temperatures have dropped into the twenties with high winds. Ah, a little frostbite never hurt anyone, right?
Spiritually, I could have remained by the sacred fire of the Seven-Fire Council pow-wowing for many moons, ringed by huge teepees where the chiefs abide. They provided me free sermons on native beliefs and rituals. But my capacity for non-violence was just not strong enough. I wonder how long you could last if you saw the egregious and violent injustices being committed by the people’s own government on them. Indian peoples-of-color’s lives matter too.
Bill Puka, professor
Cognitive Science Department