My Experience at the Standing Rock Reservation

Upon entering the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I was greeted not only by the sight of dozens of flags of indigenous tribes, organizations, and DIY banners of support, but I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of tents, lean-tos, and teepees with smoke billowing out of the tops from the woodstoves burning inside. My group and I had stumbled across a commune, a collective of people of all colors, belief and unbelief systems, and backgrounds, many of whom came to North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux.

Immediately upon arrival, we were directed to “the green tent” which held orientation every day in the morning to help newcomers become able to appropriately enter into the sacred space of the camp. Rules for living peaceably and respectably in the camp included: no loud music as “this is not Coachella” and is a camp dedicated to prayer first and foremost, and among other things to follow, the seven Lakota virtues: Prayer, Respect, Compassion, Honesty, Generosity, Humility, and Wisdom.

After listening to the orientation, we found ourselves working for a carpenter from Arizona sanding and varnishing compostable toilets. I will be the first one to admit that it is not the most glamorous job, but I didn’t come for glamour. The toilets we helped finish will soon replace the rented toilets that cost the camp thousands of dollars to keep. We then attended a direct action training for people who want to engage in active non-violent protest against the pipeline. It was an intense wake up call to say the least, especially considering the amount of aggression and force that the peaceful protesters have been facing over the course of the year. We were taught how to react when attacked with possible chemical weapons (tear gas/pepper spray), what to say/not to say to police if facing arrest, how to respond to police in the most non-aggressive way possible, and possibly the most important thing: always have a plan B in case everything falls apart. It was sobering to hear some of the obviously learned response to police resistance by some of the men and women gathered at the training, especially personally coming from a place where I don’t feel necessarily threatened or triggered by police presence.

However, what really brought the overall experience home for me was the prayer service held right outside the camp, in the face of a militarized police blockade across the bridge. The sound of drums and chanting resounded at the beginning and end of the service, and during it we were all able to take time for true reflection of the injustice being faced at Standing Rock, and why were there. The speaker made a distinction that affected my whole perspective of the weekend. She said we needed to remember this issue is not an us versus them conflict. That sense of division and distinction is very prevalent in white culture, but for the indigenous people at Standing Rock this is about protecting their water rights. She also made sure to mention that many of the police on the other side of the bridge, “are just doing their job…some are even sympathetic to the cause but they have families to take care.” She was able to say it in such a disarming manner it became so clear to me this isn’t water protectors vs. police, it’s about defending water rights of indigenous people.

“Mni Wiconi” is a Lakota saying for “water is life,” and many people who are active members in white culture should strive to recognize how sacred the land is for many people, whether indigenous or not. Their health and beliefs need to be defended and protected through active engagement and attentive listening. I learned that in standing with people, I was able to feel a kinship that transcended religion, race, politics, gender, etc. in the face of a great injustice. Mni Wiconi, Defend the Sacred.

Want to learn more, come to DuSomething (the Peace & Justice club) in Campus Ministry at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 8, to hear more about the experience Gina Boeding, Anne Marie Elsinger and I had at Standing Rock.

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