This Land

The Spirit of Standing Rock

Photos and article by Ethan Cutler

There is a song we all know: “This land is your land, this land is my land, / from California to the New York island / from the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, / this land was made for you and me.” If any belief can be called American, it’s that “this land was made for you and me.” Much blood has been shed over the question of who constitutes you and me, but everyone at least seems to agree that this land was made for us—whoever we are. It’s central to manifest destiny and eminent domain, “get off my lawn” and Liberty itself. But at a dispute over an oil pipeline that runs through contested land in North Dakota, indigenous people have reminded us just how pernicious that idea of ownership is. 

When I went to Standing Rock, the site of the conflict, one of the first conversations I had was with an elderly woman who told me, “The white man thinks he owns the land. You too, maybe you think we own the land. But no one owns the land. No one.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile-long oil pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline is nearly complete. One of the last unbuilt sections would run underneath the Missouri River. It’s here, less than a mile away from the U.S.-recognized border of the Standing Rock reservation, where the resistance has grown into an encampment thousands strong. The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty designated this land (including this section of the river) to the Standing Rock Sioux, but it quickly became one of countless treaties the U.S. government violated. The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have never believed the U.S. owns that land, and now thousands of people are camping, marching, and blockading to put that belief in action.

I first went to Standing Rock this fall with some friends, planning to visit for just a few days. We arrived early in the morning, groggy and amazed. Through thick fog, we drove down a dirt road flanked by hundreds of flags from different tribes around the world: visible proof of global solidarity. We parked and soon found ourselves following a chanting, slow-moving crowd down to the Canon Ball River (a tributary to the Missouri). At the water, people began to pray, burn tobacco and sage, and offer each other water from the river. They were singing songs in different languages—upward of twenty by the end of the ceremony. It felt like we were intruding on something sacred, but everyone insisted that newcomers take part. 

It became obvious that what was happening at Standing Rock was not something to be visited over a weekend. I knew little about the movement, so I started reading whatever I could find and listening to anyone who would talk to me. Without conducting interviews for a story or even searching for higher-ups to talk to, I, like everyone else, was welcomed into tipis, ceremonies, meetings and homes. The camp was overflowing with a sense of community. As one Standing Rock Sioux Elder said to me, “If you’re a friend of the water, you’re a friend of ours.” 

For a while, though, I only saw the encampment in its quiet moments. But come Saturday, a rusted pickup truck sped around the camp, filled with masked men shouting at people, exhorting them to drive north to "the front line." The front line is not actually a line, but arises wherever police and protectors confront each other. I hopped in the pick-up and got a crash-course in direct actions, which range from locking oneself down on construction equipment to collective prayers. 

"Ready to fuck shit up?" the guy next to me asked. He was wearing a dusty black bandana over his mouth and holding a makeshift shield: clearly the kind of guy who fucks shit up.

"Uh," I said, "I'm...a journalist?"

He looked me up-and-down, saw the "Journalist" badge I had earned after a thorough background check, and said, "whatever, man—are you here to fight or take pictures?" A couple days before, I would have considered saying, "take pictures." But I had been treated too kindly to maintain the pretense of an objective observer. So I said "fight," and the guy beamed.

Lucky for me—a terrified, scrawny, aspiring journalist—this protest was of the milder sort. So I went and danced and actually prayed for the first time in my pathetic spiritual career. I hadn't realized until then that this whole movement really was more of a prayer than a protest. Of course, prayer can be a form of protest—and that’s kind of the point—but it took a few days for me to realize that I was surrounded by hundreds of people who truly believed they could stop this pipeline if they prayed with all their might. And, skeptic though I am, I was enamored by faith in action. I had grown up chanting words I didn’t understand to a god I didn’t believe in, asking forgiveness for sins I hadn't committed. So this was a welcome change of pace. When we left Standing Rock at the end of break, we were urged to come back and reminded that the movement “needs more people like you.” Standing Rock had, at least for a moment, brought the cynic in me to his knees.

I was back in North Dakota after a few days of haggling with professors and parents. When I got back and was welcomed in by people I now sort of knew, I was still in awe of the strength of the community. But as I began to gather interviews and get a better sense of the movement, tensions emerged and politics reared its ugly head. 

* * *

Those who are resisting DAPL call themselves water protectors—not protesters. They’re careful with their language in order to spread a nonviolent message and because the word “protester” is itself a colonizer’s word. Direct actions, I was told by organizers, are not protests, but prayers. But of course no nonviolent movement is that simple. Gandhi said, “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” 

At Standing Rock, I began to see that groups of young men were growing frustrated with the elders’ insistence on nonviolence. The pipeline was advancing steadily, these young men, led by a group called the Red Warriors, began to directly disobey elders’ orders. A few people began to throw small logs at police during confrontations. At first I was dismissive of their aggression. Part of the movement’s success up to that point, after all, had been its commitment to nonviolence. Organizers knew that their only chance for success was to garner the public's sympathy, and they knew that they had to be nonviolent to receive that sympathy. That argument made sense to me until I got to know a Red Warrior who reminded me that, “if you had centuries of violence boiling your blood, it wouldn’t be so easy to stick to nonviolence. If you had to live here on this fucking rez with this fucking pipeline, you’d be throwing shit too.” 

On the front lines, it’s common to hear five different people shouting five different things about what the Elders want. Given the secrecy of the leadership, the truth is that most people never know what exactly the Elders want. When I started to inquire about the Elders, I was always told to put away my recorder and usually I was still told nothing. But eventually I learned of a formal Council of Elders, some from Standing Rock and some from other tribes. They are a self-appointed group and they make decisions by, in their own words, "seeking guidance from the spirits and ancestors in the spirit world." They draw their authority from their age, their status in their respective tribes, and their spiritual wisdom. The respect everyone has for not only those elders, but all elders, is visible everywhere. The elderly always eat first at the kitchens, they burn the sage at ceremonies, and their opinions are always held in the highest regard.

At Standing Rock, though, the Council of Elders at the main camp is different from the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council. The tribal council is headed by chairman Dave Archambault II, who was elected by the members of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Archambault’s council consistently works with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is part of the U.S. government. So, both because of his ties to the U.S. government and because he was elected, many people don’t see Archambault as the legitimate head of this movement. When I asked why the fact that he’s elected could possibly reduce trust, I was reminded that, “people always think just because someone is elected, they should run things. Well a whole lot of elected men have massacred Indians. Maybe spiritual leaders are better, right. You ever think of that?” I hadn’t. 

In a movement this large, factions are bound to arise. Plus, we now know that a government-contracted security agency was infiltrating the camp and attempting to sow mistrust and violence. There were even ideological tensions between those who think the movement is primarily about keeping oil in the ground and those who are most concerned with indigenous sovereignty.

Still, every time I encountered conflicts, I also found people mending those conflicts: a shaman hugging a young man shaking with fury, a group of kids helping an elder across a river, constant prayer ceremonies centered around unity. What, then, has kept so many different peoples united? When so many other movements have crumbled into disarray and out of the spotlight, why has this one remained resolute for months on end? 

It’s certainly not the homogeneity of the participants—there are over 500 indigenous tribes who have sent flags in solidarity. Many of those tribes fought each other for centuries. I spoke with a Hopi shaman who said that, “back in Arizona I can’t get Hopi and Navajo people to talk to each other. Here, hundreds of miles away or whatever, we’re sharing meals, we’re praying together. We’re willing to die for this movement. It’s beautiful.”

I also spoke with a Lakota spiritual leader who gave me something like an answer to some apparently simple questions: beyond the pipeline, beyond the politics, what is this? How is this happening? How are people still hopeful in the face of impossible odds? I'll quote him in full because I couldn't possibly paraphrase: 

“What I’ve discovered here is that the spirituality of the cause has created true unity. It’s about prayer and relationship. When you have all these people living together and praying together, you get to an underlying unity. As I’ve gone deeper and deeper into this community, for all our surface differences, the deep wellsprings of faith are something that we hold in common. You can talk about beliefs but that’s not a big deal. The deep wellsprings of faith, the things we build our lives on, that’s vulnerable and sacred ground. People aren't going to share that part of themselves unless they feel safe and respected. And that’s what people feel here. The differences between religions and tribes and people become so much clearer and sharper, you can see them everywhere. But somehow they also more clearly become pathways into this common ocean of spirit. And when you can get to that place, our differences actually become sources of liberation. Because you see them as this huge multitude of expressions of the same basic longings and the same deep, deep wisdom.” 

Most people are not as articulate, but everyone seems to feel something similar. At a particularly tense moment of one confrontation, I was taking photos from a canoe in the middle of a river, watching a police officer pull out a can of pepper spray and prepare to spray it at a protector standing shirtless and shivering in the river. The protector clasped his hands together above his head and bowed his head in prayer. The officer put the mace away and I could see his lower lip tremble. A woman I had never met who was with me in the canoe said, “you feel that? That’s called soul force. That’s what it’s all about.”

A nice moment, but five minutes later the police were pepper spraying us. More recently, people have been sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. One woman was permanently blinded by a rubber bullet; another woman’s arm was shattered by a concussion grenade. The head medic later told me, “things are getting rough, and given Trump’s election, they’re not going to get any better. At this point, we give thanks every time we come back from an action and nobody’s dead.” 

Part of what makes the entire struggle so difficult is that, as an organizer named Heather Whitefoot said, “Ideally, we wouldn’t be fighting for our land. We’re supposed to be fighting for the land. We don’t believe anyone can own the land. But you can’t totally escape the system, so if we own it, we’ll at least be good stewards of it.” The conflict between ownership and stewardship, “between respecting resources and overusing them,” is, as Whitefoot said, “what it all comes back to. It’s always been the same fight. What’s different now is that we actually have a chance of winning.”

When I left, scores of protectors had just been arrested and we had just received news that the Army Corps would likely grant the pipeline permission to drill under the river. Everyone was dejected, but never to the point of inaction. Heather, who had just been released from jail, exemplified the camp’s spirit: “We’re all we’re weeping,” she said, “But you bet your ass we’re weeping on the front lines.”


Update, October 2017:  

Oil is now flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline. More importantly, it's flowing beneath Lake Oahe, which is sacred to the local indigenous people. The lake is their only source of water. Chairman Dave Archambault has been voted out of office amidst widespread disappointment in his handling of the pipeline.

The Standing Rock Sioux won a significant victory in court a few months ago.

Hundreds of protectors still await court dates, and some have already been sentenced to jail-time.