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, 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, maybe, 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 there, 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 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 out there to put that belief in action.

I first went to Standing Rock over a Block Break this fall. I had read a few articles about the movement, and a friend said he was driving up there, so I joined. It turned out to be eight of us packed into one car. Initially, the goal was equal parts engaging in teenage rebellion and being a part of something that seemed to matter. 

We arrived early in the morning, groggy and amazed. The main entrance of the encampment leads to a dirt road flanked by hundreds of flags from different tribes and nations 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 I was intruding on something sacred, but people insisted that I take part. 

It became obvious that what was happening at Standing Rock was not something to be taken lightly. It was not a Block Break destination. I knew next to nothing 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 Cipher piece 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 Standing Rock in its quiet moments. Come Saturday, a rusty pickup truck sped around the camp, exhorting people to drive north to the front line. The front line is not actually a line, but arises wherever police and protectors confront each other. This was my introduction to direct actions, which range from locking oneself down on construction equipment to collective prayers. This one was of the milder sort. I hitched a ride north to join the direct action. A couple days earlier, I would have told myself that it’s not my fight, that I should leave the direct action to people who know what they’re doing. But I had been welcomed in too many times to stand apart. So I went and danced and actually prayed for the first time in my pathetic spiritual career. I had not 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 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 Hebrew I didn’t understand to a god I didn’t believe in, asking forgiveness for sins I had not committed. 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 brought the cynic in me to his knees.

I petitioned to do an independent study in order to go back to Standing Rock. When I got back to North Dakota, 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.” Martin Luther King Junior’s nonviolent movement arguably only succeeded because Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam presented a violent alternative that convinced the U.S. government to take the nonviolent faction of the Civil Rights movement seriously. 

At Standing Rock, I began to see that groups of young men were growing frustrated with the elders’ insistence on nonviolence while the pipeline advanced. 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, after all, has been its commitment to nonviolence. But 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 shouts about what the Elders want. But there are usually five people shouting five different things. Given the secrecy of the leadership, 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 going into the spirit world and seeking guidance from the spirits and ancestors there. 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. They 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 cooperates with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is part of the U.S. government. Both because of his ties to the U.S. government and because he was elected, many people don’t see Archambault as the top official in 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 shit. 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. There are even tensions between those who think the movement is primarily about keeping oil in the ground and those who are most concerned with indigenous sovereignty. But every time I encountered conflicts, I also found people mending those conflicts: a shaman hugging a young man who’s 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? 

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 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? He said, 

“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 are not 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 here. But 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 basic deep, deep wisdom. Once you have the relationships that make that connection possible, all our differences become so beautiful.” 

Most people are not so 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 boat 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 those protectors. 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 at Standing Rock 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 mourning, we’re despairing, we’re weeping,” she said, “But you bet your ass we’re weeping on the front lines.”