Lessons from Standing Rock 

A Fayetteville resident joins the 'water protectors' allied against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

click to enlarge SPENCER HATCHER
  • Spencer Hatcher

Once we crossed over into the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the central border between North and South Dakota, the multitude of reasons that impelled me to leave a week of work and family behind in Arkansas and to stand in solidarity with the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors cohered into an overwhelming clarity.

Energy Transfer Partner's Dakota Access Pipeline, intended to carry unrefined crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, has seen construction halted in its late phases by opponents who have gathered in various camps at Standing Rock since April. In July, the Standing Rock Sioux sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court, seeking an emergency halt in construction. A judge rejected their broad request in September; hours later, the U.S. Justice and Interior departments and the Army Engineers ordered a halt to construction near Lake Oahe, an ancestral site for the Sioux, until the Engineers reviewed previous decisions and decided whether to conduct a fuller cultural and environmental review. The government again delayed issuing a permit on Nov. 14, saying that more consultation with Native American tribes was needed.

Those who actively oppose the pipeline refer to themselves not as protestors but as "water protectors." They cite the likelihood of a pipeline rupture destroying their drinking water, which comes from the Missouri River. The pipeline is also slated to slink under the river and through ancestral burial sites. Originally, the pipeline had been directed through Bismark, but the city objected and the oil company rerouted through Standing Rock.

Since early in the fall, I have been following the live feeds of the protest closely. News also reached me through a few friends who returned from Standing Rock inspired by the camp's unity and determination. They found many intersecting social conflicts — environmental recklessness, corporate greed, police abuse and racism — in a fight that seemed winnable because so many broader concerns were concentrated in a single point of conflict.

Several of these friends were planning eagerly, even desperately, to get back to Standing Rock, to help shore up the camp's ranks as the harsh winter threatened. They urged me to go myself. The fight was worth dropping my responsibilities for a week or a month, they claimed. The Lakota Sioux elders, they said, accepted everyone and unified the camp in their single cause.

Back in late October, a friend invited me to travel with her to Standing Rock. We both work at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, and she planned to bring donations and money to the camp and witness their direct actions as a supporter.

I was too busy, I said. I'm a single dad, work a full-time job, teach night classes on the side, and volunteer in the prisons.

Then I watched the presidential election results, first with trepidation, then with shock, and finally with a resolution to act. I told my friend to save a seat for me. I wanted to show my 7-year-old daughter, who was in tears on the night of the election, that we can transfer raw emotion in the face of injustice into concrete action on behalf of our beliefs.

As we first entered the reservation on Nov. 15 for a three-day encampment, shallow angular hills waved out in all directions and captured the sunlight falling from an enormous sky. To carve up such pristine land and jab an oil pipeline up its middle, against the will of people who had formed a sacred union with the land before any written history, struck me as senseless, the opposite vision of any world I could accept.

When we came over the hill and caught our first glimpse of Oceti Sakowin Camp, the direct action camp at the frontline of the pipeline resistance, we gasped at hundreds of tents and teepees sprawled across the field all the way to the river. Flags from all points of the globe, from Turkey to New Zealand, flapped amid more native flags than I could tally.

Our Lakota hosts welcomed us while asking us to follow their camp's rules, simple precepts we should all carry with us anyway. What struck me particularly, though I am an atheist, is the practice of inhabiting a prayerful space. Pray in the morning and at night. Do all things prayerfully, whether chopping wood, eating a meal, or standing on the frontline of a direct action.

At each turn, we met water protectors in a prayerful space united by a single cause. Environmentalists and anti-corporate activists converged with native and anti-racist activists to protect their drinking water.

One morning we joined a direct action outside a pipeline work site.

We met police in militarized gear who blocked our way. A line of water protectors, native and non-native, some of us clad in bandanas and goggles or gas masks, some of us in our bare skin, spread out to face a line of police, each with a gun, a baton and a gallon of mace. Some of the police looked eager for confrontation, while others looked shameful as a water protector shouted, "Where does the water come from that you bathe your children in?"

Then there were cries from our far left wing. The cops were pushing. We heard a call for women to form a prayer circle, and just as my friend joined them I heard shouting for men to shore up the line. I jumped in and locked arms with other water protectors just before the police started violently shoving us with their batons, moving aggressively toward the circle of women holding hands in prayer.

Then the police sprayed us with mace. We held firmly to each other and backed up slowly, fearful that if we turned around the police might fire rubber bullets into our backs or tackle and arrest us.

The menace I had only heard of as a middle-class white person I now saw on faces of those paid and sworn to protect me. I saw the police turn viciously on us as we protected women while they prayed. I understood entirely why the water protectors stood where they stood, and I could no longer accept my complacency with their opposition.

The next day we committed ourselves to work in the camp. We helped a Sioux woman who runs a kitchen with her husband, daughter and granddaughter. We replaced her tattered summer tents with winterized tents, built shelves and organized her goods. It took most of the day, and at the end she toured her tents gleefully. Her work would be easier. She could do more for the other water protectors because we broke away from our lives long enough to donate one precious day of labor.

When we set out for Standing Rock, my friend and I decided to in all cases follow the wishes of our Lakota hosts and also to bring in far more resources than we took out. We raised money in our community but bought all our own food, far more than we were able to eat. We donated the remaining food and some of our gear to neighboring campers. Our community fundraising leading up to the trip had exploded: We raised over $5,000, which local alternative energy company Richter Solar allowed us to convert to at-cost solar panels, which were delivered just before Thanksgiving. Members of St. Paul's also delivered a semi truck loaded with firewood. We used nothing from the camp other than the latrines. More importantly, we honored the camp rules and ceremonial customs. We did not look for an experience at the camp: We set out to work.

As a result, we inhabited a prayerful space, and we remained in that prayerful space as we drove home. The night after we got home, we held onto prayer as we watched the police spray water hoses in freezing temperatures on water protectors we knew would remain peaceful.

I woke in prayerful space when I turned on the live feed in the morning and saw the water protectors still standing on that bridge.

I had been terrified that I would fail to contribute to the camp, that I would be a white tourist, that I would do nothing to help the bravest and most determined people I had ever met. Doing my best to embrace the ethos of the camp established by the elders and abandoning myself into a singular cause, I gave all that I could in that moment and found my heart inextricably tied to their struggles and triumphs.

Now people back in Arkansas ask me if the anti-pipeline movement has a chance.

I have to consider the Diamond Pipeline, which is cutting through Central Arkansas, near the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which protects a gorgeous patch of old-growth cypress trees. Stopping the Diamond Pipeline seems utterly daunting. I attended a meeting of opponents who have been working hard, but have almost no funds, little information and very few committed to their ranks.

Before I went to Standing Rock, I would have said that I am a realist. I once settled for the belief that we can only resist but rarely stop the inevitable.

Now I am changed. Standing Rock is Selma, Wounded Knee and state-sponsored eco-terrorism all at once.

Whatever injustices my 7-year-old and I felt the night of the election, whatever bullying I tried to resist as a kid on the playground, and whatever helplessness I felt when I saw another young black man shot in the back by police, I could face down, arms locked in body or prayer with the water protectors. I can resist what once seemed inevitable because at Standing Rock I learned that our only future is what we find in solidarity together.

Whatever labor and resources my friends and I brought to Standing Rock, whatever donations the Fayetteville community poured into the camp through us, we have been paid back by the camp with the ability to bring prayerfulness to direct action. We have been shown how to unify diverse visions around a single cause. As many friends from Arkansas went to Standing Rock before me, three times as many have set out from Arkansas for North Dakota since. They will come back with that vision affirmed, deepened and educated. Many who have been to Standing Rock believe as I do that the water protectors cannot be moved and the pipeline will indeed be stopped.

Standing Rock taught me that reality resides not in a cynical acceptance of what is likely, but in cohering our collective strength around the possibilities that stem from the best of our natures.


Speaking of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Dakota Access Pipeline


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