It started when I picked up my rental car at the Bismark airport. As I was about to sign the contract, the woman tentatively says, “So, are you just going to be driving in and around Bismark?” I slowly looked up and not saying anything, I just raised one eyebrow. Then her gaze shifted nervously to the side and she said, “Um, well…it’s just a new thing they make us ask.” I gave her my best stern gimlet stare and said, in answer to her question, “More or less.”
An hour later, 1 a.m. found me in Walmart (Sorry, principled friends, no choice in the wee hours) stocking up on the requested donated items including gallons of water, hand and foot warmers, and tarps. As I headed out to the car in the parking lot, a pickup truck pulled up and four guys hopped out, some in army fatigues, my heart literally started racing as I hurriedly and haphazardly threw the items into my trunk, keeping one eye on these guys. Besides a heightened sense of being surveilled, targeted and reviled coming off the recent elections and the rise of white supremacist visibility, misogyny and hate crimes, I was aware of the context I was going in and already gearing myself up for the situation.
The next morning I met up with the Honoring 524 Years of Resistance Delegation, co-organized by Grassroots Global Justice and the Climate Justice Alliance. As we prepared to make the journey to the encampment in Cannonball, ND, we were handed a marker and told to write the number of our Legal Support Team on our forearms. Something about seeing that number as a temporary tattoo on my skin struck a chord deep in my psyche as I instantly had a flashback to the videos of the assaults on the folks at the encampment and it brought home the risk that those gathered in Cannonball were undertaking and the costs they’ve paid with their very bodies.
Upon arrival at the encampment, I was enthralled by the vastness of the space and the various structures that had been erected by the thousands of people dwelling there. We gathered in a tent to discuss the action we were undertaking, which was to occupy Turtle Island where the ancestors of the Standing Rock Sioux were believed to be buried. We talked about the theme of “Thankstaking” which acknowledges the history of indigenous peoples in the United States and the legacy of stolen lands and other human rights abuses which continue to this day and are the very reason for the acts of resistance in which we were engaging. The focus of the Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3) planning was around ensuring that our action is grounded in peace. We also discussed strategies to mitigate the presence of agitators in the group that may threaten to disrupt our commitment to peace, prayer, and ceremony. We were to walk to Turtle Island in silent reflection to set the atmosphere. The leadership reinforced the plan for our time there, as has been the practice and culture of the entire encampment, to be engaging in prayer and ceremony. As we headed out, a youth council leader compelled us to be united in “One Heart, One Mind, One Soul and One Love.”
Upon arrival at Turtle Island, we were greeted by the Morton County Sheriff’s Office, armed with teargas canisters, water cannons, and guns with regular bullets and rubber bullets. One fellow with a bullhorn maintained a litany of announcements, clearly intended to provide pre-justification for any violence they were poised to visit on our hapless group. His statements were yelled constantly on a repeating loop as their contingent continued to increase in number and arms: “We will go home if you go back to your side of the river.” “You are pouring liquid into bottles while wearing gloves. We are assuming this is an act of aggression.” “You are coming towards us. We are not coming towards you. We do not want a confrontation.” “We see your strategy is to put the women in front so that you can accuse us of attacking your women.” “You are wearing tactical gear. You are wearing goggles and face masks so we can only see this as an act of aggression.” It was chilling to imagine what escalation might occur, given what had already transpired.
As we prayed, sang and resisted with our bodies and presence, I interacted with people from far and wide, geographically and otherwise. I saw old friends met new friends, including one activist and long-time friend with her unbelievably adorable 6-month old. I met a high school teacher from California who pulled up stakes, hopped in her car, drove out to join the encampment, and plans to be a part of a permanent EcoVillage that is being established onsite. I met another lady who is practically a neighbor from Gaithersburg, MD who was part of a group called EcoWomen, that invited me to join their circle of women at the site as part of the buddy system that had been established for safety. There was a large contingent from Veterans Against War. There was a common theme held by all in both seeing that we have common cause with each other and with the Standing Rock Sioux and that this was about what was happening to this land, what has historically happened and what is happening around the country and world in terms of reckless extraction and domination at the costs of human rights and environmental degradation.
On the bank of the river abutting Turtle Island, surrounded by committed people from all walks of life and led by the Standing Rock Sioux, I reflected on other similar times of linked efforts. Whether it is co-authoring the Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People with the Indigenous Environmental Network; joining (in the context of military rule during the uprising) with our sisters from TEWA Women United in a prayer circle in Baltimore at the site where Freddie Gray was killed; being led in ceremony by our indigenous sisters by the Selma River during the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing; the examples are numerous where we’ve gathered in common cause, often in situations of risk, to pray, resist and push for justice. As Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network recently said at a meeting, “We are all in the same river.”
As I drove out of the encampment, I was followed by a police patrol car for about 10 miles before they made a U-turn and went back. So there was that. But I also left with a car suffused with the scent of sage and the commitment to keep resisting, keep praying, and keep loving.
Fast forward to today, since Sunday the Standing Rock Sioux and others have been celebrating the announcement that the Administration, through the Army Corps of Engineers, has denied permission to move forward with the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Though many consider this merely a reprieve and support is still needed, as the incoming Administration has signaled an intent to reverse the decision, the victory is still a testament to the power of concerted, collective, sustained resistance, imbued with the power of prayer, ceremony, and spirit!