EXCLUSIVE: Witness Describes The Fight For Sovereignty At ‘Standing Rock’
By Lamont Lilly
Mainstream media would have most of us believe that the current struggle at Standing Rock, North Dakota is all about clean water – that its only focus is stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from running through Indigenous reservation land. And yes, it is about these things. But while such a narrative may create “hot headlines,” it fails to capture the full truth and essence of what‘s really going on there.
On Sept. 9 through Sept. 12, our Workers World Party delegation gathered with 8,000 others to support the national call to mobilize for support.
Resistance, unity and mass consciousness
Shortly after our flight into Bismarck, North Dakota, we drove directly to the State Capitol Building for a local protest there. I began to realize that this was much bigger than just a fight for water. Is water a central component to this struggle? Yes! Yes, it is. But as local members of the Indigenous community began to gather, as school-aged Native youth began marching down the street in pouring rain, I quickly realized that the current developments at Standing Rock were not only politically and culturally significant, but that this moment in time was becoming historic. This “local protest” had indeed become, monumental.
Representatives of Indigenous Nations began pouring into Bismarck from all over the country. In spite of the rain, more and more people just kept coming. A protest had become a reunion, a reunion for some who had never even spoken to each other, a reunion many thought would never happen again. The struggle for water had performed the miracle of bringing nations together from all over the Western Hemisphere. Resistance had created both unity and mass consciousness.
It was Friday and we had just arrived. So much was unfolding, and we hadn’t even made it to the encampment at Standing Rock yet. We had merely decided to support a local protest we heard about via Facebook. We still needed to get settled and set-up for the evening. After the protest, we finally arrived at Main Camp of Standing Rock late Friday afternoon, just a few hours before dark. We debated for a half hour about where to pitch our tent, and finally, collectively found a spot.
Word broke during camp that evening that the Obama administration and U.S. government had decided to temporarily “halt” further construction of the DAPL in the immediate Lake Oahe area by Standing Rock. But the overall project had not been “ceased” in North Dakota, or elsewhere.
Indigenous Nations came from all over: Ontario and Vancouver (Canada), Hawaii, Ecuador, Jamaica, Arizona, Alaska, Massachusetts, California. There were elders and small children, women and men. Some drove. Some flew. Some even came in by canoe.
Main Camp organizers noted that over 260 nations had gathered, the largest of any such gathering since Wounded Knee in 1973. Morale was high from the decision to “halt,” but leaders and organizers were still quite leery. After 500 years of colonial lies, false promises and broken treaties, many of their elders had seen this story before. They reminded the media and informed the various nations to stay vigilant.
As organizer and Standing Rock Sioux elder, Phyllis Young stated: “Our freedom is in our DNA. Our culture is bigger than the U.S. Constitution. When one nation’s rights are violated, we are all violated.” On the subject of settler treaties, Young reminded us that “these agreements are problematic because they do not recognize our sovereignty. They have not kept their promises.”
Building collective memory
Our time and efforts were divided between four different encampments. If you’re coming from Bismarck, the first encampment you’ll approach is “The Frontline.” This was the site where private security firm, G4S sprayed Water Protectors with pepper spray, prompting dogs to attack women and defenseless children.
Located just off the road, the camp is small in size but well-guarded. A few yards behind the company’s barbed wire gates, you can actually see the uprooted soil, courtesy of U.S. Army Engineers and private construction vehicles. North Dakota later issued a misdemeanor warrant for Democracy Now host, Amy Goodman at this same site. Goodman was simply documenting what was happening there.
Main Camp is where the masses resided — a 20-acre plot of flatland surrounded by sacred burial space, “Facebook Hill” (where people can pick up just enough cell service to post on social media), and scattered marsh remnants of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. Main Camp is where most of the socializing and public assemblies took place.
Though much smaller, Sacred Stone is probably the camp most recognized by name. Sacred Stone is the location of the initial resistance, dating back to early spring of this year.
Last, but certainly not least, is Red Warrior Camp – the heavily targeted and radical youth encampment located just between Main Camp and Sacred Stone. It was Red Warrior Camp that initially took to social media and began to spread the word. And it’s Red Warrior Camp that has truly inspired and galvanized Native youth. We were honored to formally meet with them the day before we left. In return, we left the Red Warrior Camp much of our camping equipment and the remaining supplies that we could spare. Their spokesperson, Cody Hall had just been arrested the day we arrived, and was being held without bail.
Main Camp, which housed over 7,000 people, was highly organized and well laid out. Tents and tipis were sporadically spaced at the site of your own choosing. The kitchen, dry storage and main assembly circle were all conjoined. While the main circle was open-air seating, all other stations were well constructed for the harsh conditions of North Dakota.
There was a medical room and camp infirmary, a freedom school and welcome center – a donation center and legal support station. There were safety teams and ground sanitation. Several thousand of us were fed for free, sheltered and provided for, every day. Many participants came merely on faith, and with very few resources. The ingenuity required to seamlessly feed three meals a day to thousands, is no small feat.
In addition to the elements of traditional dance, custom dress and tribal flags, there was also a special emphasis placed on remembrance — remembrance of the old names and Native languages that so many still fight to preserve, remembrance of past freedom fighters and political prisoners. Elders and youth alike noted the important contributions of Sitting Bull and Leonard Peltier, Russell Means and John Trudell.
With over 260 Indigenous nations represented, yes, of course there were a few internal differences. But there was also a celebration of those differences, a moment of magic that so many were able to come together and build on their commonalities. Not only was there a collective sense of pride, urgency and organization — a collective memory was etched in communal stone, passed down to the next ‘Seven Generations.’
“We want our grandchildren to see this, to be here and touch the land,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse. “I remember my grandmother teaching me about Wounded Knee, and we have to pass this down…the story of today.”
It was so important that the youth and children were able to witness this display of unity. This is the moment that they too, will pass down to their children — the preservation of culture, history, tradition — the interconnection of water, soil, air, life — the importance of respecting the land, animals and fellow human beings.
Water is life, not a business
Standing Rock is more than just a fight to stop construction vehicles from digging up the soil. What this is really about is the preservation of the Indigenous way of life — a way of life that walks in accord with the natural elements and resources around them — a way of life that not only honors each other, but also the Earth, the land, the water. It is a way of life that deeply respects the air we breathe, the sun, the soil — a way of life that seeks to live in unity with these elements, not to somehow profit from them. Water is life, not a business.
Standing Rock is not only a political struggle for the right to assemble, protest and create change. It is, as well, a cultural struggle for independence and autonomy, for sovereignty and complete liberation — a resistance against forced displacement and assimilation. There are also elements of class struggle, here — a “stand-off” of the poor and working class against big oil companies and the super-rich.
This struggle is about supporting the right to be free from corporate greed and white supremacist domination, the right for Indigenous people to determine their own destiny, the right to function without the U.S. government meddling in the internal affairs of Native Nations.
What we saw at Standing Rock were the effects of colonialism continuing to play out, 500 years later. Some Indigenous have survived through surface-level assimilation, adopting more Eurocentric names, styles of dress and religious practices. Others have refused to assimilate and remain rooted in the old ways. Some favor prayer and non-direct actions; others embrace a more militant form of resistance by any means necessary.
The only negative aspect of our entire stay was the state repression. Drones, helicopters and aerial surveillance were an absolute constant. No kidding! Checkpoints, encampment warrants and threat of arrests were very real. Supporters and organizers were quite conscious of the repressive character of the state, yet refused to allow that presence to dampen the occasion. I guess that’s to be expected when you’re pursuing liberation.
Nearly 70 people have been arrested for simply standing up to the DAPL, but many more are springing to take their places. When we talk about #NoDAPL, it is so critical that we demand all charges be dropped against protesters, local supporters and those who are being targeted.
Standing Rock is, in many regards, no different than Black Lives Matter, no different than the Palestinian resistance and Latinx Movement. The struggle against capitalism, state violence and white supremacy will undoubtedly, require all of us to stand together.
Much thanks to #StandingRock for allowing us to be there. Long live the Indigenous Nations! Free Leonard Peltier! All power to the people! ■
NC-based activist, @LamontLilly is the 2016 Workers World Party, U.S. Vice-Presidential Candidate. He has recently served as field staff in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, Boston and Philadelphia. In 2015, he was a U.S. delegate at the International Forum for Justice in Palestine in Beirut, Lebanon.
Photo: Oakland-based photo journalist, Sunshine