By now, many of us in the Bay Area have either “checked in” on Facebook at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation or know people who have, despite never having set foot in North Dakota.
Over Halloween weekend, more than 1.3 million people across the world took a moment to express their solidarity with the estimated 7,000 demonstrators from all walks of life temporarily living on the reservation and adjoining lands as part of the demonstrations led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Even though attention from major news sources has been minimal at best, social media has allowed citizens from the Bay to keep their eyes on the escalating violence used by the pipeline’s construction security, the local police, and the National Guard.
Since their inception in April 2016, the camps have grown in number, and those of us at home have witnessed live-streams of attack dogs, pepper spray, beatings, and mass arrests of the peaceful self-proclaimed “water protectors” (a term coined by Standing Rock leader, Dallas Goldtooth, to capture the purpose of these demonstrations: protect the land and the people above all). Last Thursday, more than 100,000 people tuned into live feeds and watched police from seven states arrest 140-plus people as they raided Standing Rock’s Frontline Camp — an expansion built to immediately block the pipeline’s progress.
Justifying their actions by calling the demonstration “trespassing” (on land that the Sioux claim from the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie), the militarized police force used bean bag guns, billy clubs, and sound cannons to brutalize the unarmed water protectors.
According to Carolina Reyes, a midwife and volunteer medic at Standing Rock during the confrontation, the attacks included the deliberate destruction of medical outposts at the Frontline camp. Two medics who were treating water protectors were arrested, and two more were violently attacked despite being clearly marked as volunteer first aid providers. These acts by the police and National Guard are especially disturbing since the attack of medical professionals and the destruction of medical supplies is internationally recognized as a war crime. While this treatment may be horrifying to most U.S. citizens, it is simply what Native peoples have come to expect from our government.
There is a historic context for the relationship between the pipeline and Standing Rock. Indigenous Americans have experienced the same pattern of exploitation and betrayal for centuries — with the U.S. government signing treaties and then reneging on them as soon as it was beneficial, often violently. In the case of Standing Rock, Native needs have clearly been made a lower priority by both private and government officials. When the original plans for the pipeline looked as though they would compromise the municipal water supply of Bismarck, North Dakota, which has a population that is 90 percent White, public concern caused the Dakota Access Corps of Engineers to reroute their plans. But moving the pipeline south only further compromises the Native population at Standing Rock, the Missouri River, and the roughly 18 million people downstream who rely on the river for drinking water.
These kinds of pipelines are statistically nearly certain to leak. If this construction project is completed, when the pipeline leaks (and Sunoco Logistics, the company building it, has the worst track record in the industry), the entire ecosystem — drinking water for humans, plants, and animals — will be irreversibly poisoned. In addition to the water contamination, the land that would be bulldozed to build the pipeline holds profound cultural significance for the people of the Great Sioux Nation at Standing Rock, with many sacred sites destroyed by the pipeline’s construction.
“We see this situation as a public health emergency” says Dr. Rupa Marya, a professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco and the director of the university’s Do No Harm Coalition, an organization of more than 300 health workers committed to ending racism and state-sanctioned violence. The Do No Harm Coalition was invited out to Standing Rock by Sioux tribal leaders in August 2016, and through their partnership with Native leaders is building of a permanent free clinic to address the health care needs of the water protectors during this demonstration and beyond. Marya says, “In Flint, Michigan, when the water was poisoned — that was a massive public health problem. And that we’re not seeing the similarity to putting a pipeline across the only drinking water supply for millions of people is beyond me. So we see this as a health and human rights issue.”
The gathering at Standing Rock has reached historic heights, with representatives from more than 100 indigenous tribes (more than 200, by some counts) reported to have convened at Standing Rock in the largest gathering of tribes in literally hundreds of years, and perhaps in all of Native history. Non-Native participation is also constantly growing, with caravans of supporters leaving the Bay Area several times a week to join the water protectors at Standing Rock and more than 150 San Francisco medical professionals signed up to volunteer as soon as the Standing Rock/Do No Harm clinic project (The Mni Wiconi Clinic, named for the Lakota phrase for “water is life”) is completed.
But there is more to this story than what we can see on live-streams, more even than the clashes with police forces protecting a corporation’s best interests over that of U.S. and Native citizens.
Adam Gottlieb, a Native poet and educator from Chicago who traveled to Standing Rock, says, “Because it is customary for the Lakota to not allow filming or other electronic documentation of ceremonial or prayer acts, there is a LOT that people are not seeing. … The sacred fire is but one example — it is the heart of the camp, where prayers and offerings are made, songs are sung, and long conversations are held to unite the hearts and minds of the people around the wisdom of their elders. And the elders teach forgiveness, compassion, peaceful warriorship, the unity of all humankind and all life.”
The camps at Standing Rock are first and foremost family and community spaces. Each of the camps prepares and feeds its inhabitants three square meals a day free of charge, and events on site include drumming and prayer circles from morning to night as well as nonviolent direct action training for all water protectors, a fully functional school for the many children whose families have made the Standing Rock camps their homes, and welcoming ceremonies for the many tribal nation representatives that arrive daily. Children play throughout the camps, which means that, as confirmed by Standing Rock water protector and midwife Autumn Cavender Wilson, children have to witness their parents and other adults returning injured from police brutality on the front lines.
While Standing Rock represents a movement that puts the freedom of Native people at the center of its mission, there is a generosity of spirit that makes room for everyone. In live-streams of the raid on the frontline camp that took place on Oct. 27, water protectors can be heard calling out to the police and National Guardsmen, inviting them to join in prayer and to protect the land. And through supporting the Mni Wiconi Clinic, San Franciscans have a unique opportunity to contribute to this historic moment.
All of us are welcome. All of us are needed. There is a call from Sioux tribal leaders for any and every concerned person who can join at Standing Rock to come. Sources on the ground confirmed on Sunday night that the construction team digging the hole for the pipeline was less than 150 yards from the Missouri River’s bank. But whether you can travel or not, to truly honor the national healing possible in this movement, privileged U.S. citizens (myself included) need to recognize our responsibility to listen to Native people, learn from them, and follow their lead in the fight for a better North America and world.
Tatyana Brown is a poet and educator based in the Bay Area. She teaches writing and communication workshops as a member of both Restorative Writers and the New Ground Project. Follow her on Twitter at @TatyanaBrown.