Standing Rock and the Battle to Regain our Humanity

Standing Rock became not just a simple protest, but a working, living example of what was possible, what could be done.

by Meiling Colorado

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

In the spring of 2016 Standing Rock exploded into my awareness.

Due to my multi-ethnic background and unconventional education I knew something, admittedly nowhere near enough, of the history and plight of the Indigenous people of North America, so it did not come as a surprise to me, as it did to too many of the people I knew.

Visibility. Such an important thing. So strategic when it comes to making sure those penned in by in-visible structures stay that way.

Mni Wichoni, Water is Life, is the rallying cry that drew thousands of people from all over the globe. In Standing Rock the focus was apparently on the threat to the water, which is seen as a feminine concept in itself in many cultures. We are, after all, made up of water, we start off and develop in it during nine months in our mothers’ wombs, and will forever need water to survive.

Although most people first heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in early 2016, when the camps started to appear in reaction to the approved construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the northern United States, the situation had been brewing for many, many years, and is really part of a much bigger struggle. A struggle comprising a treacherous bog of Federal, State and Tribal politics. Layer upon layer of Invisible structures supposedly meant to build society up, and which instead hem communities and people in. Not to mention those laws which were not respected, or the broken Treaties which litter 500 years of history. A case in point, central to the Standing Rock movement, is the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), which throws into harsh relief the total and Holistic fail of Colonization.

The original pipeline project ran close to Bismarck, North Dakota,too close for the comfort of its residents, so it was later projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, threatening not only the Standing Rock Sioux’ source of water, but also their ancient burial and sacred grounds.

In April, a group of Standing Rock Youth began mobilising against the pipeline, organizing a cross-country spiritual run from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to present a petition in protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This was a wake-up call for many, since youth suicide levels are on a heartbreaking rise. Standing Rock Sioux elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard also put out a call for help and a camp was established which was soon to be home to thousands of people.

This marked the starting point for a really memorable set of events. In September 2016, on the Saturday of Labour Day Weekend, the pipeline’s construction workers went out of their projected way to bulldoze a section of land the tribe had officially identified as sacred ground just a few days earlier. Since the construction company generally didn’t work on weekends, this was baffling, to say the least. When the Water Protectors arrived at the spot, the women ran in to preserve sacred sites that were being dug up, and attack dogs were set on them, a painful reminder of similar occurrences during the Civil Rights era, though nothing that would surprise the long-suffering indigenous population who see their rights being violated and ignored on a daily basis.

Amy Goodman (Democracy Now) and Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC) were at the time visiting the camp to interview the camp founders. Amy Goodman followed the action to cover the story and was arrested and charged with ¨inciting a riot¨. Though charges were later dismissed, arresting a journalist for covering a story was unprecedented in America. Not any more.

This might in some way account for the fact Mainstream media was so conspicuously absent when it came to covering the movement. Maybe. Here, however, we run across something new: an invisible structure which was not around before, modern technology and social networks. The attack dog incident was recorded and witnessed by several million people, sparking the arrival of a flood of supporters to the ever-swelling ranks of Water Protectors.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

The power of social media became evident as a flurry of live-streaming events and videos not only delivered a blow by blow, live account of camp life and the eventual military assault to an international online audience, but became the basis for keeping Water Protectors safe. The numbers witnessing what was going on during livestreams were in many cases the only thing that kept potentially lethal confrontations from escalating.

At this point the ¨Keyboard Warrior¨ role was pivotal. Videos and photos went viral, in spite of an obvious attempt on the part of the authorities to put a cap on any information coming out of the camps. Despite interrupted livestreams, crashing computers, ¨fried¨ mobile phones, and even direct threats, a global community worked tirelessly to get the word out.

Something was happening in North Dakota.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

People latched on to whatever resonated with them about the movement, and there was much to choose from. Whether it was Indigenous rights, Human Rights, environmental issues or simply basic justice, what was evidenced was the heartbroken need for connection we have on a global scale. If nothing else, it identified the ¨leaks¨ in our system in a stark, clear manner, and gave people a much needed platform from which to fight them in a meaningful way. A way not just to fight for the survival of our species, but perhaps an attempt to regain that very Humanity which many feel is slipping away from us. That which makes the Human Species deserve to survive at all.

And then the magic happened.

In an unprecedented and Historical move, representatives from more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes joined the camps, bringing the numbers during the weekends up to 10,000 to 12,000. More than two hundred flags lined the entrance to the camp, in a more than impressive and emotional display of both visibility and support.

Spurred by social networks donations flooded in and, organized and functioning like a small township, the camps became basically self-sufficient; resources ranging from food and shelter to clothes were available, as were services like medics, whether of conventional, traditional or herbalist medicine; alternative energy, waste-management, a legal team, and even a small school were organized. Standing Rock Permaculture group on Facebook showed the progress of the ongoing straw-bale school project at Sacred Stone Camp.

A baby was born!

Zintkala Mahpiya Wi Blackowl gave birth to a baby girl, and named her Mni Wichoni, her birth symbolizing not only what this battle was about, but many other underlying issues, such as Lakota women’s fight against assimilation and colonialism.

Standing Rock became, not just a simple protest, but a working, living example of what was possible, what could be done.

Another structure we often fail to notice is the stories our culture is composed of, stories which lay the foundation for the pattern of our society and even our self-perception. Who decides the tone, the backdrop? With the emergence of Indigenous media sources such as Indigenous Rising Media, Digital Smoke Signals or DrOne2bwild the narrative changed drastically. It was the perfect melting-pot of tradition, culture and technological prowess. Cars were pulled over and drones confiscated with no explanation. Both technology and the stories told through it were obviously important enough to warrant the use of force and the breaking of the law by those meant to uphold it.

In direct juxtaposition with the use of modern technology, something which has structured human societies since the beginning of time also came into play. Belief. And connection to something beyond our physical selves. For many the Black Snake Prophecy, which talked about a black snake which would cross through and destroy the Sioux homeland, lay at the heart of their struggle. Religious freedom was another. One of the most powerful things about the movement was the way it was brought togetherby the incredible effect of prayer during the protest. Perhaps for some this concept of Prayer might be more akin to Mindfulness yet, in spite of the concept not always being understood in the same manner, those on the front lines practiced and were supported in remaining in prayer. Those back in camp remained in prayer to support the front lines. They were told to ¨Stand as a Rock¨, and pray. Thousands, perhaps millions worldwide sang and prayed on their behalf.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

As the number of people on the ground grew, so did the militarization of police and armed soldiers, until the images afforded to the whole world were totally surreal, reminding us of images from Afghanistan, or any other war-torn country. But this was the USA, and those under attack peaceful people.

The economic siege was terribly effective, too. The blocking by the authorities of the road access to the Casino choked the already stressed tribal finances, causing political and social tension both on and off-site.

Lines blurred. Police and private security refused to identify themselves, removing all identification and making it impossible to tell who was who.As the situation spiralled out of control, police on the frontlines were even seen refusing to participate.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography
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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

On the 28th of October Water Protectors were arrested and strip searched, marked with numbers on their arms and housed in dog kennels in extremely cold weather.

In an ever escalating vortex of brutal human rights violations, broken laws, and even psy ops, it became evident the system was fighting back by attacking those it always targeted, in the same way it always has. We go back to recurrent patterns. Of all those injured on the terrible night when rubber bullets, sound cannons, pepper spray as thick as fog, and water cannons were deployed in freezing temperatures, two women were among the worst off. Sophia Wilansky lost the use of her arm, and Sioux Z was partially blinded. Everybody was at risk, yet medics were targeted. The caregivers.

Let that sink in.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography
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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography
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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

Thousands of US military veterans arrived at Standing Rock, decided to stand between the armed forces and the civilians, right in the middle of an epic snowstorm which left us with some of the most iconic photos to date. It also brought to the fore-front many of the problems veterans faced on a daily basis. For a moment it looked like the world was going to witness the unthinkable, American veterans fighting American law-enforcement.

Responding to the outrage, on December 4th President Barack Obama denied an easement for construction under the Missouri River until an Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out. The celebration was, however, short lived, as newly electedPresident Donald Trump signed an executive order in January allowing the pipeline to be continued without anEnvironmental Impact Report.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

The camps have been forcibly evacuated, amid really heart-wrenching scenes. The Sacred Fire was put out. The Pipeline is now complete and operational. Many of the Water-Protectors have now started camps or are supporting similar efforts elsewhere.

The parallel between this attack on Nature in general and water in particular, and the ongoing targeting of women in indigenous societies is stunning. It is said, ¨A nation isn’t defeated until the hearts of the women are on the ground.¨ Women are, after all, the guardians of tradition, they bring up the children, create the support system for the family, and in many indigenous communities the bloodline can be traced through the maternal side of the family. By targeting the women, the cultural roots of a people can be wiped out.

The hearts of indigenous women may have been trampled, but they are far from being on the ground. Many said the backbone of the Standing Rock movement were its women, and it definitely gave them a platform from which their voices could be heard. From 500 years of historical trauma, in many cases intensified by residential schools, one of the highest rates of child and teen suicide, the objectification of women, the degradation of male self-esteem and the whiplash of drugs and alcohol in indigenous communities, their strong courageous voices tell us of a society fractured through the systematic application of politics, laws, broken treaties and a deeply segregating economy.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography
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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography
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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

Just as women are being objectified, raped and ignored, so is Nature being plundered, it’s resources extracted with no thought for future generations. While theoil industry’s man-camps springing up around their construction lead to the escalation in sex-trafficking, rape and disappearance of women and little girls, we are forced to watch, powerless, as pipelines are rammed into the soil with no regards for anything but corporate profit.

In some philosophies Water is also seen as the element of the emotions, and in many ways that is the true power behind the Standing Rock movement. The emotions it stirred caused a shift profound enough to light a fire under many, on a global scale. A fire the light of which is strong enough to showcase the way invisible structures condition our society.

For a short span of time Standing Rock was both proof of what happens when there is a breach in the structural integrity of society, and an example of what could be. The perfect antidote to cognitive dissonance. Through the cracks of a crumbling system we saw the Light of another world emerging. What made it special was that it was not a Utopia, it existed.

So here we are. Those touched by Standing Rock will never be the same. We cannot unlearn what we know, or unsee what we saw. We Stand.

For a short span of time a space was created where our species made an effort to act in a coherent manner, to regain its Humanity. It actually worked for almost a year, and exterior forces had to be brought into effect in order to dismantle it.

Another reality IS possible. The Invisible became Visible.

And the whole world witnessed it.

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Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography

Heartfelt gratitude to all those Water Protectors who made this happen, many still with cases pending, many more still suffering from PTSD. The ripples you made have spread far and wide. We are in your debt.

I also have to thank the admin team in the Standing Rock Protector Pipeline Protest Group in Facebook for sharing sleepless nights of frantic livestreams, for caring, for crying, for holding space. Thank you.

Last but not least a big thank you to Rob Wilson, who was not only there, supporting on the ground, capturing these moments, but also allowed me to share his beautiful work here.

Invisible structures can either strengthen or cage. If we follow just one of the Permaculture principles and pause to observe, it becomes fairly evident which it is.

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