Standing Rock and Beyond: American Indians on the Move
A graffiti-cloaked, smoke-filled, off-yellow school bus idled in front of the Washington Monument, stuffed with twenty ecstatic water protectors. I had a tray of cookies from Costco, and they were hungry.
I knew that behind these bright smiles and young eyes—most between ages sixteen and twenty-five—festered fresh memories of chemical warfare, scarce army rations, brutal water canons, night sticks whipping through the cold, and dark nights on Highway 1806. A young man showed us a riot shield he appropriated from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department; the purple Six Nations flag painted on it has a giant crack from blocking a rubber bullet aimed at his groin.
It was March 2017, and the Rolling Resistance had just been evicted from Oceti Oyate, the last holdout camp at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, erected to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). As local, state, and federal law enforcement forced protestors out of the camp in one final violent raid, they hopped on the bus and fled. Refugees on their own land, this rickety bus became home.
They caravanned eastward with other water protectors to attend the Native Nations Rise March on Washington on March 10. Since then, they, like many Native people across the country, have been on the move.
The resistance at Standing Rock is widely regarded as a protest camp. Indeed, thousands of people who lived there, from different Indian nations, countries, and backgrounds, were united against the pipeline. But to view this as merely an oppositional settlement, a “protest camp,” takes a narrow view.
The camps at Standing Rock—Oceti Sakowin being the largest—were semi-permanent cosmopolitan indigenous settlements. Each camp had its own neighborhoods (organized geographically by tribal nation, politic, or issue), its own complex political dynamics, and its own leadership structure.
The first water protectors were teenage girls seeking healing from abusive and impoverished environments, flocking to matriarch Ladonna Brave Bull’s sanctuary, Sacred Stone Camp. Just a few months later, “NoDAPL” camps nearly doubled the population of the Standing Rock reservation.
Many came for guaranteed hot meals and a place to stay. Many abandoned their jobs and homes to participate in the revolutionary moment. Many came seeking a reconnection to their spiritual base. In this experimental Native metropolis, which relied on traditional governance and lifestyles, water protectors found strength in spirituality, just like their predecessors in the American Indian Movement. Distanced from their culture by U.S. forced assimilation policies and economic necessity, water protectors of all ages turned to traditional spiritual practices with zeal. Sweat lodges, purifications, dance, and song soothed mental and physical wounds from the frontlines as well as from past traumatic experiences that so many carried with them into the camp.
The backbone of the Indian movement in 2017 is a network of highly mobile water protectors loosely organized through Facebook threads and Twitter trends. Camps and gatherings have sprung up across the country to resist pipelines and mines, emboldened by experiences of direct action and community organizing from Standing Rock.
From the Split Rock Camp outside New York City to the Oka Lawa Camp in oil country Oklahoma, settling in the way of fossil fuel infrastructure projects has proved successful at both fighting pollution and fostering indigenous unity. While coping with the mental and physical trauma of state violence, seasoned water protectors like the Rolling Resistance inspire new generations of the Native movement—in motion.
Sebi Medina-Tayac (Piscataway) is a grassroots community organizer mobilizing behind indigenous, immigration, and environmental justice movements. He is an independent multimedia journalist and curatorial advisor for the 2017 Folklife Festival’s On the Move program.