The Standing Rock protest against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline officially opened on April 1st this year. It has grown into the world’s biggest pipeline protest, and the largest gathering of Native Americans in 130 years. As winter sets in and a violent December 5th eviction looms, Kristina Hard talks to Auckland woman Paula Friis about life in the encampment.
In an unprecedented gathering not seen since the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, more than 90 Native American nations and tribes have united at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on the border between North and South Dakota, to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. There is an old Native American Lakota prophecy, circa 1890s, that speaks of a zuzeca sape (black snake) crossing the land, bringing with it destruction and devastation. If it goes ahead, the pipeline will cross the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s ancestral lands, desecrating sacred Native American sites and jeopardising their single water source, the Missouri River.
Indigenous leaders have vowed to protest through the harsh Dakota winter, fighting temperatures that can fall below -37 degrees Celsius and safeguarding peace in the face of illegal concussion grenades, rubber bullets, freezing water and tear gas assaults from police. The perpetration of police violence on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lands violates the Sioux Treaty of 1869 (also known as the Treaty of Fort Laramie). People on the frontlines have confirmed that multiple water protectors (the protestors’ preferred nomenclature) have been injured, leaving them bleeding and/or unconscious. Law enforcement have shot down three media drones and targeted journalists with less lethal means according to sources at Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí (Sacred Stone Camp).
Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, (Seven Council Fires), an overflow from Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí (Sacred Stone Camp), is now the largest camp of water protectors. One hundred per cent off-the-grid with the help of solar and wind power, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp has a population of more than 10,000 residents and visitors. Hundreds have poured in from overseas to offer support and supplies. Paula Friis, from Auckland, is one of them.
Paula’s goal as a non-native supporter of Standing Rock is to amplify the Indigenous voices from camp, not to speak for Indigenous people or replace their voice. Because Paula is not from Standing Rock, she cannot speak for those in the struggle or represent the struggle, but she can share her own experience.
What motivated you to join the protesters in Dakota?
I have been following the Standing Rock movement since April with a strong feeling that it’s going to be a game changer for the well-being of the planet. Why did I come to Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp? The same indescribable pull that the majority of people here felt, it wasn’t so much of a choice but a journey I had to make.
I have great respect for the Native American Indigenous people, their teachings and way of life. I have participated in Native American ceremonial sweat lodges in New Zealand with a Lakota friend. I understand my position as a white woman at camp is a humble one. I bear witness and participate where appropriate, while the water protectors peacefully fight for what is their right.
Paula Friis at Standing Rock
What is the atmosphere in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp?
The atmosphere in camp is one of generosity. The Native Americans have been so welcoming; we arrived late at night and they fed us and made sure we had shelter. They thanked us for coming so far. We get thanked all the time for the journey we have made, people are so grateful and it’s infectious. The way of the Lakota is to give more than you receive and this protocol creates a very loving environment. Of course the atmosphere changes.
Last night [when police fired water cannon at water protectors in freezing conditions] was a very difficult night for many. The police tried to take the bridge. It’s what separates the highway they have closed and our camp. I spent the night taking men and women injured by rubber bullets and tear gas to the medic tents and bringing blankets to soaking people who were drenched by water cannons in freezing temperatures. A woman had her lower arm blown to bits by a doctored concussion grenade, deliberately aimed at her as she was retreating. She might lose her arm.
This violence saddens the elders greatly and the atmosphere can turn sombre. This is when we increase our prayers around the sacred fire, for both the water protectors and the ones harming them. A Lakota elder, who blessed our food at camp, reminded us we were on his land and therefore now part of his family and it saddened him greatly to see us hurt.
There’s a lot of misinformation regarding the protest, what is the truth of the matter?
In the past the water protectors have been accused of many false things. The media, if they report at all, generally have no idea what is really going on. It was reported police used water cannons on the water protectors in freezing conditions, [in order to] put out fires we had started on the bridge. It is a ridiculous claim as a number of people filming that night show the fires were lit hours after the people were blasted, in order to warm them up so they did not get hypothermia. This is just one example of media manipulation. Fortunately social media is a little better at reporting alternative views. The truth is that this is a peaceful protest. The water protectors are determined to carry this out in a peaceful way; there is never any anger here at camp. The elders are incredible in controlling this movement and making sure it stays non-violent, from our side anyway.
What is the general mood of the water protectors?
The water protectors are in shock from the events of last night, but camp life continues. Three hundred gathered at the sacred fire this morning, in temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius at 5.30am, for the biggest prayer circle we have had so far. We set our intentions for the coming day, gave thanks and offered prayers. We were gifted wise words from the elders and refreshed through sage and song. The spirit of camp can never be taken, for many this is utopia as far as being around like minded people who care about the planet and Indigenous rights. It is truly a giant family and the familial bond is a very hard one to break.
Is there support for Standing Rock in the surrounding towns?
I have ventured outside of camp to Bismarck, a town that refused the pipeline be put under their land. A hot shower and clean clothes beckoned as we ventured into day six unwashed. The atmosphere there is one of paranoia and hostility. Police scout the malls for water protectors, I saw a Native American woman dragged away by two huge policemen, for chanting “water is life”. I was sick to my stomach to hear a crowd of people reciprocate the chant with “go the blues” in support of the police. It is difficult not to catch a fear-based mindset when one false move can put you under arrest. I have promised my family I will not put myself in a position to be arrested, so I thought I found a safe place at the other end of mall but I was harassed by the police and had a narrow escape. I passed groups of water protectors huddled, planning their next move. It was difficult to walk past them and not join in, I felt like a traitor. Forty innocent people were arrested that day. This is surprisingly good news for the water protectors as police overload the jails, which increases the ascending cost of opposing the defence of the pipeline.
How would you describe your experience at Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp?
This experience so far has been one of the most profound of my life. I am still processing how this is affecting me; contemplating the lessons I have learned and how I will honour the Native elders’ request to bring the knowledge back to our communities. I have engaged with incredible people from all walks of life and I feel a sense of peace, purpose and awareness that is often overlooked in the craziness of everyday life. One of the most interesting aspects of this experience is how words are often irrelevant here. As an elder put it, “let your aura speak first”.
What do you hope for Standing Rock’s future?
I hope our peaceful prayers inspire more law enforcement to put down their weapons, for a peaceful resolution and the safety of all those at camp. I hope this protest has set a precedent for people all over the world to stand up for the planet so our children can have a better future.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight to save their ancestral lands and protect the Missouri River is ongoing. The Army Corps have now issued an eviction notice to Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp and will move in on December 5th to remove the water protectors from their land. The notice claims this act of force “is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontation between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.”
In response around 2,000 war veterans have pledged to come to the aid of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp and hold the frontline. The group has been advised via social media platforms to remain peaceful in the face of oppression and come equipped with gas masks, face shields, earplugs and other protective gear but no weapons. Aggressive police violence is expected, along with the use of less lethal rounds in the form of rubber bullets, bear spray, concussion grenades, water cannons, long range acoustic devices (sonic weapons) and CS gas (a riot control agent which side effects include severe headaches, ocular trauma, coughing, burning sensations in the throat and nose, retching and shortness of breath).
Misinformation from mainstream media is beginning to spread. Multiple news sources are reporting The Army Corps erroneous claim that ‘dangerous groups have joined this protest and are provoking conflict in spite of the public pleas from tribal leaders.’ This misrepresentation paints a picture of an out of control rabble but it is a smokescreen for law enforcement to justify their illegal acts of violence.
Big corporations continue to trash our planet for their own greed, disregarding human, Indigenous and environmental rights. But we can help, we can challenge misinformation, we can speak to those on the opposite side to incite a change of perspective and we can offer financial and social support to the water protectors. If not me, who? If not now, when?
This one-page factsheet is a good introduction to the Dakota Access Pipeline, and why it is being opposed.
Donate money or supplies to the water protectors here.
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