I left Santa Fe wondering how my journey to Standing Rock would contribute to my understanding of social justice and the power of so many voices, not only at the Oceti Sakowin camp, but across the world.
It is important to note that the Sioux People have chosen to use the word “protectors” and not protestors, this shows a true commitment to the environment in which they live and the Earth as a whole.
I took supplies that would help with the winter conditions: sub-zero sleeping bags, wool socks, warm gloves and hats, hand and foot warmers, winter clothing, medical supplies, including the coveted and hard to find trauma kits, and power bars. My car was full!
The drive to the reservation was filled with obstacles and, after 3 days, I arrived at the entrance of the Oceti Sakowin camp where I was met with a woman Lakota warrior who was screening people wanting to visit the camp. She was courteous and very clear as to what I could and could not do. She told me that there was an area designated for short-term visits and to make sure that I parked my car, which was to become my home, in a spot that would be in harmony with my new community. She gave me a quick explanation of the camp rules, like how to behave around the Sacred Fire, the medical tent, the donations tents, the food tents and to make sure that I would go to orientation, at what was called the dome tent (a large heated space for social gatherings) for an in-depth explanation of the social structure of the camp. She was a bit concerned that I was sleeping in my SUV and she told me that there would always be space for me in the dome if I were cold or even lonely, stressing that this was a community where people took care of one another. She also told me that if I had concerns that I was to come to her, that she, as a warrior, was there to protect all that were in the camp.
The camp is really a small town of yurts, small backpacking to large military tents, campers, wooden structures and teepees which rise beautifully above other dwellings, their poles reaching to the sky. It sits in a small valley by the Missouri River and is surrounded by hills, some of them burial grounds. There are roads and different sections with specific purposes where small or large fires burn sometimes day and night. Thousands of people are engaged in different tasks and, during my visit, the main focus seemed to be the organization of donations and the winterization of most of the “homes”.
I drove down flag alley, the main road in the camp lined with beautiful flags and banners with writings reflecting the diversity of the community and stressing that “Water is Life” and that it must be protected. Around the camp, I saw a Palestinian presence as well as Afghans and American Muslims, human right’s activists, people of different faiths and social classes, all believing in the protection of the environment against the abuse of large corporations, all there in unison.
I found a camping spot, then went to meet Wes Mekasi Horinek, member of the Ponca Nation and coordinator of Bold Oklahoma, and Floris Ptesáŋ Huŋká, both Water Protectors at Standing Rock. We talked about the pipeline situation, the living conditions in the camp, the short-term and long-term needs that people are facing and I asked them to help me with the distribution of the supplies that I had brought with me. I learned about the determination of the Water Protectors to prevent DAPL, the Dakota Access Pipeline, from building a pipeline on their sacred land, they stressed that the actions taken by the Protectors were always peaceful, that they have never and will never use weapons, on the contrary, prayers were at the core of the protection of the land where they have lived for centuries. I also learned about the violence that had been directed at them in the form of intimidation as well as with the use of rubber bullets, concussion grenades or water cannons in freezing temperatures. We talked about the added challenge of the winter and how people were working at adding insulation to their dwellings, even though the day before I arrived, the Army Corp of engineers had issued a statement saying that they were to vacate the area by the 5th of December with a threat of forcible removal if the Protectors were to decide to stay. That news seemed to weigh on the people at the camp but not enough to discourage most of them. The outcome of this conflict is crucial to the quality of their lives, as well as a sustainable future, and they will not give up.
Later that day, I walked to the media tent up on “Facebook hill” and met with the women who do “triage” amongst the people who want to photograph the camp and the actions at the frontlines. There is a strict sorting process and media passes are not given to free lancers or the casual photographer. Because of my journalistic and documentary work on “Women & Water”, I received a pass along with a detailed explanation of what I could and couldn’t photograph. A photographer cannot take photos of people without their permission, especially children, the sacred fires, the medical tents, the horses and the riders without permission, certain areas in the camp labelled as sensitive, and people’s homes.
That evening, I walked to the top of a hill that overlooks the bridge where the barricade was built with razor wire and large trucks and where mercenaries from the TigerSwan company, the former Blackwater company, are watching constantly. Incredibly strong flood lights are directed at the frontlines and at the camp, a constant reminder of the haunting power behind that large oil company and their refusal to lose that power if they had to back out of the construction of this pipeline. What would it mean for other pipelines, for the industry in general? The ramifications are so great that the outcome of this conflict will influence many other situations like this one in North America and, perhaps, the world.
I took the time to feel my presence on that land and remember that this conflict was taking place near sacred burial grounds, that this was an important time in our history and that I was witnessing a peaceful spiritual expression of human rights based on a treaty that was never honored. The camp slowly faded into the night and the smell of fires filled the river valley.
That evening, I joined friends from Boulder and Durango, we walked around and met people at the Sacred Fire, listened to some of them talk about what was happening, they were elders and folks from different ethnic groups who had messages to deliver or information to add to all that is shared in the camp. We ended the night at the campsite of a group of people where, Julian, a young man, was singing songs about the water and the destructive behavior of large companies driven by greed. He is one of many young men that I either met or saw at the camp who have decided to devote their time to this cause, and who seem to be learning from the Native people at Standing Rock about the ethics of living in harmony with the environment.
The next morning was bitter cold and it took a great effort to get out of my car. Kind friends brought me tea, I felt blessed. There is a strong sense of community in the camp and everyone there is looking out for one another, distributing hand warmers and making sure that all are warm, fed, and safe.
I walked to the Sacred Fire where a man was talking about a very serious human right’s issue, he told us that he had heard of instances of racism in the camp, both on the part of white people and Native people. He stressed that this was unacceptable behavior and that we were to act if we witnessed racism, to both report it and to call people on it. During my visit, I heard many talks about the nature of this camp which was formed to protect the environment in the most honorable way and where people who displayed bad behavior were not welcome. One of the most talked about subject was violence against women in the form of domestic abuse and rape — women and men came to the Sacred Fire to discuss it. The Native people described a very different way of life, before colonization, based on respect for everyone in their society and they pointed out how people have changed since then. They encouraged all who were listening to rethink the social fabric of today and go back to a time when every member of society was honored, respected and supported, when the strong protected the weak and when all were nurtured as they built a solid community.
I was fortunate to be at the camp during a day when women led two “actions” at the frontline on the bridge. Whenever a group moves to the frontline to voice their opposition toward the pipeline or the conduct of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the riot or mercenary police, these acts are called actions and, in the camp, there is a tent where one can learn about the proper conduct while participating in these actions. Detailed instructions are given to the participants, even while the action is taking place. The organizers are vigilant and there must never be an insult or a violent act toward the representatives of DAPL behind the razor wire, no matter how provocative they may be.
The morning action was created by the women of the White Buffalo Society, many women of other ethnicities joined and so did I. We wore white skirts and were purified with sage smoke before we left the Sacred Fire area. Two Women Protectors led the peaceful march to the bridge with the intent of voicing their opposition to the construction of the pipeline. Women sang or played drums, others carried banners and all were dignified and proud of their stand against the pipeline. They repeated over and over that they were there to peacefully protect and not to fight. They talked about having safe water for their children. And, as always bringing up the treaties that had allocated that land to the Sioux and made this pipeline illegal.
It was such an honor to be able to photograph this march. I met journalists who were behaving with respect and admiration, I never saw rude behavior, not once. The atmosphere was spiritually charged, women were praying — eyes closed, some had tears running down their cheeks, and men and women warriors stood in front of them as their protectors. I locked eyes with one of these men and, in a quiet voice, he told me of his dedication to the Women Protectors. He felt so firmly planted on the ground, solid and clear in his role and responsibility, there was no bravado, but an elegance that is seldom seen.
At the camp, I met the Sioux people and was introduced to their belief system and culture. It was just that, an introduction, and two days is a very short time to come to understand a people. I was told that certain societies are matriarchal, some of the few left in the world. I realized that I wanted to know more and made the decision to travel to this reservation and others in the area as soon as I could. I found people who truly live the meaning of an honorable life, who value courage, respect, equality, the wisdom that comes with aging. People who understand the meaning of balancing the impact of one’s life with the natural environment. These are just my observations. I have spent my life working in other countries, with other cultures, and I had never visited a Native American community — it simply never came up because of my other commitments and projects. Standing Rock was my introduction and I was impressed with it’s structure and customs.
The second action of the day took place in the mid-afternoon and hundreds of people joined the Native American women for a silent prayer walk to the bridge. Women locked arms four or five in a row, men surrounding them, watching out for indications of violence against them, and people from all walks of life forming a very long procession. There was a sign that we all learned where we would put our hands together above our heads which meant we had to remain silent and in prayers. The leaders had prepared and warned us that there could be arrests so, those who worried stayed in the back of the group. This was so well-organized! Carrying banners and flags, the group approached the frontline and, from my position somewhere in the middle, I heard the representatives for DAPL say something about allowing the leading women to get close to the barricade. I could see women sitting down on the bridge and praying in silence, further back people were standing or sitting on the grassy areas by the road, where I chose to be so that I could have a good look at the situation. Everyone, without exception, was silent. This lasted at least an hour, maybe more. Then, the women stood up and silently returned to the camp. From the grassy area, I walked to the core of the group of women and as soon as I approached, a woman took my arm in solidarity.
The discipline and quality with which the Protectors are leading these actions are impeccable and impressive. I have never seen anything like this and I have participated in demonstrations in other cultures which never displayed such strict conduct. There were reports that we were 2000 people on that second action, I don’t know if this estimate was accurate, but it was a very large group.
While this was taking place, an airplane hired by DAPL was flying in circles above our heads, an intimidating presence, drones were also flying closely to us and riot police were threatening Protectors via megaphones from Turtle Island, a hill to the right of us and a sacred burial ground, where they stand day and night.
That evening I attended a fund-raising concert featuring Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Joel Rafael, the late John Trudell’s band and Bad Dog, at the Prairie Knights Casino, seven miles from the camp. The crowd was spirited and the performers inspired, I loved every minute even though I felt exhausted by the lack of sleep, the cold temperatures and the intense emotions that I experienced. Then, a snowstorm started and I decided to drive to Mobridge, South Dakota, and spend the night in a motel. It was a difficult drive through the storm yet I knew that it was a greater challenge for the people at the camp and that this was only the beginning of a long winter ahead. I wanted to return to the camp the next day but the snow was still falling and the roads were impassable, so I started the long drive home to Santa Fe.
Regardless of the outcome of this conflict, the Sioux Societies have set an extraordinary precedent. The World is watching and indigenous people in other countries are doing similar work, like in British Columbia with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project. I believe that the Native populations of North America are saying out loud what so many of us have been thinking for a long time. They are paving the way for the opposition against the big corporations who are polluting and destroying the environment in the name of profit without any considerations for the future generations. To those who have put their lives on the line and have courageously stood for our rights, I say thank you.
To learn more about Joanne Teasdale please visit her page at, Joanne Teasdale.