One year ago, the person toasting the incoming 2016 as the year in which, “ Prince will die and Trump will become President,” would have been hailed as possessing an exemplary dark sense of humor. The others in attendance would have hoped for better.
But, better would not come to pass. Instead the year’s events sent a wave of despair across our population, like a virus laying waste to hope and enthusiasm.
Given this stupefying viral attack on our nation, I am grateful that between Sept 15 and Dec 15, I spent almost 8 weeks at Standing Rock, ND. I witnessed history - the largest gathering of indigenous tribes in US history, and the first gathering of the Sioux Nation in 140 years – and I participated in a living breathing, indigenous metropolis. On the banks of the Cannon Ball River a community of thousands reacted and responded to an epic clash over climate and civil rights, economics and resources, democracy and the rule of law with, perhaps, the fate of the planet in the balance. I can see why Standing Rock resonated so far around the world: hope found a plausible strategy.
How this conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline ever came to the surface, and how the indigenous leadership generated so much success over eight months impressed tens of thousands of people who cycled through this two square mile camp. Something new happened here. Everyone, almost without exception could see it and feel it. From this vantage point on the high plains, Standing Rock was the most important place on the planet in 2016, and here is why I believe it remains so to this day.
KILL THE BLACK SNAKE
The goal of the Standing Rock camps, from the start, was to “kill the black snake,” the 1,172 mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline being built by Energy Transfer Partners that proposes to carry a half million barrels a day of fracked oil from North Dakota to Houston, directly across public clean water sources that supply 18 million people. All so that this oil could be exported onto the global market, ready to aggravate the warming of our planet.
In addition to this ambitious purpose, Standing Rock also had to function as a city with the responsibility to feed up to 5,000 people a day, to make sure the citizens were warm and safe, to provide medical care, sanitation and all the demands of any city of that size. While this community was willed together by shared goals, it had to incorporate wildly diverse tactics and orientations. Every issue imaginable seemed to be on the table at Standing Rock. But somehow this massive effort resonated with an even more massive number of people around the world, who evidently longed for those same goals because they literally sent their support by the truckload.
Standing Rock was not perfect, but it was probably the best functioning city in the United States in 2016 – zero hunger, zero homelessness. Certainly it was the most hopeful thing I witnessed this year .
HOPE KILLS DESPAIR
The odds seemed ridiculously bad. A $4 billion dollar pipeline project with international financial support, including the personal investment of one Presidential candidate and the silent acceptance by the other, to run across rural ranch land, abutting an impoverished Indian reservation, the construction protected by all local “law enforcement” and a money-crazed state government with a history of treachery, tragedy and discrimination against Native people. By no measurement did the locals seem to stand a chance.
Five Lakota youth looked at it differently. Despair was simply not in their equation. Twenty year-old Chasilyn Charger, one of the original five campers at Standing Rock, told me, “We came here to kill the black snake, and protect the water. And that is what is going to happen. We’re not going away.” To draw attention to their cause they went on two epic runs. The first run to Omaha, Nebraska attracted hundreds to the camp, but a second one to Washington DC attracted thousands.
My first night in the camp, among a sea of tents, listening to dozens of groups drumming and singing under a full moon, a phrase immediately stuck in my mind: the way the Lakota address each other, starting with, “My relatives….” And by relatives, they mean their literal relatives, their tribal relatives, their children, their children’s children, all their human relatives who bleed red, and all their relatives who cannot speak, the ones that fly and swim, and the water who they consider to be alive. I heard people say many times, “you are the dreams of your ancestors.” It is so powerful. If we’re not willing to protect water, the source of all life, for our relatives, what are we willing to do? No amount of money can replace it, my relatives.
STRATEGY OF LOVE.
From day one, both the youth and the elders declared this gathering and movement to be “in prayer”. For a secular urbanite, alarmed by the demonic rise of religious fundamentalism and allergic to escapist forms of “spirituality” that phrase could otherwise sound creepy. But, one of Sitting Bull’s grandson’s put the view into perspective when he said one day around the central, Sacred Fire, “We don’t have a ‘religion’. We have a way of life.” “Prayer” was really any speech, or song about the good of the planet and the good of the people. Prayer at Standing Rock was all encompassing.
As a cynical observer of politics it would not be easy, for example, to profess much love for a brutal, racist, lying, cheating, CEO polluter and his thousands of paid henchmen. But the Lakota had a persuasive argument: not hating our enemies would make us stronger. Anger weakens us, makes it harder for us to think creatively and forcefully. Viewing the builders of the “black snake” with an ounce of compassion, seeing how they have to support their families, that some of what they want is what we all hope for, but much of what they crave is based on fear and weakness, then suddenly the other side becomes more manageable, and our side becomes more powerful. The enemy was not the DAPL contractor, or the out of state Sheriff, but the Black Snake itself.
Not only did this give Standing Rock a strategic advantage and the moral high ground on a national stage, but also tactically, this attitude seemed to confound the authorities. The Sheriff and the Governor clearly prefer to objectify those in the camp as “eco terrorists”, “violent”, “law-breakers” and generate a narrative of hate. They couldn’t grasp how someone could be implacably opposed to their project, willing to do anything to stop their plans, but unwilling to stoop to making them sub-human. So their claims in the press of violence and lawlessness fell flat on a national stage because too often the video showed the authorities to be liars and hypocrites.
Despite the brutality of the DAPL security forces and the assembled police forces, Standing Rock is winning and the black snake is closer than ever to death.
LIVE, IN PERSON, BODIES ON THE LINE
In late September an elder Brian Masur asked me rhetorically: “How do you stop a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline? Put several thousand Natives in the way.” Showing up is the first rule of success. No movement, regardless of how obvious or righteous, ever succeeds unless people put their bodies in the way. Operating in, and occupying the physical space at the front lines - where the pipeline is being excavated - is essential. “Like” and “Send” won’t do it. We have to be present.
In this regard, Standing Rock had a great field advantage over the invading oil pipeline. They were there first. The pipeline’s approach to the Missouri River goes directly over 1851 treaty land that the “law” says belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux. The Standing Rock Sioux are one of the seven Lakota bands. In the 1800’s, the Sioux Nation fought the US Army to a standstill. Lakota people will still tell you their relationship to Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. Their warrior tradition resulted in one of the largest most extensive reservations in the US, and one of the larger tribal populations. The Lakota are also accustomed to big family and tribal gatherings, camping out and living off the land. They still have their own language, music, culture, and still live a profoundly deep world-view. The US Government and West Point still use them as one of the few examples when the US Army was defeated. When the Lakota talk about “Native Pride”, it is not an empty phrase.
2016 also delivered Standing Rock serendipitous synchronicity on a global scale. The Natives’ willingness to show up coincided with a growing urgency, particularly among young people, that the fossil fuel industry must be stopped from destroying their planet’s future. Then Bernie Sanders’ campaign confronted the financial corruption of our alleged democratic institutions. Sander's loss to a rigged system made tangible and obvious, the point that without direct action, there will be zero legislative action, because money controls that system. And lastly, to a greater extent than ever before, 2016 saw a broad consensus that when it comes to global warming, clean air and clean water, inaction could be fatal - literally.
At a ceremony on a warm, late summer day, Dave Swallow, a Lakota medicine man spoke to several hundred people and seemed to address those in the broader world, “People who call themselves “spiritual”, where are you? It is time to stand up. If you call yourself spiritual it is time to stand up!”
COROLLARY MESSAGE FOR WHITE ALLIES
A corollary observation, for my fellow urban, white folk, does follow. You are 100% welcome to join this community, and the communities that will inevitably follow. But, do not think for a minute that you are going to be anywhere near where the decisions are made. Engage with the community, on the community’s terms, and you will be heard and be made a part of the community. In the case of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Treaty Land of 1851 where the main camp sits– the Lakota regard this as their sovereign territory. You are visiting them in their house. I can pretty much guarantee that you will not be in charge of anything bigger than yourself.
And guess what? We white outsiders should regard this development as refreshing, a new opportunity. It isn’t like our track record leading the planet is so great. Nonetheless, some may experience a harsh wake-up when the phrase “It really is not about you” comes into sharp, individual focus. My advice – roll with it – you may learn something valuable.
Leaning against the fence, at the very spot where the pipeline proposes to bore under the Missouri River, a Lakota friend, Jonathan Edwards, one of the originators of the Standing Rock movement, told me, “This event may have sparked the end of oil, and re-ignited a civil rights movement.”
The greatest amount of investment in energy today is in renewables – not fossil fuels. Tesla is doubling its manufacturing capacity, and even smart data-analytics guys in the oil business admit, “Oil is a dying business.” Nonetheless, extractive industries – oil, uranium, coal – represent centralized forms of energy from which a few people can reap huge profits. Watching the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline, I sometimes felt like I was watching a retreating army burn the bridges and farms behind them so their enemies could not use them, just so they could celebrate one last victory.
Robby Romero, an Apache musician and one of my campmates, made the point that “Indigenous people amount to perhaps 2% of the population, but they sit on top of, or next to 60% of the remaining resources like oil, coal, gas and uranium.” That means that many of these indigenous groups, like the Lakota, who still value the earth, and planetary health, who have managed to survive the murderous assault on their cultures during the last 500 years, and who have figured out how to resist and to survive, are really the people in the best position to lead humanity through this next crucial phase.
It makes sense. Combine their strategic field position, their spiritual regard for the health of the planet, their non-capitalistic tradition of cooperation and tenacious cultural resistance, and as a group they’re better equipped to lead on these central issues where climate, environmental justice, civil rights and economic justice converge. Certainly they have the moral high ground.
Yes, in 2016 Prince did die, and Trump did get elected, but the success and resonance of Standing Rock offers us a model of how humans will survive, if we wish to survive.
Photos by Chris Caraway, Alonzo Macias and Todd Darling.
Special thanks to Ryan Anderson, Josie Thundershield, and Riley Redhorse,