On September 26th 2016, Earthworks landed in Bismarck, North Dakota. My colleague Hilary Lewis and I travelled there from our post in Washington, DC to report on the growing, Native American-led opposition to Energy Transfer Partner’s latest project known as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). We didn’t have a specific address to navigate to, or even cell service to navigate with, but we knew to follow the highway south towards the town of Cannon Ball. Aside from a security checkpoint outside of the capitol city, staffed by some helpful National Guard officers, the journey was as desolate as it was beautiful.
Camp was impossible to miss, we had heard, and that was true. The Camp of the Sacred Stones, the original seat of DAPL opposition, sits on reservation land miles from the highway. This movement has grown so large, however, that the overflow camp, or Oceti Sakowin Camp, has become the de facto headquarters. Here, they provide information to newcomers, credential the media, operate several large kitchens, provide first-aid and other wellness services, hold community meetings, host camp volunteer committees and more. It would be our home for the next week.
Entering camp that day was equal parts overwhelming, humbling, and welcoming. Over 200 flags line the camp perimeter and main roads and whip in the gusting prairie wind. Hundreds of tents of all sizes and half as many tipis stretch across several acres of land adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Campsites wind their way along both sides of the Cannon Ball River, a little sibling to the mighty Missouri, before converging near the entrance in an area known simply as main camp. Trucks, cars, and those on horseback head in all directions, on the dirt roads or grassy fields. Children play, relatives gather, elders sit in in quiet discussion encircled around fires, while campers from around the world mingle with one another.
As representatives of an environmental organization there to gather footage and help amplify the story, we were considered “media” and immediately registered with camp organizers. It reminded me of checking into a conference or briefing, but without the printed programs or free pens. A daily program, while potentially useful, would have been inflexible to the dynamic yet unhurried nature of camp. On Tuesday, there was a spontaneous and well-organized caravan of close to 100 cars that travelled to two DAPL construction sites to shut them down for the day. On Wednesday, we were asked to film an impromptu Havasupai tribal ceremony, even though the use of cameras during such events is normally strictly prohibited. On Thursday, we sat by the prayer fires and got to know some of our fellow campers as well as organizers.
Life at camp can be as unforgiving as the North Dakota climate, complete with extreme highs and lows. Laughter can be heard late into the night alongside battle cries. Some of the most light-hearted moments we shared were drowned out by the hum of the unauthorized surveillance helicopters that flew overhead. Despite our actions having all the makings of a protest, we referred to each other as protectors. There was palpable grief and anger in the air because of the environmental injustices being committed, but we were frequently advised by leaders to stay calm in the face of repression. “If you start to get excited,” one masked organizer told us on while we stood in the pipeline’s path of destruction, “take ten seconds to pray. Ask the creator for the strength and courage to stand here peacefully.” I think it is this balance that gives this movement it’s unwavering strength.
At the end of the week on our way back to Bismarck, we passed by the site of the now infamous clash between water protectors and private security with attack dogs hired by Energy Transfer Partners. Campers have turned the site into a memorial, with flags and banners commemorating all that has happened on those ancient grounds. It was a reminder that camp will continue to stand strong, despite the encroaching winter and increasing police repression. And a month after our trip, despite a sharp upturn in arrests and constitutional abuses, camp still stands. More and more people arrive each day, including several celebrities in recent weeks. Similar camps have sprung up in other states along the pipeline route, and massive solidarity rallies are being held in major cities across the world. Energy Transfer Partners and the federal agencies responsible for this pipeline have been put on notice.
At Earthworks, we draw daily inspiration and strength from this movement as we fight other irresponsible and unsustainable oil and gas projects around the country. As long as camp stands, we will stand in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock.