I spent my Thanksgiving this year at Standing Rock, where a poverty-stricken Sioux tribe has faced off with a $3.8 billion oil pipeline project. I did not understand the irony and deep significance of my trip until I was reminded of the holiday’s dual origins soon after I arrived at camp.
In 1637 during the Pequot War, settlers from Massachusetts Bay colonies massacred something like 700 natives after a white man was found dead in a boat. Casualties included Pequot women and children, who were burned in their village or hunted and shot if they escaped the inferno.
White settlers feasted in celebration of the bloodbath, with the mayor of the colony explicitly mentioning “thanksgiving to God” in his proclamation after the event. This of course took place after the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621, the familiar story we are taught in school, in which pilgrims and natives joined together to celebrate a life-saving harvest. Settlers seemed to have a short memory.
I realized my own ignorance about this history only after attending orientation and “decolonization” (Google it) discussions in the white dome (see photo above). So you will have to forgive me for spending much ink making clarifications about aspects of the event; they are for my benefit as much as yours.
First off, it is important to understand that although this issue revolves around a particular Sioux tribe, the Standing Rock Tribe, it involves as many as 600 tribes from around the world, who have sent representatives, resources or other signs of solidarity. And though the non-local tribes will be the first to acknowledge that they are there to show concord with the Standing Rock Tribe in particular, they do so because they know the story of Standing Rock all too well.
The conflict with the Dakota Access Pipeline represents the latest and largest in a long chain of broken promises to colonized indigenous people everywhere. This sentiment of unity and common pain and healing is expressed around camp, with signs and flags like the one pictured at left, which reads, “Since 1492 / One Blood.”
The Standing Rock gathering serves as a lightning rod for non-indigenous groups as well. At the time of this writing, some 2,100 veterans had raised about $500,000 for transportation and supplies in their self-deployment to Standing Rock. They plan to arrive on Dec. 4 and join protesters in demonstrations against the police.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently gave DAPL protestors an eviction notice for Dec. 5, although it has softened its initial warning, saying it won’t forcibly remove those in the encampment.
Another clarification that needs to be made: though the camp in many ways resembles a war zone, the campers insist that it is a ceremony, where prayer stands as their chief concern. In this spirit, handwritten cardboard signs around camp forbid the consumption of drugs or alcohol.
This solemn tone relates to natives’ insistence on being called “protectors” instead of the much sexier and media-friendly “protesters,” which conjures images of potheads and the Vietnam War. It also relates to their emphasis on the action as a peaceful protest. They are there to focus on prayer, and to heal their people, whose fate they tie to that of the world as we know it.
This may sound dramatic. Here’s some more. American Indians in this area and around the country live in conditions we associate with the Third World: male life expectancy as low as 48 years; alcoholism rates as high as 80 percent; diabetes rates 2.3 times higher than the general U.S. population; sexual assault rates twice the national average, with many native women experiencing abuse as young children. So perhaps it is not surprising that one in five native girls tries to commit suicide before graduating from high school, with one in eight boys doing the same.
The first native woman I talked to, Debbie Veres, a 52-year-old Navaho from Arizona, confirmed these statistics. She is currently taking care of three children not her own; they were left behind by their mother, Debbie’s cousin, lost to a drug overdose. Their father died of a drug overdose nine months after Mom.
Debbie has experienced a death in her family every couple of years for as long as she can remember, and this has resulted in a total of 26 orphaned children who have been put in foster homes unless Grandma or an aunt can take them in. As a kid, Debbie spent time in boarding schools and with foster families herself.
Like many native women, Debbie is a victim of sexual abuse, with the first instance occurring when she was 5 years old. She has done what she can to survive in such circumstances, with 25 years of sobriety and a master’s degree in political science to show for her diligence. But she is unable to pursue a career because she spends much of her time on child care.
Over the years she has taken care of around 15 kids, from the family and from her kids’ friends, an endless cycle that seems bent on wringing her dry. Nonetheless she is determined to break the chain of suicide and addiction all around her: “Every time I feel like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this no more,’ I just think, ‘this stops with me; there’s not gonna be another one; this stops with me.’”
She sees Standing Rock as the center for a cultural awakening for her people at large, a chance to confront internal mechanisms of control as they fight on the outside.
“This has also brought out all the other traumas we’ve experienced,” she told me. “It’s bringing us together to say ‘no more’ about that, too. Not only to the outside world but to our own men and own people, saying ‘This has gotta stop.’”
“Camp” is also a misnomer; the occupation consists of three adjacent camps. It began at a camp referred to as Sacred Stone Camp, when local Lakota youth decided to intervene in the construction of the pipeline. Since then, it has expanded into three camps to include Oceti Sakowin and Red Warrior, with as many as 10,000 people occupying the space over Thanksgiving weekend.
This ballooning of the camps’ population became the source of a lot of tension and resulted in my group’s decision to leave camp early. Initially the tribes put out a call for support from whoever would lend it, soliciting donations of supplies like food, winter clothing and medical supplies, as well as Amazon gift cards for the purchase of similar items, or cash for the legal fund, which is used to bail out and otherwise aid arrestees after their run-ins with law enforcements.
And though many people came for Thanksgiving weekend with good intentions, others came for the opportunity to take a selfie as evidence of how “woke” they are, or to scratch an itch for Burning Man or other good-times festivals. Whatever the case, their arrival resulted in a predominantly white camp, with white folks making up approximately 85 percent of the camp’s population, many of whom were like us and hadn’t fully considered the gravity of the situation.
This influx of whites began to resemble the colonization of America, or “Turtle Island” as its known to natives, which resulted in the genocide that has claimed, by some estimates, 100 million indigenous lives.
As our travle group dealt with this uncomfortable semblance we became more of the fraught nature of camp and of native reality in general. I had come chiefly as someone interested in climate change, and I began feeling guilty for co-opting the indigenous-focused space for the sake of my pet-issue, however important that issue seemed to be.
The tensions there boil over and manifest themselves as clashes with police forces. In a recent conflict over a blockaded bridge, a police concussion grenade badly injured a woman’s arm, and she now faces amputation. (Police dispute this version of the story, blaming it instead on an explosion caused by protestors.) At the same conflict, police sprayed protesters with water cannons into the North Dakota night, with temps reaching a brisk 27 degrees. Over 160 people were injured in this confrontation, with many showing signs of hypothermia.
I talked to Jerica Tamarin Meditz, 30, of Framingham, Mass., who participated in the bridge incident. She came away from the event with a mild case of frostbite on her hands, and now must be careful not to expose them to cold—no small feat in the weather that grows colder by the day—because the tissue has lost its resilience. She witnessed police aiming their rubber bullets at the heads of protesters; one native woman was hit in the eye with a tear gas canister, severing her retina. This did not make the national news, as Milansky’s injury did.
Despite such brutal surroundings, which are about to get even worse with the oncoming North Dakota winter, Meditz plans on staying. I asked her about the Army Corps’ recent eviction notice.
“No retreat, no surrender,” she told me. “That’s where people are at around here. I’m in it for the long haul.” She had been at camp for a month and a half with her horse, Chota, a Lakota mustang that was given to her. Although Jerica is not native, she has grown up with native culture and feels compelled to show her support by putting her body on the line.
Jerica was our neighbor at camp Oceti Sakowin. Oceti Sakowin has become the camp closest to the front lines with DAPL security, which consists of police from five states, the National Guard and two private companies. Planes and helicopters circle above the camps day and night, either for intimidation or to garner intelligence on the camps’ goings-on
Small drones with cameras also buzz overhead from time to time, although some of these belong to protesters wishing to document police activity. Ridges to the northeast of Oceti Sakowin are lined with tall, bright security lights, about 20 of them shining in the direction of the camp a mile or so away. These are also assumed to be an intimidation measure.
I suspect many reading this—if they are still reading it—will have strong views regarding Standing Rock. We tend to shy away or flare up when faced with uncomfortable truths, and it is not a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that the Dakota Access Pipeline runs through land owned by the Lakota by treaty, because this also calls into question the legitimacy of lands similarly positioned—only a hop, skip and a jump from the recognition that Billings sits on treaty land once held in trust by the U.S. government for the Crow people, taken away as soon as the value of the real estate became apparent.
In reaction to such weighty and uncomfortable concepts, some will blame the woes of indigenous people on the natives themselves. They will ask, “Why don’t the Indians stop complaining and clean themselves up?” “When will they stop blaming us and buckle down?” “When will they stop drinking their time away downtown and get a job?”
These questions indicate a failure to acknowledge the deep effects of genocide on the descendants of survivors. This is almost impossible to truly appreciate as members of the ruling class, to appreciate what it’s like to experience a major death in the family every year or two, whether to diabetes, murder, suicide, substance addiction, hunger.
But not completely foreign; people of the dominant culture, which culture we may call “white,” are not free from these effects: the perversions of alcoholism and substance abuse, self-loathing and suicide, and eating disorders, including obesity, are also present in the mainstream culture, although to a lesser extent than in native communities. As they say, “you reap what you sow.”
Dan, a Lakota elder and the subject of Kent Nerburn’s “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” describes the colonization process thus:
“You did something we did not think was possible. You killed us without even taking our lives. You killed us by turning our land into piece of paper and bags of flower and blankets and telling us that was enough. You took the places where the spirits talked to us and you gave us bags of flour.”*
But the old story of conquest teeters, a king drinking his own whiskey, blind. The colonial way has fostered constituents with nothing to lose, at its own peril. The Standing Rock protests signal a breaking point.
The last time natives gathered like this in North America was at the Battle of Greasy Grass, also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn and as Custer’s Last Stand. Custer came on behalf of miners to clear Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes from their land in the name of progress and industry.
We could say that Standing Rock is a version of that story updated for the globalized modern world, bringing seemingly disparate groups together from around the country and around the globe to fight a common enemy of extraction and violence. Here we may note that veterans also face high instances of suicide and substance abuse, and that many native Americans, along with other brown and black and poor people, have served in the armed forces.
These groups have given up their lives, willingly or no, for the United States, and now have little to lose. The amped-up nature of the DAPL security forces at Standing Rock seems to indicate that they’re nervous. Maybe they should be.
*Page 58 of the book’s reissue, published by New World Library, Novato, CA.