‘Mni Wiconi. Water is life.’ The call echoes through Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota like a fearsome battle cry. But what some hear as a call for violence, the water protectors of Standing Rock hear as a peaceful prayer.
Some say they know of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but the company responsible for the construction, along with corporate investors, has worked hard to blind the public from the truth. So take it from someone who was standing on Native American ground nearly two months ago. On November 18th, I travelled to Standing Rock to join the fight against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline stretches through North Dakota and is set to run under the Missouri river, transporting crude oil across numerous states. The pipeline was originally set to run near Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, but once people learned it would be built under the river, they demanded it be moved. Why? Because typical oil pipelines have a 25% chance of leakage with a four-year recovery period, and the fear of the oil polluting the capital’s drinking water proved too much of a risk for residents. The oil company obliged and moved the pipeline – to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
You may be wondering – isn’t that treaty land? Yes, it is. The Sioux’s treaty with the United States Government allows them to function as a sovereign nation, and building a pipeline through their land without consent breaches that agreement. Sadly, this is not a foreign concept to Native Americans. The pipeline company began building on Sioux land, and uses police blockades to prevent Native Americans from entering parts of their own reservation. Through constructing the pipeline, sacred sites have been bulldozed, ancestral burial grounds destroyed, and reservation borders breached. However, the most dangerous impact of this pipeline is polluting the drinking water of the Sioux tribe, the Missouri River being the reservation’s primary source of water. When this pipeline spills, the oil will pollute the water of 18 million people living along the Missouri River. As activist Shailene Woodley says, “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ the pipeline breaks, but ‘when.’” The company constructing the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, has insisted no such leak will occur, but it’s difficult to argue with the data. Partners has lost 18,845 barrels of oil since 2005, and has been fined more than $22 million over the past six years for environmental damage. Federal records reveal that the company that would be operating the pipeline, Sonoco Logistics, has had more hazardous materials leak than any company in America. Barack Obama attempted to stop the construction of the pipeline, and told Energy Transfer Partners they could not drill under the Missouri River, but that didn’t slow them down. They continued to build, as the fine for disobeying this law was a measly $15,000, nothing compared to the millions they would profit from the completed oil pipeline.
Clean water is a basic human right, and that belief alone has rallied thousands to stand in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock. Indigenous, Sioux, white, black, all have heard the call to action and come running to stand with their newfound brothers and sisters. This common belief runs through the camp… water is life. While talking to my indigenous sister from an Alaskan tribe at Standing Rock, she told me why she’s fighting for the water, and it’s a familiar story among water protectors. She says, “I am here to protect everyone’s water. Your water, your children’s water, those police officers’ water. We’re protecting everyone’s water. This is the first step to healing the earth we all share.” My sister highlights something incredibly important here – water belongs to all. The media attempts to make these ‘protestors’ out to be selfish, ignorant extremists who are trying to keep people off their land, but the water protectors are trying to protect the rights of Native Americans, a debt gone unpaid for far too long. They are trying to protect the environment, one we all share. They’re trying to protect the water, from which life is born.
Upon arrival at Oceti Sakowin, one of three resistance camps at Standing Rock, several tribal rules were taught to me and other newcomers: show respect, no cursing, be kind, no alcohol, drugs, or weapons, no direct actions (protests) unsanctioned by elders, and assist the camp community. These basic requests hardly seem like that of extremist protesters. When a few members of the camp became violent towards police officers last year, it was the tribal elders that asked them to leave the reservation. These water protectors want to show that battles can be won with an open palm and with love in our hearts. After learning these rules, I attended a Direct Action information session, where water protectors were taught what to do in a direct action, and how to avoid the weapons used against us. We were shown what to do if we were tear gassed, which makes you feel as though you’re suffocating. We were told what to do if we were hit by a sound cannon, which releases a frequency that causes you to bleed from the ears, vomit, and even soil yourself. We were shown countermeasures for rubber bullets, tasers, pepper spray, and concussion grenades, all of which are used daily on these peaceful protestors. At camp, I saw footage of people praying near a police blockade beaten with batons. I heard of a veteran who attempted to give a flower to an officer and was tackled to the ground and bound as a bag was tied over his head. A fellow protector showed me the wound he received when he was laying on the ground in protest and was tased by an officer, a highly illegal offense. The police brutality shown towards people who are singing, praying, and dancing, all to protect clean drinking water, is truly as horrifying as it sounds. But when I asked protectors if they were angry, I was not prepared for the answer I got. They said, “we cannot be angry that they don’t know better. We are protecting the police officer’s water as much as our own. We want their children to have clean water too.” The strength to have such compassion for others after being oppressed for so long is astounding to me. In the information session we were shown how to march with arms linked, as one, and how to protect one another from brutality. My first night at camp I slept in my car, without heat, as the North Dakota weather dropped to five degrees Fahrenheit. While I shook in the freezing weather, I couldn’t help but think of the people who have been at this camp for months. Walking through the camp, I saw that some people were sleeping in flimsy summer tents for weeks on end. Despite the bitter cold, tiny food portions, and constant police brutality, these peaceful warriors stand strong, refusing to leave until their rights, land, and water are respected.
My main purpose at Standing Rock was to document, record, and photograph. I wanted to show the world a story that the media is refusing to tell. While photographing the police blockade, I met my brother Keytha Fixico. He is a water protector from an Oklahoma tribe. He’s been on the ground for over four months. He burned sage at the blockade, to purify and bless the place, the protectors, and the officers alike. I spoke with him, and he told me much about the pipeline that I cannot repeat for fear of the police using that information to jail more water protectors. Nearly 575 people have been arrested at Standing Rock. Officers would pull a car over on the reservation and charge the occupants with arson, battery, and participating in a riot. The goal seems to be to arrest as many protestors as possible to deter them from returning to the camp. People are charged with numerous offenses, denied medication, and even detained in dog kennels once the jail became full. I was told to carry twenty dollars with me in case I was arrested because phone calls in jail were no longer being distributed for free. My mother had to stay away from the front lines because she’s diabetic and couldn’t risk her insulin being taken away. This is a violation of basic human rights, and something I am horrified to say I experienced. Keytha told me many of these things, and we thanked each other for standing with Standing Rock. He gave me his red bandana as he left, Mni Wiconi written across the front. We still talk and I’m honored to call this warrior my friend.
Despite all this oppression and mistreatment, when my mom and I sat for dinner with our slice of bread and cup of noodle soup, the dining tent was filled with warmth despite the freezing cold outside. Water protectors shared stories, kind words, and encouragement. I met a college student my age from Ohio, a Pakistani woman, a young European couple. I was surrounded by support and kindness from people all over the world, and we united over our fight for peace. As my mother and I drove out of camp the next day, we heard three black SUVs were headed towards camp. That night, the event you’ve all heard of began – and here’s what really happened. Water protectors crossed the Backwater Bridge next to camp, approaching the police barricade on the other side. This barricade stopped protectors from crossing into their own land, as well as walking on a public road, as the pipeline was being built just a few hundred meters away. Protectors began to move the burnt out trucks that built up the barricade, insisting that they cannot be kept off their own land by treaty law. Reinforcements were called in to combat the 400 water protectors on the narrow bridge. Officers arrived and the attack began. In the dead of night, rubber bullets were fired, tear gas released, and sound cannons fired to drive the protectors back. However, because of the narrow bridge, if people on the front line tried to run back, they would trample those behind them. Determined not to hurt the others, protectors had no choice but to inhale the gas and be pelted with bullets. After hours of bombarding the protectors, the water cannon arrived. In zero degree weather at one o’clock in the morning police began spraying activists with freezing water from a hose mounted atop an armored vehicle, but still the protectors remained strong. Several tried to set a small sacred fire, a source of strength and courage for Native Americans, but the fire was put out by the cannon and the event was later described in the media as, “violent protesters setting several fires.” The attack raged for hours. People began to develop hypothermia and were rushed back to hospitals. But when Sophia Wilansky, a 21 year-old woman from New York, was bringing water to those on the front lines, tragedy struck again. A grenade was thrown into the crowd and hit her, tearing off most of her arm. She was rushed to the hospital where a surgeon said he pulled shrapnel out of her arm, even though police insisted a concussion grenade couldn’t have done that much damage. She nearly lost her arm. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department also denied using rubber bullets, but several protectors used social media to show their wounds and the rubber bullets themselves. The Sheriff called the situation an “ongoing riot,” saying protectors were “very aggressive.” By Googling any video online one can see the water protectors had no way to defend themselves on that bridge and were being pummeled by police for hours on end. This event depleted the camp’s medical supplies, severely injured hundreds of people, and proved that the police are using inhumane methods to subdue water protectors.
Sophia’s injury raised awareness of the police brutality at Standing Rock, but it is far from over. On January 23rd, Keytha was on his way to pray on Turtle Burial Hill and standing near his vehicle when he saw a herd of snowmobiles heading right for him. Twelve snowmobiles with 20-25 officers began to follow him back to Oceti Sakowin. As Keytha tried to drive home, five of them began smashing in his windows and boarded his vehicle. They said they wanted him to go home and didn’t want him there. They told him he didn’t belong there. Keytha responded, “I’m Native American and we’ve been here…and we will continue to be here…I am home…I am not going anywhere.” He was then promptly taken to jail. This is the first his story has been covered.
Accompanying the many struggles caused by the Dakota Access Pipeline, an incredible unification has inarguably been formed across the United States. Protests in nearly every state, floods of veterans to Standing Rock, the refusal from police to send reinforcements, all of these display millions of people standing in solidarity for a common cause. Recently the Army Corps of Engineers announced that alternate routes were being discussed for the pipeline, but last week Donald Trump signed an executive memo that will make it easier for Energy Transfer Partners to build the rest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Trump has over one million dollars invested in the pipeline. He insists the construction will create jobs, but the project would only employ temporary construction workers, as pipelines do not require significant labor to function long term. This tells us that this fight is far from over. Donald Trump’s administration will continue to push for the Dakota Access Pipeline, but we will continue to push back with love in our hearts. We will prove that wars can be won without violence. We will protect Native American rights, we will protect each other, and we will protect the water.