Today as you woke up with the taste of last night’s drink in your mouth, the sun was rising over Standing Rock Reservation. As you popped advil to address the pang of your lingering hangover, Sophia Wilansky laid in a hospital bed facing amputation of her arm after being hit with a grenade while peacefully protesting. As you packed up your pies and casseroles and secure your bottles of wine and cases of beer in the backseat, there were caravans of people heading to North Dakota to cook and serve the tribe members Thanksgiving dinner. As you gathered around the table, surrounded by your friends and family, 300 tribes from across America and beyond gather to fight for what many would see as a basic human right: water. But it is much bigger than that now. This has been a long time coming and neither side is letting up.
The first time I caught wind of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline was in early September. As a former journalism student, I do not rely solely on American mainstream media for my news. I was perusing sites like Democracy Now and NPR, when the acronym NDAPL kept popping up. I started reading and digging and googling and piecing together the full unbiased story of Native Americans fighting a pipeline transporting oil. What scared me the most was it took work to find the truth. Major news stations like CNN, NBC, and ABC were not covering the events in Standing Rock. We were weeks away from the Presidential Election and other stories fell to the wayside. These stations were not going to let Indigenous people fighting for water share the stage with Hilary or Donald. As a 22 year old, with a mac and an iPhone 6, living in 21st century America, you think it’d be easier to access all news stories…right? I want to use the line “if you’re living under a rock here’s what’s going on” but in this case I cannot because the rock isn’t 100% your fault. So here’s the truth about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, the story of my time there, and why you should care.
The timeline begins in January. January 25th After months of protesting the pipeline, two narratives have emerged. The first is this has been happening for hundreds of years. The feel-good story of the first Thanksgiving in which the settlers shared a feast with the native people in 1621 is mostly a myth. Played out over and over again in American classrooms and textbooks, we have all been fed an idyllic image of racial unity. This image is Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together, putting their differences aside and setting food on the table. The true story is Native Americans saved the lives of European settlers who arrived in what is now Massachusetts in 1620. The Europeans, though bold enough to sail across miles of ocean to lead a better life, we’re in over their heads. The Wampanoag, who had lived in the region for 12,000 years, taught the settlers to grow native crops. In the earliest days, many tribes helped new settlers survive. The crops natives taught settlers to grow were not just growing wild, but cultivated over many years by generations of native people. What followed the European arrival was 500 years of genocide and betrayal. To this day, treaties are being broken for the benefit of white expansionism. Standing Rock marks the tipping point, driving hundreds of tribes back together, some who haven’t gotten along up until this point. That brings us to the second narrative; America has never seen anything like this before.
We have seen indigenous people fighting to protect their homes for centuries. The classic power hungry, weapon slinging bad guys come rambling in and strip the weaker, peaceful people. But protesters at Standing Rock are doing more than just that. They prefer the title water protectors and are not just protecting their land, but the land. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe makes it clear: We are fighting this for all of you, water is life and if our water sources are threatened we will all be in danger.
What drove me to abandon my weekend plans and trek out to North Dakota started as sheer curiosity. What would I find there? Was going to Standing Rock the only way to discover the whole truth? Could I be of any use? Would the tribes even want me there? I then began to realize I was in the perfect position to go. I had a M-F 9-5 schedule. I was young, strong (hey I workout sometimes), and didn’t have super stringent obligations like children. I didn’t have money or a car, but if I could leave Friday night and be home Monday morning I could do this. I could take a train from Chicago to Fargo and bus it down to the reservation.
“I’m going.” I told my parents and friends. Most of them were supportive, but confused. My mom ended up yelling at me very publicly in the lobby of the hospital my Grandpa was admitted to. “You’re not going to make a difference, one person can’t,” one of my aunts told me. See shit like that fuels me even more, because I know that’s simply not true. I was surprised when I asked my friends, even the travely ones, to come with me. I got a slew of nos and “it’s so great you’re going Allie.” Honestly it hurt. “BUT I want you to come too! And you and you and you!” I screamed in my head. They were supportive, but simply couldn’t/wouldn’t go. That was hard for me to take in. I wanted all my friends and family to load up in RVs, pack tents, and sandwiches and just go. I wanted everyone to see how important it was white people show up, how important it was to not let history repeat itself. But I sat in my room on my bed and stared at the ceiling bouncing back and forth from “wait” to “go.” I wanted to leave that weekend, Halloween weekend, but could not find anyone to come with on such short notice. Traveling alone didn’t bother me, I had rode solo a dozen times before. As I dug through the internet for coverage and watched snippets of live footage from the front lines, I decided it was too great a risk for my personal safety. So I waited a week. My dad promised me he’d go the following Friday and to my surprise….he did.
In the hours between Friday and Saturday, we pulled out of the driveway and into 3 am blackness. With my dad and I in the front seat and my sister in the back floating in a sea of comforters and pillows, we began our journey. It took thirteen hours to drive from our northwest Illinois suburb to Mandan, North Dakota. We decided to drive in shifts, three equal chunks. We watched the sunrise, something I relish every time I’m up early enough to experience. I watched the first rays of Saturday stretch over the milky mist and the sky burst into day. The drive was like watching the same thirty second video clip of corn fields over and over again. We drove and drove and drove, stopping for gas in a Minnesota town, population 444. I slept and filmed out the window and wrote and read and soaked up the hours. We hit Fargo and Bismarck, then finally Mandan. You had to drive through Mandan, a smaller town adjacent to Bismarck, to meet the roads leading to Standing Rock Reservation. Days before we left, the Morton County Police set up a roadblock on the 1806, so the easier route south to the reservation was closed. We drove south down route 6 in a very long detour to Sacred Stone Camp. The road winded like nothing I had ever seen. We carved over rolling hills, at times on such high peaks we couldn’t see what was coming next. It was beautiful and the closest to Mars I’d ever come. “Are we going the right way?” We were waiting for a sign. Then there was a sign, literally: “Sacred Stone Camp” with a hand drawn arrow. We followed the breadcrumbs and with a little bit of intuition drove up to the entrance. Greeted by another sign and a long dirt road, we entered the camp.
I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. The sun was setting as we parked the car and claimed our little piece of land. We hiked a steep hill to get a better view of camp before night arrived. Thousands of tents stretched up and down hills and across the horizon. The Cannonball river that fed into the Missouri butted up against the camp. Across the river there were a dozen tall lights all lined up in a row, shining across the water. “That’s them,” I turned around to discover the voice’s source. A freckled boy, about ten years old, told us what he knew and what he’d seen. “That’s Dakota Access excavating the land. I’m here with my parents. I took a canoe down the river, but they won’t let me take it to the front line camp.” The river symbolically divided us and them; the protectors and the threateners. The earth was sprawling with people, cars, and dogs. The icy air was thick with smells foreign to my nose. We made our way down the hill, saying goodbye to the boy and told him to stay safe. There were people chopping wood, mounds of tangled tents and sleeping bags, skeletons of structures to be built for the winter, smoke swirling out of the kitchen tent, poster boards tacked up stating the news of the day and asking for volunteers. There was a mix of white and brown faces, young and old. There were bare feet and Priuses with California plates, purple hair and piercings. There was a mother rocking her baby and stirring soup. There was a group of three twenty-something men playing guitar. I walked up to them and introduced myself. I asked, seemingly the simplest, yet most complex question I’d ever asked in my life “What can I do?”
Editor’s Note: This marks the first part of a three part series dedicated to the happenings at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.