Last week Farina and I decided to go to North Dakota to visit the Standing Rock Sioux Protest camp. We left Friday, September 16th, and we returned the next day. Our intention was to observe the site, make connections, and give support to those in the camp.
We flew into Minneapolis-Saint Paul in the Morning, and quickly rented a Jeep, which we drove to the camp in North Dakota to Camp, 30 miles south of Bismarck. Upon our arrival, we were stopped by the National Guard. The military personnel, in full gear, smiled at us, and asked us to drive slowly because “pedestrians” were on the road. We found that it was funny that it took six military personnel in full gear to tell us to drive slowly. We assume they had surrounded the camp, and they were counting the people going in and out of the perimeter, and filtering who could or could not enter.
We drove down Route 1806 which follows the Missouri River. The view was magnificent, as golden leaves started to pop from the green. Farina and I remarked constantly how lovely the drive was, and it was made lovelier because of the serpentine river, which refracted the light of the post-summer foliage.
We found the first sign of campers after the Fort Rice Historical site on Route 1806. We saw about thirty Native Americans and about forty tents, plus vehicles that were sprawled on both sides of the road. There was a wire fence, on which was attached hundreds of flags of Indigenous and International nations. Some of the protesters carried #NoDAPL signs, but they did not try to warrant attention. We passed the small demonstration, and a few miles further down we found the camp.
My first impression of the camp was that it was much bigger than I expected. I saw thousands of tents, tipis, and RVs. The camps were separated into specific campsites, but geographically they fell adjacent to each other, so it was rather hard to tell where one camp started, and the other began. Someone told me that 7,000 people occupied the camp on Friday. Over the weekend they expected about 10,000. The three camps were: Sacred Stone Camp, Red Warrior Camp, and Bear Prayer Camp. The Bear Prayer Camp was the largest of the three camps, and that is where we spent the night.
The Bear Prayer Camp was a camp of order, and as indicated by its name, it was a camp of prayer. To say that I was impressed at the camp and the demonstrators would be a gross understatement. Those running the camp reminded me a little of those from my Mormon congregations. The camp was directed by volunteers, and had a strong command of how things should work in the camp. Volunteers directed other volunteers who served in various capacities. They seamlessly filled different roles, from cooking, to cleaning, to security, to community organizing, including the direction of songs and dances. I saw strangers hugging each other, helping each other out, and giving needed camping items to one another.
There was a tarp that was set up for donations. Anyone that needed a jacket, a blanket, a sleeping bag, or anything else could take one. There was a first aid service tent, sweat lodges, and other places that were used for spiritual healing. We were impressed at the quality of the entertainment. Drummers drummed, and singers sung underneath the paths of drones, helicopters, and surveillance planes. Anyone who wanted to share a song, a story, or an experience could take a microphone and share. We heard the experiences from many Indigenous Nations. People came from as far north as the Arctic Circle, and as far south as Central and South America.
The camp prepared dinner. They offered free food to everyone in the camp. We accepted food, but we also gave food so we would not come across as burdensome. They were grateful, but I feel as though it was us who were served. We ate buffalo burgers and Sioux delicacies. The meal was great. We walked along the camps and took pictures of the rivers. We visited the camps, and we returned to our Jeep where we camped for the night.
The camp has a strong prohibition against drugs and alcohol. The rule is simple, if anyone catches you doing drugs or alcohol, they will kick you out of the camp. The only exception to this is tobacco, which for many Native Americans is sacred. The MC reminded us of the rule, and warned everyone that two young men were spotted with a six-pack. He said, “They are drunk, and they are at large. I’d like everyone to keep an eye for them so we can escort them out of camp. This is no place for alcohol. We take this very seriously.” My experience is that I found no one intoxicated. The camp was a camp of order, and everyone that I saw took this rule very seriously.
Not everyone in the Camp was Native American. Those who were not were typically environmentalists. I met one couple that introduced themselves to me as representatives of the “Lollipop Guild.” I assume that was their way of saying that they were not Native American. We had a good discussion about the evils of Oklahoma fracking and the artificial creation of earthquakes. I appreciated that there was a non-Indigenous presence at the camp. They stand as a reminder that this is not a “Native American” Issue, but a human issue, and an environmental issue.
We left the camp earlier than we wanted to. I heard many stories that went something like this, “We decided to come for a couple of days, and we couldn’t go home. We have been here for five weeks now.” I met a Navajo lady who said that she had a fulltime job in Crownpoint, NM, and so she could not stay. Instead, she drives on the weekends. This is her third trip to the camp. It is no surprise to me why people would want to stay at the camp. I never heard any grumbling, or bad-mouthing the oil company. At the camp their talk is aimed at the water. They focused, not on destroying the oil companies, but rather protecting the water. They were united in preservation, not destruction. Over a hundred Indigenous nations were present at the camp. Never has such an Indigenous gathering occurred. To say that they were friendly to one another would not be accurate. Instead, I would suggest that they had become family.