Inside the Protectors’ Camp

By Benji

Having just crested a hill on my bicycle, I view a sprawling and bustling encampment along the Cannonball River. Even from this distance I can feel the vibrancy of life here. People splash about in the river, gallop bareback on horses across the few stretches of empty pasture, and sit in small circles outside teepees and RV campers. Riding closer, I hear loud drumming and a group of voices singing high over the thunderous booming, the rhythm matching my own elevated heart rate. I turn down a dirt road into the camp, and two young volunteers on the security team smile and nod at me. I pass between dozens of flags from American Indian tribal nations who formally support this movement and gathering, who have come here to be in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I pass a large tent with children sitting in a circle, a teacher prompting them with a question about their communities and the environment. There’s an impressive kitchen with pit fire grills, next to the center of the camp where drummers are sharing their song. I stop here for a while.

This is Oceti Sakowin camp, or “Main Camp” as many people call it. After the drumming stops a councilman of the Standing Rock Tribal Council gets on a mic and thanks them, and announces the arrival of a delegation of tribal nations from the Northwest, welcoming tribal leaders from Lummi, Yakima, Puyallup, Swinomish, Suquamish, Nisqually, and other Coast Salish tribal communities. A long truck arrives with a large totem pole strapped to the bed. This totem pole was carved by Lummi tribal members, and is being brought on a journey to here and other places in Indian Country where communities are engaged in the fight against the destructive practices of the fossil fuel industry. (See tetempolejourney.com)

These new arrivals give speeches about their commitment to fighting the DAPL, share their own recent, longstanding, and historical battles against numerous violations of treaty rights and greedy corporations. Songs are sung. People gathered are taught a traditional prayer and invited to join together to perform it. Gifts are given to the Standing Rock nation. People then form a processional circle to shake hands with one another, offering welcome and thanks. It feels good to be here, to shake hands and offer Miigwech to these folks coming from many nations.

I continue down the hill towards the river, where I’m camped. I stash my cell phone and bike, and make my way to the Red Warrior Camp. I enter the enclosed area past signs prohibiting cell phones and photography. Five young people at a security checkpoint welcome me with curt nods. People mill about doing volunteer tasks or sit in small circles. The mood here is more somber, less focused on formality and public displays of tradition and culture, but the reasons for gathering are the same: we are here to stop the pipeline. This camp is younger, includes more non-Indian allies, less supported by donations but leaner and scrappier. I find myself naturally gravitating towards sitting around the fire and sharing meals with other two-spirit, queer, and trans Indians, which is lovely and grounding.

The other young American Indians I meet here in the Red Warrior Camp have a fire behind their eyes, a burning desire to cut the head off the Black Snake and end all injustices against our people. Being in this camp fills my mind and heart with visions of countless acts of active resistance against the many forms of genocide and colonization endured by American Indians. It is not enough to merely maintain tradition, remember our languages, and to keep our spirits healthy with prayer, but we must also fight to defend ourselves, the land, and the water. As a people who have endured many forms of trauma, so too does our medicine come in many forms.

There is so much to take in here, this place now being the largest gathering of American Indian nations in recent history, and perhaps in all of history. It is clear that this gathering is not merely just a show of support and solidarity for the Standing Rock nation, but is an immensely significant act of healing for Indian people. While a lot of us sometimes joke lightheartedly that parts of this feels like going to a really great powwow, it is obviously so much more, as we bring our whole selves and come together and share stories of resilience and the diverse experiences of being indigenous to this land.

It’s been useful for me to look at this through the lens of Decolonization. As a mixed-race urban Indian and child of a transracial adoptee, my family experienced a diaspora that is sadly too-common in the US. While I’m proudly Anishinaabe and a card-carrying member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, I have no immediate family that lives on our reservation, no family who speaks our language or knows our traditions. Most of my American Indian friends in the city are also in diaspora, and most of us have found piecemeal community with non-Indian friends who have different but parallel stories and similarly complicated connections to our places and communities of origin.

Most of the people I befriended at the camps have opposite experiences, growing up and living on reservations, actively working to maintain knowledge of culture, traditions, and language, while also facing other persistent struggles with corporations who exploit natural resources and poison the land and people, government agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management who act in collusion with those companies, economic and legal policies that leave people landless on their own reservations, and deal with judicial systems that are complicit with (mostly) white settlers committing crimes and fleeing with impunity when they leave reservation land. Despite our different lived experiences, we all connect with one another here and recognize that while our paths have branched apart, our roots are the same.

Part of the violence of colonization is that it tears away our connections to our histories, tries to make us feel that assimilation is the only option for survival. Being here liberates my mind from those ideas. I see others experiencing this too. The effort to protect the water has become a holistic path to healing, liberation, and decolonization for Indian people: we bring our whole selves with all our complications and pain, we center ourselves in prayer, tradition, and medicine, we find support and solidarity with one another, and we act together to physically stop the pipeline. We become whole again by deepening our connections with one another and resisting the forces of oppression.

Being at camp is both surreal and momentous. Events like this have long been watershed moments for American Indians, from the occupations of Alcatraz, of Fort Lawton in Seattle, to Wounded Knee, these events have inspired American Indians to act boldly and radically. People here know it, too; almost everyone I talked to shared a story of putting aside their lives at home to come here, be it taking a semester off school, quitting their jobs or taking significant time off, borrowing a car to drive across the country with relatives and friends. I must admit that there is some frustration from people committed to the movement about some elements of this, having the camp inundated with tourists and weekend-warriors who want to witness this captivating historical moment and take photos of Indians on horses and next to teepees, without actually being willing to do the hard work that this community needs.

The movement against the DAPL needs people to show up here, but it also needs people to be strategic, thoughtful, and respectful. My best friend and I reached out to our communities in the Bay, asking for assistance receiving donations and statements of support and solidarity. In addition to practical good like ropes, tarps, and camp chairs, we brought with us incredible letters of support from black.seed, a queer, Black, liberation collective, and Asians For Black Lives. Statements and acts of solidarity from folks in the Movement for Black Lives has been profoundly important for people at the camp, and I saw people talk with pride about being visited by a delegation of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities and talk excitedly about news of official support for the national BLM organization. These acts are vitally important for the anti-DAPL movement to thrive.

Joining the efforts to stop the pipeline has been a profoundly important act for me, and for so many other American Indians. I would like to encourage other urban Indians in particular to come to the camps and be willing to work hard in supporting our siblings whose lands are enduring ongoing colonial violence, and to do so with an open heart in receiving guidance and wisdom from our relatives and elders. This movement to protect the water benefits all people, but it centers us, as it is just the newest manifestation of the oppression and genocide that our community has endured for over 500 years. We need healing, and this can only be done by joining as a united people. Together, in the largest gathering of tribal nations in known history, with the support of allies and accomplices, we will stop this pipeline and other implements of violence against our lands, water, and people. Resistance is medicine.