On the Icy Edges of Trump’s Empire: Standing Rock and Hoth

Entrance to the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock

It’s Cannonball, North Dakota but with the temperature hovering around -25 degrees Fahrenheit with windchill factored in it feels like the planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The whiteness of the landscape and the intense cold brings such comparisons to mind. The NoDAPL camp, which numbered 10,000 in early December before the first blizzard, is a testament to the support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe enjoys in its fight against the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline that they say threatens their lands, water, and people.

At the hill north of the Oceti Sakowin (Lakota for the Seven Council Fires) camp, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department had been shining bright lights on the camp every night. It is a constant presence as has been the helicopter that circled the camp for months at all hours. The sound of it reminded everyone at camp those in power could see them, would not stop seeing them. One water protectors (as protesters prefer to be called) told me that he estimated the gas bill for the helicopter cost the state of North Dakota $1,000 per hour. State officials have estimated total costs for this militarized response to the encampment and nonviolent demonstrations at $15 million ($10 million of it borrowed from North Dakota’s state-owned bank). The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the elders of the Oceti Sakowin (what the Americans call The Great Sioux Nation) say is a peaceful, prayerful encampment on unceded treaty lands.

In stark contrast, at the foot of the hill where the police shine their lights on the camp is the “Moms Against Meth” camp run by Native American mothers who oppose the spread of meth in their communities. It is a solemn cluster of yurts, as white and serene as the snow that lays all around for miles in every direction.

Just beyond this hill on the night of November 20th, at a small bridge, aptly named Backwater Bridge, thousands watched in horror in real time on Facebook as police sprayed some 400 water protectors for 5 hours straight with water cannons in subfreezing temperatures. Law enforcement fired at close range on unarmed people using rubber bullets, bean bags, pepper spray and concussion grenades against unarmed demonstrators who trapped on the bridge could not easily disperse. More than 300 were injured according to a class action suit brought by the Water Protectors Legal Collective. Those injured that night included 21-year old Sophia Wilansky from Brooklyn, New York, who is undergoing painful surgeries and rehabilitation but may still lose her arm after being directly hit by a concussion grenade, and Vanessa “Sioux Z” Dundon, a 31-year old Navajo activist from Arizona who had a tear gas canister go off in her face and has lost nearly all vision in one eye.

After the Nov. 20 assault, thousands of veterans answered the call to come to Standing Rock on Dec. 5 and nonviolently place themselves between water protectors and police. On Dec. 4, as veterans arrived the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suddenly announced the DAPL’s easement had been denied, and ordering an environmental impact statement would be completed to determine the course of a new route for the pipeline.

The 18 Dakota/Lakota reservations that remain in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska are, in a very real sense, islands left in the storm of colonial expansion that engulfed the Oceti Sakowin in the 19th century. Americans, driven by a semi-religious credo of “Manifest Destiny,” a divine plan that the lands from “sea to shining sea” were meant to be under the domination of the United States. The fallout of this belief is that the nations that were already there and their legal claims to the land, even their very existence as nations with political rights, was ignored and later, clouded. If you look at a map today reservation boundaries are given a secondary status to that of states, when, in fact, tribes, as sovereign nations enjoy a higher political status than states. In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report for the DAPL permit, reservations are not shown at all. It is a form of political gaslighting.

CEO Kelcy Warren of Energy Transfer Partners owners of the DAPL (ETP has since merged with Sunoco) claimed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that the tribe had not voiced its concerns earlier. In response, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe released audio of the Sept. 2014 meeting which clearly demonstrates the tribe and its leadership firmly told the company that it did not want the pipeline crossing through its unceded treaty territory.

“Honor the treaties” is, to many Americans, a tired, plaintive phrase that Native Americans say simply to make them feel guilty. But what most Americans don’t grasp is treaties are actually international law. The U.S. Senate does not ratify treaties with anyone but sovereign nations. Also, under international law signing a treaty does not extinguish your sovereignty—it’s an act of sovereignty. The fact is the United States has been breaking international law for 150 years and did so with the hope that the Great Sioux Nation would not be around in the future to hold the federal government accountable. But what has happened, and that what Standing Rock represents, is with a growing population and a greater sense of political identity as a nation we are witnessing in the 21st century, the political re-emergence of the Oceti Sakowin.

Compare the level of violent, military-style reprisal by the police on water protectors at Standing Rock” to the lack of it faced by NoDAPL demonstrators in Iowa (who are mostly white U.S. citizens). Or even to how the Bundy family were treated when, armed to the teeth, they took over public lands in Nevada (in 2014) and in Oregon (in 2016). The violence can be seen as a reaction to the tribe’s mild assertion of its rights to its unceded territory (the tribe has only been demanding meaningful consultation on the pipeline) and the military force holding the land of the Oceti Sakowin in violation of international law becomes visible.

These unceded territories are now counties (including Morton County) of North and South Dakota. This includes the Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is carved into one of our sacred mountains. The faces of four U.S. presidents is often used as a symbol of America, itself.

Walking down “Flag Road” the wind whipping and the hundreds of rainbow-colored tribal flags wave and twist on their PVC pipe flag poles, I am struck, not for the first time, how this is not something done alone by the people of Standing Rock or a few of their allies. These flags are backed up by tribal resolutions. Even planted by heads of state like the Navajo Nation president, Russell Begaye who with his Vice President Nez and dug the hole to plant the Navajo flag representing a Native Nation of 350,000 people the size of Ireland. He wielded his shovel in a black suit and Begaye and Nez could have been mistaken for Asian businessmen except for the silver and turquoise the two men were wearing. Dakota means allies, in both a friendly and in a political sense. That what Flag Road means. Real political support and alliances. The hoop of the Dakota grows in this century.

The sound of construction goes on in camp, a builder from Vermont leading a crew to build a meetinghouse, there is the sharp chop of an ax on wood, and murmurs punctuated by singers and a drum at a community meeting where the air is so cold every breath is visible.

In a warm felt-lined yurt, I spoke to Dakota headsman and Lower Brule Sioux Tribal chairman Lewis Grassrope (Wicahpi Ksapa Peji Wikan). He and about 200 others will remain as they say until “the Horn comes down” and their elders tell them to leave. The Horn is a traditional encampment of tipis in the shape of a horn representing the seven council fires and pointed at the enemy in defiance. There, the fire still burns.

Headsman Lewis Grassrope (Lower Brule) and Ike Weston (Oglala)Headsman Lewis Grassrope (Lower Brule) and Ike Weston (Oglala)

“Well, when this movement first started it started on prayer and you know through ceremony,” Grassrope explains. “The wakening of our spirits…to knowing that we need to rethink our societies and rethink the way that we look at life and restore the old values that our ancestors carried so we actually become true human beings (Ikce Wicasa).”

When I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” as a kid and saw Han cutting up the tauntaun to shelter Luke in the warm carcass, I thought of the Dakota stories I heard as a child where a person would take shelter from the deathly cold of a Great Plains winter in the carcass of a buffalo. Our stories differed, however, in that the buffalo would come back to life with the man or woman still stuck inside. As a child, I would pester my dad with questions like, how could they breathe? Today, as an adult, my perspective has changed and I long to be gently swinging to the buffalo’s gait, to be part of such a powerful creature that is the center of Dakota/Lakota culture.

The camp feels like that center, the center of the buffalo and I understand when Grassrope says, “most of us don’t want to leave after we’re done because of the feeling and the kinship and everything that was gained here.”

My son who accompanied me to the camp actually asks to wait awhile before seeing “Rogue One,” the next Star Wars installment. I agree and we wait. We wait to return to camp in the spring as the United States and American’s inaugurate Donald Trump as their 45th President and to see if the miracle will happen as it did in the old stories, if our Oyate (nation), our people, and the buffalo that holds them still lives.

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