Before the crowd materialized, the landscape along Highway 1806 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, was a pastoral scene: Cows and buffalo grazed; bales of hay, like giant marshmallows, littered the grass; and tiny clusters of trees were scattered across the hills. Then the men on horseback appeared, followed by hundreds more on foot. A steady drumbeat announced their approach, accompanied by the ringing of ululations, tongues trilling against the roofs of mouths.
I was standing at the frontline camp of the movement against Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access pipeline, the first cluster of teepees and tents along the highway from Bismarck to the Sacred Stone Camp. Sacred Stone is where, at the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation, land protectors have been camped since April, concerned that the pipeline will traverse sacred sites and threaten the Missouri River, the reservation’s water supply. Since late July, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing permits to Energy Transfer against their concerns, the camp has swelled into the thousands. Many have described it as the largest gathering of Native Americans in recent history.
The pilgrimage had departed from Sacred Stone that day. They’d passed the site where, weeks earlier, private security guards unleashed dogs on the protectors. Here, they gathered in a large circle at the frontline camp. A fence separated us from the grassy field that the pipeline is meant to traverse. Four days earlier, on September 9, the feds, likely bowing to public pressure, called for a temporary halt to construction on Army Corps land. Many of Standing Rock’s supporters nationwide celebrated this as a victory, and a sign that the government was relenting. But was it? Maybe the biggest victory so far has been the creation of a movement.
Before the tobacco ceremony, in which fistfuls of herbs were raised to the sky, anyone who wished to address the crowd was invited to speak. A man wearing track pants and a headdress of feathers commemorated the 300 people massacred at Wounded Knee, then a man with flowing grey hair took the stage: “Our water is alive, carries us, takes care of us and feeds our melons and our squash,” he said. His name was Shannon Rivers, from the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. “Today, we live off the white man’s food, and we have diabetes and heart failure.” Later, a loquacious, funny woman spoke of suicides in her community and her loss of language and identity. I watched a man ride by on horseback, sporting a hoodie that declared: “Straight Outta Crow Creek.”
Where was the Dakota Access pipeline among all their grievances? Its specter had brought everyone here, but as Sacred Stone swells, it has also become much more than #NoDAPL or even its slogan, “Water is Life.” Still, increasing numbers are also willing to forestall the pipeline with their bodies. Not long after trekking back to Sacred Stone, we heard that 22 more land protectors had been arrested by riot police at a construction site 70 miles away, after several had locked themselves to the machinery. Neither media nor legal observers were spared a night in jail. Neither the pipeline company nor the government seemed to be backing down. This weekend, 40 protesters were also arrested in southeast Iowa, elsewhere along the pipeline route.
Cody Hall, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who I met the following day, had just been released after three days in jail, for “trespassing” on private property as he filmed the infamous dog attacks. “As police officers, as people who take the oath to protect the people, why are they protecting [the company] and not us?” he asked angrily. Many of the protectors are preparing to stay through the winter, until construction permits expire. “They’re scared of peaceful protectors who have no weapons, and they’re arming themselves with weapons.”
For others, the explosive growth of the #NoDAPL movement has also created an opportunity for policy reforms that could strengthen native rights over their lands. In their September 9 statement, the feds invited tribes to “formal, government-to-government consultations” to review how they are consulted over new developments. “We need a seat at the table before any construction plans are decided,” said Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Stopping the pipeline is a short term thing, because there’s more pipelines coming.”
But many at Sacred Stone are deeply skeptical of the government’s intentions. Since Tom Goldtooth co-founded the grassroots Indigenous Environmental Network in 1990, he has been pushing the U.S. government to embrace the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. This includes a stipulation about the indigenous right to offer “free, prior and informed consent” over developments on their land—meaning without coercion or restrictions, before plans have already be drawn up, and with access to all the relevant information, similar to the standards governing how patients must consent to medical procedures. But the U.S. voted against the Declaration in 2007 (alongside Canada, Australia and New Zealand). And while Obama “endorsed” the Declaration in 2010, he has made no moves to enact it.
On any given day, Goldtooth can reliably be found in his hoodie and double braids, seated inside a tent on “Facebook Hill,” the highest point in the camp. This modest peak is where hopeful phone-users congregate to catch a bar or two of signal, and to marvel at the array of tents in the shallow river valley. Here, I asked Goldtooth why he thought the U.S. wouldn’t embrace the principle of “free, prior and informed consent.”
He did not hesitate.
“It reserves the right of the tribes to say ‘no’.”
That is precisely what LaDonna Brave Bull Allard attempted to do at a meeting with the Dakota Access Pipeline Company in 2014. An impeccably made-up woman with glam, feathered hair, the Standing Rock Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer had discovered that the pipeline passed right by her home. After the meeting, she approached one of Dakota Access’ employees. “Remember me,” she warned. “I’m going to be the one that’s standing there.”
Allard kept trying. First, she and other tribe members wrote letters to different state agencies—the EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Army Corps of Engineers—and then voiced her opposition in person to the Army Corps at a meeting with the community in March 2016. “Follow your own laws,” she told them. “The ones you created!” (That would be the National Historic Preservation Act, the Environmental Protection Act, and the Clean Water Act, which form the basis of Standing Rock’s lawsuit). But despite agreement from the EPA, Department of the Interior and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Army Corps could not be swayed—and this was not the first time the tribe had dealt with them, either. That is why, after the meeting, she welcomed activists to establish a camp against the Dakota Access pipeline on her land.
Sitting at her desk in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Allard can still recall how the site of the Sacred Stone Camp used to look. She envisions the winding of the Cannon Ball River, and its big whirlwind of water where it met the Missouri River. This created big, round sandstones all along the river. There was also a swing on the riverbank,and a tree nearby, where her uncle harvested honeycomb, with a sound she described as “fraaaap!”
But all of this disappeared when Allard was just a child. In the late fifties, the Army Corps of Engineers, empowered by the Pick-Sloane Program to build several dams along the Missouri River, began acquiring local land. The following decade, they flooded huge swaths of the reservation, quelling the whirlwind, drowning her tree and swing, and inundating sacred sites. Nearly 1,000 families were relocated as a result of the Pick-Sloan Plan; just one dam alone, the nearby Oahe, flooded 200,000 acres of land on the Standing Rock Reservation and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. On land covering five local reservations, including Standing Rock, 90% of the timber resources, 75% of wildlife, and most of the fertile cropland were now underwater. Allard still remembers seeing her grandparents cry.
On April 1, 10 or so land protectors arrived, armed with experiences from other blockades against the Line 9, Sandpiper, and Keystone XL pipelines. Today, the Sacred Stone camp is a sprawling formation of tents, anchored by a main meal circle where strangers strike up conversations, campers line up for food, and children chase one another in the dirt. Come nightfall, the darkness in the valley is punctuated by flickering fires and the sound of drums. When day breaks again, new campers and warriors begin passing through the rows of tribal flags lining the entrance, like Olympians entering the Village. As they roll through the security checkpoint, cars are cleansed with the smoke of sage.
Allard never dreamed this would grow into something so large, and she insists she is not an activist; she simply believes in the water, her culture, and her way of life. “I always tell people that when you’re backed up against the wall and there’s no place else to go, you just put one foot in front of the other and move forward,” she said. “Like the buffalo, you face the storm.”
And thousands have joined the storm, including more than 280 tribes from across the world and an array of non-native groups like #BlackLivesMatter, many of them driving for days. Some arrive with carfuls of supplies, raised through local donation drives: paper towels, camping gear, fruit, blankets, and in one case an entire moose. (The moose, a gift from Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe, was roasted and served by the kitchen staff.)
One soggy afternoon, I hovered around the main meal circle with some new acquaintances: Lucy, a smiling, part-Paiute woman from Nevada; A.J., a somber Cree hunter from Montana; and Nico of Taino descent, whose all-black outfit—skinny jeans, baseball cap, and tailored pea coat—belied his current residence in Brooklyn. Each had driven to the camp alone, with no hard plans for how long they would stay. But this was okay: At Sacred Stone, friends are easy to make, and simply being present feels purposeful.
This main circle is where people make announcements on a PA system, and blessings, songs, and rants are shared by anyone who chooses, in what is effectively a ongoing open mic. And it is where members of Ecuador’s Kichwa tribe of Sarayaku spoke to a captive audience one night. Against Sarayaku’s protestations, the Ecuadorean government had allowed an Argentinian company to explore for oil on their lands in 1996. Sixteen years later, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that these actions were illegal, in a landmark case for safeguarding the right of indigenous people to offer their “free, prior and informed consent.”
“We were around a thousand people, including the children, and you are many more,” said the young activist Nina Gualinga. “And we managed to kick the oil companies out.”
And it was also here, on the following night, that the arrival of the Mohawk chiefs from Ontario, Canada was announced (“the real Mohawk warriors,” as Cody Hall had gushed earlier). “We supported them at Oka,” said the voice over the PA, “and they have come to support us now.”
The parallel was deeply moving: In 1990, Mohawk warriors near the Quebec town of Oka were engaged in a dramatic, 78-day armed standoff with the Canadian army over a golf course being expanded onto one of their burial sites. Like Standing Rock, their stand drew a sprawling encampment of indigenous supporters from across Canada, and forced the government to re-evaluate how it consults its indigenous residents over development—just as the feds are now promising to examine how best to “ensure meaningful tribal input” over pipelines.
So what does “meaningful tribal input” actually mean?
Kingi Snelgar, a Maori lawyer from the Ngāpuhi tribe in New Zealand, mentioned the differences in culture, language and customs between tribes—akin to the differences between China and France, that have U.S. diplomatic missions tailoring how they address each state. Snelgar was standing atop Facebook Hill, where he had been working with the camp’s legal support team as a human rights observer. “We all have the same relationship with the land,” he said of the hundreds of tribes that have passed through the camp. “But each process [of offering or denying consent] is probably going to be different depending on the tribe.”
Growing up in the Northland of New Zealand, Snelgar had listened to his elders speak of their hurt and heartbreak over the loss of their territories, and saw his community marred by suicides. Then, as a teenager, the government carried out the largest land confiscation in New Zealand’s history, the Foreshore and Seabed Act of 2004, which seized territories under Maori title. That is how he came to understand the broad impact of land confiscations and construction projects like pipelines: They not only stripped native people of their land, but also of their culture, identity and autonomy.
But tribes will differ in how they arrive at the decision to “consent,” with some governance structures requiring consensus across the community, and others involving consultations between chiefs and tribe members. “The most important thing is that the structure is created by tribes,” Snelgar said. “That tribes have the primary say, and they have control over how those processes are created, rather than the government saying, ‘this is what it’s going to look like’.”
Another 30 minutes past the Sacred Stone Camp on Highway 1806 is the town of Fort Yates, which houses Sitting Bull College and one of the country’s few native language immersion schools, the Lakota Summer Institute. Residents of Fort Yates are often quick to mention the “negative vibes” permeating the reservation (poverty levels in Standing Rock are three times the national average and five times the levels in Bismarck), but the Institute is what brought Tasha Hauff, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, to these flat, yellow plains—first as a student in 2013, and again this January as a teacher of Native American studies at the College.
Before school began this month, Hauff was a frequent presence at Sacred Stone Camp. Now, her days are spent teaching Lakota to kids, and explaining the intricacies of the agencies governing native people and their lands. But this, for her, is part of the same fight as the one being waged at Sacred Stone, because tribes can only reclaim their autonomy by knowing their history, living their culture, and understanding the laws and mechanisms that govern their lives.
“If the people you made a treaty with don’t exist as a people anymore, then you don’t really have these treaty obligations anymore,” Hauff said, explaining the process of “settler colonialism,” in which native lands were ceded by treaty to settlers (often forcibly) and native populations confined to reservations. By contrast, Sacred Stone, in nurturing native political activism and new discussions about the place of native people in the U.S., seemed to Hauff to be opening up new possibilities.
Back at the encampment, school is also in session inside a cluster of tents. The goal is to “decolonize education,” as a school volunteer, Alexander Fred, explained, as well as to offer home schooling credit for children missing regular classes back home. Inside one of the teepees, I found Roger Paul, a burly, gentle man with a white bandanna around his head, telling a story to about a dozen children. Paul is one of the Passamaquoddy tribe members who had brought the moose, and also a teacher of language and culture back on his reservation and at the University of Maine. Later, he explained that upholding the oral tradition is “how our people have been here for 20,000 years, how we survived and evolved and made sure that we’re still here,” he said.
His tale was about Glooskap, the folk hero who learned everything:
One time, Glooskap had wanted to hunt, but because he didn’t know how to respect the animals, he told them a lie: Their world was coming to an end. “Get in my bag and I’ll save you,” he said. He took them back to his grandmother, telling her she’d never have to worry again.
“No, that’s not the way to do it,” she said. “You need to leave them with their families. All life needs each other to live.”
So Glooskap hung his head and took the animals back to the land—but this time to another spot. “Here’s your new world,” he said. “Your old world is gone.” And they realized that he had lied; the Eagle could see the old world on the other side of the hill.
“Why did you lie?” they asked.
“I just wanted to help my grandmother and provide for my community,” he replied.
So they didn’t punish him. “But from this day forward, animals will never speak to humans again,” they said. “And we will never believe a word you tell us again.”
As Paul and I walked through mud and rain toward a direct action workshop, I asked if there was a moral to the story.
“It’s about learning how not to be greedy, how not to take everything and to be considerate of other life that’s out there, and to be respectful of other families,” he said.
Then he paused, and I wondered if this was also a story about subjugation and consent. But he began speaking again before I could ask.
“There’s no one moral to the stories that we tell,” he said.
Audrea Lim is a journalist who has written for New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The New Republic and The Nation, and an editor Verso Books. She lives in Brooklyn.