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At Standing Rock, Cautious Celebration

At the camps on Sunday, water protectors enjoyed a rare victory and anticipated what comes next.

Photographer Sara Lafleur-Vetter
December 05, 2016
At Standing Rock, Cautious Celebration

On Sunday afternoon, as the bright sun melted once-imposing North Dakota snowfall into sticky, squelchy mud, the thousands of activists gathered at the camps at Standing Rock did not expect good news.

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The camps — which sprung up in April in opposition to the construction of Energy Transfer Partner’s $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (or DAPL), and have continuously swelled in the months since — were largely occupied with greeting and housing a large influx of U.S. armed forces veterans, who had recently mobilized to support the effort to stop the pipeline. The sudden sea of men and women of all ages in camouflage jackets — many of them boasting Veterans For Peace patches — had created a giddy atmosphere, to be sure. But there were no expectations of concrete developments.

And then, slowly at first, and then seemingly all at once, word spread: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had decided not to grant Energy Transfer Partners an easement that would allow the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe, which borders the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Corps would, instead, be exploring alternative routes through the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. As Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II said as he took the microphone in front of the whooping masses packed at the central hub of the camp’s sacred fire, “These are things that we’ve been asking for from the beginning!”

Jo-Ellen Darcy, the United States Assistant Secretary of the Army, had just contacted Archambault directly, the Chairman explained, to let him know about the denial of the easement. As the crowd broke into cheers and shouts of “Mni Wiconi!” — Lakota for “Water is life” — Archambault effusively thanked the camps’ inhabitants. “We have over 10,000 people coming together and creating a community that self-polices, that self-organizes. You all did that! I didn’t do that — the tribe didn’t do that. You all did that!”

“We have to remain in prayer, we have to remain peaceful,” he continued. “We were told by our youth, we were told by our elders, we were told by the spirits to remain nonviolent. If we remain nonviolent, we will be successful. It’s wonderful: we don’t have to stand and endure this hard winter. I want to let everybody know that it is true: we can spend this winter with our families.” As the Chairman walked off, hands sprouted out to clap him on the back, to grip his palms, to thank him right back.

“We have to remain in prayer, we have to remain peaceful. If we remain nonviolent, we will be successful.” —Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II

Phyllis Young, one of the camps’ leading organizers, took the microphone next, and referred to the pipeline by its common pejorative within the camp. “Remember, from day one we said there will be no black snake going through! We have kept our promise and we have kept our commitment to our children and our grandchildren.”

To huge cheers, she spoke of California Senator Barbara Boxer’s plans to introduce legislation to make it mandatory for federally recognized tribes to give consent before projects affecting their water supply go into development. “We are the horn of the buffalo,” Young roared, ably rallying the crowd. “And we have done our duty and our responsibility! To all of you who have come from wherever you came — your homes, your towns, your nations — I will never forget you!”

“We will be having a victory pow wow on Tuesday,” she added. Then she paused: “We planned that last week.” Laughs rippled in response.

From there, the joyful impromptu addresses kept on coming.

Faith Spotted Eagle, another of the movement’s critical organizers, hinted at the indigenous American peoples’ tragic history with the federal government and its army. “We have a very strange turn in history,” she said. “The people who are taking care of us at this beautiful camp are the military of the United States government!”

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A man who identified himself as Aloysius Dowe said, “I’m a disabled Vietnam veteran and I have legs to stand on — they’re not good, but I’m gonna stand strong!” He also spoke glowingly of his welcome at the camp. “When I first showed up last night, they gave me a smoke, and I appreciate that.”

The actress Shailene Woodley, who has been involved in the movement from its beginnings, was there as well. She spoke about the largely ignored actions the movement had taken in Washington, D.C. back in the summer. “There were maybe 50 people that showed up to the rally because no one was paying attention,” she said. “Months later, this is worldwide news. The thing about knowledge: when you know, you can’t unknow. And now the world knows.” Nearby were a random assortment of celebrities-in-arms, including the rapper Vic Mensa and the cult writer Jonathan Ames.

At Standing Rock, Cautious Celebration

Dana Yellow Fat, a Standing Rock tribal councilman, was all set to go next when the sounds of songs and drums interrupted him. A crew led by Dana’s brother Courtney had marched into camp through the main gate and began circling the sacred fire. The crowd reacted in kind, whooping and shouting its appreciation. Some shut their tearing eyes, some brought their hands together or over their heads; some bobbed in place, dancing as best they could in the tight quarters. A man in a headdress jumped on a bench and turned to silently address the raucous crowd, holding one feather in his one hand and extending just the index finger of his other.

Not far away, a food line curled out of the mess hall, as it had on so many other afternoons, and men and women walked out of the tent with heaping piles of green beans. Behind them, a multimedia art performance was taking place: young people holding mirrors above their heads marched in loose formation.

Brandon, from Arizona, who had come to the camp in September with nothing but a backpack, was off from the main clutch of people, dancing alone. “Me and my crew were coming back from a supply run for the vets,” he explained. “We were waiting for verification, but this” — he pointed to the sacred fire, where a round dance had broken out — “is all the verification we need. I was on the front line many times taking blows. And I’m glad I don’t have to take those blows anymore.”

“So what happens next?”

He answered with a smile. “I don’t know.”

Nearby, a row of older Veterans stood and watched. Frank Gonzales from Texas, who served as an Army mechanic in Vietnam in the late ’60s, said, “I’m delighted. I can breathe! It’s like the elephant went away!” He offered a humble suggestion: why not rerouting the pipeline so that it runs clean water over to Flint, Michigan? “And if the line breaks” — a common occurrence in pipelines, and one of the opposition’s major criticisms — “well, OK, no big deal!”

In the frenzy, a tall man in his late thirties wearing black overalls and backward Yankees cap handed out #NoDAPL bumper stickers. He identified himself as Gilbert Kills Pretty Enemy III. “I live here! I’m from Standing Rock,” he said. “I was thinking it was gonna end in bloodshed. People dying.” In September, he learned he was having his second child, and said, “This scared the shit out of me. I thought, ‘Goddammit, he or she is gonna grow up in all this.’” Now, he was “super happy,” and planning to “go home and have a good time.”

Michelle of nearby Turtle Mountain reservation has been coming to Standing Rock for sun dance ceremonies for a decade. “Ohhhh, my heart is so happy right now,” she said. “After all these years our people might get some justice. But — you don’t wanna get too happy, you know?” Tricia, a Navajo woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, had just pulled into the camps minutes before, and had promptly lost her children in the celebration. “I’m like, ‘We gotta get everything ready before it gets dark! And they just took off!”

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“After all these years our people might get some justice. But you don’t wanna get too happy, you know?” —Michelle from the Turtle Mountain reservation

Next to us was Route 1806. A hundred or so feet down to the north of it stood the Morton County Sheriff's Department's barricade, between the camps and the planned DAPL construction site. This is where many of the violent confrontations had taken place, where many of camp residents had been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed. At the moment, up the hill, groups of veterans and locals were taking in the view of the sprawling camps.

Courtney Yellow Fat, the man who had led the charge into the sacred fire, took stock of the situation. “It’s jubilation, but it’s cautious jubilation.” It isn’t beyond Energy Transfer Partners to defy the orders, he said, and to drill anyway. But he reminded Morton County that the county had promised to defend the rule of law. And if Energy Transfer Partners drill — “That’s against the law. They’re gonna have to stop it. They’re gonna have to protect the Water Protectors.”

Courtney is a teacher at Standing Rock’s tribal school; he lives in nearby Fort Yates and has been coming back and forth from his home and the camps. He saw, at first, 60 people in the camps, and then he saw that 60 turn into 100, and then 200, and “all of a sudden we’re sitting here with thousand and thousands of protectors.”

He’s also seen representatives of a bevy of one-time rival tribal nations show up at Standing Rock and march with respect, through the main gates and down to the sacred fire. That’s exactly the kind of respect he was demonstrating when he led the singing and the dancing into the sacred fire during the post-announcement celebrations. Prompted, he translated some of the lyrics of the anthem he had sung, the Sitting Bull memorial song: “My people, find courage in yourself. There will be hard times. This, Sitting Bull has said, and then he left us.”

Meanwhile, 1,600 miles east in Pennsylvania, Energy Transfer Partners released a statement accusing the Army Corps of making a “political decision.” Perhaps gesturing to President-elect Trump’s vocal support of DAPL — not to mention his personal investments in Energy Transfer Partners, which were once valued between $500,000 and $1 million, according to campaign finance disclosures — Energy Transfer Partners said they “fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe,” adding, “Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”

Back on the road at Standing Rock, the trucks of various news organizations lit up, ready to broadcast. On the far other side of camp, the floodlights of DAPL began to flick on in the fading sunlight, as they do every night. All down the road, making their way in, was a long line of cars, their headlights shining. The cars had fists hanging out of windows, drums banging; their horns were honked over and over. In extreme winter weather, the setting sun can feel like it brings true menace. Tonight, there was nothing of the sort.

And yet, in the camps, the humdrum activities of life continued on. Firewood choppers swung axes, and a young man working a giant smoker carried a tray of meat to the kitchen tent. “I’ll be here till the last piece of trash is picked up,” he said.

There was a bright joy, but underneath it hard work still flowed, unchanged even by the Army Corps refusal to grant an easement. As the weather dropped below 20 degrees, two teen girls trotted their horses down a main drag.

“How you feeling?” I shouted up to them.

“Cold as hell!”

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At Standing Rock, Cautious Celebration