Standing with Standing Rock

Rubber bullets with a side of pepper spray – that was the Thanksgiving Day menu at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota amidst the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I traveled to Standing Rock with fellow Vote Everywhere Ambassador, Will Frierson, and a VE volunteer, Nathan Reed, to stand in solidarity with the Sioux people as the pipeline encroached upon sacred land.  Originally, the Dakota Access Pipeline was routed north of the suburban town of Bismarck, North Dakota. The company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, rejected the Bismarck route because of its proximity to residential areas and water sources. Instead, they changed the route to pass through Sioux territory despite the same dangers to land and water.

November 24, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, between five and ten thousand “water protectors” occupied the Oceti Sakowin camp located just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Some people had been at the camp for days – others months. Each person was there because they understood the Sioux people weren’t just fighting a pipeline, they were fighting centuries of broken treaties, white supremacy, and genocide.

At sunrise, Sioux elders lead a prayer circle with natives from other reservations and non-natives. The humming of helicopters entering the no-fly zone to surveil the camp became steady white noise. The temperature remained below freezing as people prepared meals and chopped firewood for the intricate community made of teepees, wooden structures, tents, and RVs.

At 2 P.M., native leaders conducted the daily “direct action” training required for all water protectors going to the frontlines. For more than two hours, natives explained to a crowd of over two-hundred: how to perform an eye-flush if affected by pepper spray or tear gas; the signs of emotional trauma; what to expect when arrested; and how non-natives should act to respect native traditions. All water protectors were advised not to bring any valuable personal items to a direct action since the police strip search anyone who is arrested. Initially, many natives brought sacred items from their ancestors to the actions as symbols of power. The police confiscated so many of them, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had to put in a formal request for the items to be returned. The items were eventually returned – drenched in urine.

To end the training, native leaders conducted a simulation in which all trainees assumed the proper formation for a direct action. Native activists and elders stood in the middle while all non-natives linked arms and circled around the natives to stand as the first line of defense. The entire group began to move as hundreds chanted, “Mni Wiconi,” Lakota for “Water is Life.”

As the sun set, the temperature dropped to below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Police and private militia turned on the floodlights located on the hills overlooking the camp as drones and crop-duster planes circled in darkness. The smell of smoke filled the air as water protectors lit fires to keep warm. A group of young natives from the Red Warrior Camp organized a concert of indigenous spoken word poetry, rock, hip hop, and rap art titled “Black Snake Killers.”

Natives crafted their raw emotion into complex lyricism, accentuated by heavy drum beats and electric guitar. Artists spoke about the oppression faced by women of color, how to raise a native child to be proud of their culture, the environmental impacts of oil drilling, and the rise of drug addiction and suicide among native youth. Several of the performers were Spanish-speaking Native Americans from reservations in the south-west U.S. and indigenous people from other countries. The night ended in prayer.

On Dec. 5, the Department of the Army announced the Dakota Access Pipeline will be rerouted away from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. While this is a victory, the fight to stop the pipeline continues. Tomás, a 19-year-old Native American from Standing Rock, says the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline represents a greater struggle.  He explains, “What we’re doing here at Standing Rock is telling all of the oppressors around the world that oppress indigenous people – we will no longer give you what you want. We stand as a rock and when a river meets a rock the river will move it; but when rocks stand together the river will go around it.”

Vote Everywhere Ambassadors Will Frierson (University of Mississippi) and Olivia Anderson (Simpson College) with Vote Everywhere volunteer Nathan Reed (University of Mississippi) at Standing Rock.

Through my involvement with The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program, I’ve realized civic engagement entails more than action at the ballot box. Over 50 years later, young people are continuing the work of Freedom Summer 1964 at Standing Rock. I chose to become a Vote Everywhere Ambassador because I’ve always felt the call to advocacy and I choose to do so with Andy’s legacy in my heart. As a millennial and college student, I could have done nothing despite the blatant human rights violations and environmental threats at Standing Rock. Instead, I chose to join my fellow activists and be a part of positive, societal change.

About the Author:

Olivia Anderson is a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and junior at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. She’s currently studying Political Science and Applied Philosophy. Upon graduation, Olivia hopes to attend law school and practice immigration law working with mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees.