Lessons from Standing Rock:
An outsider’s view of unfolding truths.
By Carolyn Campbell

It seems like forever ago I returned from Standing Rock, but it has only been a few short weeks. As our nation braces for a new administration, and the atrocities we fear will occur, my heart aches for those back in North Dakota. Each day I devour my Facebook feed, looking for pictures and stories from those who are there, seeking assurance that they are safe and anxiously praying that they will survive in the days ahead. 

This week, the weather advisory from Bismarck, North Dakota’s weather channel warned unnecessary. DANGEROUS WIND CHILLS TO 35 BELOW ZERO ARE EXPECTED AGAIN TONIGHT AND INTO SUNDAY MORNING. WIND CHILLS THIS LOW WILL RESULT IN FROST BITE AND LEAD TO HYPOTHERMIA IF PRECAUTIONS ARE NOT TAKEN. EXPECT WIND CHILLS TO RANGE FROM 25 BELOW ZERO TO 30 BELOW ZERO. I can’t begin to fathom how I would endure this extreme cold with no electricity, no running water, no plumbing and a wind that cuts through the walls of tents and teepees.

If you are not familiar with the protests at Standing Rock, here’s a quick snapshot. For the last eight months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, 1,200 miles of oil pipeline that will move oil from North Dakota to Illinois. If completed, it will cross through sacred ancestral burial lands and under the Missouri River. In historically unprecedented solidarity, the native Water Protectors have been supported by thousands of nonnative activists from around the globe as they pledge to kill “the black snake” – their name for the 450,000 barrel a day pipeline. During (mostly) peaceful protests, they were attacked by dogs and endured water cannons and concussion grenades. Now they must face, perhaps, the most challenging test of all, enduring North Dakota winter as they await the actions of Donald Trump.

I became actively involved after the Obama administration denied a key permit for the Dakota Access pipeline and the tribal chairman asked everyone to leave. It seemed like a win for everyone. With Obama’s strike of a pen, Standing Rock supporters could applaud a job well done. The chairman could gracefully have his tribe exit and regain order. The media saturated the headlines with veteran’s who had come to act as “human shields” and then left in a dramatic exit with a deadly blizzard at their back.

Many younger Water Protectors, however, refused to leave. They would stay until the company, Energy Transfer Partners, had packed up their tools and left the reservation. When I heard a caravan, of native supporters, was sending a supply truck with relief workers I offered to get a few folks to help secure extreme-weather gear.

As a social activist, I reached out to four other women to help me raise awareness, support the Water Protectors, and help bridge a cultural divide. On the first day of fundraising we were bombarded with questions. “Wasn’t Standing Rock over?” “Haven’t you heard, the army halted construction of the Dakota Pipeline? “Hasn’t the chairman told everyone to leave?”

I was stunned. How could Portland, the bastion of liberal social-consciousness, not know that Standing Rock was alive and struggling? I spent a day watching live feeds from key native leaders. I scoured the Internet for current pictures. I then wrote a “Standing Rock is Not Dead” letter. People were thankful for the news. Everyone gave generously.

The caravan was to leave on December 18th. As the departure came near, I felt something calling me. The voice kept getting stronger. “People need to know that this is not over. You need to go. Go see. Photograph the Camp. Bring back pictures. Keep this story alive.”

The evening before the caravan was to leave, I committed to going. I hustled back to the store and purchased my own gear. I was packed by 1:00 AM. I was ready.

I was ready for bitter cold. I was ready for protests, even arrests. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the depth of vulnerability and truth that would be exposed. Even now, I am stunned by our nation’s disgustingly cruel, hidden history. The trip forced me to come face-to-face with the complex and tumultuous process of communities reclaiming truth, self-honor and purpose.

The caravan, including a U-Haul, Penske truck, extended cab truck, and a van, drove nearly thirty hours straight through the night, stopping only for a few hours when a pass was closed due to 75 mph winds. I was entranced by the bucolic beauty as we sped across Idaho, into Montana then on to North Dakota. I took pictures through the foggy window of sunsets along mountain passes, windstorms through evergreens and sunrises over expansive plains.

We arrived at the reservation’s Casino at six in the morning. The sun was barely a glow on the flat horizon. After a quick breakfast and a short rest, we were transported from the casino to the Water Protectors’ encampment. As we drove past a car still buried from the last blizzard, the driver counseled us, “You are about to be tested. There is nothing you will ever face like where you are about to go.”

As I write this, I am compelled to share my experience as it occurred. It is the only way to, hopefully, fully honor the impassioned determination of the people and the extreme hardships they face.

We stayed at Standing Rock for three days.
It felt like a lifetime.
If felt like a minute.

We enter Oceti Sakowin Camp, aka All Nations Camp, along “Flag Road”. An endless line of flags, from all the tribes represented, wave proudly against a brilliant blue sky. Their tattered edges, though, reveal the wear from endless months of unrelenting North Dakota winds.

We turn off Flag Road into the main, Oceti camp and stop in front of Winona’s Kitchen. Greetings are quick. Winona hands me her cell phone to photograph the unloading. After two pictures the battery dies due to the cold. I pull out my own camera. People come, from nowhere, to help unpack the trucks. A human chain unloads cords of wood from U-Haul to chopping station. Others load food and supplies onto new sleigh carts and take them to the kitchen. The sun shines brightly. Chainsaws hum. Helicopters circle overhead. We smile upward, joking that our picture is being taken.

Within an hour, the trucks are empty.

After the wood is stacked we head down to medic row. After hearing so much about their compound of tents, yurts with doors from Tibet, and a buffalo-mural school bus, we had to go see. As we approach, a rider on horseback trots down the lane greeting the medical crew. He is one of the few horsemen left in camp. Most are off riding in the annual Dakota 38 ride – a 330-mile trip with riders from all Dakota tribes in remembrance of the thirty-eight men who were hanged, in 1852. Ordered by Lincoln, the hanging is still the largest mass execution in American history.  

The stories of heinous acts against native people run deep in this small plot of land.

Next, we crossover to the new compost toilets that were completed the previous week. Sweet smelling and warm, they remind me of high-end Portland spas promoting an earth-rich concoction of cedar and sage. We take off our gloves and encircle the wood stove as the attendants tell us of Standing Rock’s toilet history. The previous porta-potties had overflowed, then frozen, when those thousands of veterans and protestors came a few weeks earlier to serve as “human shields.” To keep this from happening again, the new toilets have volunteers around the clock to ensure they stay maintained and all waste is disposed of quickly.

Back outside, it’s now far warmer than earlier in the day, a balmy thirty-degrees. I head up the hill overlooking the camp and watch sledders enjoying the warmth and the sun. Children race up the hill. Laughter fills the air. A young woman asks if I’d like a ride. Her tone is reminiscent of when I was young, when we’d ask an older person, out of kindness, if they would like to have an experience from their younger years. I delightedly say, “yes,” and briefly wonder when I became an elder.

Darkness begins to fall as the sheen of ice reflects back at me. Everyone is gone. I stay and watch the lights from Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fill the horizon across from the camp. Huge lights flood the ridge to the south, where nighttime work continues. I’d heard rumor they paid a $200,000 fine per day – banking on Trump to retract the easement denial and approve the pipeline construction.

The glow of the teepees floating in the glow of the snow takes my breath away.

I want to stay in that place, on that hill, in that moment, forever. I am transported back in time, to a far simpler era when living with the land and abiding rich tribal traditions was the only choice.

Then it hits me. It’s the DAPL glow that creates this movie-like image. I wonder, “How can this be so serene and surreal yet so dread-filled…?” Before the thought is finished I am transported back into a mystical time. There is something far greater afoot, here where the ancestors rest in the hills above the plains. I stand steady and breathe. It is a moment when spirit and living meet. I feel a much-welcomed mooring for my searching soul.

Looking down on the camp below, the cold begins to bite. I pull my hood tightly over my wool cap and head down to Winona’s Kitchen. If it weren’t for leaders like Winona people would have left long ago. She is one of a handful of women that hold this camp together. Feeding over three hundred people a day, she is mother, provider and caregiver. Her 40-foot army tent serves as kitchen by day, and sleeping quarters by night. Whether sitting or standing, her spirit is always in motion. Tonight she hangs her newly completed, three-foot wide Christmas-light dreamcatcher outside the entry to her kitchen. 

After eating elbow-to-elbow in Winona’s we go for our third walk of the day. We head down to the frozen Cannonball River.

I’m wearing two winter coats, a down vest, three layers of long underwear, huge sasquatch boots over subzero boots and two pairs of gloves. My fingers are still cold. We part slide, part walk down the icy, slick Flag Road. A firework explodes into the night – one hundred feet high, then another.

We are drawn back to camp by music floating out of the MC’s hut. By day, he keeps the camp informed of activities, lost items, even inspirational quotes over a camp-wide microphone. Tonight, he sits at his propane fire pit beckoning people to come up and share their talent. An indigenous woman from the Sami tribe in northern Scandinavia sings a tribal song. She wears the traditional Gákti. She’s come with seventeen other tribal-members, the eldest in her seventies. Next, a young woman proudly proclaims that the fireworks were to let people know that she has arrived. A man from Alaska plays the thumb harp.

A spontaneous circle dance moves rhythmically, clockwise around the fire. Hands clasp and eyes smile. The chain encircles people huddled in chairs flicking cigarette ashes into leaping flames. This is impromptu life at Standing Rock.

Well after midnight we tumble into bed. In stark contrast to the many tepees with no power and sleeping bags on top of blankets, on top of cardboard, on top of the ground, we are staying in a 60-foot army tent with a generator, a wood stove, a large heater, and seemingly endless power outlets. That morning, when we dropped off our duffle bags, the tent was a shell, cluttered with piles of donations. By the time we go to bed sixteen new bunk beds line the walls. This is the paradox of Standing Rock. It can appear if nothing is happening. But then, you pull back the curtain, and there it is, fully functional living quarters.

The next morning, as the sun rises, I wander about taking pictures. What was once a camp of 6,000-8,000 people, is now 800. Summer tents, collapsed and abandoned during the preceding blizzard, are littered between active tepees, army tents and yurts. Massive piles of bags filled with donated artic gear are so plentiful that they are being used as insulation at the base of tents and other weather-challenged living structures. Cases upon cases of unopened food are partially buried in snowdrifts throughout camp.

The land and people are overtaxed with little infrastructure and only a skeletal crew left to protest the pipeline, pray, orchestrate a massive cleanup, and undertake the daunting task of creating a cohesive, working community.

Streams of murmurs ripple through camp. Tribal leaders state there are to be NO protest “actions” on this day, nor the next. Everyone obeys.

North Dakota Department of Transportation will be performing an impact study of Backwater Bridge. In October, Red Warrior Camp, the “militant” fringe, set fire to trucks on the bridge during a protest. Siting compromised integrity, the state condemned the bridge and set up barricades, guarded by armed men in Humvees. Tribal officials say the closure has caused economic harm and prevents emergency vehicles from reaching the reservation. Without a steady stream of gamblers, the casino, the tribe’s main source of income, has lost substantial revenue. Camp leaders decry the closure as a ploy to prevent access to deliveries, support and, in the case of an emergency, medical care.

While the bridge is inspected, camp turns its focus inward to community survival needs.

We’ve been asked to help Winona make order in her kitchen. We sort through garbage and food waste, burn what we can and stack trash to be taken to the landfill. We unbury case upon case of food entombed in drifts. So much has been donated from good-hearted people who know little about the severe conditions in North Dakota. Glass breaks in subzero temperatures. Soda cans explode. Cans of fruit freeze. Soap bars are unused as there is no running water.

Outside the kitchen there is an ever-changing hive of workers clearing debris to prepare the way for a new kitchen tent before the next storm hits.

Everyone is exhausted. Most have the DAPL cough – a lung deep cough that echoes throughout the camp. Tasks are done, redone, and then, redone again. Most came to keep the “black snake” from poisoning their people. Few were ready for this, oddly more overwhelming, task of reclaiming order after a devastating storm and securing food before being battered with the next blizzard, arriving in less than two days.

As I bend over to lift a tarp, I catch sight of the head. I jump upright. I had not expected a frozen dear head and pelt. People laugh. The story is told. The previous week someone had gifted the camp with a freshly fallen dear. The cook had butchered it and created a feast. The carcass now safely awaits the Sami tribe’s person who will cure it and make boots for the cook. Yes, all this makes sense where resources are slim and resourcefullness is a way of life.

Two women drive by and inform us of a women’s meeting at the community dome later that afternoon. They remind us to wear a skirt. Before going we dig through a box of fresh donations, find fleece blankets and wrap them as skirts in accordance with traditional code. When we arrive there is a heated discussion underway. Women are angry that the security team, run by men, does little to protect them against the rising incidence of sexual assault. One young woman confronts an older woman smoking a pipe. The younger woman is angry that she had been admonished for not wearing a skirt. The older woman reminds everyone that they are here, in prayer, to honor the way of the ancestors. Everyone nods. The young woman speaks again, asserting that wearing pants does NOT demonstrate disrespect.  

The women in this meeting, much like everyone else at Standing Rock, are trying to navigate a rapidly changing movement where old traditions and new voices struggle to find common ground.

Just a few weeks earlier, when tribal Chairman, David Archambault, asked everyone to leave it was the youth who said, “We are staying.” Determined to stand against DAPL, protect their water and take a stand for their people the tribal youth changed the course of events and began to shift the balance of power.

As survival challenges of maintaining camp loom large, the call for transparency and a cohesive, comprehensive approach to manage this new, unintended city gets louder.

A full camp assembly follows the women’s meeting. The concern for safety and security continue. One man shares how “transgressors” who threaten the safety of others are dealt with in his tribe. In a soft voice he tells how they would be publicly shamed to let them know what they did was hurting the tribe. If their actions continued, the person would be banished. “That is how it is to be done,” he says. People nod. After listening to completion, another man says, “Yes. That is one way. In our tribe we bring the person into the middle of the circle and acknowledge them. We help them see that they are valued.” Different heads nod in agreement.

My toes are numb. In this bone-cold, post-modern dome surrounded by people pursuing redemption from the most vile abuses imaginable, I am in awe.

Despite sub-zero temperatures, they stand together in protest and in prayer, to keep their land and water safe. They live in shelters that barely keep them alive. They have no running water, no electricity. Often there is no cell phone or Internet connection. Amidst all this hardship, these people know without a doubt, that if they and their movement are to survive they must work together. They are determined to rewrite history for their children, their grand children and the children seven generations from now. In these meetings, huddled together, bracing against the hazardous elements, it is exceedingly clear; these people are the most determined and caring survivors I’ve ever met.    

While meeting debates continue, there is one issue they all agree on. Come spring the Cannonball River will likely flood. Since the camp is in the valley, it too will flood. Plans are being made to move to higher ground and haul off the tents and garbage. Hopefully, before the flooding occurs. If not, and debris ends up in the river, the tribe will pay dearly, both financially and politically. 

People are understandably cautious. If they uproot, will there truly be another camp when they get there? Suspicion and trust play hand-in-hand.

All of this costs money, lots of money. Money is needed for firewood, propane, gasoline, and to hire caravans of work crews to clear debris as soon as the first thaw begins. Leaders of thriving camps talk about creating sustainable, income producing enterprises. For now, though, they are dependent upon donations received through Gofundme campaigns launched by individuals, families and camp contingents, including the medics’ compound and Winona’s kitchen. People estimate that there are over 10,000 campaigns. So far, moneys raised stay with the individuals or groups that have secured the funds. People question where the money is going. Rumors spread. And, without a doubt, some are true. Many are not.

Leaders want to funnel all moneys into a larger “full-camp” fund. Sub-camps are reluctant to let go of their hard-won money. For people that have deep reach into lucrative communities, their camps thrive. For those who have little connection to solvent resources, survival can be especially challenging.

Life is messy. Change is messier. Revolution is the messiest of all. It’s why people avoid it – at all costs. Most don’t have the fortitude to continue. It’s too hard. Things must be torn apart before they can be put back together. Here all is unflingingly addressed. 

Standing Rock’s mission to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline is vital to the future of energy movement in our country and Canada. The increasing incidences of oil spills have heightened fears about the safety of our drinking water. Because of its success, Standing Rock’s approach is being emulated by other indigenous-led protests organizing in Texas, Michigan and Washington. It has empowered and emboldened natives and nonnatives to stand up and take action knowing that the world is watching, and applauding.

On our last day, two young men from different tribes and I walk throughout the camps. We start at Oceti, the main camp, walk through the valley and across the frozen Cannonball River to Rosebud camp. We move east toward Sacred Stone. A palpable sense of prayer fills the air. We walk quietly, listening to the crunch of the snow.

Just before sunset we climb atop a large stump to get a better view of all the land. We look downstream awed by the deep-orange radiance of the sun setting over Rosebud and Oceti. We turn to face Red Warrior Camp, once famed for their violent clashes with Police and DAPL forces. The warriors have left. Their camp is still. We look up along the ridge, beyond their camp, where the spotlights of DAPL begin to glow. We notice vehicles lining up along the ridgeline. Headlights turn in our direction. One of my companions says to the other, “They’re watching us”. His friend pulls out a small telescope, looks for a moment, then offers to share. They take turns, watching them, watching us.

As the sun dips beneath the horizon, we cross back over the frozen Cannonball River to the veteran’s camp. The camp is just a handful of folks these days but they greet us and ask us in for tea. They too have been watching us, watching DAPL watch us. They tell us about “snatch and grab.” When individuals get too close to the bridge, without support from others, government agents swoop down surround, arrest, and take them to Bismarck.

It is now dark. We walk down the road, back to Oceti. Feeling the land, seeing the camps, witnessing the watchful eye of DAPL forces and hearing the stories of the veterans has silenced us for a moment.  We pass the horses at the edge of camp. Within minutes the lights, the generators, the sounds of the MC making announcements into the night overtake the serenity of the afternoon. We arrive back at the city of tents, travelers and small communities working, the best they know how, to battle the demons that have plagued our nation since its inception.   

As I finish writing tonight, I hold these Water Protectors in my thoughts and prayers. Yes, the pipeline is why they’ve come. But, what they achieve; that is a story that may only be fully understood seven generations from now.

To see a gallery of images from Standing Rock go to Standing Rock FB Album

 Standing Rock still needs our help.

    1. Before you choose to whom to give money, do your research.
    2. Google the organization.
      ~ If it’s a nonprofit, check and see what they fund.  If you can’t find it, email them. I’ve found them to be very receptive and honest.  (Some are funding protests in states other than Standing Rock.)
      ~If it’s a Gofundme, also check to see, are they funding an individual, a camp contingent or sending donations to the general fund. The ones you can trust will clearly state their focus.  If they don’t, find another.
    3. Follow them on Facebook. Reputable organizations will have a page. It’s a great way to get informed and ensure your funds are used toward a group with which you align.
    4. As an aside, the focus of ocetisakowincamp.org has been on the survival and wellbeing of the camp community, and helping those who want to leave do so safely. You can even “earmark” what you’d like your funds to support.