The fate of the Dakota Access Pipeline still hangs in the balance, despite what was heralded Sunday as a huge victory for water protectors.
Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled against an easement to build the pipeline on tribal land, citing potential hazards to drinking water, Energy Transfer Partners says it will continue pushing for construction of the pipeline, which would route roughly 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to a shipping point at the southern-Illinois village of Patoka. Residents of the Standing Rock Native American Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota, fear any leak or explosion from the oil pipeline proposed to run under the Missouri River could contaminate the water supply for 17 million people who depend on it. That includes the 8,000 or so people who live on the reservation.
The Trump transition team, meanwhile, hasn’t committed to upholding the decision, saying only that it supports the pipeline and will review the situation after the inauguration.
Leaders at Standing Rock thus tempered their initial celebration of the ruling Monday, saying they aren’t planning to leave anytime soon. Developers have already bulldozed some burial grounds and architectural sites, despite legal objections from the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline’s security detail, composed of local law enforcement and the Army Corps of Engineers, have acted aggressively against demonstrators to date, using tear gas and military equipment to subdue protesters, hundreds of whom have sustained injuries. North Dakota law enforcement reportedly fired rubber bullets and sprayed water cannons at demonstrators protesting the pipeline in the frigid temperatures of early winter on the Great Plains.
Tribe members say this all violates the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which established the boundaries of the reservation and encoded tribal sovereignty on the land. (The pipeline had previously been rerouted away from nearby Bismarck, North Dakota. Residents in the overwhelmingly white state capital didn’t have to put up nearly as much of a fight, as WNYC has reported.)
As protests continue, about a dozen Chicago activists count themselves among the ranks of people who’ve so far traveled to Standing Rock to engage in direct action, deliver supplies, and build coalitions among activists. While most Americans prepared for their holiday feasts, Teresa Pasquale Mateus, a trauma counselor and graduate student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Alicia Crosby, codirector and cofounder of the Center for Inclusivity, and about ten others joined the Standing Rock protests in an attempt to “decolonize” Thanksgiving.
Pasquale Mateus and Crosby conceived of the trip during a conversation in October. They were both struck by the dissonance between the history of Native American genocide that informs the conflict at Standing Rock and the celebration of a holiday that whitewashes the oppression of Native Americans.
“I think it’s particularly important to note that this is happening on Lakota land,” says Pasquale Mateus. “Many of the landmark events through Native American history happened on Lakota land—including the Wounded Knee Massacre—which led to the reservations . . . so this moment is part of that long story of decimation and reclamation.”
They timed their trip to coincide with the holiday and take advantage of the long weekend. Group members individually fund-raised or contributed $100 to help cover transportation and food expenses, so that the bulk of the funds raised would go directly to the Oceti Sakowin camp, which has served as a communal hub and spiritual space for organizing on the reservation. The activists also launched a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised nearly $7,000 since its October 31 launch. They used the money to buy supplies for the camp’s Medic and Healer Council, kitchen staples, winter coats, and other vital resources requested by organizers.
“We wanted to go into the space with the intention of giving more than what we took,” Crosby says. “We didn’t want to just occupy within the space,” she adds. That runs in contrast to some reports of white protesters treating Standing Rock like the Burning Man gathering, or coming for a “voluntourist” cultural experience that drains resources from a community in crisis.
“It’s a neocolonialist posturing,” Crosby said of such behavior. “Some people assume that physical presence in the space is enough, but it’s not. If you’re there and you’re not doing anything, then what’s the point of you being present?”
As part of their preparations, Pasquale Mateus gathered information about the histories of engagement between indigenous peoples and the U.S. government. She also connected with various groups at Standing Rock, including the Two Spirit Nation, a group of LGBTQ Native Americans, to better understand the challenges the groups face and figure out how to seamlessly fit into the inner workings of the camp.
Their cars reached the gates of the camp during the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day, a few hours prior to curfew breaking at 6 AM. As the group entered the camp, they could see the glare of floodlights over an expansive field. The pipeline floodlights were erected facing the camp, Crosby says, she thinks as a mode of intimidation.
The group first attended a daily orientation for activists arriving on-site, where they were briefed on legal matters, made aware of updated camp needs, and asked to submit emergency contact info in case of arrests or raids. During direct-action training, activists were warned that police often target some of the most visibly vulnerable people during demonstrations—including women, indigenous people, people of color, and queer individuals.
With that awareness, they rolled up their sleeves. Virtually every working group, they said, grounded their activity in prayer and reflection, with a strong sense of spirit resonating among people of various beliefs. Some worked in the kitchen. Others worked with the medics, including Pasquale Mateus, who served on the mental-health support team housed in a cluster of teepees and yurts. There, she says she found symptoms of warlike trauma among some of the activists.
“The environment creates a consistent undercurrent of trauma,” says Pasquale Mateus, whose professional experience includes providing therapy services for combat veterans. “Helicopters fly overhead all day; there’s surveillance on electronic equipment, barricades at the border, and armed [officers] visible from where you live.”
Northwestern University graduate student Danielle Taylor was among the visiting activists who participated in direct actions. Taylor joined a few that week, including a demonstration on the nearby 1806 Highway, another at the Turtle Island burial ground being occupied by police officers, and a prayer circle demonstration at Bismarck’s Kirkwood Mall.
That gathering was met with hostility by police officers and some shopping patrons, she says. Groups of police officers were already stationed inside, she says, brandishing zip ties on their vests—a sign that arrests could be imminent. But there was no marching, no chants, just 60 or so activists formed in multitiered circles, praying aloud for the land, for each other, and for the people who were hurting them.
“Being a black person, I already am terrified of mob violence, especially in [rural, white] places like North Dakota,” says Taylor. “And a man next to me yelled, ‘This is private property. Arrest them and beat them!'” Soon after, she says, officers began pulling some people out of the prayer circles and tackling others, all while several mall patrons cheered on the police.
Group members say their time at Standing Rock will inform how they engage in activism and advocacy in the future. The emphasis on spiritual connection while pursuing justice and understanding one’s own relationship with the earth, they said, were hallmarks of the experience.
“Seeing the activism in this space was like water to my parched spirit,” Crosby says. “And I thank the community at Standing Rock and the elders there for the lesson to temper my activism within the sacred.”
For anyone who still wishes to travel to Standing Rock, Crosby advises being present for a minimum of two weeks, so as to not strain the time and resources of the camp. Otherwise, she encourages people who can’t make the trip to figure out how they can help from home. That could include divesting from the banks supporting the DAPL project, putting pressure on elected officials, raising awareness on social media, or donating directly to the camp.
As the resistance continues, Pasquale Mateus says she will stand with Standing Rock “until the whole fight is over” and plans to physically return later this month. “I hope that we all do,” she says.
But be forewarned: Chicago activists embarking on supply-delivery trips may face legal risks in the coming weeks. North Dakota officials reportedly intend to issue fines of up to $1,000 for anyone caught bringing goods to the camp.
So much for American thanks and giving. v