Cuny Dog sat on a four wheeler laden with reflector rods and sage grass and raised a fist over his head. It was Labor Day weekend and a delegation of Native American tribes from Colorado had just marched into camp to the sound of bells and singing. Cuny Dog, a 65-year-old Oglala Lakota man from Manderson in the White Horse Creek district of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, wanted to see it for himself.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
Cuny Dog is head of security at the sprawling tent city that has sprung up over the last several months near the banks of the Missouri River in Cannon Ball, N.D., in what is being hailed as one of the largest gatherings of indigenous peoples in American history.
“I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," said Dorothy Sun Bear, 57, of Pine Ridge.
Sun Bear and Cuny Dog are among an estimated 600 people who have made the 360-mile journey from Pine Ridge to this spot less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to join thousands of others from all over the world to protest the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). If built, the thousand-mile long oil pipeline will reportedly cause the destruction of tribal burial sites and cross under the Missouri River, posing a threat to the source of the Standing Rock Sioux's drinking water.
“We live in times of prophecy,” said Clarence Roarland, another member of the Oglala in South Dakota. “A prophecy that says there will come a poisonous black snake. It is also told that our people would come together."
On Sept. 9, a much-anticipated decision by a federal judge was announced, granting Energy Transfer Partners permission to proceed with construction on the pipeline. However, on the same day the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement that construction will not be allowed to proceed until environmental and cultural concerns raised by the Standing Rock Sioux can more thoroughly be addressed.
In the week prior to those announcements, the camp was quiet, and Cuny Dog and others kept busy with the daily life in the hilly pasture lands that have become a home away from home.
Resting in the shade behind the donation tent, Drey Willier, 15, smiled as he thought about life in the camp with his fellow Lakota and the many other tribes that have gathered there.
“Making new friends, riding horses — the smell of smoke in the night, the sound of drums — it makes me think it’s what our ancestors would have seen and heard long ago,” Drey said. “If it was up to me, we would live like this forever."
The camp goes by many names. Mni Wiconi is one, Lakota for “Water is Life.” The DAPL Resistance Camp is a more utilitarian label, while others casually call it the Red Warrior Camp, after a contingent of nonviolent activists bivouacked there. On the hand-drawn map at the entrance security checkpoint, it is referred to simply as North Camp, but around the cooking fires and drum circles, it goes by a different name: Oceti Sakowin.
Translated from Lakota, it means the Seven Council Fires, the traditional name of the seven Sioux nations. The last time this many of those nations stood as one was in 1876 at the Battle of Greasy Grass, otherwise known as the Battle of Little Big Horn, where General George Armstrong Custer and his troops were annihilated.
For the first time in 140 years, the seven Sioux nations are again united as one. Though the fight to protect their land remains the same, this time it is not an armed conflict with federal soldiers, but a peaceful resistance against Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based corporation building the pipeline.
Mark K. Tilsen Jr., an Oglala poet from Pine Ridge, sat on the windswept grass outside his family campsite and reflected on the relationship between his own tribe — the people of Crazy Horse — and the Hunkpapa Sioux, the people of Sitting Bull, who live in Standing Rock.
“We Oglalas have a well-earned reputation of being angry and often not doing a lot,” he said. “So when we came here by the hundreds, it surprised a lot of people and brought even more people up here. We have a reputation as warriors that is well-deserved. We know that historically: The last time the Hunkpapa gathered all of the Oceti Sakowin together, we defeated Custer, and the Oglalas were some of the lead warriors of that campaign. So it’s actually historical, that the Hunkapapa call and the Oglala answer. The Hunkpapa called; we answered.”
Standing with Standing Rock
What may appear at a distance to be an anarchic profusion of tents and tipis is, upon closer examination, a self-organized community of diverse, like-minded people united in their commitment to the nonviolent protection of ancestral lands and drinking water from the Missouri River.
The camp is nestled between rolling hills near the intersection of the Cannon Ball River to the south and the Missouri River to the east. Most of the 80 acres of land where it's situated is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though another portion — where the smaller Sacred Stone Camp can be found — is owned by the Standing Rock Sioux.
Food and medical needs are provided for. There is no traditional law enforcement presence, as security duties are performed by Cuny Dog and his two dozen volunteer force of mounted and foot patrols, discernible by the red bandanas tied to their arms.
The last time Cuny Dog felt such a strong sense of unity among his people was when he was a young man, during the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
“There will never be another Wounded Knee,” Cuny Dog said. “And there will never be another Standing Rock. This is the story of the world. And the eyes of the world are upon us.”
The difference between then and now is the American Indian Movement occupiers of Wounded Knee were armed with guns, while the protectors of the water gathered near Standing Rock are not. Weapons, drugs, and alcohol are strictly forbidden in the camp. If anyone is found in possession of these items, they are asked to leave.
“This is a peaceful camp,” Cuny Dog said. “It is very, very beautiful.”
Shiree Russell, 24, is from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in north central South Dakota and has been at the camp since Aug. 8.
“I’m here for my kids,” she said as she watched her two young sons gleefully splash around in the muddy shallows of the Cannon Ball River. “It’s them it’s going to affect.”
Desiree Kane is a member of the Miwok tribe in the Sierra Mountains, along the California and Nevada border. A member of the media team, she has been living in the camp on and off since it was first formed in April. Back then, Kane said, there were maybe 20 or 30 campers there.
The camp has ballooned since then to the size of a small city, one that dwarfs many rural towns in North Dakota.
According to Kane, an estimated 8,000 people from 150 different Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada have come together in the historic struggle against the oil pipeline, the prophesied “black snake.” Among them are hundreds more people of all races and nationalities from as faraway as South Korea and New Zealand, Belgium and Brazil.
“The unity is palpable,” Kane says. “That strength and that unity is becoming self-sustaining, self-moving. As it grows, the positive energy keeps building.”
Sonia Kendrick drove 11 hours from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to be at the camp, and is one of the many white faces that can be seen chopping wood or helping in the kitchen. A representative of Feed Iowa First — an Iowa based nonprofit focused on feeding those in need — Kendrick brought 35 coolers of fresh organic vegetables to donate to the cause.
“I drove all the way here in a truck with a bunch of vegetables, and that doesn’t sound sustainable,” she said. “But to me, this is an emergency.”
Life in the camp
At the main kitchen, Susan Chasing Hawk of Standing Rock and her husband, Joe, are keeping an eye on a massive iron cauldron full of squash and what she guesses must be 50 pounds of buffalo meat simmering over an open fire tended by a few young men chopping wood nearby. When the sun sets, hundreds of people will climb the slope and fall into an orderly queue for dinner.
There are also six other ad hoc kitchen tents run by different tribes scattered throughout the camp that serve free meals throughout the day. In the dewy mornings, some of the cooks wander the camp handing out freshly made breakfast sandwiches, still warm in their tin foil wrappers.
“The Oglala kitchen is my favorite,” Chasing Hawk said.
All of the food is donated, and for now, there is plenty of it. Bags of potatoes are heaped beneath a fully stocked refrigerated semi-trailer, along with countless stacks of bottled water.
Jean Roach of Rapid City volunteers in the donation tent, which is bursting with supplies. Coffee, canned soup, blankets, lanterns, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, a propane stove, first-aid kits, sleeping bags, tents; these are just a few of the items donated in a single day. All of it is available for free to the long-term occupants of the camp.
“This is our home now,” Roach said.
Near the heart of the camp, Alayna Eagle Shield led a group of students to the Cannon Ball River to pray.
“You guys have the strongest prayers in the whole camp,” she said to the young boys and girls in her care. “Don’t forget that.”
Eagle Shield is a language specialist at the Language and Culture Institute in Standing Rock. She and a few volunteers from as far away as Missouri and California started the Defenders of the Water School for the children of the camp, some of whom will be there for a long time. She is working on a curriculum that includes math and science courses, as well as cultural lessons from tribal leaders like JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation in Washington, who shared a myth of how the trickster spirit Coyote fought and defeated the malicious Thunderbird.
“There is a calling that is felt by all our people,” Goudy said. “By answering it, it brings us together.”
After school, some of the children ran off to play pretend wars in bales of hay and clamber laughing over a felled tree in the wide open meadow.
For those not yet born
The cry went through the camp on the evening of Sept. 1. The three affiliated tribes of North Dakota — the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara — had arrived. New tribes come every day, and each one is ceremoniously greeted with song and dance at the camp headquarters where the kitchen, medical, school and donation tents are ranged in a wide ring around a central fire routinely fed with cedar fronds.
Marching at the head of the group was Chairman Mark Fox, dressed in a traditional war bonnet made from the feathers of eagles. Waiting to greet them in the great ring stood David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux.
Archambault’s face was serene but notched with stern resolve. A few weeks ago he was arrested for standing with anti-pipeline protesters. Though things have quieted down since then, helicopters still circle in the sky above the camp, and it’s hard to say who is flying them. Word is it’s the FBI, maybe the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or private security hired by Energy Transfer itself. According to Kane, there have also been sightings of surveillance drones flitting between the clouds.
It is the lull before the storm. On Sept. 3 the bulldozers will whir back to life and begin carving furrows into tribal burial grounds. Security personnel will use attack dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to drive more protesters from the construction area. The camp's future will be cast further into doubt on Sept. 9 by an announcement of pending federal efforts to determine if sacred tribal grounds and waterways are indeed endangered by the Dakota Access pipeline.
But all of that is days away. For now, Archambault is focused on greeting the hundreds of people pouring into camp to support the cause. The tribes need a leader, Chairman Fox of the Three Affiliated Tribes bellowed, as he removed the feathered war bonnet from his own head and ceremoniously placed it atop Archambault’s. And that leader, Fox said as cheering voices rose around him, is Archambault.
The chairman of Standing Rock was speechless in the moment, but later his thoughts were collected. “I’m not doing this to be at the center of anything,” Archambault said in the waning light. “I’m doing this because I love our people … this is all about our future; for our children who are not yet born.”
The cooking fires burned bright and hot as night fell onto a sky brimming with stars. Veils of smoke passed like ghosts through the camp and the only sounds were the wind and the drums and the people gathered in circles in the dark — singing.