Recently I was honored to visit the ancestral homelands of the Standing Rock Sioux and meet the people pushing back against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the water and sacred lands of the Sioux. My wife and I spent five incredible days at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Camp of the Sacred Stone, Red Warrior Camp and other sites of sacred ceremony and non-violent resistance, talking with the folks on the ground who have built a powerful movement for global Indigenous solidarity.
As soon as I arrived at camp I realized how many incredible women are working to make camp and this community possible.
The camp has a kitchen serving three meals a day for hundreds of people, as well as a daily school, solar generators powering cell phones, medical services, free legal support and a complex system of message boards to communicate within the camp. Taken altogether, this is the most effective example of a self-sustaining, independent intentional community I’ve ever experienced. When I visited the kitchen and school, hoping to learn more about how this infrastructure was created and sustained, I met the women of camp. Women who have traveled from all over the world to be a part of this historic moment, and to build communities that will sustain long after the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is over. These women are building a global movement for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, one connection at a time.
One of the first people I met at camp was Santee Sioux attorney Angela Bibens, who has been at the camp for several months and leads the legal defense for all the water protectors. Day in and day out, Angela provides legal support to the dozens of water protectors who have been arrested, fielding calls, coordinating with her partners at the National Lawyers Guild, answering legal questions from camp residents, doing media interviews, managing volunteers and defending arrestees in court. On the road to one of those court appearances, we were able to interview Angela about her work and her call for other Native attorneys to join her in Standing Rock. Here’s what she had to say.
Nellis: As a Native attorney, what message do you have for other attorneys, Native and non-Native?
Angela: We need you! We need you to understand the complex fiction of Indian law so that we can try to use legal tools, as crude as they may be, to right some of these wrongs. We need people to understand that these are colonial courts and they don’t know how to behave in any other way than in a colonial manner. We need people who are willing to work within that restricted context to try and seek justice where there’s only been injustice.
Nellis: What do you hope will come of this struggle?
Angela: My hope is that we defeat this pipeline. Strategies and tactics may look different for different people but we all have the same end goal and that is for this pipeline to be defeated. And that we really start to turn the conversation toward renewable energy, making clear that the end of the oil industry is here. We’re living in that time now. It’s not gonna be ten years or twenty years from now, this is my children’s generation, my grandchildren’s generation that will live in a more peaceful and balanced way with Mother Earth.
Nellis: What do you have to say to people reading this interview?
Angela: Keep your prayers coming, they are so powerful. I really believe that I’m here because my relatives asked me to be here. I’m here because the water has healed me through ceremony. The earth is born in water, my children were born in water, I was born in water - water is powerful. And we give our prayers to the water.
When we visited the camp kitchen to drop off a 50 pound bag of Pipeline-Free Manoomin, freshly harvested local wild rice from Rice Lake and sold by a Native organization Honor the Earth, I was lucky to meet Lenore Stiffarm. Lenore, who is an internationally recognized tribal activist, a member of the Ani Nation, and a Harvard-educator author, came to Standing Rock to help out in the kitchens because, as she put it, "the greatest service I could give is to work in the kitchen."
Nellis: Why are you here?
Lenore: I’m here because it’s like I was pulled to be here....I’ve worked with my community since 1996 against the water compact that is trying to be forced down our throats, a poor water compact. I’ve been volunteering and advocating that we have a water compact that meets our needs because right now we are going to get sold down the tube big time.
So i have worked very hard in that area and since 1996 my mantra has been, “water is sacred, water is life.”...Coming over here to see just the incredible awareness that “water is sacred, water is life” that we are part of what we call “eh-ta nao”, everything we do is related to Mother Earth. We are the caretakers. How can we sell life, how can we sell something so sacred?
I love, just love the community in the kitchen...Feeding is life, everyone needs nourishment to continue...It was a really emotional day when the horse riders came in, and I was moved to tears, I was so proud of these young men with all of this spirituality that has come into their lives. It was the most healing day and at the end, we were closing the kitchen and someone delivered a buffalo. We had to recruit young people and I said, “Ok, can you guys have this buffalo butchered in an hour”? and it was!...I wish I could stay here forever.
An old friend of mine from time spent working at Honor the Earth, Lorna Hanes, took time out of her busy day to talk to us. Lorna is an Ojibway horse woman who has led prominent rides against oil pipelines across the Midwest. She has been staying at camp for months, playing an important role in organizing rides and caring for the horses at camp.
Lorna: I’m known in the non-native world as Lorna Hanes, in the Spirit world, Gyu-way Nu-g’way.
Nellis: What brought you here?
Lorna: Let’s see, we had just gotten off of a horse ride in Minnesota fighting Line 3. We do a spiritual ride, we’ve been doing it for four years and the last night at Rice Lake in White Earth we found out about midnight that Enbridge was not gonna pursue that (pipe)line, so we were pretty happy about that. We went to bed and next morning, couple days later, we found out they pulled their (funding) and put it into the Dakota Access pipeline. That sent me up the walls and I couldn’t wait to get out here...
Nellis: What do you want to say to the folks reading this?
My biggest prayer would be for all the pipeline workers and all the so-called elected leaders to have a change of heart. To come out and see what we’re doing here and to understand, and to change their minds.
We also chatted with Tara Houska, the National Programs Director for Honor the Earth and a member of the Couchiching First Nation. Tara has been at camp for several months, leading logistics and legal support for Red Warrior Camp.
We’ve been working at Honor the Earth against two pipelines, Line 3 and the Sandpiper line. Enbridge, the company behind Sandpiper, actually pulled the funding from Sandpiper and put it toward Dakota Access.
One of the issues here is that Dakota Access went through a process where they used legal loopholes, they used nationwide permit to segment the project into little pieces and essentially avoid the stringent environmental review that a project like this should have. They did an EA - environmental assessment - instead of a full environmental impact statement to consider all the cumulative impacts that a pipeline like this could have. The impacts to sacred sites, cultural sites, health impact, anything that a massive fossil fuel infrastructure project that we don’t need would have with it.
Nellis: Can you tell us about Honor the Earth?
Tara: Honor the Earth is a nationwide indigenous-led organization, largely indigenous women. It was formed in 1993 and we look at the cross-section of music, activism, and now legal and grassroots, to basically do everything and anything we can to stop extractive industry and move toward a just transition. Looking at how do we empower indigenous communities to do small scale solar, to do wind, to really engage in self-determination of indigenous people and provide our own energy resources for our people and our communities.
Nellis: How can this people help support Honor the Earth?
Tara: Spread the message, go to honorearth.org, we have lots of factual information for people...One thing i’ve been asking for folks to do is, if you can come here and be here, do. It’s a numbers game.
Nellis: I was recently at one of your offices on the White Earth Reservation and learned a little bit about the pipeline-free merchandise you have. Can you tell us how that came about and what you have available?
Tara: Sure, the pipeline-free Manoomin: it’s an Anishinaabe word for wild rice. It basically stems from our desire to both share this amazing food that we have but also remind people that we’ve been fighting fossil fuel projects that are threatening our wild rice beds and really it’s something at the heart of our culture and our people.
Wild rice is sacred to Anishinaabe people, fundamental to the identity of Anishinaabe people, it’s something that is inherent and intrinsic to our survival and our culture. So if a fossil fuel project were to go through wild rice beds and leak - we know pipelines leak, they always do - it would wipe out our culture and identity. It’s something that’s so fundamental to our people.
Nellis: To those at home hearing about Standing Rock on the news, what would you say to them?
Tara: We’ve seen North Dakota, in particular, put out messaging that says folks are violent, that we’re aggressive, that we are antagonizing the situation and somehow necessitating this militarized response. The reality is, if you’re here and you're seeing the grassroots media coming out, it’s people who are gathered together in prayer and unity and coming together for the first time, really, in history. This is a historic moment for tribal nations to come together like this. We’ve got people who are historic enemies camping alongside each other, learning to live together and be together in this space...
Private security uses dogs and mace on Native American women and children protecting sacred sites being destroyed right in front of them, while North Dakota police are watching. People are out exercising their first amendment rights and being met with militarized response in incredibly dangerous situations: guns drawn, mace, planes flying overhead...We hope grassroots media gets the real message out, that we’re gathered here in unity and prayer to stop this from happening.
Nellis: To you, what does a win look like?
Tara: I’m hopeful that Dakota Access won’t go through, that they have to abandon the project... They’re looking at how much it would cost to go around the river. It would be the largest rerouting in history. I think that’s infeasible, it’s probably not going to happen and that’s great news. I’m hopeful to see abandonment, where a major company like this has built 60% of a pipeline arrogantly without all their permits in place and has had to abandon it. Because of the pushback, because the grassroots are so strong, because the people are saying you can’t do this to our community. That’s a huge victory.
A real win would be the United States acknowledging history, the history of boarding schools, the history of treaty violations, the fact that we still exist today, that we’re modern people with our own treaty rights. A win would be having our allies stand with us and realizing that we’re just as much part of the fight as everybody else and that we can stand together and we can win.