Guest Post: Dispatch from Standing Rock

November 30, 2016

The main way in, the northern route through Bismarck, is closed. Google Maps tells you as much, though it does not tell you it is closed by a National Guard roadblock to prevent disruption to the construction of a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline.

If you take the southern route–Highway 1806 through the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation–you pass several emergency highway signs that warn “Road Closed Ahead.” But if you drive on, past the last alternate route, the last turn-around, if you drive on into what feels like the no-man’s-land of an undeclared war, you begin to see it.

First you see a haze of woodsmoke hanging low in the cold still air. Then into view come the smoke’s sources: dozens of cooking fires, chimneys from hundreds of wall tents, yurts, plywood cabins, geodesic domes, and all manner of other structures that defy categorization. To the east of the highway the camp spreads out in the gathering darkness along the banks of the Cannonball River toward the Missouri in the distance. Over all these structures tower the tipis, scores of them, silhouetted in the eerie white shine of the dozens of floodlights that mark the unsleeping police line to the north. You have arrived at the road’s end–the Oceti Sakowin camp, front line of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

December 2, 2016

The camp has changed much since I first visited in early September. At that time Highway 1806 was still passable, the Frontline Camp still stood in the pipeline’s path through Cannonball Ranch a half mile north of Oceti Sakowin, and active construction was still several miles away to the west. Since then, police have violently cleared all water protectors from the pipeline route, destroyed or confiscated their tents and other gear, barricaded the bridge over the ___ River with razor-barbed concertina wire, and created a miles-long militarized line on the hilltops north of the Oceti Sakowin camp to surveil water protectors and prevent them getting near the construction site. Under constant police guard the pipeline has been pushed through sacred and historical sites and up to the very edge of the Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.

One thing that has not changed: against most predictions, the camp still numbers in the thousands of people. Many, myself included, were unsure the camp would survive the onslaught of the North Dakota winter. But it has. And not just survived, but thrived, drawing as many people and donations as ever. The cold weather has also grown in the camp an unquantifiable but palpable sense of solidarity.

This resilience is not the result of grit alone but of months of hard, coordinated work. In September summer tents outnumbered winterized structures by about ten to one. Now the ratio is nearly reversed and winterized structures number in the hundreds.

Two days after I arrived the first snow fell on Oceti Sakowin, carried in by a fierce wind storm that dropped temperatures into the single digits, closed roads, and caved in many of the remaining summer tents. But when the storm cleared and the pipeline company’s helicopter droned over the hills to observe the damage it was met with raised fists and cheers of defiance.

December 4, 2016

Apparently unlike most people in camp, I have not yet grown accustomed to waking to the sound of helicopters. Every morning that it’s clear enough to fly, helicopters and planes come from the north to check on the camo. Sometimes they circle for hours at low altitudes and if there is activity on the ground they return periodically throughout the day. They are unmarked but the word is they belong to the pipeline company.

At my camp we have spent the last week winterizing a 10 by 12 foot wall tent and preparing it for long-term habitation. The walls are hung with wool blankets for insulation; tinfoil-like emergency blankets line the corner behind the stove to cast the heat out to the rest of the tent. A clothesline, able to lower and raise to the height of the 8-foot ceiling, hangs between the ends of the ridgepole. We have cots and a card table covered with notebooks, a battery powered radio, a laptop. Outside we have wood stacked under a tarp foyer.

We started out cooking out own meals but have taken to working around camp–sorting donations of clothes and medical supplies, splitting wood, shoveling snow–and eating in one of the communal mess halls because it saves time and the food is great. Last night we ate roast turkey with gravy, squash and ginger soup, col slaw, vegetable tamales with sauce, and apple crumble. When you say thank you to the people serving the food they respond “thank you for everything you’re doing out there.” That is what we have for an economy here at Oceti Sakowin.

It is hard to cross the camp without being drawn in to work on a project. This is not a “hippie protest” as some people have tried to cast it–apparently without ever having set foot in the place. This is a rural-based resistance movement, incomparably different from any protest I have witnessed on the coasts. People here drive trucks and know how to run heavy machinery, power tools, chain saws. They keep horses and know how to rig up wood stoves and solar panels. I went to work today helping some carpenters hang plywood sheathing on the 2 by 4 frame of what can only be described as a small, two-story house. The building, which is to be a women’s space, was designed, framed, walled, and roofed in a matter of a few days.

The work, creativity, and care that has gone into building and sustaining this camp takes on new meaning in light of the fact that as of tomorrow, December 5, it will all be illegal and could be destroyed. This land, along with most of present day South Dakota and much of North Dakota and Wyoming, was reserved for the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires of the Sioux, under the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. The federal government quickly broke those treaties, however, and in the 1960s the land came under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. Last week the Corps announced that if the Oceti Sakowin and their allies do not vacate the land they will be subject to arrest–for trespassing.

This afternoon the rumor spread through camp that the Army Corps had denied the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline to drill under the Missouri River. Those gathered here reacted to the news with joy and skepticism. Many regard it as a trick to make everyone go home. My cell phone service, already almost nonexistent, crashed completely under the strain of all the newcomers in camp today so I have not been able to verify the announcement or gauge the implications of its wording. It is a strange feature of life here that those outside know the official news about this struggle more quickly and easily than those camped at the heart of it.

It is dark now, and the line of headlights of cars coming into camp is longer than my line of sight and has been since this morning. Led by an estimated 2,000 to 3,500 veterans, supporters of Standing Rock have been streaming in and the camp is larger than I have ever seen it.

The Oceti Sakowin response to the tentative victory will become apparent in the coming days. But for now, as I watch the support still pouring in and fireworks exploding over the main entrance, to me it is clear only that the stand at Standing Rock has channeled the outrage and energy of a massive and unnamed river.

Thank you to John Gatchell and those at the Montana Wilderness Association who donated money to help us bring 6 -20 degree sleeping bags and 5 cots to Standing Rock and helped fund our trip. Thank you also to Peter and Miles Marchi for their expert advice on wall tents. This and future dispatches can be found on my new blog Don’t Go Quietly at

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Joe Bullington


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