Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

by Rebecca Bengal Vogue Magazine, Nov 22, 2016

Photographed by Alessandra Sanguinetti

Snow still covered the plains when the first tepees and tents were staked in the ground near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation by a confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. It was April 1, 2016, a Friday. This small encampment would grow into an unprecedented gathering of native North American tribes and nations united in an effort to protect water and land. Together they would build a resistance movement rooted in nonviolence and community that, nearly eight months later, shows no signs of backing down, even in the face of mounting violence against it.
The Dakota Access pipeline, funded by the Energy Transfer Partners corporation, would transport up to 570,000 tons of crude oil per day along a 1,172-mile route from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. If completed, its path would cut through grounds sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. It would travel twice underneath the Missouri River, which the Lakota and Dakota people of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation depend on for drinking water, along with 17 million other people throughout the country.
Environmental organization Honor the Earth begins a five-day “spirit ride” to raise awareness about the dangers of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Pictured at far right: Lorna Hanes.

None in the core group imagined they would stay long. Among them that day were LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, tribal historian of the Standing Rock Sioux, who had invited the camp to stand on her private land, where her son is buried. Prairie McLaughlin, Allard’s daughter, brought her kids. Joye Braun, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, came from the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota, as did Joseph White Eyes and Jasilyn Charger, veterans of the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. They brought water, chips—enough to tide them over for a few days. They did not think to bring firewood.

But pipeline construction began in mid-May, and the campers, about 30 people by then, stayed on. “It was more personal,” Charger, who is 20, told me recently of these early days. The Camp of the Sacred Stone was named after the spherical sandstone formations the Cannonball River produced until the 1950s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam, wiping out acres of Standing Rock Sioux land and changing the river’s flow. That past was on everyone’s minds when, in July, the CoE issued a fast-track permit for the pipeline’s construction. (The tribe maintains it was not properly consulted about potential environmental risks—in the event of a pipeline leak, say—or about the cultural and historical significance of the land through which the pipeline would cross.) Charger and a group of other younger campers ran a relay of nearly 2,000 miles on foot from Standing Rock to the White House to deliver 160,000 signatures in opposition. When they got back, they found the camp a lot more crowded: A call had gone out to indigenous peoples all over the country—and had been answered resoundingly.

Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti.
By August, there was a “spirit” camp, Rosebud, near Sacred Stone, and many camps within camps, to accommodate a population that had swelled to at least 3,000. Drones, helicopters, and planes made daily menacing swoops in the sky. Another large camp, Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, named for the seven bands of the Sioux people, was set up across the Cannonball River. The camp ran a school for children and medic tents and held daily meetings and direct-action trainings. Kitchens served three meals a day to hundreds. Handmade signs went up banning drugs, alcohol, and weapons, and offering instruction in nonviolent civil disobedience principles. They called themselves water protectors, rather than protesters. They referred to the pipeline as the Black Snake, in keeping with Lakota prophecy. A row of flags, representing the hundreds of tribes, nations, and allies, lined the main road.

Most of the world did not become aware of Standing Rock until just after Labor Day weekend, when videos of private security personnel attacking Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray went viral. The day after the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed papers in federal court identifying sacred burial grounds and cultural sites along the pipeline’s path, Dakota Access sent bulldozers to some of those locations, and water protectors met them there, Democracy Now! reported. Journalist Amy Goodman narrated as the show’s camera zoomed in on stinging eyes and lunging dogs, one dog’s mouth red with blood. A warrant was issued for Goodman’s arrest. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, environmentalist Bill McKibben called the pipeline a “Flint in the making.” The Standing Rock movement, with distinct echoes of the civil rights demonstrations of the ’60s, entered the national consciousness.

Nothing I had seen or read about No DAPL, however, had prepared me for the first sight of the camp. I arrived on a cold October night, after driving in from the airport in Bismarck past 45 miles of dark ranch land. At a checkpoint, a member of the National Guard flagged me down and warned me of people “sleeping in the ditches” ahead. Just north of camp, the speed limit dropped precipitously, as it does outside any small town. To the east, hundreds of tents and tepees stood under vast, starlit Great Plains skies, surrounded by bright, vigilant campfires. I slowed, rolled down my window, and listened to sounds of persistent drumming and flags whipping in the night wind. The smell of smoke floated across the road.

When I returned the next morning, a man stepped out of a ramshackle wooden booth in an oilskin coat. He held a walkie-talkie in one hand and, in the other, a burning stick of sage, which he smudged over the hood of my car. Camp was in full swing. Horses patrolled the perimeter. Volunteers carried flats of donated canned goods. Children on recess from school took the discarded cardboard pieces and turned them into sleds, for sliding down a slick grassy hill. People gathered by a central fire, near card tables of tea and water and a dry-erase board filled with notices of ride shares, lost items, an AA meeting. A man bundled in a camouflage jacket and shrouded in sunglasses sat in a chair and held court, making droll announcements into a microphone: “Relatives, there is a call for help to raise a new army tent for the kitchen. We could use some strong hands, so if anybody is sitting around missing their treadmill or their StairMaster back home, in about an hour you can get your workout.” Someone tapped me on the shoulder, a 20-something guy in work boots. “You look new,” he said. “Do you want to go to the front lines?”

I stayed for eight days and nights, traveling between the Prairie Knights Casino, where I sometimes slept, and the camps, 10 miles down the road. The casino, which is owned and operated by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was a kind of annex to Oceti Sakowin, a place where slot players mixed with campers, gamblers with warriors, who were charging phones, posting on the Internet, doing laundry. It was easy enough to tell them apart. In North Dakota, you will know the water protectors by the scent of fire.
Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

Even on casino mornings, I was rarely alone. Often someone smelling vaguely of campfire smoke lingered by the parking lot, looking for a ride back. Phones were largely useless; they didn’t work, or people didn’t own them. The brisk energy of a new village in the making—firewood being split, root cellars dug into the ground, new tepees going up, donations organized—would be interrupted by a call to come to the front lines or to gather at a central sacred fire. Ceremonies dominated the days and nights. Horseback riders were blessed and smudged with tobacco as they headed for Honor the Earth’s five-day spirit ride along part of the pipeline’s path. The Pascua Yaqui tribe arrived from Tucson and performed a traditional deer dance. A contingent of Mardi Gras Indians cooked gumbo for hundreds and hosted a music jam in their tepee that lasted until dawn.

One morning, I walked into a clearing at Rosebud camp, where prayer ties were strung on a fence by a little pond. Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council were just waking up, still zipped inside their tent in a tumble of sleeping bags. Their voices were hoarse from leading actions. Nearby, someone was making s’mores for breakfast on a wood stove. Ta’Sina Sapa Win, a 24-year-old single mother from the Cheyenne River tribe, pulled down her shirt and showed me a still-purple slash-like wound, from a DAPL security dog that she said had bitten her breast five weeks before. “After that dog bite, it didn’t do nothing to me,” she said. “They can say it was adrenaline all they want, but to me it was spiritual. I was being guided by my grandma and my auntie.”

It was not unusual for people at Standing Rock to speak in spiritual terms. I spent long hours with teenagers, mothers, and grandfathers who repeatedly invoked their ancestors, who intimately, openly described the difference between inherited and fresh trauma, and how they were turning to traditional ways to heal. This was the second week of October, a month before Donald Trump would win the presidency and a broad swath of the American public would take a renewed interest in the ideas of community and resistance.

On a bright Sunday morning, I sat with LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the Standing Rock Sioux historian who had allowed the first tepees to stand on her land, under cottonwoods at Sacred Stone. Allard grew up here; now she watched over teams of campers who were peeling tepee poles and framing longhouses for winter. “We are expendable people,” Allard told me. “We always have been. But we have the answers on how to save the world. We have the answers on how to live with this earth. We have to stand up and share that knowledge.”

Here is what police call a riot and what water protectors call a ceremony. Late on the eve of October 10, word spread swiftly through camp: A U.S. district court had denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for an injunction to stop work on the pipeline. Meet tomorrow at dawn.

It was still dark the next morning on Indigenous Peoples Day, or Columbus Day, when a hundred cars cut their engines at Oceti Sakowin’s south entrance. Everyone got out and began to form a circle in the dirt. A faint trail of light crept into the sky as a car off in the distance circumnavigated the other side of camp, accompanied by a drum and a deep, familiar intonation: “Rise and shine, warriors! Wake up, wake up! Remember why you are here.”

Before the ceremony could start, more news arrived: Two water protectors had locked themselves underneath construction vehicles at a pipeline work site. It would take all day to dig them out, someone said. Two Alaskan huskies lay at the feet of the man who began to lead prayer. Cold, tired faces turned to the rising sun, scarves and shawls and jackets filling with smoke, as carriers of the sacred pipe, or canupa, went from person to person, smudging off each one with tobacco. Among them were one of the canupa carriers and Theresa Black Owl, a 63-year-old grandmother of 20 from Pierre, South Dakota. In Lakota music, multiple singers and drummers gather around a single drum and play what is called a thunder beat, or a heartbeat, a simultaneous, shared pulse. Those who knew the Lakota prayers by heart sang with the drummers—for the water, for the earth, for protection in what they were all about to undertake.

More word came: A roadblock had been put in place, and we would have to drive to a different work site for the next ceremony. We started out, in a snaking caravan of hundreds. People hung out of car doors and jumped in backs of pickups with fists raised in the air. Behind the rows of tepees and tents, the sky was streaked in shades of gold that turned pink over the Cannonball River. We drove down back roads, past fields of sunflowers ready for harvest, past fields of buffalo and cattle pastures and not much else.

Enormous pieces of pipe lay in waiting on the bulldozed ground of an empty work site near the town of St. Anthony. The pipeline path stretched into the horizon, bisecting cropland and fields. A dozen people in hoodies and flannel shirts ran down a rocky hill with tepee poles and quickly raised a frame. “Today we stand in solidarity with our relatives who have made a sacrifice on behalf of the land and water,” Vic Camp said into a bullhorn, as water protectors stood with banners and flags. “We’re here to protect our treaty land.” They prayed again. This was a ceremony, he said, for the meeting of the Eagle and the Condor, tribes representing the North and South. Two people in enormous Eagle and Condor masks stood at the circle’s edge. Aztec dancers in ponchos and skirts danced, bells jingling at their ankles, stirring up clouds of dust and dirt. One in a bright spiky headdress took the bullhorn to pray to Mother Earth “for forgiveness for what the two-legged have done to this land.”

Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti.
A fleet of police cars and a sniper van appeared on the horizon, and soon officers wearing face shields and carrying billy clubs, some armed with rifles, marched down to the site in platoon-like formations of 20 and 30, ordering everyone back to the hillside. Vic Camp was taken out of the crowd and arrested. Theresa Black Owl was apprehended, along with around 20 others, and led inside the tepee frame, where they waited as fellow water protectors prayed and chanted from the hills. Police formed a boundary line of 30 or 40 across. A caped singer from the North walked solemnly between the police and the protectors, beating his drum. Some of the Aztec dancers began dancing again, on a little wooden bridge. Other riot police mounted in the distant hills. In the foreground, a 3-year-old named Havana learned how to flash a peace sign.

Andreanne Catt, 17, her face painted with streaks of lipstick, picked up the bullhorn and spontaneously led the crowd in a call and response. “We stand!” Catt shouted. “We stand!” “For our brothers!” “For our brothers!” “And our sisters!” “And our sisters!” “Mni wiconi!” she called out. “Water is life!”

Inside the tepee, Theresa Black Owl again took out her canupa and passed it around. “I was trying to relax because one of the girls in the tepee was really scared. Her hands were just shaking,” she told me later. Most Native American ceremonies were illegal in the United States until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. Practicing them was its own form of resistance. “When I grew up, it wasn’t safe to be an Indian.”

When it was time to go, my rental four-wheel drive filled with so many riders that we pulled down an extra seat. A sniper kept aim as everyone retreated, pulling up wild sage along the roadside—“front-line sage!” a Cherokee woman said. It was early afternoon. There was one thermos of water between eight people for the hour-long ride back to camp, and no one had eaten all day.

That night, gathered around a fire at Rosebud Camp, we awaited word of those who were jailed. Actress Shailene Woodley, who filmed her arrest in a video that went viral, had been among the 27 taken. Most were apprehended on charges of criminal trespassing and, a new one, “engaging in a riot.”

By the fire, everyone recalled the music that had echoed through the work site as the police walked in. They remembered a dancer from the North who was dressed all in black except for a red bandana at her throat, how she bent low to the ground, her arms making deep, scooping movements, how she sang in a haunting, grief-struck wail, how her drummer broke the silence that followed. “That is our trail song,” he said. “For we all had a trail to get here.”

Back in New York, I message with people who are still at camp and monitor the live feeds. I recognize familiar faces being maced as they walk into a freezing river; according to accounts, they were praying at the time. I watch people I met in Standing Rock describe being arrested for misdemeanor charges, strip-searched, held for hours in dog kennels.

The election of Donald Trump, investor in the Energy Transfer Partners and a denier of climate change, would seem to spell doom for the pipeline resistance. As a January 1 deadline to complete construction draws near, Dakota Access drills are now poised at the river. A phalanx of construction lights shines over camp all night—“the airport,” people call it, or “the football stadium”—brighter than the Northern Lights. On Sunday night, police used water as a weapon against the water protectors, blasting them with cannons in 25-degree weather.

But there are signs that the resistance will have repercussions that will long outlast the North Dakota winter. Last week, Energy Transfer Partners said that the protests have caused nearly $100 million in construction delays, Democracy Now! reported. DNB, the largest bank in Norway, pulled out its investments in the pipeline, worth $3 million. And on the eve of November 15—a nationwide NoDAPL day of action with 300 events across the country—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement acknowledging “additional discussion and analysis is warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands.”

Earlier this month, camp united again, with a ceremony that had not taken place since the days of Abraham Lincoln. “It was a warm day, the helicopters seemed quieter, it was the first day in a long time that we didn’t feel under attack,” Eryn Wise of the Youth Council told me by phone. Completing a relay run from Arizona to Standing Rock, the youth runners ran down the road of flags to a finish line. A band of horse riders led by Sioux spiritual leader Chief Nac’a Arvol Looking Horse, in a feathered headdress and fringed jacket, rode into camp. By a row of seven tepees raised for this purpose, the Seven Council fires were relighted.

Later that evening, after speeches and prayers, the ceremony gave way to music—a singer, drummers. “They were feeding one song into another,” said Wise. She joined the circle dance. “I kept my eyes closed for what felt like forever. It had been daylight when I started and when I opened them again, it was dark out. I asked my friend Joseph, ‘How long have we been dancing?’ ”