I visited Oceti Sakowin, the camp at Standing Rock, on Thanksgiving Day. I went out there with a local Presbyterian minister and his wife, who had gathered up $2,000 worth of winter socks they would contribute to the effort. In Bismarck, North Dakota, we met up with a good friend of mine, Kemo, a tribal member at Standing Rock, a sundancer, a retired high school biology teacher, and a Vietnam vet. We have known each other since the Ojibwe fight for spearfishing treaty rights in Wisconsin more than 25 years ago. (Many of the images below are his, as he decided that one of his prerogatives as a 70-year-old elder and tribal member was to ignore the person who told us not to take photographs.)
The Oceti Sakowin (“Seven Council Fires”) reminded me of a pow wow in some ways: lots of tents and tipis, a central fire, young men on horses, smaller wood fires, people standing around visiting, a feeling of friendliness. Add to that a sense of ascephaly (headlessness), decentralization, and the reproduction of structurally identical group camps.
There was anarchy, but not chaos—with the exception of the presence of young Indian men officiously admitting cars at the gate and the absence of officials. The scene made me think that this is what refugee camps must look like: distribution tents for donated clothing, communal wood piles, a medical tent, large tents for storing food and feeding groups, yurts, improvised signage. It brought to mind anthropologist Victor Turner’s communitas, an anti-structural condition wherein most ordinary status differences (gender, rank, age, ethnicity, race) are suspended.
One of the non-Indian women we met in the first hour of our visit told us there was tension between Indians and non-Indians over the growing numbers of the latter. But I retained the sense that the camp was anti-structural and felt we could speak to anyone we cared to and go where we wanted. I followed my Lakota friend’s lead as we rambled through the camp down its winding, improvised roads. We talked with people from New York interested in the art being produced there, young cosmopolitan Indian men running trainings for the direct actions that were taking place, a man on a stationary bike making electricity to charge iPhones so people could record the actions of the police. Kemo wanted to go into the vets’ tent where we spoke with a woman who had been arrested, strip-searched, and kept in a chain-link holding cell for hours. We talked briefly with Amnesty International observers and a local tribal member wearing a high-intensity orange safety vest, a sign of his official peacekeeper status.
We took part in one of the direct actions, a gathering at the foot of the hill upon which the police were deployed, though there were no arrests that day. The next most impressive part of the visit took place in a very different setting, the Standing Rock Community High School Gymnasium, 20 miles away where we ate Thanksgiving dinner. Buses and private vehicles shuttled people back and forth between the camp and the school, where a fleet of mostly non-Indian volunteers (35 people from 12 states) cooked 3,000 pounds of turkey and all the fixin’s for the thousands who were now at the camp on this long weekend. My first impression nearly brought me to tears as I took in this remarkable event in terms of my own deep and sub-structural, mytho-practical dispositions. I thought to myself: This is what the story of the loaves and fishes from the Gospel is all about! Thousands needed to eat, and the food appeared. Someone had a vision and organized the donation, cooking, and serving the throngs. More communitas. Give what you can, take what you need. Generalized and widely extended reciprocity. Diffuse enduring solidarity. Love.
I ate with my friend, his daughter, her partner, their son, a lesbian Cherokee assistant professor of sociology from California, and two women from Massachusetts who had just arrived. The host drum group did an honor song for the people who organized it, and we joined hundreds who walked to the stage to shake their hands in the manner in which people are honored at pow wows or other tribal celebrations nation-wide. They were beaming, being paid publically with honor (the powerful currency of the local realm), likely for the first time in their lives, at least at this scale.
Since our Thanksgiving visit, the Obama Administration stopped the pipeline calling for the Army Corps of Engineers to do a full environmental impact statement (EIS) in early December. Then the Trump Administration encouraged the Corps to expedite the EIS and grant a permit, which it did. Then the tribe failed to get a restraining order to stop the project claiming that it would infringe their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. At this writing, what is likely to be last court proceeding has just been briefed with a decision likely in days. The full EIS was to be directed at whether or not the sending the pipeline and half a million barrels of oil a day beneath Lake Oahe violates the Tribe’s treaty rights. Such a study would likely take several months or more to complete. Since the Corp abandoned its commitment shortly after the President’s directive, the Tribe has sued alleging that the decision was “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”
In a recent phone conversation with Kemo, he said he thought that Native America was “galvanized” in a way that it had not been for a long time. This is a striking assessment, as Kemo is a veteran of Wounded Knee in 1973—an occupation that lasted more than two months and where people were actually killed.
If Indian country is “galvanized,” the event also serves to strengthen a commitment to their own construction of their social and cultural identity in opposition to a society largely committed to corporate control of consumptive life dependent upon hydrocarbons: They are linear, we are circular. They are hierarchical, we are egalitarian. They are market, we are gift. They are contract, we are kinship. This practice and discourse proliferates even as Indian people check their iPhones for messages while walking to their pick-up trucks. I don’t mean to charge hypocrisy but instead to observe that events like this force us to realize that all of us are implicated and compromised in different measures. Those of us in academic life gather and recognize the sanctity of the land and the unsustainability of putting pipelines under rivers. But then we fly off to our academic conferences—leaving carbon footprints an order of magnitude larger than any tribal member—to speak on panels about the sanctity of the land and the shortsightedness and deleterious consequences of basing collective life on fossil fuels.
My friend also said that the camp was a mecca for many people who really had little else that was giving their lives meaning, casualties of the globalization from which so many of us have benefited. These liminars were available and yearning for a utopian movement, many of them having been humiliated in one way another, left feeling powerless, and envious of others whom they imagine having more satisfying lives—an emotional complex that makes up the ressentiment articulated so well by Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger: A History of the Present.
For the Standing Rock Tribe, it was NIMBYism. They didn’t want the pipeline here, near the community’s water intakes on the Missouri. It would have been fine by them to run it north, nearer Bismarck. For so many others attracted to this camp, this decision to protect the water was a line in the sand, the place where a movement began that would transform the world. Maybe it will. I was happy to see the city of Seattle recently pull $3 billion out of Wells Fargo, one of 17 banks supporting the pipeline. Maybe there will be more of this. I hope so. I recently made sure that my retirement account is in the “socially responsible” investment category so I can both talk the talk and walk the walk, though I am sure if I scratch deeper, I will discover uncomfortable inconsistencies.
I am trying to act deliberately and faithfully, even though I often think we are doomed in the long run. Do civilizations really undertake great reformations at the level of their very subsistence base and retain some sense of their continuity? Is reform at this level possible? We can do what we can for justice in the short run, even though it often feels like hospice. But what is the choice?
Hecetu welo. It is so.
Featured image: The camp at Standing Rock. Photo by Larry Nesper, November 2016.
Larry Nesper is Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He regards his research on indigenous nation-building, most of which is in Wisconsin, as advocacy and has worked as a consultant for several of the tribes in the state. He is the author of The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights (University of Nebraska Press, 2002). His current research is on tribal court development. Website. Contact.