The Standoff at Standing Rock: Reflections from a White Ally

Tents and Teepees at Oceti Sakowin (seven council fires) Camp with Flag Road in the background. Photo: Todd Davies, November 22, 2016.

Tents and tepees at Oceti Sakowin (seven council fires) Camp with Flag Road in the background. Photo: Todd Davies, November 22, 2016.

By: Todd Davies

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[NOTE: This post appears as an article in the December 2016 issue of Chiapas Update, and was written on December 6, 2016.]

As I write this, the Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) has just denied an easement for building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under the Oahe reservoir, next to un-ceded treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. CoE’s promise to do an Environmental Impact Statement came eight months after the establishment of the Camp of the Sacred Stone, where the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers meet. Sacred Stone and its extension camps (Rosebud, Oceti Sakowin, and Red Warrior) have grown from a handful of Native people last spring to thousands of inhabitants. CoE’s failure to do a proper environmental review initially, as well as the racism that led the pipeline to be routed through Native treaty lands, brought indigenous Americans and their allies together at Standing Rock. The CoE’s reversal feels like a victory, but the battle against DAPL is not over.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) built almost the entire pipeline in six months this year. But ETP lacked legal authority to complete the full pipeline, and now finds itself on what may be the losing end of a $3.8B gamble. Contracts with investors expire on January 1st, and solidarity campaigns are now focused on banks such as Wells Fargo, urging them to pull their investments and leave the pipeline in the ground, as a stranded asset.

Like many Bay Area activists, I have followed Standing Rock from afar, attending local events such as the November 15 Day of Action at CoE offices. And like quite a few from our community, I have also been fortunate to visit Standing Rock as a guest. My visit from Nov. 21-24 was much briefer than I wanted, but was all the time I could spare between work and personal commitments. After reading and hearing about life in the camps, I resolved to make up for the brevity of my visit by being of use while there. At the orientation meeting I attended on my first morning, in Oceti Sakowin Camp. I wrote down the other guidelines (in addition to “Be of use”) taught to new arrivals: Indigenous-centered, Building a new legacy, and Bring it home.

I flew into Bismarck, which is usually an hour’s drive from the camps, but took longer since police closed the main road to protect the drillers. I bought firewood at a local store in Bismarck, and donated the logs when I entered Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Monday of my visit. As many others who have traveled to Standing Rock have said, the spiritual feeling one gets from the water protectors is immediate and palpable. I arrived just after the violent night of November 20, when militarized police attacked water protectors in freezing temperatures with water fire, solid/lethal projectiles, and chemical weapons. Many in the camp had suffered wounds and hypothermia, including one woman whose retina was severed, and another whose arm was mutilated. I was instantly in the company of others, mostly non-Native allies, who had been involved in direct action movements in the U.S. in recent decades. But I was also aware that this was indigenous land, and that despite my many stays in Zapatista territory in Mexico, I had never been in the midst of an indigenous struggle of this magnitude in the U.S.

Water protectors are bundled up as the wind blows on Flag Road in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, North Dakota. Flags are billowing, with tents and hills in the background.

Water protectors are bundled up as the wind blows on Flag Road in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, North Dakota, November 22, 2016.

Rather than pitching my tent in the freezing air of North Dakota, I rented a room at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Prairie Knights casino. When I contacted the camp before my trip, I said I would be staying at the hotel, and that I would be happy to welcome water protectors who needed showers or shelter during my stay. Sure enough, soon after I checked in, half a dozen young activists knocked on my door. They all showered and told me what they had been through early that morning, during perhaps the most brutal police attack on water protectors since the camps had gone up. These shower seekers had been on the “front line,” where the cops had barricaded the road at the end of Backwater Bridge, just north of Oceti Sakowin Camp. They showed me large welts and bruises on their arms, legs, and torsos that came from freezing high-speed water, rubber bullets, and beanbag projectiles. These activists had been at the camp for weeks. One of them told me he was willing to die to stop the pipeline. There was a lot of reflection, and some argument, about the details of the night – what a choice to confront police means for the movement and for one’s friends, how to understand the words of the Tribal elders, and why police were acting as they did.

On Tuesday, I went through the daily Nonviolent Direct Action training next to the Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3) camp. I joined many new arrivals in receiving instructions from the Legal Collective and from Morton County public defenders. As an indigenous trainer led exercises in peacefully holding and moving through spaces, and regrouping amidst aggressive police role-players, a surveillance helicopter circled ominously overhead. A medic gave instructions on how to deal with mace, tear gas, and other chemical weapons.

Just before twilight, I was directed to a press conference at the Backwater Bridge, just across from where the police were building a new barricade. This was the closest I got to the front lines, because after that, the elders asked everyone to go back to the camp. “We are worried the police will attack us,” they said. An apparently white male accompanied by a woman argued with a young Native camp guard, saying he did not have to follow what the elders advised. “I live here!” the white man said, although he was clearly a guest. I filmed this with the guard’s permission (and with my press pass displayed). The white activist made a run toward the bridge as Native security ran after him.

As a new arrival who had been through an allies’ orientation, I had been asked to respect the Sioux leaders, and interpreted this to mean the Tribal Council members. But I gradually learned that Standing Rock has different voices of leadership, and while they all agree on the need to stop DAPL from being built under Lake Oahe, on other issues they often disagree. This is not surprising, given the vigorous political differences that exist in most communities, including my own. But it sometimes poses a dilemma for me as a colonial settler trying to be an ally to Native people. Whatever I do, or do not do, is a choice that supports some people more than others. If I look for an indigenous activist who shares my tactical viewpoint, I am likely to find one. But if, say, white allies do this collectively, then it seems we are enacting white dominance by proxy. If we only do what elected Tribal leaders command, on the other hand, we may sometimes fail to provide needed support for Tribe members who rightfully disagree with their leaders. If we act as foot soldiers for the Tribal Council, we may amplify its power to struggle against oppressive U.S. Government policies. But if we are free to do what we believe is right, and what more radical indigenous people do and advocate, we may be able to act in ways that are productive for the struggle, but for which the Tribal government cannot safely take responsibility. Or we might screw everything up.

In the aftermath of the CoE denying a permit for DAPL, we are seeing this dilemma play out. Tribal Chair Dave Archambault II has asked non-Sioux water protectors to leave. But the founder of the camps, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, on whose land Sacred Stone was established, is saying this would be a mistake. I don’t know enough to say who is right.

I participated in two actions on the Wednesday of my visit, using my rented car to transport water protectors to a prayer ceremony at the police blockade on the northern side of the Route 1806 closure, and also to a caravan through downtown Bismarck. The trainings had been useful, but seeing exactly how our Native action leader organized the ceremony, and interacted with police amidst ceremonial drumming, deepened my appreciation for the prayerful approach that characterizes Standing Rock. Returning to camp late in the day, I listened to speakers at the Youth camp. One Native young person thanked those of us who could only come to the camp for a few days. All of us can contribute to protecting the water, she said, and more will come to take our places when we leave.

Water protectors are seen from behind, carrying cedar leaves and banners peacefully.

Standing Rock water protectors march peacefully toward police at the northern blockade of North Dakota Route 1806 along the Missouri River, on November 23, 2016.

I made my way to the Sacred Stone Camp across the Cannonball, where I had to go in order to make an offering from the Chiapas Support Committee to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The atmosphere in this original camp was quiet but deliberate. The Sioux woman who took our gift described what is happening as a last stand. Standing Rock has lost so much, most visibly at that spot, where the joining of the rivers once created spirit rocks, but which was destroyed, and the Tribe’s lands flooded, when the dam was built. As darkness fell, I looked at the rivers and at the ugly, glaring lights that illuminate the path of the pipeline in the distance.

Snow was falling in Cannon Ball as I left on “Thanksgiving” morning. I met friends in Mandan for a holiday brunch, before heading to the airport. As we talked about the hostility directed at water protectors by many non-Native North Dakotans, and how many times I got told “Go home!” by angry white folks during my brief visit, I got a sympathetic look from one of my friends. The public hearings about the pipeline, he says, were held in Minot, Williston, and Bismarck – the mostly white centers of “oil country” in North Dakota, where the pipeline has public support. But no hearings were held where Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members live, where the Missouri was planned to be crossed, or downstream. Many non-Natives in North Dakota prefer a pipeline to the cargo trains that carry oil through cities and that often explode, he says. But, he notes, a pipeline is sure to leak in a really bad way that, especially when it is under ground, can continue for a long time.

This is exactly what the water protectors have said. A route for the pipeline that would have crossed the Missouri in mostly white areas around Bismarck was rejected, for the same reasons that the Sioux people do not want it near them. If it is too risky for white people, it is too risky for Native people. Amidst the complexities of ally-ship and leadership in this struggle, that basic point is as transparent as fresh water.

One Comment on “The Standoff at Standing Rock: Reflections from a White Ally

  1. Pingback: ¡Felices Fiestas! Happy Holidays! from CHIAPAS SUPPORT COMMITTEE | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

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