A Report From Standing Rock

Toby McLeod – December 14, 2016

My plane landed in Bismarck, North Dakota, on November 30 as the last flurries of winter’s first snow storm fell. I upgraded from an economy rental car to 4-wheel drive and headed south toward Standing Rock. A telling sign caught my eye as I passed through Mandan: “We Support Law Enforcement.”

Driving was treacherous as the sun set and I passed four cars that had slid off the icy road in the previous three days. The first one had bullet holes in the door and the windows were shattered. A familiar blue license plate said “California” as I recalled hearing about local hostility to out-of-staters. After it got dark, I texted Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk, “Are you at Oceti Sakowin camp?” A text pinged back: “We’re at Walmart looking for propane. No chains anywhere!” My reply: “Wait, you are still in Bismarck?” It turned out Caleen had been trying to get to Standing Rock for a week. She was within a mile of camp when the blizzard started and as the car in front of her RV started fishtailing, Caleen’s son Michael hit the brakes and followed the smaller car over the edge of the road and down an embankment. Everyone was okay. But it didn’t seem like a good sign and since the RV’s heater had stopped working just as they headed east from California, Caleen decided to drive all the way back to Bismarck to fix the heater and buy tire chains.

I checked into the Prairie Knights Casino Resort hotel and bumped into the Indigenous Environmental Network team in the lobby—Tom Goldtooth, Kandi Moffett and Jade Begay. So far more than 500 peaceful water protectors had been arrested, police had used water cannons to douse people on a 23-degree night, 21-year-old Sophia Wolansky’s arm had been blown off by a concussion grenade, and rubber bullets, pepper spray, mace and dogs had been unleashed. Tensions were rising again as 2,000 veterans headed to Standing Rock to protect the water protectors as a December 5 federal deadline to clear out the massive Oceti Sakowin camp approached. I reported that Caleen and I were planning to show In the Light of Reverence and Standing on Sacred Ground at nearby Sitting Bull College and the Indigenous Environmental Network team briefed me on where to get a press pass, and what to expect if I wanted to photograph an action, namely, to be targeted by the police with rubber bullets or arrest and loss of camera. Next morning, in the media tent I got my press pass and my first volunteer job: taping up hypothermia information sheets in 100 outhouses. It gave me a great chance to walk all over the amazing, inspiring camp and photograph the art, the tipis, the snow, the river, the horses, and thousands of determined, prayerful Native Americans and their allies.

As I arrived at the sacred fire at the center of camp, a police helicopter aggressively buzzed the camp, and a Lakota elder was addressing the crowd, “I am a direct descendent of Sitting Bull,” said Jumping Buffalo, aka Troy Fairbanks. “Our ancestors are buried on top of that hill. As the women were praying, a man shot an M16 rifle at them. We have never fired a bullet or a water cannon, but you know what we will give? We will give them our prayers. We will not hate them. Your prayer lasts forever. Thank you for standing with us here at Standing Rock.”

At our screenings we had elders and activists, professors and students, and great discussions. On the first night, Caleen said, “I’m inspired by the number of people who have responded to the call to come to Standing Rock. History is being made here and it’s history that’s going to be talked about for years to come. Sitting Bull’s descendants are out there holding this down and for the exact same reasons: We are concerned. We are attached. We believe in this land and in this water. We belong here because our burials are here from thousands of years before.”

I tried unsuccessfully to track down my old friend Tim Mentz, who for years was the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.

Tim had recently catalogued no fewer than 27 grave sites, 16 stone rings and 19 effigies within a concentrated area immediately adjacent to and inside the pipeline’s route—82 stone features plus 27 burials in all. In his report, Tim wrote: “This concentration of stone features is very unusual and reveals that this was a culturally very important place for the Tribe’s ancestors.” Regarding a star constellation stone feature called “The Big Dipper,” which would have been a vision questing site for the highest level of Chief—with a burial adjacent to it—Mentz wrote, “This is one of the most significant archaeological finds in North Dakota in many years.”

According to an Earthjustice court document: “The morning after the Tribe filed Mr. Mentz’s declaration describing the sites and their importance, and providing maps as to their precise location, DAPL construction crews graded the entirety of the two mile stretch surveyed by Mr. Mentz and described in his declaration.” This occurred on the Saturday of the Labor Day holiday weekend, and it was the response to this bulldozer desecration that brought out the attack dogs that Amy Goodman’s film crew documented.

For me the key takeaway lesson from Standing Rock was this: In the difficult months ahead, indigenous people must guide the resistance to the ongoing and accelerating corporate/government assault. Native people have persevered and built resilient communities and for generations confronted the array of forces destroying Mother Earth. Love and respect for land and water are at the heart of indigenous spiritual vision and political resistance. Those values—which nurture connection to the earth both spiritually and physically—have been the source of strength that has enabled indigenous people around the world to endure for so long against such great odds. These truths can guide us in the difficult times ahead.

The Sacred Land Film Project has worked for 35 years to support these values, translate them to the wider world, and help protect sacred places in the U.S. and around the world, Standing Rock is one struggle among many, but it represents an historic turning point that has captured the imagination of millions and drawn tens of thousands into the heart of the confrontation—all at an epic moment in human history. We look forward to trying to be a good ally and continue our educational work aimed at protecting sacred natural sites. Please check out my photo slideshow “Report from Standing Rock.”

A few final thoughts about the lessons of Standing Rock and why it is an historic turning point that represents something new:

• The largest gathering in a century united more than 200 Native American tribes, some that had been at odds for a long time, and attracted thousands of allies who respected and followed indigenous leadership and protocols. These networks and alliances are built on years of hard work but highlight how indigenous leadership is rising in environmental and climate justice battles. Indigenous youth demanding a just transition from fossil fuels to renewables is a potent movement.

• Water is sacred. We are water protectors. We are not defending “self” or “my land,” but everyone’s water. Mni wiconi–water is life. Native Hawaiian scholar J Kēhaulani Kauanui observed: “They have brought their understandings of the sacred into the mainstream – though there is still much work to do.”

• We have witnessed a masterful campaign by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II, Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth, along with excellent reporting by Indian Country Today, Amy Goodman, Longhouse Media, Unicorn Riot, and amazing use of social media by everyone, but most notably indigenous youth.

• New framing: protectors not protestors. Not really a new idea, as the spiritual dimension of native resistance has been central and evident for centuries. But with social media making it possible to better control and shape the narrative, this was a peaceful, ongoing spiritual ceremony, conducted by water protectors and not angry activists and protestors. Civil disobedience as prayer. Powerful. More powerful.

• The central—and difficult to grasp (or prove)—issue of burials and cultural sites…which were intentionally bulldozed by Energy Transfer Partners.

• The importance of treaties, the supreme law of the land as recognized in the U.S. Constitution. If the government makes a promise on behalf of the people, then the people have the obligation to see to it that the treaty is honored. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 makes this land sovereign Lakota land and they deserve full consultation and free, prior and informed consent before land is bulldozed and pipelines built.

Here are some of the media and video highlights that I have come across in researching this complex story and visiting Standing Rock:

Early video from Unicorn Riot on Sacred Stone Camp website, from April 1, 2016, the original 30-mile horseback ride to protest the threat DAPL represents to burials and water. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard points out some of the sacred sites.

Amy Goodman and Democracy Now’s historic video report from September 4 as bulldozers destroy burials, and water protectors are met with pepper spray, mace, and vicious dog bites, before the DAPL crew is chased away. But the damage was done.

Earthjustice litigation and timeline summary. Sept. 4, 2016 was the key day as summarized by Earthjustice’s timeline: While the parties are awaiting the court’s decision, Dakota Access bulldozed an area of the pipeline corridor filled with Tribal sacred sites and burials that had been identified to the court just the previous day. Demonstrators trying to prevent the destruction of the sacred site were pepper sprayed and attacked by guard dogs (as documented by Amy Goodman and Democracy Now). The Tribe files an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to block the construction until a decision is reached on the injunction motion.

Unicorn Riot 7-minute video, “Police & Military Attack Oceti Sakowin Treaty Camp” from October 27, 2016, 54,000 views, showing mace, dogs, snipers, arrests, at site of pipeline construction.

Video of water canon assault on the water protectors on November 23.

AJ Plus video on Lakota History, “Andrew Jackson: Trump of Tears” (November 23).

Winona LaDuke’s report, “The Beginning is Near: The Deep North, Evictions and Pipeline Deadlines,” from November 29.

The New York Time piece “Respect the Feathers: Who Tells Standing Rock’s Story?” (December 16) confirmed my instinct to leave the filmmaking on this story to Native American producers.

Where do we go from here? This thing is far from over.

• Bring the frontline home and put tribal leadership in front.

• Fight the funding—If you want to help go after the financing of the pipeline: DefundDAPL


• Learn about the treaties—these are agreements our government made in our names.