Mni Wiconi, Water is Life: Standing Rock Camp, North Dakota 2016

Great news from Standing Rock over the weekend: President Obama has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to look for another route for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We had Democrats in the area when the news was announced, bringing supplies and standing in solidarity.

Also, last month, shortly after the election, our own George Morrison traveled to Standing Rock. He has written a great essay on his experience, and it’s well worth reading to get an idea of the realities on the ground.

What I love is the fact that this protest worked. This gives us all hope that, as we are active and stand together, we can make change.

Here’s George’s account:

Entering the Camp from the highway one is struck with its size and a vista of hundreds of tents, tipis, corrals, cars, campfires and people everywhere. Going down into the camp the dirt road is a scene lined on each side with the flags of all the first Nations people present. There seem to be hundreds of the flags and many people in Native dress. Across the camp is the river, with the water of life flowing by. That is when the impact becomes realization of the cause.
At the initial Camp orientation, our welcomer asks us to look out the tipi flap;

“What you see there is land upon which Lakota Sioux have lived for thousands of years, we had formal societies and government long before Europeans came here.” He pauses, giving that thought time to sink in.

“Since the day they came the whites have been taking from us,” he continues. The pipeline is on unceded Sioux Treaty land, granted by the Treaty of 1851 at Fort Laramie. They now threaten our water supply, our very lives, and our future existence from the land they have taken.

He informs us; we started this Camp several months ago and we brought from the reservation the sacred fire. It burns 24-7 at the camp meeting place. The fire-watchers keep it going in all weather conditions; they are there at all times. Many two-leggeds have come to visit and honor us and our traditions. Many do it additionally by offering cedar greens and sage and tobacco in the fire as they pray to the Great Spirit.

He says to notice we are in a circle, there are no corners. We hide nothing. All we do, we do in the open. We pray in circles we dance in circles. We include everyone and listen to the ideas and questions of all. We share all we have; there is nothing for sale here. This camp is a prayer ceremony, not a commercial enterprise. We pray often and for many reasons, we pray for people, animals and the land and water. We are here to protect our life blood, mni wiconi, (pronounced “mini-we-choh-nee”i) our water. All living things need water.

We ask you to move about this camp gently and to respect tribal protocols. Ask permission before photographing anyone and especially at ceremonies. This is not a festival, it is a prayer ceremony. This Camp is a holy act in its totality. Act accordingly.”

Each camp day begins with a prayer to the sun rising in the East; bringing warmth and nourishment to all living things. There are songs and dances. And the activities of the day begin. One of the first is to present the people who will be the water protectors for the day, the ones who will take direct action against the pipeline; the warriors include both men and women, young and old, they form a circle around the Sacred Fire. The pipe of peace is passed to each of them as a symbol of prayer and reverence, to impart the gravity of the situation. Each warrior holds it for a moment of thought and prayer. There is no hurrying, every person takes all the time they need.

Then there is a prayer, in Lakota, by an Elder. He asks that they all return safely; that they have success in stopping the great black serpent. The threat of devastation from the black snake was prophesied many years ago. They hope to counter the curse with every action they can. There are many tears, from men and women, old and young. The warriors leave the camp on ponies and in cars. As they pass down the road there are whoops. It is like being in a movie, surreal and solemn and frightening.
The actions of a militarized police contingent are harsh and in many cases illegal. The actions of the hired oil company thugs are immoral and way beyond being necessary. Dogs set upon peaceful people who are only offering limited resistance is not in the least called for. Spraying of mace is not necessary as the police and security people often out-number the protectors. Most egregious is the vehicle that is aiming microwave impulses into the crowd of people; no one knows what the long term consequences of that will be.

After being arrested, the protectors, especially the women, are strip searched, kept in cold areas, their possessions taken and often not returned. They are hauled off to jails many miles and counties away from the camp. This is not my idea of today’s America, but it surely reminds me of Alabama in the 1960’s; or of Germany in the 1930’s.

One of the most necessary camp needs is money for the defense fund for these people. Paying the release bonds and the attorneys required is draining what funds they have. Most of these people will also have to return to the state later in the year for trial dates.


Now the Camp day begins. There will be many speakers, tribes and organizations to make presentations. From the Parliament of World Religions comes a speaker with the resolution he read to the United Nations about our plight. A Buddhist monk from Japan and a representative from the Maoris in Australia, make presentations. Several tribes from Canada speak. The man at the mic at the moment tells about a group of Hopi boys who ran to this Camp on foot from Flagstaff Arizona.

Most speakers begin in their native tribal languages. I have never heard so many different tongues in one place. It is like the United Nations of Indigenous peoples. Each tribe and organization brings gifts for the Camp as well as prayers and words of support. And they have their own stories of frustrations and losses. They are all treated with respect and reverence for their stories. It is very humbling to see and feel so much common love displayed openly.

I came here to learn and understand; to get a feel of the entire event by the Water Protectors. Now, I feel as I did on September 11 2001. The depression, the helplessness, and the sadness are all present. Yet, there is a feeling in the Camp of love and togetherness I have never felt before. Everyone is very friendly and talkative. It is like we are all covered with the same blanket as one people. People are here from every state, from Canada, from Europe, Japan and Central America. Auto license plates are a mural of travel from the entire U.S. The population of the Camp is constant, but many people come anew and many leave each day.

There are several thousand people here; in many tents and built structures. Lots of folks; like me for instance, are sleeping and camping out of their cars. The camp site has many portapotties and a central place to get water and dispose of trash. There are five kitchens where the meals of the day are prepared. There is no charge for anything. The Oceti-Sakowin tribe is footing the bill. Tribal members arrive at 5:30 am to prepare coffee and hot water for tea and chocolate; so by the time the Sun greeters pray and campers arrive, coffee is ready.

Groups of people and individuals move about the Camp; young men ride their ponies all over the place. Campfires smoking and the smells of food abound. In many places sturdy wooden structures are being built to fend off the harsh winter that is on its way. Carpenters and helpers are working around the clock to finish these things. Many structures and tipis are lined on the outside with hay bales to repel wind and act as insulation against the coming cold weather.

Large groups that have come here, mostly the individual tribes, have mini camps within the main one. They are fenced off and have corrals for their horses. There is the Red Warrior camp, whose men are doing the most direct action; there are the Oglala Sioux, the One Nation people and several other big camps with tipis in a circle. Each of these sub-camps has drummers and singers who perform after dark when people start to settle in for the night. It provides quite a potpourri of sound.

The camp is dusty and smoky from campfires and traffic. The ground is covered with loose dusty soil and I can’t imagine the mess it will be when it rains. But it is tidy, no trash on the ground. The camp is peaceful. Alcohol, drugs and weapons are banned. I did not hear a harsh or contrary word spoken in the time I was there.
There is a specific medical area with doctors to provide for those who need aid, for any illness, as well as to treat the people who have been sprayed with pepper or shot with rubber bullets. They probably treated the wounded horses also. There is a yurt that has psychologists to treat people who have been traumatized.

Each day there is a meeting to talk about direct action; how to prepare, what to take with you or not, what to wear and how to give support to each other; how to be peaceful, yet firm. Most arrestees are charged with trespassing and as many other true or false charges the police can concoct. Usually 4-5 charges per person. Simply speaking to the police politely asking questions is grounds for resisting arrest. The pipeline company is shooting unarmed people and horses with rubber bullets, which are not as harmless as they purport. Many people and horses have huge bruises and cuts from some of the confrontations.

There is a legal office with lawyers to work for the release of arrestees. There is a media hill where phone connections work fairly well. It has become known as Facebook hill. Also there are plugins for phone charging. The camp is quite self-sustaining; however some supplies are over used daily, such as fire wood. I have no idea how many hundred cords of wood it will take to manage the winter; it is one of the most needed supplies. I have no clue where they get the wood. There are virtually no trees around here. This is prairie.

Throughout the camp are many combinations of solar collectors, gasoline generators and wind generators; self-sufficiency is an important goal to reduce the demand on the Camp organizers. While there is a lot of food and fuel, stores need to be set aside for winter when moving about will be very difficult.

Everyone here has a story; where they are from, what they brought and they all express feelings of solidarity. Many people have been in camp for several months. One group told the story of a nearby farmer who had 200 bison on his land that he cared for. The pipeline company, after they took over his property, cut the fences and herded the bison off the property and after that prevented them from water and their food sources. Some bison have died and others are very weak. Winter will do them in. People are working to get feed to them and to bring them water.

Each day is filled with songs, ceremonies and prayers. There is a celebratory feeling in the midst of great depression; a stoicism of having been in this fight many times. There was a special ceremony to welcome the full moon. There was a water ceremony by grandmothers to honor the water. They carried a vessel with water they had collected from various places around the world. They brought it to the Oceti Camp to mix with the waters of the Missouri. It was a lovely and touching event with many tears.

Often during the day the firewatchers will fill a vessel with sage and cedar, put in some hot coals to ignite it; then pass through the crowds allowing people to smudge themselves in little ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the oil company is continually flying over in a helicopter and two fixed wing craft. The only reason I can see for that is just to make noise and harass the Camp.

One day while the direct action meeting was underway a fire somehow had started; the whole area around the camp is dry brown grass, so it was very scary. Fortunately, by the quick action of about ten people they got the fire out, beating it with their shirts. As the last hot spots were being smothered and hand patted, two bald eagles flew overhead as if to say thank you. Many people dropped to their knees in prayer. It was a special moment and the feeling that Mother Nature is with this cause. A hopeful omen.


I came to the Camp to learn first-hand and to help as much as I could. I leave a better version of myself because of the experience. In Camp there is a tremendous feeling of oneness and hope, but a sense of hopelessness against the tremendous odds and wealth of the oil interests.

We know the pipeline will be built, but there is much hope that they will move it to a better and safer location. These camps need the love and support of the world to eventuate this goal. Their actions and words are sneered at, laughed at and discounted by the white powers to be, the insensitivity and greed of the oil companies and the deaf ears of the state of North Dakota. Only an overwhelming protest by the larger world community will have an impact.

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