Water protectors win the battle, but lose the war

February 27, 2017

Kjersten Johnson & Ryan Turner

An old Lakota prophecy speaks of a great black snake, a creature that would rise and bring great sorrow and great destruction with it; with the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline, many Native Americans called the pipeline — the huge, long machinery to pump black oil through the country — the great black snake.

A sign welcomes drivers to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Thousands flocked to Standing Rock in order to “#StandWithStandingRock” and show solidarity for underrepresented Native American tribes. In summer 2016, attendance peaked with up to 10,000 protesters; in November 2016, the number of protesters had decreased by at least 70 percent — with still 3,000 protesters braving the frigid temperatures, harsh weather and violent clashes with police. The Standing Rock Sioux took on the Army Corps of Engineers via the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, and the Sioux tribe won in December 2016 when the easement to finish the pipeline was denied. The tribe then lost in January 2017 when it was announced the pipeline would be constructed after all.

Oceti Sakowin camp housed thousands of protesters in 2016 as the #StandWithStandingRock movement gained attention and supporters.

Michalyn Steele is an associate professor of law who teaches Federal Indian Law at BYU. She didn’t go to Standing Rock because she was teaching classes at the time, but she has followed it closely both legally and culturally. On December 5, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would look for an alternate route for the Dakota Access Pipeline — a route that would not cross Lake Oahe. On January 24, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to advance the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Legally, she said, the tribe is probably going to lose the case. But the Standing Rock legal issues show an advance for Native American culture, she said. 

“But the tribe has been very successful in the sense of culture and history in standing up for the sanctity of its rights in land and its right to be consulted by the federal government,” Steele said. “And at least holding the United States accountable for the choices that they’ve made.”

Steele, who worked in the Obama administration at the Department of Interior on Indian issues, said she wasn’t altogether surprised President Trump decided to move forward with the pipeline construction. Going into 2017, she thought it was a strong possibility. She is, however, concerned with the legality of it. 

“I think there’s still a legal question to be decided about whether the Trump administration can set aside an environmental impact study that the Obama administration said was necessary,” she said. “What the executive can’t do is carry out policies that are arbitrary or capricious, and reversing the Obama administration findings that this environmental impact study was necessary I think has a good chance of being found arbitrary by the courts.”

She doesn’t think there’s a way to stop the pipeline though, because the easement has been granted. Additionally, Steele said, the Trump administration ignored the public notice and comment period on the environmental impact study.

“The threat to the water is real and, you know, it’s not just for the tribes. There’s 18 million people downstream of the Missouri River.” —Michalyn Steele

Though this could be considered a cultural win because it has opened discussion on tribal rights, there is still so much damage with this particular loss, Steele said. 

“The pipeline route will disturb graves and other sacred sites, and the tribes have not been given an adequate chance to identify those resources, those cultural resources,” Steele said. “The tribes have said … they have a responsibility to speak for resources that can’t speak for themselves. That includes water, plants, animals, unborn children. When they call themselves water protectors, that’s what they mean. They’re trying to stand up for those that can’t speak for themselves.”


Phillip Swafford is thrilled to be at Standing Rock, even when he's on dish duty. He was affectionately named Walt Disney, and he says he loves to "take ownership of a job no one else wants to do." Phillip likes his personal Dishneyland and sees the need to help wherever he can.

A local Mandan resident protests the protesters. Locals said they're not pro- or anti-DAPL — they just don't want to deal with it and the disruption to their community anymore.

Miles, 10, is from Berkeley, California, and said he likes the camp because he's learning to "be respectful, kind and loving." The one problem? He's homesick and misses his two dogs.

Samantha is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and traveled to North Dakota to help protest DAPL. She found this dog in camp one morning, and she hopes they'll both stay warm through the long, cold winter.

Steele said December 2016 was a roller coaster of emotions for her. She felt proud of the water protectors for giving a voice to the issue, especially because many were indigenous people who were coming together for the first time. She also felt frustration when it looked like the pipeline was moving forward. 

“When it looked like they were going to go forward anyway because the energy transfer partners — the owners of the Dakota Pipeline, the builders — had said they were going to build anyway without the easement that was required, that felt frustrating and familiar,” Steele said. “It seemed like a repeat of the same story that has played out too often in American history, where the tribes bear the burden of the projects and the economic development, the costs of economic development, at the expense of the resources of the tribes.”

How water protectors at Standing Rock reacted to journalists

The red press badges stick out of layers of coats and scarves, identifying the people with notepads and cameras as journalists long before they speak. The ensemble builds a wall journalists aren’t necessarily able to climb over: many people at Oceti Sakowin camp just don’t want to talk to the media. 

Journalist Kit Karzen wears a red press badge from the media center at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. All journalists must be approved beforehand, receive press badges and wear them at all times.

Upon entering Oceti Sakowin camp, and directly before hitting “flag road,” a hard right for 100 yards leads to “Facebook Hill.” Perched atop the hill sits the press tent, a broken solar panel and a wind turbine; inside the tent sits Michael Pinuelas and other media volunteers who hand out press passes to journalists on assignment. 

Pinuelas, a 23-year-old from Seattle, is a volunteer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Pinuelas worked in the media tent and certified journalists at Oceti Sakowin for more than a month. 

Seppi Garrett (left) and his son Ben speak with media about their experience at Oceti Sakowin camp.

Rules for allowing journalists in became more intense after the Oct. 27 raid on the treaty camp, Pinuelas said. During this raid, about 200 police in riot gear, along with National Guard soldiers, performed a mid-day raid. As a result, more than 140 people were arrested for criminal trespassing, rioting and endangerment by fire. After the raid, which received widespread national attention, there was a large influx of reporters: hundreds came in the next week who wanted to show the more human side of Standing Rock and not just the violence. However, the rapid increase in journalists had a negative effect.

Michael Pinuelas talks about the positive and negative effects of having so much media coverage at Oceti Sakowin camp. The positives of having media outweigh the negative factors, Pinuelas said.

“A lot of people were being treated like exhibits and a lot of people were taking photos in a very extractive way,” Pinuelas said. “And the council of elders that does a lot of the decision-making around here decided that we couldn’t do any more freelance, we couldn’t do any independent. There were too many blogs, too many Facebook feeds — and what they saw online were massive repositories of photos that told that (human) story, people just weren’t looking at them.”

Pinuelas credited the democratization and fragmentation of media as part of the problem: everyone wanted in on the action, everyone wanted their own reporter at the camp. And this led to hundreds of reporters taking hundreds of photos of anyone who looked “native.”

“A lot of folks here feel like exhibits — especially if they’ve been here three, four, five months. They’ve gotten their picture taken many times a day, especially if they have darker skin,” Pinuelas said.

“Journalists are here to get the pictures that they would term emblematic. They want the pictures that will define this struggle.” —Michael Pinuelas

In a camp of thousands of people, that’s hard to do and can feel extractive, Pinuelas said. People who are interviewed don’t see concern being generated from the stories, have their words twisted or are otherwise dissatisfied with the way the story is told. 

Kenyon Uses Arrow, a Cannon Ball native, thinks journalists aren’t covering Standing Rock very well. He gets news from his friend who works security at Oceti Sakowin and from Facebook.

Kenyon Uses Arrow, 16-year-old Cannon Ball local, sees the incongruence in reporting. 

“Some reporters come here and they record our sides of the story but then when you look at it on TV or even on Facebook they shift it up and they make it sound like we’re just here just to cause trouble,” Uses Arrow said. 

He thinks journalists have had an “obviously negative effect” overall, yet was willing to talk to media — “I wanted to get my word out and I wanted to show the people that even us younger kids have a voice,” Uses Arrow said. “It’s not just the adults.” 

Elan Hedges, 16, and Emory Boll, 16, are high school juniors at a school in Connecticut. Instead of finals week, the students are assigned to do projects; Hedges and Boll decided to travel to Standing Rock and do a project for their school newspaper.

“As soon as we saw what was going on with the whole DAPL issue, we immediately decided that we wanted to come out and do what we could,” Hedges said.

Hedges and Boll teamed up with a fellow student and parent and made the trek from Connecticut to North Dakota — more than 25 hours of driving.

Kit Karzen is a photojournalist who reported at Oceti Sakowin camp. Hedges, Boll and Karzen all touched on the bias they feel during their reporting. 

“Oh, 100 percent. Going into most conflicts I try to be as nonpartisan as I can,” Karzen said, when asked if he’s biased. “Personally I try to not go and explicitly state my feelings in the messaging or commentary. What I find, is the deeper (in)to the – – – – that I can get, the truer the story is and that’s all I need. Because I don’t have to lie about anything that’s going on here.” 

Winterization at Standing Rock

Water protectors at Oceti Sakowin camp gather around the Sacred Fire every day at 7 a.m. in prayer and ceremony. The Lakota elder burns sage and leads the morning prayer. By the end of the ceremony, there’s a large circle of 50 or more people congregated around the fire. They circle around twice, allowing everyone to shake hands and say good morning; they’re so spread out now that the warmth of the flames at the center isn’t reaching them.

Oceti Sakowin camp housed thousands of protesters in 2016 as the #StandWithStandingRock movement gained attention and supporters.

At the end of November 2016, people’s personalities were warm and positive despite the unforgiving, cold weather at Oceti Sakowin. Teepees, tents and shelters stood resolute in the middle of the freezing plain — refusing to depart or let their inhabitants yield to the pressure of the Army Corps of Engineers. And yet there was something on everyone’s minds: how were they going to survive the cold, imminent winter?

Antony Page is a volunteer and activist at Standing Rock from Taos, New Mexico. He worked to build shelters for people even though he originally came to help feed people.

Antony Page is a water protector who traveled from Taos, New Mexico, up to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to show his support. Page came with the nonprofit Food Not Bombs to help feed anybody staying at the camp.

“We like to feed people. You can’t stay in a good place with an empty belly or bad food. If cops came we’d feed them.” —Antony Page

Page, however, developed a very different focus while at Rosebud camp, across the river from Oceti Sakowin camp. Food wasn’t the primary concern if people didn’t have warm shelters, Page said. They had to “get people off the ground,” he said, “or they’re going to die.”

Volunteers build tarpees to keep people warm through the winter. Preference is given first to Native American families and women and children.

Page ended up building “tarpees” with fellow volunteers to help people stay warm and get off the ground. Tarpees are essentially teepees made of materials such as tear-free tarp, plywood, mylar and bubble wrap. The tarpees will solar heat during the day and have a stove in the middle to keep occupants warm at night.

Page and his wife arrived on Nov. 1 and said they would stay until their job is done. They have enough funding to build 50 to 70 tarpees, he said. “We’re here for the long haul.”

Water protectors are in for the long haul, too, and need more than shelter to keep them warm and dry.

Joseph Hock has been staying at Oceti Sakowin for months. He worked primarily on the frontline, but left after he was charged with a felony after clashing with police. The 51-year-old Michigan native said he would be right back to the frontline once the charges are dropped. Until then, he’s the head honcho at the donation tent in Oceti Sakowin camp.

“The frontline was pretty intense, but it was extremely prayerful,” Hock said. “But in here I really don’t have as much time to pray as I feel I should, and that’s the hardest part.”

By working in the donation tent, though, Hock has seen the generosity of people at the camp and around the world. If people need tents, hats, gloves, sleeping bags or pads, etc., they can find them in Hock’s tent.

Steven Emerman is a hydrology professor at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. Emerman came with two UVU students. So far, he has helped with washing dishes and cooking, but with his experience with hydrology and environmental impact studies, he's eager to help if the opportunity arises. "I haven't been more than 100 feet from our car since I got here," he said. "There's been quite a bit to do right here."

Diane Hart, from Bishop, California, is a member of the Bishop Piute tribe. When she was 8 years old, her Piute grandfather told her there would one day be a gathering of all the tribes — this, she believes, is that prophecy being fulfilled.

(from left) Emory Boll and Elan Hedges are 16-year-old juniors from Connecticut. Each semester they have a "project week" instead of finals, and decided to do their project on Standing Rock for the school newspaper. "As soon as we saw what was going on with the whole DAPL issue, we immediately decided that we wanted to come out and do what we could," Elan said.

Seppi Garrett is from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and traveled to Standing Rock with his son Ben, to whom he hopes to give a better understanding of the planet. "I had a desire to expose him to as much of this earth as I could," Seppi said. "This is the beginning of his journey in becoming a protector and defender of this earth." Seppi felt a call to action after seeing the video on Democracy Now.

“Every time an action like what happened last night happened (Backwater Bridge protest), we get more donations, we get more people coming in, we get more support,” Hock said.

And the donations they receive are generally high quality. Some coats or shoes are donated by water protectors who had to leave, but others are sent in from around the world. Brand new Marmot sleeping bags, North Face coats and Columbia gloves aren’t uncommon. Many of the weekend warriors — water protectors who come to help at Oceti Sakowin for just the weekend — drive trailers with donated food and clothing from their communities.

Camp residents look through items at the donation tent.

What do they always need more of? “AAA batteries and wool socks,” Hock said.

Hock’s biggest concern for the winter isn’t just keeping people warm — he worries about fires starting within shelters. People have donated fire extinguishers and he makes sure every two to three tents has a fire extinguisher just in case.

As the sun sets over Oceti Sakowin, everyone’s breath becomes even more visible in the silent air. Darkness falls and people retreat to their teepees and shelters; gloves and hats come off and sleeping bags come on. There’s another cold day tomorrow.

Epilogue: President Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 24, 2017, ordering the Secretary of the Army to expedite approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Water protectors voluntarily left or were forcibly removed from Oceti Sakowin camp by Feb. 23, 2017.

Oceti Sakowin camp housed thousands of protesters in 2016 as the #StandWithStandingRock movement gained attention and supporters.