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On Native Grounds

Standing Rock’s new spirit of protest

I came to Oceti Sakowin in early November, on the eve of the first snow. Like everyone in my winter cohort, I was forced to take the scenic route. Morton County was in a state of emergency, and police and National Guard roadblocks added an hour to the drive between Bismarck and the encampment at Standing Rock Reservation. The largest of these barricades stood at a bridge over Oceti’s northern edge, where Highway 1806 entered the construction zone of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The rampart on the bridge, which had become a Great Plains DMZ of concrete, concertina, and the husks of torched National Guard transport vehicles, was a stark reminder of the short-lived Treaty of 1851 Camp, the deepest occupation of the pipeline corridor since the first tipis went up in April. In late October, police swept the camp in a frenzy of mass arrests, wanton brutality, and an overacted cameo by an undercover provocateur. The daylong melee marked an escalation of violence that entered Oceti lore as “the Clearing of North Camp.” The barricade, erected in the aftermath, would be the main front for the remainder of the uprising.

Many of the thousands of visitors to the protest at Standing Rock—whose early success at forestalling the pipeline was one of the only encouraging political occurrences of the past year—report experiencing a similar emotional charge as the camp came into view. Oceti unfolded like a phantom city, shrouded in smoke, sprawling east from the highway across a wide basin to the Missouri River. As you descended into the tarp city in the cold night, a soot of elm and sage cast a haze over avenues lined with flags. Fire pits lit side streets that were half festival, half refugee camp, a hallucinatory jumble of military surplus and camping tents, tipis, RV’s, yurts, half-built log cabins, school buses, sweat lodges, geodesic domes, and the skeletons of Iroquois-style longhouses.

Overlooking the encampment from the north, private security guards held the high position on a ridge of sacred Sioux burial grounds. Their moat was a half-frozen tributary of the nearby Missouri River, where developer Energy Transfer Partners planned the final piece of a twelve-hundred-mile pipeline carrying fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields to a terminal in Illinois. The route was originally mapped north of Bismarck, but the pipeline was quickly redirected amid concerns over the safety of the water supply in the majority white city. The new route took construction downriver, half a mile north of the intake point for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Every night, Energy Transfer marked the route with dozens of industrial kliegs—a display of resources and power matched by the planes that circled the Standing Rock camps in low orbit without cease.

From the beginning of the encampment, Energy Transfer had the backing of local and regional sheriffs, governor Doug Burgum, and much of the non-Native population of North Dakota. Donald Trump supplied the missing federal backstop in historical costume: a gleefully anti-PC president-elect—and former DAPL investor—whose vision of dystopia is a world littered with stranded carbon assets. For Native Americans, Trump heralded “four years of hostility and siege not [seen] since Andrew Jackson,” in the words of a writer for the Standing Rock Teton Times. The election results put new swagger in Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren’s assurances to investors, who were starting to get jittery over delays, security costs, spreading solidarity protests, and stirrings of a divestment campaign. “Worst case,” he told the Wall Street Journal on November 16, “we get our easement on January 20 and proceed.” Indeed, in his first week in office, Trump signaled that the pipeline would move forward, in spite of the reconsideration promised by the Army Corps of Engineers as a result of the mass mobilization at Standing Rock.

The specter of Inauguration Day presented a grim thought experiment as I was settling into the freezing encampment: How would the incoming administration handle a challenge posed by what it considered a bunch of shiftless savages and eco-terrorists? With the memory of North Camp still fresh, Trump’s victory made it even easier to imagine a rainbow Waco.

As dark as those prospects were, the North Dakota winter posed a more immediate concern. I set my gear down in a tent city busy with weatherization crews working day and night: nailing plywood floors, securing tarp, stacking bales of hay against the biting winds. The encampment, begun in spring, had flowered through summer and fall. Winter was its existential test. You heard it in the bronchial coughs during morning prayers around the sacred fire, and saw it in people’s cracked and bloodied lips.

Spiritual Mobilization

The protest at Standing Rock was one of many pipeline battles, part of a bigger war against an energy infrastructure increasingly prone to contamination and catastrophe. The DAPL is not dead, and fronts in the conflict continue to multiply—Sabal Trail, Trans Pecos, the Algonquin Incremental. But Standing Rock was an indispensable catalyst to the movement that hopes to vindicate the battered but insurgent intertwined causes of tribal sovereignty and environmental sanity in the dawning age of Trump.

At the center of the landmark action at Standing Rock was an unprecedented alliance of indigenous peoples from across the hemisphere, peoples with long, bitter histories of fighting to protect water and land. The encampment strengthened cooperation between these tribes and their allies in the mainline environmental movement, deepening a bond forged in recent pipeline victories from the Pacific Northwest to Eastern Canada. Together, these groups signed a statement of absolute resolve that developed what the Sioux called “its own spirit.” That spirit, in turn, animated solidarity protests far from Standing Rock itself.

It began modestly in April, when Lakota elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard established the Camp of Sacred Stones at the northern edge of Reservation land.[*] By the end of the summer, the NoDAPL camps, spreading further north into former Treaty land reclaimed by the U.S. government, had quietly grown into the biggest occupation protest since the anti-nuclear movement pitched tents in front of the reactors at Seabrook and Three Mile Island. Like its precursors, the encampment was both a tactic and an end in itself. Geared toward stopping a pipeline, it also functioned as an exercise in prefigurative politics—a community, in the words of L.A. Kauffman, “working to build a new world in the moment, whatever [the] concrete impact.” Coloring this new world were the indigenous values implicit in the battle cries Defend the Sacred and Mni Wiconi (Water Is Life).

Following the defeat of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent democratic-socialist run for the presidency, the NoDAPL occupation provided a focus and a fight for many disenchanted rank-and-file members of the American left. For those who came to Standing Rock, it also provided a literal community: security checkpoints waved arrivals inside with the greeting, “Welcome home.” Donald Trump’s victory only intensified the sense that the encampment constituted an embryonic rebel alliance—a movement-building laboratory that brought fracktivists and Black Lives Matter activists into a resistance-ready coalition with the Native American tribes. The tribes provided a historical and spiritual framework, supported and bolstered by a post-Occupy infrastructure of media, medical, legal, and direct-action volunteers. But unlike the Occupy movement, this action had a clearly identified organizational leadership in the form of a seven-tribe council of elders that provided a central hierarchy and message discipline. This hierarchy contained its own tensions, and its directives were not always respected. But the elders served as a reminder that there are alternatives to the horizontal leadership experiments of recent years—an invaluable object lesson, given the tendency of neo-anarchist models of protest to devolve into chaos and unaccountable, easily decapitated crypto-hierarchies.

The camps had, in many ways, a different character than other recent occupations. There wasn’t much internet access, for example, aside from a weak signal on a slope overlooking Oceti known as Facebook Hill. This was easy to forget as the days passed, filled with manual labor, campfire meetings, and face-to-face communication. Nobody doubted the importance of social media in building the NoDAPL movement, but in camp, its limits were thrown into brilliant relief.

Sioux leadership had planned to memorialize the uprising even before the Army Corps rescinded Energy Transfer’s drilling easement on December 4. During my weeks at Oceti, there was talk of erecting a permanent eco-lodge and museum at Sacred Stone camp, to be built alongside the sweat-lodges and log-cabin school already there. Allyson Two Bears, a tribal councilwoman, told me, “Standing Rock is going to be remembered. Like the Jerusalem Wall, people will come here.”

From the Grass Roots Down

The Sioux of Standing Rock descend from the last “wild chiefs” to refuse the cruel march of Manifest Destiny. But the tribal history of resistance is greater than the famous warrior bands led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Spotted Elk. The tribe also claims the first mass protest encampment built to defend land against resource extraction.

The nineteenth-century precursor to Oceti Sakowin opened with a system failure of steam-age capitalism. In 1873, the bubble popped on the postwar railroad boom, part of a global “panic”—what economists of the nineteenth century dubbed depressions, in a transparent wish-fulfillment fantasy—that left U.S. coffers depleted. Desperate to refill the vaults of the Treasury, the Grant administration capitalized on long-ignored Sioux complaints about wildcat miners encamped on streams throughout the Black Hills, whose high bluffs and pine forests had been deeded to the tribe in the Treaty of 1851. (Black Elk, the Sioux medicine man, explains in Black Elk Speaks that the tribes had long known about gold in the Black Hills, “but did not bother with it, because it was good for nothing.” The Sioux referred to the stuff as “the yellow metal that makes whites crazy.”) Grant dispatched prospectors to the area under the protection of George Custer, who famously reported that it contained gold “from the grass roots down.”

The Sioux launched the first mass protest encampment built to defend land against resource extraction.

In September 1875, Grant sent officials to negotiate the purchase of the gold-rich Black Hills from the Sioux. They arrived at the meeting place on the White River to find a tipi city of twenty thousand waiting for them. “The Plains for miles around were covered with Sioux camps and immense herds of grazing animals,” writes Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. “From the Missouri River . . . to the Bighorn country . . . all the nations of the Sioux and many of their Cheyenne and Arapaho friends had gathered.” The chiefs told Grant’s delegation there would be no sale, setting in motion a years-long conflict punctuated by Custer’s fall in Montana, at what the Sioux call the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

Custer’s defeat proved merely a hiccup, and toward the end of the 1880s, the last of the Plains warriors were settled, many at the newly established Standing Rock Agency. Among their ranks was the defeated Sitting Bull, who monetized his legend by touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But the prophetic chief remained defiant, in his way. For supporting the apocalyptic desperation of the Ghost Dance movement, he was killed while resisting arrest in 1890, a few months after the Census Bureau declared the American frontier officially closed.

Red Power Rising

This history breathed throughout the camps, in the flags and banners, and in the speeches and memories of Sioux elders. Some of the elders knew the last veterans of Little Big Horn as children, in the years before the Army Corps dammed the Missouri in five places, displacing much of the reservation in the greatest Treaty betrayal since the theft of the Black Hills. Gathered around Oceti’s sacred fire, men with long grey ponytails recounted stories of the Red Power movement and the warrior societies of the late sixties and seventies: the shootout at Wounded Knee, the occupation of Alcatraz, the march known as the Trail of Broken Treaties that culminated in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

These stories inspired many of the younger population at Red Warrior Camp, a sub-camp inside Oceti that favored a more disruptive strategy than the one endorsed by the elders. Red Warrior Camp was clearly fenced off, ringed with upside-down U.S. flags and the red banner of the Mohawk Warrior Society—a Quebec group famed for its direct action campaigns of the early seventies, which combined roadblocks, evictions, and occupations in pursuit of a land reclamation program similar to black nationalist groups like the Republic of New Afrika. Red Warrior was off-limits to non-Natives—indeed, the only intra-camp violence I witnessed involved a violation of this rule. Many in the camp belonged to a new generation of warrior societies like the Native Youth Movement, which practiced a kind of traditionalist survivalism with a guerilla-gangsta aesthetic that was equal parts Black Bloc and Zapatista. It reflected a new militancy born of grinding rural poverty on reservations like South Dakota’s Pine Ridge, home to meth and pill epidemics, 90 percent unemployment, grudge wars between “half-breeds and full-bloods,” and the hemisphere’s lowest life expectancy—anchored by suicide—after Haiti. Rumors of drugs and accusations of theft (or “tent cutting”) aimed at both Red Warrior Camp and white outsiders grew over the summer. Finally, in November, the Tribal Council told Red Warrior residents to leave. “They basically flipped us off,” said an elder familiar with the situation.

Most new-generation Native activists I met were more respectful of the elders’ authority, though they claimed the more radical legacy of the Red Power generation. “The AIM generation did what they had to do with the occupations and marches. But it also began to reconnect us to our identity and culture. It’s the reason my generation grew up in ceremony, with sun dances and sweat lodges,” said Nick Tilsen, a rising Sioux leader who runs a community development corporation on Pine Ridge. Since the summer, Tilsen had split his time between Pine Ridge and a yurt in Oceti. He was arrested in September as part of a group that chained itself to drilling and excavation equipment, delaying construction and racking up the encampment’s first felony charges.

“I have a lot to lose by being charged with a felony,” he told me one night by the orange light of his yurt’s iron stove. “But we’ve spent decades rebuilding to get here. We’re not going to be pushed around anymore. Prayer combined with direct action is our power. We have to start protests like this everywhere—energy projects to close the gap between rich and poor, rooted in indigenous values of balance between people and planet. At Standing Rock, we’ve built this evolving organism into a platform for discussing the future of humanity.”

Standing Rock’s history, isolation, and culture set the reservation apart, even before Energy Transfer announced the rerouting of DAPL just north of its water source. The DAPL announcement came amid a mini-awakening on the reservation, expressed in renewed interest in tribal language and music and an effort to regenerate the Buffalo population. Matthew Wood, a taciturn and bespectacled Seminole from Oklahoma who married into the Standing Rock community a decade ago, explained to me that most outsiders were missing the local angle that was a key part of the encampment story. “A gathering of this magnitude could only have grown on Standing Rock,” he said. “The culture here is so thick, the Lakota hold it so well, it drew tribes hungry to rejuvenate their culture and the feeling of being Native American.”

Many of these tribes are fighting their own pipeline and land-rights wars. For some of them, the community resistance at Standing Rock was an inspirational call to arms and a release valve for their own mounting anger. “The pipeline was the last piece of a perfect storm in many indigenous communities,” Wood said. “The tribes are rising up against neglect, poverty, the feeling of being unwanted and unnoticed as U.S. citizens. We have no political power. That’s why the company knew they could build here. Drugs and alcoholism are rampant. [The] Bakken [oil boom] brought the meth epidemic. Heroin. Pills. Some of the kids you see down at the front lines were raised in the system, in and out of jail. But down there, they’re focused. They thrive. They’re leading the prayers and actions, releasing productive anger. I’m glad about the attention on the pipeline, but there’s a broader struggle here every day.”

The Call of the Lockbox

In the official language of tribal leadership, the tent cities were “spirit camps,” the protesters “water protectors.” To an outsider, these phrases sometimes seemed just right, and sometimes too soft, for a hard reality: the goal was to block a pipeline, amid a volatile standoff, in remote country, against an armed company backed by the statehouse and troops from the National Guard and dozens of regional sheriff’s departments. To make sure new arrivals understood this, and the stakes involved, fresh recruits to the encampment attended a mandatory morning orientation. Inside packed-house Army tents, veteran activists explained the values of the encampment—indigenous-centered leadership, kindness, honesty, respect[**]—and strongly recommended attending a training session in Non-Violent Direct Action. Most arrivals complied, gathering every afternoon in a field behind the northernmost sub-camp, the Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3). The two-hour, mostly indigenous-led training covered the basic techniques of direct-action and the principles that inform them; it was a full-contact crash course, right up to the exercises that simulated the “pain compliance” techniques police use to loosen grips. The camp also offered graduate-level, under-the-table seminars in advanced blockading and the use of hardware such as lockboxes, which will essentially weld protesters to gates, cement-barrels and heavy equipment. After the trainings, hundreds lined up outside the nearby Art Center, where a tireless ex-street kid from Dallas named Victor screen printed hundreds of patches and shirts with the images of raised fists and the words Mni Wiconi and Defend the Sacred.

Often playing the role of a mace-spraying cop at these trainings was Mary Zeiser, a slight, freckled twenty-eight-year old Sacramento-based activist. Always smiling, in a San Francisco Giants hat worn loose around a blonde pixie-cut, she didn’t seem all that tough. Then you watched her run drills and noticed the slogan on her T-shirt, “Not Gay As in Happy / Queer As in Fuck the Police.”

After escaping a broken home as a teenager, Zeiser spent years on the streets of California before she was scooped up by the cops and sent to rehab. In the decade since, she’s built an activist resume that defies easy summary. According to Zeiser, when she was arrested for disrupting Supreme Court proceedings on the 2015 anniversary of Citizens United, officers in the Court’s basement began their interrogation by dropping her 250-page FBI file on the table. Last summer, she says, plainclothes feds greeted her by name on the streets outside the RNC and the DNC. She caught a bus for Bismarck after several friends were injured and charged with felonies during the raid on North Camp. “This is a fight for indigenous sovereignty and protecting the water,” she told me. “It’s also about skill sharing and movement building. We’re getting the tribes and everyone together, and training them. It’s cross-pollinating all of these groups.”

Zeiser’s team of direct-action trainers included veterans from across the movement spectrum—Earth First!, Occupy, Democracy Spring, Black Lives Matter. Zeiser was describing the lockboxes she built for the Baltimore Uprising when a crisp official voice filled the tent. It was a warning to stay back or risk arrest that emanated from a police speaker at the bridge barricade. Police were newly sensitive to encroachments on the bridge, where Green Zone-style Hesco walls had just been erected on Highway 1806 to further obstruct access to the pipeline construction zone. The walls served as a memorial to the previous Sunday, when police unleashed a vengeance on non-violent protesters that nearly resulted in the camps’ first casualty.

Prayers and Projectiles

Oceti was a place flying with rumors,[***] but a hard place to find reliable information on what to expect, or when. Sunday, November 20, for example, was an uneventful day at the encampment until late afternoon, when word quickly spread of an action in progress on the bridge.

It started when a few dozen protectors brought a tractor-trailer to the barricade to clear the road of torched National Guard vehicles. Police had chained these trucks to concrete barriers after they had forced protesters to clear North Camp. By blocking the direct route between Standing Rock and Bismarck hospitals, the blockade created a public safety risk for the reservation. As more people gathered on the bridge, police responded by unleashing the night’s first wave of water cannons, just as the temperature dropped below freezing. An armory of “less than lethal” weapons also blasted through the water: beanbag rounds, CS gas canisters, hard foam “rubber bullets,” concussion grenades, and exploding projectiles known as “stingers,” which emit a flash along with a payload of rubber shrapnel. The gas and mace were so thick that people on the front line fell to the ground and shit their pants, unable to breathe.

“I’m glad about the attention on the pipeline, but there’s a broader struggle here every day.”

After dark, a few dozen protectors broke through and established a line on a jetty of land between the highway and the Cannonball River, a Missouri tributary. They lit several fires, which the police targeted with hoses, beginning a contest that lasted for hours: the fires would be put out, only to be relit by protectors in sopping wet clothes, many whooping in a numbed-cold ecstasy. At the line, things were less ecstatic. The Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council ran a fleet of ad-hoc ambulances between the bridge and the camp, where they treated three hundred people for hypothermia and other injuries. Two dozen traveled to area hospitals to receive care for more serious wounds. Vanessa Dundon, a Native woman from Arizona also known as Sioux Z, almost lost an eye to a projectile. Sophia Wilansky, a twenty-one-year-old New Yorker, was hit by an explosive projectile that sheared the flesh clean off her left arm, elbow-to-wrist.

The next afternoon, camp medics fought back tears during a somber press conference on the highway. Behind them, company cranes lowered new layers of concrete onto the barricade. Millions had witnessed the injuries the medics recounted on Facebook livestreams. (The videos were possible thanks to an unusually strong cell signal atop a high hill directly overlooking the bridge.) The major media had until then mostly ignored the story (though the New York Times had run a condescending piece about what volunteer chefs from trendy restaurants were cooking in the mess halls). The permanent press corps at Standing Rock was tiny, and all of the most striking footage and most important intelligence-gathering was provided by the Indigenous Environmental Network and a small outfit known as Unicorn Riot. Getting some of the biggest scoops, and all of the most amazing footage, were two indigenous drone operators, the encampment’s eyes in the skies: Dean Deadman, aka Drone2bWild, and Myron Dewey, aka Digital Smoke Signals. During the night of the bridge assault, police shot three of Dewey’s drones out of the sky—but it was only minutes before he launched others to take their place.

The violence exacerbated a running tension within tribal leadership, and between that leadership and various sectors within the camps. This tension had always existed under the soft-focus portrayals of elder-based hierarchy and tribal solidarity that defined much of the encampment’s (extremely effective) public relations. Media reports rarely bothered to note that many of the actions resulting in arrest and violence were carried out against the wishes of a tribal council that worried they might further poison relations with white, often racist communities to the north. (The reservation depends on this population for casino revenues, among other things.) “This started with protecting our water and sacred places for our children, and we’re grateful to our allies. But when everybody leaves, we’re still going to be here, repairing the damage,” said the chairman of Standing Rock’s Tribal Council, Dave Archaumbald II, one morning in the circular deliberative chamber of the Tribal Building in Fort Yates.

I heard a similar complaint up the road at the Club Diamond Z Bar & Deli (“Where the West Was Never Won”), a one-room bar I frequented after visits to the nearby Council building. The Diamond’s bartender, J.J., hated the pipeline like everyone else on the reservation, but said the camps were hurting business and inflaming tensions between the state’s Native and white communities. “We’re going to have to live with the fallout,” he said. “Since it started, you hear the difference in the voices of white people. Our high school sports teams have their buses vandalized when they go north. This thing has everybody scared—both sides. And casino profits are way down.” A man at the end of the bar told of his shock when he went to get an elk carcass processed by a butcher in nearby Mandan and the white man behind the counter did not want to serve him.

The violence on the bridge raised Tribal Council anxiety to new levels. The next day, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association fired off a letter to president Barack Obama and attorney general Loretta Lynch, pleading for “decisive action” to rein in the police amid “escalating violence.”

The Tribal Council, meanwhile, ordered an end to provocations. The order kept cops and protesters at arm’s length during a tense Thanksgiving Day prayer ceremony at the base of Turtle Island, a sacred site north of Oceti. Protectors came close to outnumbering the security line at the top of the hill, and there was widespread frustration with the order not to climb the mountain and invite the expected battery of water cannons and zip ties. As the crowds dispersed, I ran into Jedediah Saunders, a direct-action trainer from Los Angeles. He was visibly irked. “I don’t get why the hell we aren’t making them arrest us,” he said. “We should press our numbers, swamp the courts. For fuck’s sake, make ’em wake up the judge!”

I heard a curter version of the same lament from Bluebird, a Red Warrior camper and Native Youth Movement member from Pine Ridge. “I’m not with this whole prayer mentality,” he said. “We can sit around and do nothing back home.”

This mood was widespread enough to force a soft coup in the council’s leadership. In the days following Turtle Island, a younger council-level body was established, known as the Seven Headsmen. It worked in conjunction with the elder council until the sacred fire at Oceti was extinguished on December 10, during the ceremony that marked the end of the encampment in a solemn celebration of its clear, if temporary, victory.

Turtles and Teamsters

At a fork somewhere in Oceti’s grid flew the white flag of Union Camp, run by Michael Letwyn, a Brooklyn public defender, ex-UAW organizer, and founder of Labor for Standing Rock. He started the group after the AFL-CIO endorsed DAPL in September. That myopic decision outraged progressive unionists and kicked over the maggoty carcass of the “blue-green” alliance, a Sasquatch first sighted in 1999 through clouds of tear-gas near Pike and Sixth in downtown Seattle, where “turtles and teamsters” joined arms in protest against the World Trade Organization.

For those interested in building a new labor movement attuned to the climate crisis, Standing Rock presented a chance to construct a new workers’ uprising in miniature. Among the unionists who helped Letwyn break ground was Cliff Willming, a bearded forty-six-year-old member of the United Food Workers out of Pueblo, Colorado. On the first of many mornings I spent around the fire at Union Camp, Willming compared the rift in the labor movement to the split within the Democratic Party. Richard Trumka’s undemocratic and capital-yoked leadership of the AFL-CIO, much like Hillary Clinton’s cronyist drive for the Democratic nomination, was facing an energized movement from a radicalizing rank-and-file. When I asked him what industries had passed through Union Camp, his eyes widened. “Building trades, carpenters, longshoremen, bricklayers, teachers, autoworkers, service sector, grad students, medical, steamfitters—I can’t recall them all.” He pointed to the northern hills dotted with security cars. “The workers over there are compromising an entire river for a few temporary jobs that will make a few bosses a lot of money,” he said. “That kind of business unionism is what brought labor to this sad state. The conversation here is about rebuilding worker power at the forefront of a movement building a sustainable society.”

That conversation was equally unwelcome in Washington and Bismarck. According to Letwyn, as word of Union Camp spread, Waylan Heidegard, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, contacted him asking that he decommission the settlement. The pipeline had already riven the state, Heidegard said, and to have membership organizing against leadership risked exposing division at a time when the movement was already struggling. Letwyn replied that the real danger was a union leadership bereft of principles—one that betrayed the history and interests of working people for a few crumbs tossed their way from the management of billion-dollar pipeline companies. “We told him we expected him to take a strong position on the right side of history,” said Willming. “We also reminded him that the same National Guard manning that barricade was once used to kill union organizers and workers.”

You heard a lot about old ghosts at Union Camp. One morning, I helped unload a plywood delivery with Liam Cain, a construction worker from Wyoming. “When the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council asked the governor to bring in the National Guard—that was the last straw,” he said, looking like he still couldn’t quite believe it. “If you know anything about labor history, you know the Guard and these hired security pricks are the ones who broke workers’ skulls. For a union to do that, against working people fighting for their land, is reprehensible.” A member of Cheyenne’s Building Trades local and the sole member of the Wyoming IWW, Cain started organizing “blue-green” alliances as a teenager in Humboldt County. “I’ve been trying to stop fights between hippies and workers, growers and timber guys, since I was a kid. But Standing Rock! The way the tribes have brought in this cross-section of groups, plugging them into a larger framework—I’m just taking notes, letting it percolate.”

On my last visit to Union Camp, I joined a new group of faces around the fire, where the talk centered on the rumored arrival of a caravan of two thousand veterans, timed to the expiration of a December 5 deadline recently issued by the Army Corps to evacuate the camp. I wished everyone luck and was walking away when Willming called after me. “If you get a hold of him,” he said, “tell Richard Trumka that he’s wanted for treason, and is to report at once to Union Camp at Standing Rock.”

The Sense of an Ending

The Standing Rock Reservation is vast and sparse. Driving south from the encampment, you pass through eleven miles of open prairie before the casino rises into view, looking not unlike a prison. Beyond the casino, there’s nothing for miles but a lonely Family Dollar store before Fort Yates, the peninsular seat of Sioux County and its densest settlement, named for an Army officer killed at Little Big Horn. Fort Yates is a small grid of modest homes with toys in the yard. On the turnoff road from 1806, a few abandoned businesses line the way toward Sitting Bull College and the Tribal Council building. Off to the right near the turnoff, in the center of a wide clearing, sits the forlorn little house of the Diamond Club Z Bar & Deli.

Around the Diamond bar, there was nothing romantic about the camps. Nor was there anything prophetic about them. When I asked about the Mohawk prophecy of the Black Snake, seen on banners and posters throughout the camps, the regulars responded with tolerant chuckles. Only J.J., the middle-aged bartender who’d been “adopted” away from his mother and off the reservation by a Mormon family as a child, humored me. “If this has anything to do with a prophecy,” he said, “it’s the prophecy of the Seventh Generation.” In the Oceti version of this prophecy, the camps are the fulfillment of a predicted indigenous-led uprising that heals a planet in crisis, seven generations after first contact with the whites. J.J.’s version was different, focusing on the prophecy’s dark details of the end times: trees will die from the top down, birds will fall from the skies, animals will disappear, waters will rise, rivers will burn, men will fight over water.

Winter was Standing Rock’s existential test. You saw it in people’s cracked and bloodied lips.

“If it’s coming true,” J.J. shrugged, “I don’t see why people think they can save anything.”

The crack caught something essential and true about the drama of Standing Rock that everybody felt but few expressed: the stark post-apocalyptic tableau of the camps. Though they were touted as models for confronting and transforming modern capitalist civilization, they looked and felt just as much like practice runs for its collapse. For anyone raised in an American pop culture steeped in survivor-camp imagery, from the final pages of Fahrenheit 451 to the flash-forwards of The Terminator, this uneasy recognition began at the camps’ fire-pit security checkpoints. It deepened in the sound of religious chants and distant drums, the coughing, the miasma of floating ash. The camps were post-grid places of public announcements and paper bulletin boards, where you hung tarp against the cold and scavenged the air for shards of 3G, where food and medicine stocks were rationed, and jugs of gasoline bartered. Central to the camps’ appeal and romance were the stark intimations of a hard new world to be built upon the poisoned ashes of the old.

I heard this underlying theme of civilizational reckoning discussed in camp only once. It was late on the night of the police violence on the bridge. I’d joined a group drying themselves around a fire, some fifty yards from the front line. They were kids who shared a familiar protest-movement scrappiness: train hoppers, squatters, travelers. They spoke of Rainbow Gatherings, Keystone XL arrests, finding rides to Denver, and who knew who from where. When they compared wounds, a young Blackfoot from Idaho revealed four bruises across his chest and back the size of grapefruit, suffered while hurling a gas canister back at the police. At some point, one of the group said, “This the future. We’ll just wander the land, link up with tribes of like-minded people. Find each other. Keep moving.” When the group began to drift back to camp, someone asked the time. The young Blackfoot man scanned the southern sky. “There’s Orion,” he said. “It’s about two.” Before he could turn back around, I peeked at my phone. It was six minutes past.


Four days after taking office, President Trump signed an executive memorandum ordering the Secretary of the Army to instruct his engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner” the easement sought by Energy Transfer for DAPL’s completion. This put the White House at odds with the Corps of Engineers, who alone have legal power to grant or deny such permits. Within hours of the signing ceremony—which produced another memorandum reviving the Keystone XL pipeline—protesters had gathered outside the White House to denounce the orders.

The Tribal Council at Standing Rock and allied groups, meanwhile, were quick with statements of defiance. “Our resistance is stronger now than ever before and we are prepared to push back at any reckless decision made by this Administration,” said a statement by the Indigenous Environmental Network. “If Trump does not pull back . . . it will only result in more massive mobilization and civil disobedience on a scale never seen [by] a newly seated President of the United States.” North of the encampments at Oceti and Sacred Stone, skirmishes flared again between the police and hundreds of protectors who never left. The camps, likely to balloon in size once more, prepared to hold a deep-winter line against emboldened security forces, the company, and their political allies. In Bismarck, Republicans introduced a bill effectively legalizing vehicular homicide against protesters on the roads and highways of North Dakota. And in Washington, Donald Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office.


[*] Sacred Stone was named for the oddly shaped rocks created at the confluence of the Canon Ball and Missouri rivers. The overflow arrivals would eventually populate three distinct camps, Oceti Sakowin the largest. Within Oceti were two large sub-camps: the Indigenous People’s Power Project, known as IP3, and Red Warrior Camp. The smallest camp, bordering Sacred Stone, was Rosebud. It was named after the river in modern-day Montana where Sitting Bull received a vision foretelling Custer’s failed attack from the east. This vision was followed by a less famous postscript: a warning from the Great Mystery that the seductions of reservation life, its comforts and readymade material goods, were the path of death.

[**] Much of orientation boiled down to a “don’t-be-a-dumbass” sensitivity training, a reminder to whites that they were not in charge, nor expected to offer a loud opinion on every matter, and that the line between respect and fetishization can be exceedingly thin. Condescending exoticism has been an added bonus of the racism Native Americans have endured since the Mayflower. On the morning I attended orientation, a young Native woman from New Mexico pleaded with her white allies not to treat her like a museum piece. “We are not precious artifacts,” she said, describing an encounter with a white girl who asked if she could touch her traditional moccasins. “There is nothing exotic about us or our communities. We come from places where we deal with poverty, drug addiction, sexual abuse. We are not here for your edification.” Later in the session, a young Native man from California choked up while trying to convey the depth of the insult he feels upon seeing whites in costume headdress.

[***] Among the rumors I heard in my first few days: Obama was sending troops to stop construction on the pipeline; company planes were dropping chemical weapons on the camps; angry local whites were slaughtering buffalo on reservation land.