Armed men in jackboots, some masked and toting assault rifles, stand mockingly, defiantly, heavily on the mound of graves – a sacred indigenous burial ground. A site non-natives can understand as similar to Arlington National Cemetery. How US nationalists would feel if the situation were reversed, and people were occupying or plowing up Arlington to bury a pipeline that will hasten the destruction of the planet and likely poison a major water-source, does not, at this time, seem to matter or occur to the militants trampling the bones. While some appear to be “just following orders”, the infamous defense, ruled invalid, of many Nazi grunts who were then executed by the US at Nuremberg, others are smiling – apparently enjoying themselves, enjoying the near absolute power over their unarmed victims – people trying to protect water, indigenous sovereignty, and the global environment.
The thought occurs that there may be an equivalent between some of these armed invaders and Internet trolls, a personality type exposed a couple of years ago in a spate of psychological evaluations as sadists – people who derive pleasure from causing others pain and anguish. There is certainly a place for sadism in the armed wings of a social system founded in large part on murder, enslavement, and theft. Many of the nation’s founding atrocities took place on and near, and proudly lend their names to, these very grounds.
While traditionally the indigenous people here would simply have been sent to concentration camps or murdered, often after being hog-tied, today, with cameras and white faces behind the natives, the militants employ mostly torture weapons – tools to erect a living wall of pain and suffering between the protectors and the expanding tide of smog, death, destruction, and desecration they are attempting to halt.
As the militants look down at their victims, I recall that we are told by the US corporate state that we should be outraged when ISIS forces destroy religious sites in the Middle East, but intentionally ignorant, suspicious of the natives, or, at most, neutral, when occupying forces desecrate “solemn” treaties and religious sites in the US – more founding practices without which the US would not exist in its current form. While such facts are often consigned to Orwell’s “memory hole”, perhaps a more common approach historically has been for the society to celebrate them, as was done, for example, by popular author Christopher Hitchens in the left-liberal bastion The Atlantic.
Amid the cries of the unarmed water-protectors and the hisses, thuds, and blasts of the torture weapons of the militants, I hear the words of the statesman Frederick Douglass, who knew the US inside and out, top to bottom, more fully than probably anyone else in its history:
…your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity … mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
[For] revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
We pack our vehicle full of donated contributions for the camp – winter jackets, first aid gear, a chainsaw for cutting wood, some tools, a box of hundreds of sets of earplugs to help deal with the invaders’ sound-torture cannons, some MREs (meals ready to eat) – and our camping supplies. We drive the twenty hours from Portland, Oregon to Bismarck, North Dakota, straight through in shifts. We arrive in Bismarck, an area inhabited and utilized for many thousands of years by native nations until being seized by genocidal invaders and renamed after the “Iron Chancellor”, founder of the German Reich (empire) – a move the invaders hoped would attract more white settlers who would help continue the illegal annexations, resource thefts, and desecrations of native religious sites.
The fossil fuel pipeline was originally intended to pass along Bismarck, an area today inhabited almost entirely by descendants of the European invaders, but there was concern about the city’s water being poisoned. Thus, the pipeline route was, without fanfare, changed to pass through the occupied lands of some poor brown people. They, too, rejected the idea, but with different results.
In Bismarck, we stop at a sporting goods store to pick up a few last items for the week. Some people in the parking lot see that my journalist colleague Sha is wearing a kufiyah, and ask if we are heading to Standing Rock. They tell us state forces are causing problems for people trying to enter from the North. We should instead take a roundabout route, they say, and approach from the South. (See endnote for these directions.*) We follow their instructions and, although we pass through a trash-strewn US militant checkpoint, which at times includes a large vehicle that appears to be a multi-million dollar surveillance station, we are waved through.
It is fully dark when we arrive at the camps, but we see lights and campfires, and a sign designating the entrance. Already we see a plane and a helicopter buzzing overhead, monitoring. They are there, circling, almost twenty-four hours a day. Though at first they are jarring, soon they fade into the background and I barely notice them.
We pull into the entrance to the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, where somewhere between three and five-hundred native nations have come to stand together, many of their flags lining the main road through the grounds and flapping in the breeze. We are greeted by a native man in sunglasses, a black long-coat, and Stetson hat. A member of camp security. He determines that we are new and takes us aside to be vetted. He says they are being extra cautious after events that occurred the previous Thursday, when some people from camp, without approval from the elders, finally retaliated against the violent invaders, burning some of their vehicles and creating a barricade on the bridge, behind which looms the lengthening “black snake” – a term from Lakota legend. Once he determines we are there to respect the will of the elders and remain peaceful, he directs us to an open campsite.
As we set up our tents, the surrounding mood seems to be one not of fear or anger, but positivity, concentration, prayer, and determination.
It is before sunrise. Still almost completely dark. A frost has set in over night, but I am warm in my tent. Through a concert-style amplifier, the voice of one of the elders suddenly yells out to the camp. Switching between native languages and English, he says, “Get up! Get up! This is not vacation! We’re here for a reason! We’re here to stop the black snake! I’ve been up for three hours, now! It’s going to be a good day!” He sings a native song, then shouts “mini wiconi”, one of the guiding sentiments of the camp, which means “water is life”. People rising echo the call, some voices carrying from the far corners of the grounds.
As I get up, breath heavy on the air, the camp is already bustling. As the sun begins to rise, I get my first view of the area. Hundreds of tipis, wooden structures, and tents, ranging from small to army-style mess-halls. Smoke rises from campfires and chimneys. People move about, chopping wood, erecting more tents. At this time, there are well over a thousand people here. By the time we leave, the number has fluctuated above five thousand.
I walk to the main hub of the camp, the Sacred Fire – a site of prayer where the camp elders make announcements throughout the day from the microphone. Soon the morning water-ceremony begins, which is led by women and involves the burning of sage and walking to the banks of the river in prayer.
There are five kitchens that operate throughout the day, providing hearty meals to everyone in the camps (I am vegan and thus brought all my own food to cook for the week), and there is always hot coffee and tea available near the Sacred Fire. Since it is my first day, I attend the orientation ceremony, where the guides stress the importance of remembering that non-natives here are guests and should be calm, mindful, and respectful. They explain there is always work that needs to be done around the camp, and there is a volunteer coordination booth where tasks are assigned.
I then attend the daily community meeting, where events and work-related needs are discussed and planned. This is led by one of the elders, who has a wry wit and entertains the crowd as he delegates and informs. One of the main tasks at this point is for everyone to help winterize the camp. People who have lived on these lands for many thousands of years know what they are doing. It is just a matter of organizing to get the work done.
Soon after the meeting, an action begins: a peaceful march to the barricades to demonstrate against the pipeline. A young native man, late to the action, sprints towards the camp exit. An elder on the microphone sees him and tells him to slow down. There is no need to run. This is a peaceful, prayerful action. The young man slows his pace.
As I exit the camp and head down the road towards the demonstration, a helicopter buzzes overhead.
I arrive at the barricade on the bridge where water-protectors have amassed, bearing flags and facing down a battalion of militants and heavy military vehicles, as well as forces positioned on numerous hilltops.
After peacefully demonstrating their opposition to the invaders and their mission, the water-protectors return to the camp.
As I returned from this demonstration, the feeling in camp had become urgent. Whereas before the elder had told the young man to slow down, now he was calling for “young warriors” to hurry to the north corner of the camp to peacefully defend the water and the sacred burial sites. An action was unfolding. He warned there was a risk of arrest.
Heading towards the new flashpoint, trucks and natives on horseback moved quickly past me, to and from the action. One truck rushed by. A woman standing in the bed, looking over the cab, called out for everyone to get out of the way for an emergency. I would later learn a woman observing the action had been shot in the back by one of the militants with a rubber coated metal bullet, possibly puncturing her lung. It was likely her inside this truck.
Closer to the action, shouts and the rumble of a helicopter, plane, and boats. Militants, for some reason – likely as another way to surveil the camp – had taken positions atop the burial site, and protectors amassed to peacefully urge them leave.
Dozens of protectors were in the water, a neutral space, trying to shield themselves with tarps, goggles, pieces of plastic, or plywood against clubs, gasses, pepper sprays, rubber coated bullets and other types of ammunition as they called for the armed invaders to vacate the religious site.
Militants with assault rifles approached in a boat and tried to stop more protectors from reaching the front line.
As the protectors in the water stood virtually still, the militants sporadically and casually, like they were watering their lawns, doused their faces with oily streams of pepper-spray from the fire-extinguisher sized cans they held, and enveloped them in white plumes of gas. The air and water around the protectors began to whiten with all of the residual gas and spray.
Amid the plumes of pain-chemicals, and again without provocation, one of the militants fired two projectiles from a shotgun at one of the protectors, from about ten or fifteen feet away, which I captured on video. Shots occur mid-screen at about 1:05:
The torture-rounds appeared to be either Kevlar bags stuffed with lead buckshot (euphemistically called “bean-bag” rounds) or rubber slugs. (See here for demonstrations of what these rounds are and can do, which includes punching divots in planks of wood.) It is hard to tell whether the first shot hits the water or the protector, but it may have hit him in the chest or arm. The second round appears to hit the protector in the stomach or side. Another militant then emitted a plume of gas at the hit protector’s head, also engulfing others.
A group of people helped those who were debilitated by the militants’ torture weapons or were freezing from standing in the frigid water.
The protectors were highly restrained in the face of the desecration and violence of the invading forces. The closest thing to retaliation I witnessed was a few people throwing sticks or dirt-clods into the water. One person near me on the bank threw a dirt clod into the water and was immediately escorted away by other protectors.
With tensions high and the and situation ideal for agents provocateurs in league with the pipeline militants to agitate (as they have reportedly been caught doing) and provide an excuse for the invaders to become more violent, a native man approached me (I am a straight-laced looking white guy who appeared to be alone) and asked who I was, who I was with, and what I was doing. I explained, but he asked me to leave. I obliged and stepped away from the situation. When I returned in a few minutes, the militants were standing down for the time being, though they would continue to occupy their position atop the sacred religious site, as if to ensure no one would overlook the hypocrisy of the US feigning outrage at ISIS (or whatever other group) for desecrating similar sites.
Back at camp, tensions and emotions were still high, but were calming down. At the Sacred Fire, people led prayers and expressed sadness that the protectors were forced to defend the water, the religious site, the planet, and themselves with pieces of wood and plastic – starkly contrasted with the state/corporate arsenals of the US/pipeline forces. But they expressed resolve and said they would continue to stand, and would stand as long as it takes to win.
More people continued to arrive, and the camp continued to grow.
After dinner, a concert began at the fire. A group of ten or twelve native people played traditional songs, drumming and singing into the night and the expansive landscape under the stars. As the contemporary tents and vehicles disappeared in the dark and only the light outer shells of the tipis shone in the moonlight, I remembered the sentiments of historian Stephen B. Oates as, in the 1970s, he surveyed the grounds of a former US slave-labor camp. With chills running up his spine, he realized: this past was really only yesterday.
This was a camp like the ones at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek, where the forces of Western globalization, the “masters of war”, as recently put by a leader of a US-backed death-squad, wanted violence, ached for violence, mowed down women and children with howitzers and Gatling guns and then mutilated the bodies, paving a road of gore to what they, like the invaders of Australia, the Nazis, and the South African apartheid regimes, in their respective domains, argued was “progress” and elimination of the “useless” (247): an efficient and powerful state that would be “a little more like God’s own image”, as put by Harvard physician and social commenter Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1855. (244)
The contemporary militants of what the chief founder of this state, George Washington, declared his “nascent empire” today kill the original inhabitants of the stolen land – those “hideous demons”, as they were dubbed in the Atlantic Monthly in 1876 (245) – at a rate higher than any other ethnic group, or, when they stand in the way of more “progress”, torture and haul them into cages. (Outside their officially claimed territories, in places like Iraq, US forces still of course mow people down and blow them to pieces by the tens of thousands, directly and by proxy, still referring to the lands they invade as “Indian country” and the people as “savages”, as in infamous sniper and war criminal Chris Kyle’s book, where he uses the word dozens of times to refer to his victims.)
I was standing on another bead in a string of hundreds of years of invasion, aggression, and resistance. It might be better described as another nick in the long, sinking knife of Western globalization, but that the numbers of natives, once reduced through sickness and genocide by the tens of millions down nearly to zero, are today growing.
Non-natives coming here, who lack the epigenetics, intimate knowledge, and ongoing experience of this history need only humbly offer what they can to the elders and calmly take a back-seat.
The next morning, the camp was again abuzz. I heard tell that some 500 “clergy of all faiths”, mainly Christians, Muslims, and Jews, were set to arrive shortly. Sure enough, cars started pouring in and people in religious regalia began to amass around the Sacred Fire. When they were all unloaded and assembled, one of the leaders, a robed Christian, spoke into the microphone. He said 524 clergy had registered to attend this event (though the actual number might have ended up higher), which he said was symbolic, as it has been 524 years since the Pope issued the Doctrine of Discovery, the official European and then US excuse to seize and destroy native lands and possessions and exterminate, enslave, or confine the inhabitants.
The speaker said the clergy were there to ally with and stand behind the native nations in their struggle against occupation, desecration of their religious sites, and environmental degradation. He produced a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, denounced it and the actions since and still carried out in its name, and offered it to the elders to burn if they so desired. After a moment of anticipation, with everyone waiting to see what the elders would decide, they produced an abalone shell, lit the document aflame, and held it up in the shell for all to see it disappear. The crowd cheered.
The clergy then prepared for their march to the barricade. As they exited the camp, they were washed in smoke of sage and then smudged. As they marched, they sang “Wade in the Water”.
At the barricade, facing down the militants and their massive vehicles and arsenal, they continued their expressions of solidarity with the natives.
Native leaders also made their own statements of resistance:
The clergy then formed a prayer circle.
On a hill overlooking the demonstration, members of a Digital Smoke Signals media drone-operating team scout camouflaged snipers in the hills.
State/corporate militants remain at the barricade after the event:
That afternoon, with some down-time and the camp continuing to grow, I went to the volunteer booth to be sent somewhere that needed labor. I helped construct a couple of army-style community tents, did a little carpentry, and assisted at some other tasks. The camp was bustling and the mood was positive, friendly, upbeat, and determined. I noted that lending a hand at construction quickly earned trust, appreciation, and invitations to firesides. I might walk up to an area and start looking around for someone in charge to ask if they needed help, and have a couple of stern-looking young native men approach to ask if I was looking for something. (DAPL infiltrators are a cause for constant concern, and white guys, like Brits in Northern Ireland, aren’t necessarily easy to grant instant trust in situations like this.) But when I told them I was there to work, semi-suspicious looks turned into smiles, handshakes, and introductions.
The next morning, hundreds of people left the camp for a town to the north called Mandan, where they amassed to offer forgiveness to the local police forces for what they had done and were doing. The assembly began in a park with announcements and statements of peaceful, prayerful intention.
The aspect of the speech made by the woman above that stood out the most for me was her expression of compassion for Europeans, particularly the women, during the period leading up to the invasion of the Americas. She expressed particular sympathy for the women because, she said, so many were executed due to religious persecution in Europe. (Historian David E. Stannard notes that some European towns were ritualistically sacrificing as much as ten percent of their populations in a single year. Others note those sacrificed were largely women. 60)
After the speeches, the marchers then headed into Mandan.
They made a chain around the entire police station.
An ACLU legal observer monitored the event.
Speeches were made.
The event was smooth and successful. As we walked down the sidewalks, about 90% of the cars that passed and indicated a position were in favor of the water-protectors. Only a couple of people were against. One old man stuck his head out of his window and yelled, “Build it! Build it!” During the speeches, a truck drove by slowly and, seeing several native people on the corner, muttered, “Pack of terrorists”, and drove on.
On the way back, we stopped and I took this picture of the camp:
Everything looked peaceful, but I would soon learn that while I was at the forgiveness walk, there had been another clash at the burial site. The protectors had made another attempt to drive off the invaders, and this time had made it through the water and onto the hill. They tried to create a barricade with some dead trees, but were crippled by plumes of gas, which video below documents were very painful. An elder from the camp then came and called for the protectors to retreat, as the elders want to keep the actions purely prayerful and demonstrative. See here for video from Unicorn Riot of this incident.
The next day another event took place, more to the liking of the elders. First, there was a large horse ceremony involving about a dozen horses and dozens of people, which apparently non-natives rarely ever get to witness, but were allowed to see as guests and allies at the camp. As in the camp generally, no photography was allowed. During and as part of the ceremony, runners who had come from all over the country arrived in a group and joined.
The final demonstration I witnessed took place the next morning: a silent prayer march to the barricades led by the camp youth groups.
Except for the wind, it was dead silent throughout this demonstration.
Heading back to camp in silence:
After this demonstration, it was time for us to leave. I did a little more carpentry, said good bye to some people, and then packed up and headed out.
During my stay, the camp quickly became comfortable and familiar, like a home. But it was also chilling to feel, as did Stephen B. Oates, the heavy weight of the shameful past on the present.
At camp, one quickly learns where everything is, meets people, especially by helping out, and can always find some way to contribute. People are almost always upbeat and determined, and it is apparent they are there for a unifying purpose and plan to accomplish their goal.
Non-natives do best to remember they are guests in someone else’s home, even though the home may be occupied by foreign forces. They should respect the wishes of the elders and take a back-seat to the natives, who have much more experience than non-natives (over 500 years) in resisting the European/US invaders.
Drugs and alcohol are prohibited, and while I was there, a couple of people were expelled from the camp for breaking these rules. My understanding of the Sacred Fire is that it is intended to receive prayer, and nothing else. Dogs are not allowed in the area of the Sacred Fire, and this is strictly enforced.
The camp is asking for people who are willing and able to contribute through work or are willing to be arrested if necessary, in non-violent demonstrations and actions to stop the pipeline. Many people are there for months or multiple weeks, but many are there for shorter durations. The overlapping stays, people continually coming and going, reminded me of an image conjured by a Professor of Philosophy at Yale, Shelly Kagan, who notes that a rope is comprised of many small strands of only an inch or two, but when woven together, they become long.
Every day, many times per day, the elders stressed that this was a peaceful, prayerful, non-violent movement. They said they hoped there were DAPL informants in the camp, because then they would know that indigenous people and their supporters were coming from around the world to stand in prayer and non-violent resistance. There have been massive acts of solidarity not only across the US, but the world. That is because, as an elder put it, people are on the ground at the camps and construction sites acting as the tip of the spear, putting themselves on the line for native sovereignty, the water, the planet, and future generations.
Special thanks to readers who made financial contributions to help send Washington’s Blog to Standing Rock. You helped bring in aid, seeded the camp with more people, and allowed Washington’s Blog to witness firsthand and report on these historic events. It is heartening that people are willing to help send independent reporters from a site they appreciate into the field.
Robert J. Barsocchini is an independent researcher and writer who focuses on global force dynamics and has served as a cross-cultural intermediary for the film and Television industry. His work has been cited, published, or followed by numerous professors, economists, lawyers, military and intelligence veterans, and journalists. Updates on Twitter.
All photos copyright Robert J. Barsocchini. First video copyright Robert J. Barsocchini. Second video (see link) by Unicorn Riot.
Supply donation guidelines on the website currently state that needed items include:
Tipis, winter liners, and poles
Yurts or other winter worthy structures
Blankets, winter sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cots
Insulated boots and other cold weather clothing
Insulated gloves, work gloves
Bulk Food Supplies
Heating Stoves for tents
Hay and Hay Bales
We appreciate the many items people have already sent over the summer. Now our preparations and requirements have changed. Everything is focused on preparing for the winter. Items we no longer need:
No more school supplies, your generous help has fully stocked our school.
No summer tents.
No light summer clothes.
- *During our stay, the best route, and the one we used, was to start in Bismark, take the 6 to the first entrance of the 24, then take the 24 to the 1806, which goes North to the camps.
- Author’s opinion: Just as compassion for and solidarity with Nazi Holocaust victims did/does not require idealizing the victims and saying they were perfect people, but rather mere recognition that they were victims of horrible events, solidarity with native groups in the US does not require idealizing natives, but simply recognizing they were/are victims of horrible events and continue to face oppression. Likewise, compassion for victims, whether of the Nazi or American holocausts, does not require dehumanizing the perpetrators. The Nazis and Americans were/are people, just like their victims. This author’s opinion is that recognizing the humanity of both perpetrators and victims is key to understanding and mitigating atrocities.