The next morning we helped install a floor in a tent housing a group of Northwest Indians who offered us oranges and venison jerky in appreciation. The elder who had brought her grown children and a granddaughter to the camp told us that the youth in her tribe were not engaged in fighting their own water battle back in Tacoma but wanted to come to Standing Rock. Here they would gather knowledge and inspiration for their fight back home.
That afternoon we headed across the river for a women’s meeting at Rose Bud camp. It was warm and smoky inside the teepee packed with women of all colors and ages. A strong-looking native elder spoke forcefully about the importance of women protecting the people. “Don’t think that everything is wonderful here. There has been a rape in the Oceti Sakowin camp and domestic violence. People bring their problems with them. If you hear anything, come to me, I will take care of it.” She said there had been many raids and that police had leveled camps early on when there were fewer people. “Now there are so many, we can protect each other.” She taught us the words “mini wichoni,” water is life, and had us yell them as loud as we could. “Did you hear how powerful you are?” she asked.
The following morning we gathered to plan the Thanksgiving action. Vermonters in the East action team were expected to look out for one another. Our team leader asked how many of us were willing to risk arrest. I raised my hand, thinking the police would certainly be nicer to an older white woman than to an indigenous person. I quickly learned not to count on that. Standing Rock was one place where white privilege wasn’t always a reliable protection from the police.
That night I fell asleep to the now normal sound of drumming and praying but was awakened by thunderous drumming, chanting and screaming. I imagined a police raid as I lay awake in fear, hoping that nothing terrible was actually happening. I arose before dawn to find a beautiful blanket of snow covering the camp. At the porta potty, 10 people waited in line. The noise, they explained, “was just praying for today’s action.”
Even so, tension in the camp was high as if something terrible was about to happen. In need of comfort I set out for the Quaker camp that someone said was near the horses. I spotted their blue flag and was invited in for a few minutes of silent worship. The trailer was warm and the seat was oh so comfortable. As I settled into the familiar silence, I felt an indescribable sense of relief, disturbed minutes later by the sound of galloping horses and the shout, “Women and children to the dome…police raid.”
We pulled on boots and jackets and swarmed toward the dome. Halfway there we learned it was a false alarm. At the dome we Vermonters learned we were heading to Turtle Island to try to enter the sacred land. People donned the masks and eye protection provided, expecting to be gassed any minute. I stowed mine in my pocket thinking, “I’m going to stay safe.”
Our group locked arms, forming a tight mass walking toward Turtle Island. Across the Cannonball River lay the sacred burial site, where the pipeline was to be built; atop stood 30 menacing guards. To avoid arrest, I joined a group building a fire to warm people who got sprayed with water.
People worked frantically to build a bridge as the police shouted. “Stop the building. If you cross we will be forced to shoot.” The people replied, “We want to pray on our sacred land.” Those already on the island built a fire and began a ceremony. When the bridge was complete, more people crossed. “Do not cross the bridge! We will be forced to shoot. We don’t want to have to shoot,” shouted the officers. More people crossed the bridge. More police appeared. Then firefighters. I counted about 90 law enforcement officers and over 1,000 unarmed demonstrators. Police sprayed water at the demonstrators, but were too far away to do harm. “Don’t come up here or we’ll have to shoot,” they called again. The Indians responded, “Why don’t you go home to your families? It’s Thanksgiving. They miss you. We only want to pray for the water, for our people and for Mother Earth.”
Suddenly a man charged up the steep cliff toward the police who shouted that they would shoot if he continued. People tried to block him, but he raged on. Finally, one man simply picked him up and carried him down the hill. Everyone cheered. Instigators like this one come into the camp and incite the police to violence. We had prevented that from happening this time.
As the Indians trekked across the bridge heading back to camp, one called up to the police “We are finished praying. We will go back across the bridge now. Thank you for leaving us in peace. You can go home to your families now.” The police thanked us for not trying to climb to the top. Just then the sun came out. Everyone held hands forming a giant circle and began singing. An elder said this was a victory for both sides. He knew because the sun came out just as they compromised. “Circle up,” he called to the police. “Give yourselves a little love.”
Perhaps the police avoided violence because it was Thanksgiving and it would have been very bad press, but I prefer to believe that both sides were able to see the humanity in the other.
A week later the Army Core of Engineers denied a permit to Dakota Access Pipeline to provide time for further environmental impact studies and citizen input. The fight is over for now, but people will remain in the camp all winter to watch over the land.
This is the continuation of Bock’s article that appeared in the Jan. 11 edition of The News.