"The defeat of an energy company by indigenous activists shows what nonviolent unity can accomplish.” – Bill McKibben
A Victory Worth Celebrating!
After over 500 years of persecution, the voices of indigenous communities were finally acknowledged when the Army Corps of Engineers denied final permitting for the section of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would traverse the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. With this, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is one step closer to preserving what we - and most people - believe to be a basic human right: a water supply not at risk of being contaminated with crude oil. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this victory for indigenous communities.
Is This Big News? Why Yes It Is.
While simply rerouting a pipeline slated to exacerbate the harsh impacts of climate change may sound like only a minor success in the fight, it was the biggest indigenous and environmental rights victory in recent history. This was a hard-fought win that resulted from tens of thousands of water protectors, environmentalists and allies taking to the land, the streets, and the airwaves with their message: indigenous and environmental rights are more important than fossil fuel profits.
Abby Mnookin was one of them. This former biology teacher and mother of two had not-so-average plans this Thanksgiving. Rather than spending time with her family, she boarded a bus sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s and 350VT along with 35 others to drive over 1,700 miles to stand with those at Standing Rock and add her voice to the fight for indigenous rights. Here is her firsthand story:
A Guest Post from Abby Mnookin
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The 36-Hour Bus to Standing Rock
I recently joined a group of 35 New Englanders who traveled by bus from Vermont to Standing Rock to join in solidarity with indigenous water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
There are numerous objections to the proposed $3.7 billion pipeline, whose 1,172-mile route weaves through four states from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. One of the primary objections was that it’s slated to travel through ancient burial sites on sacred land that was originally part of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Additionally, the pipeline would travel under the Missouri River, putting millions of people’s drinking water at risk of contamination.
As a social justice and climate activist, I’d been following this movement for months. Initially, my support consisted of signing petitions, making phone calls, attending rallies, and encouraging friends and family to withdraw their money from banks funding the pipeline. But even though it meant leaving my wife and our two young daughters back home in Vermont, my heart pulled me to support this work on the ground.
The Scene at Standing Rock, Firsthand
Just hours after we arrived on November 20, heavily militarized police clashed with unarmed activists on the nearby front lines. Pickup trucks transported the wounded to medic tents; anyone entering had to be decontaminated from tear gas. More than 300 people were injured. It felt like we’d entered a war zone.
Our group tented at Oceti Sakowin Camp, named for the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribal nations; before this, these tribal bands had last gathered together in 1876. And what began as a small encampment of several dozen Native people in April 2016 had grown into a global movement with hundreds of tribal nations and thousands of allies from around the world.
Individuals from our group had come to support the camp in different ways. While some hoped to join the frontlines, others planned to help with building winterization projects, assist medic and healing teams, work in the kitchens, or sort through donations.
Protectors versus Protesters
Before joining the front lines against DAPL, however, you were required to attend a nonviolent direct-action training, offered daily by the Indigenous Peoples Power Project. There, they explained essential principles about being protectors - not protesters - and remaining peaceful, prayerful, and nonviolent. As one Native activist told me, and as I felt deeply despite the weaponized police response, “The presence of Gandhi is here.”
We Gathered for Ceremony & Prayer
First and foremost, this was an encampment of ceremony and prayer. Mornings, we awoke to the words: “Wake up, relatives. This is not a vacation. Come pray with us.” Often, we walked to the river for a water ceremony of sage smudging, drumming, tobacco offerings, and song that was led by Lakota women. We joined in meditation, prayer, and song at the sacred fire. One morning, Maori from New Zealand performed the Haka dance. Another afternoon, Rising Appalachia joined in an afternoon of music sponsored by the International Indigenous Youth Council. Late one evening, an Indigenous man from an Amazonian tribe described how the prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor impacted his decision to make this journey.
We Gathered to Resist
This was also a resistance camp: resistance to colonization, land theft, genocide, and resource extraction. It’s a 500-year-old struggle that’s still going on today. We were reminded that this is an Indigenous-led movement. Then, we were invited to shift out of our white supremacy culture and build a new legacy.
How to Incorporate Lakota Values
Orientation leaders described the seven Lakota values and how to incorporate them at camp:
- Prayer - This is not a festival or a tourist destination. No alcohol or drugs allowed.
- Respect - Step back before stepping up.
- Compassion - Care for all.
- Honesty - Foster forgiveness.
- Generosity - Are you giving more than you're receiving?
- Humility - Take your time.
- Wisdom - Listen.
Water is Life
The creative energy of the camp was also palpable. Colorful banners and hand-painted signs read “Defend the Sacred” and “We Belong to the River.” Unique, hand-printed patches distributed on the front lines asserted “Stand Your Ground” and “Mni Wiconi,” the movement’s slogan, meaning “Water is Life” in Lakota.
A Thanksgiving Unlike Others
On Thanksgiving, a day of mourning for many Native Americans, thousands at Standing Rock participated in direct actions while hundreds more prepared a shared meal. For nearly five hours, I served dessert to 1,300 people from around the world, Indigenous and allies alike, sharing gratitude for our solidarity feast.
And Then There Was This
The next day, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a December 5th eviction notice for the camp. Although the Army Corps has said they have no plans to forcibly remove anyone, they haven’t ruled out arrests. And the North Dakota governor has since ordered an immediate evacuation, citing harsh winter conditions. This could result in significant road closures and limited access to emergency services. In response, a coalition of groups, including Camp of the Sacred Stones and Indigenous Environmental Network, released a statement saying they will not be moved.
Flooded with emotions on the bus back to Vermont, our group sang together:
The people gonna rise with the water,
all colors and creeds.
I hear the voice of my great grand-daughter,
singing ‘Mni Wiconi.’
I remembered what the elders had asked of us: to be self-reflective, to show up with heart, to be of service. And to bring our experiences home.
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Just one day later, we’re so happy that the outcome has changed. Rather than being evicted, we are celebrating victory!
To stay involved, join our friends at 350.org and stay up to date on how you can support the ongoing fight for climate justice.