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Third-year environmental studies major Steph Gorney said she was proud to help with tasks such as food preparation and organizing.
“A lot of the work was menial work, which is exactly what they need so I’m happy to do it,” she said. “We kept hearing from the indigenous people who were there that the support really helps build their spirits and helps strengthen the movement.”
The power of volunteerism from so many different people was felt at the camp, said J.D. Goodhouse, of the Sioux tribe, who lives at Oceti.
“It makes me feel happy that we’re not alone […] with what we believe is morally right,” he said. “It’s for everyone’s children, not just indigenous people who need water.”
For locals, the struggle can be condensed into three words: Water is life, or “mni wiconi” in the native language. Mason Redwind of the Crow Creek Sioux in South Dakota said he came to Oceti on Aug. 20, along with his brother, several members of his tribe and nine horses.
“Water, in terms of our culture and our religion, is one of the most important aspects of our life,” Redwind said.
Standing Rock Sioux depend on the water — the difference between life and death, said Kenzie Carry-Moccasin, an 18-year-old who has lived on the reservation her entire life.
“We and my family really look to the water,” she said. “If our water gets tainted, we aren’t the only to get impaired, but we will be the first.”
In addition to the potential danger to the water supply, the Sioux are also concerned about the pipeline’s route over a sacred burial ground called Turtle Island. Goodhouse said continuing the pipeline through this route is “knowingly desecrating sacred burial grounds.”
“It’s a little traumatizing,” Carry-Moccasin said. “I learned when we were younger that there are many ancestors buried there.”
Despite occasional violence, Redwind said the struggle at Oceti has focused on prayer and peace.
“[People’s] prayers are a lot more powerful than they think,” he said. “It’s a peaceful ceremony. It shouldn’t be thought of as anything other than that.”
On Thursday, Nov. 24, water protectors held a protest at Turtle Island. Dozens carried signs reading “Mni Wiconi.” A makeshift bridge allowed protesters to cross to the base of the island as armed officers from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department looked down from the hilltop.
The demonstration was nonviolent, and protesters even made offers to the police officers to join them. Police said through megaphones they did not want confrontations with the protesters.
On Friday, Nov. 25, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote a letter to Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II ordering Oceti to be vacated by Dec. 5. Colonel John W. Henderson wrote he was concerned for the “safety and well-being” of the protesters due to harsh North Dakota winter conditions and possible violence. He added they could be subject to prosecution if they stayed.
Later that day, Archambault released a statement, saying he was “deeply disappointed in this decision.”
“The best way to protect people during the winter, and reduce the risk of conflict between water protectors and militarized police, is to deny the easement for the Oahe crossing,” he said.
On Monday, Nov. 28, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple issued an emergency evacuation for all Morton County structures in areas managed by the Army Corps. Dalrymple said he ordered this due to “anticipated harsh winter conditions” and he would not forcibly remove water protectors.
For many visitors, the cold has been the most difficult part of being at Oceti, with wind chill dipping to single-digit temperatures. The resolve of both locals and many volunteers has remained unchanged.
“We’ve shown our support, we’ve prayed nonstop. We’ve protected the women, the children, the water,” Redwind said. “We’re going to be here until it’s over.”
Senior anthropology and international affairs dual major Maya Carlson said people should not romanticize the indigenous water protectors for their grit in the face of harsh weather.
“They’re [protesting] because that’s what needs to be done,” she said. “That is their land, they are tied to it. It’s a part of their history.”
Photo by Scotty Schenck