Standing Rock: The Protectors

Cannon Ball, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. Population 875 in 2010. In 2013 more than half of the population fell below the poverty level.

Cannon Ball, ND, November 2016.

Flag Row at dusk. Hundreds of flags representing the support of indigenous people from across the world line the main entrance into Oceti Sakowin Camp, located a few miles north of Cannon Ball on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation.

Elih Lizama, 24, of the Apache and Mayan tribes from Salinas, CA.

Lizama is at the front of almost every action; some describe him as a frontliner. During a particularly brutal standoff with law enforcement on November 2nd, 2016 Lizama used his body as a shield to protect others from rubber bullets.

The Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806 has been the site of several clashes between protesters, or Water Protectors, as they prefer to be called, and law enforcement. Burnt vehicles remain from the police raid on Sacred Grounds Camp on October 27th, 2016 where over 140 people were arrested.

Lauren Howland, 21, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

“I’m from Dulce, NM, which is on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, but the tribe I’m affiliated with is San Carlos Apache Nation, I’m also half Navajo. The mission of the International Indigenous Youth Council is to help fight back against environmental racism. That is one of our main goals, to stand in solidarity with those who choose to help and protect Mother Earth.”

Howland’s wrist was broken by a National Guardsman’s baton on October 22nd, 2016. She and other Water Protectors were attempting to reach pipeline construction sites when they were corralled by law enforcement. Fearing they were about to be arrested, Howland says she was trying to convince officers to let a young child leave the scene when an officer in military fatigues repeatedly struck her with his baton.

The youth began this movement when Jacilyn Charger and a group of young runners ran a relay of 2,000 miles from Cannon Ball, ND to Washington DC to deliver a petition in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The youth, in many ways, remain the core of the movement. During all organized actions they are constantly reminding the participants that they are there in peace and prayer.

Oceti Sakowin Camp, November 2016.

The route of the pipeline passes through land that was originally reserved for the Sioux in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In 1868 the original treaty was broken, and the Great Sioux Reservation was established, confining natives to an even smaller parcel of land. Yet in 1877, after discovering gold in the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Sioux, congress further reduced the Great Sioux Reservation without the required consent of Native Americans. In 1889 congress carved up the remaining Sioux land into six separate isolated reservations, including the Standing Rock Reservation.

Silk screen printing outside the Art Tent in the Oceti Sakowin Camp.

On October 27th, 2016, over 100 police in riot gear and members of the National Guard raided the Sacred Grounds Camp, which was established on the route of the pipeline, and what the Sioux recognize as treaty land. Law enforcement was equipped with several mine-resistant ambush protected military vehicles (MRAPs), a sound cannon, an armored truck and a bulldozer. They arrested more than 140 people.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, former Tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was arrested by the Morton County Police that day. He described being held in a small, 10-by-14 foot, chain-linked cage along with 20 other men. These “holding cells” were in the Morton County Law Enforcement Center’s parking garage, where he said the ambient temperature was approximately 45 degrees. He was forced to remove all but a single layer of clothing and had a number written onto his arm for identification.

“We find that very offensive, keeping us in inhumane dog kennels and writing numbers on us. That is not how people get treated in America, or not supposed to be treated in America.”

Angie Spencer, 34, from Seattle, WA. Spencer was arrested on October 27th, 2016, along with 140 other individuals.

“Our human rights have been violated, our constitutional rights have been violated… I was told to strip down to a single layer of clothing in front of men being detained in chain-linked dog cages. I was locked in a dog cage myself on a cold cement floor for six plus hours, denied blankets, food and medical attention. I was searched three different times. When I got to Cass County Jail I was strip searched and I had to squat down naked and cough.” –taken from her Facebook Page

Pictured here with the number that was written on her forearm in permanent marker.

Police helicopters and planes equipped with infrared cameras occupy the air above the camps day and night, often times flying low.

At its peak, 10,000 Water Protectors were camping alongside the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers. Hundreds of tribes from around the world are represented at Standing Rock and together they have worked to build a community of non-violence and a movement based in peace and prayer.

Wanona Kasto, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Kasto set up one of the first kitchens at camp where she and volunteers feed 350 people each night.

“It’s really important to cook our traditional foods at a time when we have ceremony, and this time we are praying for our water, mni wiconi. It’s really important that we feed our people right and they get buffalo. The reason we eat buffalo, is that it is our sacred food. The buffalo don’t just go and eat any grass, they look for medicine to eat out on the prairie. That medicines nourishes their bodies and we [receive] nourishment and medicine from them. So it’s of vital importance to our people.”

In an effort to prepare for winter, a jacket tent is established where donated coats and warm clothing are given away. Here, a young girl selects her attire.

Oceti Sakowin at dawn. The name is Lakota for the Seven Council Fires, a historic gathering of the seven Lakota bands more than a century ago.

Vanessa, last name withheld, medic, from the Cherokee and Choctaw Tribes.

“We are caring for the people, there are no needs that are not being met. We do our best from a medical stand point to make sure that all aspects, spiritual, physical, and mental are taken care of because we are living in a very tough situation. Some days it’s traumatic; from the injuries to the mental strain of the constant helicopters [that] you can hear overhead, and the airplanes and the violent responses to peace and prayer that we get from the police.”

Dakota Access Pipeline construction, seen from the edges of camp. The proposed route was originally slated to cross the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, ND but was later moved to within 1500 ft upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Missouri River is 12,000 years old. It springs from the Rocky Mountains and flows across the country before joining the Mississippi River to form the world’s fourth longest river system. For more than 9,000 years Native Americans have inhabited its banks. Lewis and Clarke used the river to navigate their 1804-06 expedition. In the 1940’s, Congress ordered the construction of several dams along the Missouri just north of the Standing Rock Reservation, flooding their best lands and forcing hundreds to re-locate.

Dallas Goldtooth, Organizer, Indigenous Environmental Network, from the Dakota and Diné tribes.

Goldtooth was an integral part in halting the Keystone XL Pipeline and is now a leading figure opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“The depth of this fight is hard to put into words… Being here means something personal because I have family from here… I have cousins, I have a brother, I have parents and grandparents and uncles that are from here, from Standing Rock. I want to protect them and stand up for them and help them protect their way of life and their future generations and the land itself. Also in the bigger picture I am here because there is this global fight, this global effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground for the purpose of protecting Mother Earth and all of us, for generations to come.”

Mounted Water Protectors eye a law enforcement surveillance post along Highway 1806.

Bill Mckibben, founder of, the first global, environmental organization dedicated to addressing climate change.

On an early November morning at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Mckibben explained, “This fight is about native sovereignty and native rights and that’s a really important precedent to finally start sending 500 years after we probably should have. But going forward every pipeline and every project like this that’s being built across North America is being opposed now with increasing effectiveness. We won’t stop them all, but we still stop some of them, and make it much more difficult to risk water and destroy the environment.”

“The level of repression out here is crazy. The pictures coming back of people putting attack dogs on peaceful protesters are identical to the pictures that came out of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, except they are in color not black and white and it’s Native Americans not African Americans. That this is still going on in 2016 is a sign of how desperate this industry is.” - Bill Mckibben

On November 4th, 2016, 524 registered clergymen and women marched down highway 1806 outside of the Standing Rock encampment to show their support. Singing hymns and marching in solidarity, the clergy came to Standing Rock to burn a copy of a religious document from the 1400s, which sanctioned the taking of land from indigenous peoples.

Pipeline construction seen from outside Sacred Stone Camp, November 2016.

David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

“Look at who we are up against. We are up against the federal government and the federal laws. We are up against the state government, the state politicians, our senators receive contributions from the oil industry. Our congressmen receive contributions from the oil industry, our governor is tied to the oil industry… The oil industry goes so deep into the United States, all you have to do is start scratching the surface.”

Kyle Kirchmeier, Morton County Sheriff

Law enforcement has utilized mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, concussion grenades, sound cannons, mace, tear gas, rubber bullets, and high pressure water hoses in subfreezing temperature against the Water Protectors. This has led to the injuries and hospitalizations of hundreds of people.

“The force that we have used has been very minimal and very restrained as far as law enforcement goes to make sure that the protection of law enforcements is there and actually the protesters that are there too. [Many of the] tactics that are used [help] to make sure that we don’t have direct contact because that is where people are going to get hurt and we want to make sure that we have that barrier, and that there is protection for everybody. Law enforcement has been very professional.”

The Missouri River seen from outside Rosebud Camp, December 2016.

On December 5th, 2016 in a blizzard, with temperatures in the teens, and winds gusting over 45 mph, visibility reached a low of .25 miles as Water Protectors march to the Blackwater Bridge.

Carrying a dream catcher, a veteran marches with thousands of others during a blizzard in December 2016.

A Water Protector’s dog patrols the Backwater Bridge, which remained closed through the winter.

Jacquelyn Cordova

“I’m 26 years old from Taos, New Mexico and I’m a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council. It’s challenging to show up in the face of darkness with light. I don’t think the police officers are horrible people, they’re being controlled by the system and that’s been passed down through generations... They’ve acted on behalf of the darkness, for sure, but in no way is that attached to them at their core and who they are. I feel like really the only way to connect with people is by being human with them… So they need to be taken care of too, and they need to be loved and not judged.”

To the dismay of authorities, winter did little to persuade people to leave camp, defying a December 5th deadline to vacate ordered by the Army Corp of Engineers.

Mia Stevens, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

On December 4th, more than 2,000 veterans from across the country joined the Water Protectors to act as a “human shield.”

Outside Rosebud Camp, December 2016.

Alexander Howland, 21. From Dulce, NM, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

“I am scared of… the oil, its not [if the pipeline] breaks, it’s when it’s going to break, because time erodes everything. We may not be dealing with it in our lifetime but our future generations… are going to be on the line because they don’t have any clean water if we poison it all. It is extremely pitiful [that] we are looking for water in other worlds when we are so willing to poison our own here on Mother Earth. Everyone’s number one fear is this pipeline is going to break. We[‘ve] got to think seven generations ahead just like our ancestors did. We’ve got to make sure our future generations have a healthy planet to live on, to inhabit, to survive, to adapt and evolve but we can’t do that if the planet is dying because of mining companies, and fracking and oil spills and global warming.”

Oceti Sakowin Camp at night, December 2016.

The Prairie Knights Casino located on the reservation and run by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They offer an array of high stakes gaming options along with over 700 slot machines. The only hotel for miles, its halls were filled with journalists and activists for months, and even hosted thousands of people stranded by a December 6th storm.

The Prairie Knights Casino hotel lobby.

Che Oke Ten, 54 from the Saanich Nation.

In response to high tipi costs Che Oke Ten developed a more modern and cost effective structure, the tarpi, to help keep more Water Protectors warm during the cold North Dakota winters.

“The world works [by] caring for each other, and understanding who we are as human beings, our responsibility as human beings. Our ancient people, our native people of the Americas, they’ve always known that the most important thing that we can do is care for everything around us, including our future generations, because the things we use today are not ours, we borrow them from the future. We must think about it and care for those things.”

Oceti Sakowin Camp in December 2016, the circular structures with flat tops are Che Oke Ten’s invention, tarpis.

December 5th, 2016, after marching to the frontline in fierce blizzard conditions Water Protectors work together to ensure everyone makes it to a delegated warm space in the camps and on the reservation. Medics travel throughout the camps performing wellness checks, and keep a keen eye on youth and the elders.

Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez, 24, is Chicano and a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

Lopez’s forearm reads, MNI WICONI, or water is life, the slogan of the movement.

On the hills surrounding the camp, law enforcement establishes a presence 24 hours a day.

Ken Fourcloud has brought more than a dozen horses to Standing Rock. He was drawn to the movement, “to bring the horses for medicine for people, and for prayer. Horses are good medicine.”

Garrett Lampson, “I am 26 years old. I am originally from Sammamish, Washington but I came from Eugene, Oregon with a caravan of friends. I am staying out here indefinitely. I quit my job, got rid of my apartment, and sold everything I could and came out here to donate as much as possible.”

Lampson is working on constructing tarpis, a more economic version of the tipi.

Wambli Red Bird, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council, originally from Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Leah Ruth, member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

December 5th, 2016 represented a major milestone for the Standing Rock Tribe’s fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was announced that the Army Corp of Engineers will not grant the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri river. The Army claimed that Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy based her decision on a need to explore “alternate routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing.”

This victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was met with an uproar of celebration. A giant human chain connected around the camp with hollers of joy. Once news had spread a large celebration of song and dance broke out around the sacred fire.

Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez, 24, is Chicano and a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

In response to the announcement Lopez explained, “Growing up as an indigenous person often you feel ignored, very isolated, unwanted, like if you and your people were to disappear everyone would just be happier. It can be really hard growing up thinking that no one wants you around, everybody hates you, that you’re just a costume, you’re just a bedtime story, you’re just a figment of someone’s imagination. Not being identified as a human being, not being seen as a group of people. To see [the easement denial] was very empowering, to finally know that we took back our voice, we let the world know that we are here and we are not going anywhere.”

The Morton County Police Department has estimated that they have spent $22.3 million since August 2016, and acquired the support of 124 law enforcement agencies.

Kristina Elote, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

North Dakota, December 2016.