My experience up to Standing Rock was personally life changing. Earlier this year I saw a post on Facebook regarding the events transpiring at Standing Rock, and I believe it was a Meme that showed the Arlington Cemetery and read, If You Wont Allow A Pipeline Through This Cemetery Of Americans; Then Why Should You Allow It Through A Native American Graveyard In Dakota. At the time, I did little thinking and shared the post. I was appalled that our government would allow the desecration of something like that. As I read more, and spoke to more people, I started to have more questions. I would sit and listen and every now and again, I would throw out my opinion, or play devils advocate, as a way to learn. So lets start with just some of the things I heard from both sides.
The Sioux are protesting the desecration of their ancestors burial sites.
The Sioux are protesting the Governments 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty violation as the oil company builds the pipeline on the disputed land.
The Sioux are protesting the Pipeline going underneath the Missouri River
There are several pipelines already crossing the Missouri River the Sioux Leaders just want more money
The oil company purchased easement rights to build on this land so legally they aren’t violating any laws.
This pipeline is safer than any of the older pipelines that are currently being used, and its safer to transport than by truck or rail.
First, I want to clear up one thing. All these arguments above are invalid. The Sioux or the Oceti Sakowin (pronounced O-Sheh-tee Shah-Koi) or Seven Fires Council, are not protesting. They are peacefully praying. I cannot reiterate that enough! And as you read below you will understand why I say those statements are invalid and drive a false narrative to what is going on at Standing Rock.
I arrived to the reservation without a Point Of Contact (POC), knowing absolutely no one, and worst of all intermittent cell reception. I found a camp called Sacred Stone Camp, where I was greeted by this Hippie, named Eddie. I asked if he knew where the Veterans were, he proceeds to give me directions that seem iffy at best. Then Eddie offers me to spend the night in their camp and explains, No Alcohol, No Drugs, No Weapons. I park my vehicle at the top of the hill and in the dark of the night I set up my Cot-Tent and Sleeping Bag in the bed of my truck...its 23 degrees outside and the temperature is dropping.
I wake up the next morning, and I get approached by a guy named Timothy. He asked if I knew where the Veterans were. I explained I did not but I was looking for them as well, and he was more than welcome to join me. We search a few places but had no luck. We realized we needed gas, and some coffee so we head to the only gas station on the reservation we knew. While in line, I get approached by another man who is looking for the camp, but this guy was Press. I explained that I didn’t know where it was and I was looking for it as well, but he was welcome to join us. At that moment, one of the tribes member explained he was building tents at the camp with the Veterans and that we could just follow him.
We arrived at the camp and were immediately welcomed. We were stopped by another Veteran named Brandi, and told where to park. We drove all the way back to the North Eastern part of camp and found two parking spots due South of the hill that is the cause of concern. I got out of my vehicle and started to take a cloth bath when another vehicle pulled up. Out jumped five guys (Tyson, Patrick, Tyler, Ethan, and CJ) who were clearly all recent conflict (Iraq and Afghanistan) Veterans. We all introduced ourselves and began to set up camp. I got my Cot-Tent set up when I realized if I want to take photos I need to check in at the Press Tent. While I was waiting in line at the Press Tent, I was told that independent workers don’t get a Press Pass. As I start to get frustrated, the guy next to me immediately introduced himself as Aaron a producer from MSNBC and asked which group I was there with. I explained I’m a photographer there on my own but I am also linked to the Veterans Standing For Standing Rock. He quickly took my number and asked if I would be willing to find anyone from our group would want to be interviewed. I explained that I would assist him only if I can piggy back off his Press Pass to take photos.
I fed MSNBC a couple of people who I thought would do well at getting the real story out. I was asked a few times if I would be willing to interview, and I declined due to lack of knowledge to form an intelligent opinion.
On my way back to my vehicle I met another Veteran named James, I helped him navigate back to our camp site and introduced him to our group of now seven Veterans. He offered to drive a few of us to the Veteran Meeting later that day, and since my Cot-Tent was in the back of my truck, I quickly accepted his offer.
The Oceti Sakowin held a meeting specifically for the veterans so the Tribal Leaders could explain what their role was and why they were there. The first speaker addressed the Veterans and explained that we are not here to fight or to protest. We are here to assist and join the Oceti Sakowin in peaceful prayer. Each tribal leader and Elder got up and stated the same thing over and over again. One the Tribe members who was also a Veteran, started her speech by thanking the Veterans and then went directly into laying out the ground rules with “NO DIRECT ACTION, PEACE AND PRAYER ONLY, NO AGITATION, if you are here with another agenda please leave now”. Later in her speech she stated, that no matter what happens out there, we will be ready with the highest weapon of all PRAYER”.
A few more Tribe members spoke, one of which referenced a comment made by President Obama quoting him as saying “We're going to let it play out for several more weeks”, she followed up with her response stating “We [The Oceti Sakowin] are not a game of Chess...”, she went on to explain that Water is Life, which is the motto for everyone up there.
We eventually heard the Oceti Sakowin Tribal Leader speak. He sets the tone right away and stated, “You’re only a visitor once, after that you are family.” His words were powerful as he spoke but there were a few comments that stuck out more than others the first was when he looked out to the Veterans and said “I know you all can fight, you all have the fire in you, and have done it before, but you are not here to fight. I have had my own people come to me and say, I will die for this if you need me to...I don’t want you to die, I don’t want anyone to die from either side, I want to live, I want my people to live...”, and then he reiterated that we were all there to peacefully pray with them. The second, was when he stated, “We [Oceti Sakowin] will never get an apology, but there is something we have to do, we have to forgive.” He goes on to explain how you can’t truly live if hate is in your heart and that is why they are praying and not protesting and fighting. The final statement he made that was so powerful, was when he stated, “No matter what happens even if they build the pipeline, we still win. The only way we lose is when we are divided. They [Federal Government] divided us in the past, but for the first time we are united.”
More people continued to speak, tribal leaders and representatives from other other Nations such as the Apache got up, pledged their support, and thanked the Veterans. They even had Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speak about how important this issue truly is, and thanked the Oceti Sakowin for standing up for an issue that not only effects them but the entire world population.
Then an Elder member gave the final speech. He explained he was at the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973, he tells this long story, in a very monotone voice. He describes the frustration he feels from the recent Sophia Wilansky’s incident. His story seemed to be jump back and forth like a Quentin Tarantino movie between the Wounded Knee Incident and the Sophia Wilansky Incident. He eventually tied it all together and as he did he started to become louder and emotional as he spoke, stating, “The Governor said it’s unhealthy to stay out there in this weather...you know whats unhealthy? Its unhealthy to shoot people with rubber bullets, its unhealthy to throw concussion grenades at people, its unhealthy to spray them down with water in freezing temperatures.”
After the meeting James, Timothy, and I headed back to the camp site about 30 miles away. During that drive, we had several discussions about what was said. Through those discussions and other discussions around the camp fire later that night, I finally had enough knowledge to form an intelligent opinion and also realize why I really came to Standing Rock.
So here is how I see it all from my experience and what I witnessed.
This was a group Peacefully Praying...not Protesting. I understand some may think its semantics. But let me put it into perspective. For as long as I can remember, kids have rallied around a flag pole to pray at schools across the nation. Its called Prayer At The Flag Pole. They aren’t protesting anything, however, they may have issues that they want resolved and are choosing to use prayer to assist them in the resolution. As a former JTAC, I used to utilize aircraft to build a pattern of life and assist in building intelligence. I can say with certainty that we had non-news, non-police helicopters (most likely private security helicopters) flying 300-500 feet above the camp and a fixed wing dual prop aircraft at 3-5K feet. Draw your own conclusions, but if they were doing what I suspect, I am deeply saddened and concerned this was being done to our own citizens who were being peaceful.
The issue is not about land ownership or ancient burial sites, its something much greater...LIFE. Water is the essence of all life. You will not find life where there is an absence of water. With that said, nothing is ever 100% so when people say that a new oil pipeline (with state of the art safety features) is safer than driving or transporting oil by train we have it may be; but that doesn’t mean it still can’t fail. If the pipeline did fail and spewed crude oil into the river, it would kill river life, it would effect drinking water, crop water, and any aquifer that the oil tainted would forever be unusable. This isn’t an Oceti Sakowin issue this is a human, animal, and plant life issue, it affects us all. James and I iscussed having a timeline showing how much of the river would be effected in 72 hours based on river flow, how many gallons of oil are being pumped through a minute, how long it would take to stop that flow, the aquifer locations, etc. The diagram/overlays would be in timelines of 1 hour, 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours, and 72 hours. The arguments seem to revolve around why not, such as there are already natural gas lines going through this area, why not add a pipeline, if it was such a big deal why didn’t anyone object before. That is the other major problem...the why not mentality. The real question should be why have we been allowing fracking, and oil drilling when there are cleaner and more sustainable energy sources like; Ocean Wave Energy, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, etc.
Spiritual Healing and Mob Mentality. Mob Mentality or Herd Mentality has been used to describe how people are influenced by their peers to adopt a certain behavior. I left Standing Rock, feeling at peace for the first time since I left the military. It was such a historical and profound event. The last day I was there I woke up to my Cot-Tent covered in snow, 300 feet away from our camp site, were five horses playing with each other, the disputed hill was not being guarded for the first time since I had been there. I could hear the Oceti Sakowin praying and singing in a Siouan Language. More than 400 tribes from across the United States came together to show unity, and pray. More than 3000 military veterans drove from all across the United States to ensure American citizens could peacefully pray without fear. These Veterans drove, like myself, not knowing anyone else, but forging new friendships with each other and the Ochehi Sakowin. There were hippies, activist, military veterans, and Native Americans, all working together without political influences or political agendas to raise awareness that Water Is Life! The Oceti prayers were answered later that day when President Obama halted the Pipeline Project!