It is nearly midnight when we arrive at Oceti Sakowin camp after driving more than 750 miles from Madison to the federally controlled lands near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There’s a different kind of darkness when you’re this deep into Indian country — we passed the last street light a while ago. There are no homes or businesses out this far, save a casino and gas station 10 miles down the highway.
When we hit the security checkpoint, it is too dark to see much of the encampment — and the thousands reported to be living here — but the light from nearby campfires glows warm against the pitch-black landscape. The camp at night is quiet, but for the steady beat of drums and distant voices raised in traditional Native American song. On the northern horizon, dozens of massive floodlights are mounted high on a ridge, their light a stark, mechanical contrast to the firelit camp.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“That’s DAPL,” says Airto Castaneda-Cudney, who along with 10 other volunteers drove overnight from Madison on Nov. 15 to deliver donated food and supplies to the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, who have been camped near the banks of the Missouri River for more than six months. DAPL is shorthand for the Dakota Access Pipeline — a $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile-long oil transport project that aims to ship crude from the Bakken oil fields south to an oil storage tank farm and pipeline hub in southern Illinois. The Native Americans call the pipeline“black snake,” in reference to an old Lakota prophecy that foretells of a black snake rising from the depths of the earth and invading tribal lands, bringing with it death and destruction.
The Standing Rock movement began April 1 when tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard founded the Sacred Stone camp on her private land near the Cannonball River. The camp began as a site of cultural preservation and nonviolent resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Over summer the settlement grew, drawing thousands to the area as word spread about the protest. More than 3,000 people are now living in three distinct settlements — Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud and Sacred Stone. The protesters — who call themselves “water protectors,” a nod to the pipeline’s potential impact on the tribe’s water source — have clashed with law enforcement as well as private security guards hired by the developer. Behind the scenes, teams of lawyers on both sides are battling in federal court. The pipeline developer has an obligation to get oil flowing by Jan 1, 2017. If the deadline is missed, contracts with its partner companies will expire, putting the project at risk.
With the project deadline looming and the harsh North Dakota winter fast approaching, protesters have declared their intent to remain camped at Standing Rock until the pipeline is defeated. At the heart of their protest is the issue of sovereignty — the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes want to exercise their right to protect their ancestral lands. The decision to stay has thrown the camps into a massive overhaul as workers rush to fortify structures before the weather becomes dangerous. It also puts the protesters in violation of orders from federal officials to abandon their largest settlement by Dec. 5.
Digging in for a cause has become a resurgent tactic of protest movements. Matt Kearney, a UW-Madison Ph.D. candidate in sociology who studies these movements, sees plenty of parallels between Standing Rock and Wisconsin’s Act 10 protests, when activists in 2011 occupied the state Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to restrict collective bargaining rights. The Standing Rock camps also have similarities to the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that began in New York in 2011.
Activists have used occupation tactics for generations, but Kearney says there has been a recent revival of encampment-style protests across a variety of causes. And with Donald Trump — who owns stock in DAPL — about to become president, he believes the trend could continue.
In his research, Kearney found that occupation-style protest movements have a profound impact on those who participate. “Commitment to the cause gets increased by the experience of being part of the protest,” he says.
Castaneda-Cudney certainly feels connected to the Standing Rock movement. He first traveled to the protest site on Oct. 30, arriving just days after authorities broke up an encampment on land owned by the pipeline developer. At that time, it was the most violent clash between demonstrators and law enforcement to date — after a daylong standoff, police surrounded protesters with armored trucks, deployed pepper spray and arrested more than 140 people.
“I was trying to go out there before the clash, but that event made it more clear and urgent for me to get involved,” he says. “I wanted to see firsthand what was actually taking place on our own soil and to our own citizens.” His earlier experience at the camp had a profound impact.
“When I came home the first time, I felt like I abandoned my family,” Castaneda-Cudney says. “It was hard to come home and see the folks back here not have the same urgency to make a change as the water protectors.”
Volunteers from Madison, including WORT journalist Alexander Cramer (left) and 9-year-old Aiden Rodriguez (right), deliver food.
The temperature on the North Dakota prairie has warmed to above freezing by mid-morning on Nov. 17. Amid a cluster of weathered teepees, fire pits and military tents, the volunteers from Madison strip off their winter layers as they unload a refrigerated box truck packed full of supplies.
“Can someone pinch me? I think I’m dreaming,” Winona Kasto, a Lakota chef who runs one of the camp kitchens, says as she watches volunteers organizing piles of donated food. The Madison group brought thousands of pounds of fresh produce — kale, squash, onions and more — as well as packages of meat, cartons of eggs and pallets of reusable jugs of filtered water. Kasto is delighted to see the industrial-sized bags of Kickapoo Coffee (a Wisconsin roaster named for a Native American tribe) and is joyfully puzzled to receive several jumbo ziploc bags of bright orange Wisconsin cheese curds — a delicacy unfamiliar to the Lakota people but no less appreciated. Under Kasto’s direction, volunteers carefully pack the bounty inside a walled tent, which was set up just the day before to serve as a pantry. The plastic shelves groan under the weight of donated food.
“This is like an Indian Wal-Mart,” she jokes. “I feel like Santa came overnight, and I’m not even Christian.”
Winona Kasto (left) talks with writer Allison Geyer outside Soup Kettle Kitchen, which Kasto runs. The kitchen feeds more than 350 people a day and specializes in traditional Native American recipes.
Kasto, 47, has been cooking traditional Lakota food for her people for more than 30 years. She learned the recipes from her mother and grandmother and says her family had a tendency to “cook big,” often inviting other families on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to join them at their table. That prepared her well for her role in the kitchens at Oceti Sakowin camp, where she has lived and worked since August. She headed up the camp’s largest kitchen for a time, where she fed thousands, but recently left to run her own operation, which she calls Soup Kettle Kitchen.
“At the regular kitchen, we made a lot of vegetarian and vegan food,” Kasto says. “There are a lot of vegans here.” While it makes sense that an encampment of environmental activists would cater to those who have sworn off meat, she wants to serve her people their traditional foods. For the Lakota, that means meat. Dietary staples include game animals like elk, deer and buffalo.
Outside the kitchen there is a freshly killed deer, a big brown doe covered in a tarp and waiting to be butchered. Kasto’s kitchen setup is simple — an open tent with propane-fueled stoves and burners, and a handful of volunteers preparing and serving food. And it’s effective, serving about 350 people each day, by her estimate.
While many of the activists at Standing Rock are vegetarian or vegan, traditional Lakota recipes use plenty of meat. Hunters from camp bring in deer, elk, buffalo and even roadkill for the kitchens to prepare.
Lunch today is french toast, served with homemade maple syrup, mandarin oranges and a dusting of powdered sugar. There’s no hope of the food staying hot when you’re eating outdoors in frigid temperatures and strong winds, but it’s as good as anything you’d find in a restaurant.
For Kasto, cooking is spiritual, an act of love and prayer. She sees food as gifts from the Earth and the Creator, as “medicine” that keeps her people strong. “I always wanted to take a small business class and open my own restaurant,” she says, “but this is better.”
Kasto plans to stay at Oceti Sakowin camp until February, when she will travel to California to take part in The Longest Walk, a march from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., that aims to raise awareness about the health issues that affect Native Americans. When asked how the camp will survive without her cooking, she says, “hopefully we won’t be here anymore.”
“We’re going to defeat the pipeline by then.”
Many at Standing Rock share Kasto’s optimism. But the feeling of imminent victory isn’t stopping the encampments from preparing for winter. “It’s a huge job,” says Caitlin Stanley, a 26-year-old volunteer from Tampa, Florida, helping lead the winterization efforts. “And we have new campers coming every day.”
Theron Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation from New Mexico, arrived at Standing Rock in early November and over two weeks has helped fortify nearly half of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. At one of the daily winterization meetings held in the camp’s geodesic dome, he urges people to move the sprawling settlements closer to the center of camp for safety. Near the Southwest Camp, a section of Oceti Sakowin Camp where Begay and Stanley are based, volunteers are building a large wooden structure to serve as a woodshop.
The most urgent project is constructing wooden floors for large military tents to provide insulation from the ground. These tents will serve as communal sleeping areas for campers who have been staying in light, summerweight tents. Workers are also putting up dozens of “tarpees” — a type of heavy-duty teepee made of tarpaulins and insulated with plastic bottles and other recyclable materials. “They eliminate waste, and they keep people warm,” Stanley says. Each tarpee sleeps about 14.
Volunteers are working to rig at least three solar systems to power the camp. Eventually they plan to build a bathhouse, composting toilets and a water treatment system. Paul Sherlock, a contractor from Cleveland, Ohio, says the construction team has been working around the clock to finish all the jobs. He’s been supplementing the camp’s supplies with trips to Lowe’s in Bismarck, spending thousands from his own pocket on lumber and equipment.
“We don’t have time to worry about where the money is coming from,” he says.
Much of the winterization plans have come at the request of tribal elders. But not everyone agrees about some of the tactics and equipment being used. The elders were reluctant to approve the use of batteries, citing concerns about chemical leaks. And while many of the more permanent structures require digging for construction, that’s frowned upon, too. “If DAPL can’t dig, we can’t dig,” Stanley says.
The pipeline’s parent company, the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, says the pipeline will create thousands of jobs, boost state and local sales and tax revenues by millions of dollars during construction and “enable domestically produced light sweet crude oil from North Dakota to reach major refining markets in a more direct, cost-effective, safer and environmentally responsible manner.” Pipeline proponents argue the shipping method is safer than transporting oil by rail or truck, but critics say pipelines pose unacceptable risks. As U.S. crude oil production has surged in the last several years, so has the incidence of pipeline failures. A 2015 report from the Associated Press found that since 2009, the annual number of “significant accidents” on oil and petroleum pipelines has spiked by nearly 60 percent, which is roughly on par with the increase in U.S. crude oil production.
An early proposal for Dakota Access had the project crossing the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but that plan was rejected over concerns about the project’s impact on the city’s water supply. The pipeline was rerouted to cross the river near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipeline company’s water-crossing permits in July using a “fast-track” permitting process known as Nationwide Permit 12. This allowed the Corps to treat the pipeline like a series of small construction sites with wetland crossings instead of a four-state infrastructure project. The loophole granted the pipeline developer exemption from a cumulative environmental review.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed a lawsuit in July against the Corps, alleging that in granting the permits, the agency violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. After a series of motions and filings, the Corps on Nov. 14 announced it would delay an easement pending further environmental review. The next day, Energy Transfer Partners filed a countersuit claiming the Corps has no right to delay the easement, which is the final hurdle preventing the developer from digging under the Missouri River. Drilling equipment is already in place.
The legal experts present at Standing Rock declined to discuss the lawsuits, saying much of the litigation is being handled by outside lawyers. At the protest site, people with legal training are focused on helping people who have been arrested and observing law enforcement for potential human rights violations. In a Nov. 21 statement, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II urged President Barack Obama to take action.
“The easement to build the unsafe Dakota Access Pipeline has not been granted. But under the cover of darkness, North Dakota law enforcement continues to engage in unlawful and dehumanizing tactics to subdue peaceful water protectors with tear gas and water cannons,” Archambault wrote. “We are deeply saddened that despite the millions of Americans and allies around the world who are standing with us at Standing Rock, a single corporate bully — backed by U.S. government taxpayer dollars through a militarized law enforcement — [continues] to be sanctioned by aggressive, unlawful acts.”
Archambault was referencing the events of Nov. 20, when law enforcement used a water cannon in subfreezing temperatures on protesters who were attempting to remove a barricade on a bridge near the encampment. The clash happened the day after the Madison group left Standing Rock, but Giovana Schluter Nunes, a New York City-based freelance photographer, was on the scene.
“I had never covered something so violent,” she says. Police denied using water cannons to break up the demonstration, saying instead they used a fire hose to extinguish fires that protesters had started on the bridge. Nunes disputes this, saying the only fires she saw were bonfires to keep people from freezing, none of which were lighted on the bridge. “It was 25 degrees outside, and the police were spraying people with cold water — that’s immediately not okay,” she says, adding that people could have died had there not been medics at camp. Video taken at the scene backs up Nunes’ account.
Twenty-six people were hospitalized and more than 300 were injured during the clash, according to media reports, including a 21-year-old woman who might still lose her arm from her injuries. Witnesses at the scene say she was hit by a concussion grenade thrown by police.
On Nov. 25, the Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the Standing Rock Sioux, notifying tribal leaders of plans to close all federally managed lands north of the Cannonball River on Dec. 5, effectively issuing an eviction notice to the thousands of residents at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. In the letter, John W. Henderson, a district commander with the Corps, cited “safety concerns” as the reason for the closure. He urged protesters to move to a “free speech zone” on land south of the river. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has also ordered the activists to leave, citing safety concerns. Both say they have no plans to forcibly remove the protesters.
The Standing Rock movement has been described as an occupation. But it’s important to note that the camps are on Native American lands, as established by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Over time, the ownership of those lands became disputed (particularly when white settlers found gold during the latter half of the 19th century), but the Great Sioux Nation never ceded the territory. From the Native American perspective, law enforcement represents the occupying force.
Regis Ferland stands beside the barrel stoves he made to heat his camp, which is home to about 50 people, all from Michigan.
Regis Ferland, a member of the Chippewa tribe from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, sees a connection between the Dakota Access Pipeline fight and the water sovereignty struggles around the world, including in his home state. He points to the 2010 pipeline spill that fouled the Kalamazoo River with hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil, the ongoing lead contamination crisis in Flint and the massive water service cutoffs and price gouging allegations in Detroit. People in Michigan have made that connection as well, with hundreds showing up for a Standing Rock solidarity rally in Lansing on Nov. 5.
“This isn’t just a Native American issue — this affects everyone,” says Ferland, 35, who has been at Standing Rock on and off for the past three months. He sees the water protectors’ movement — and the direct-action tactics used — as a model to continue the fight for water rights in Michigan and beyond.
“We’re taking this movement and bringing it back home,” he says.
The movement could soon come to Wisconsin, says Jud Gauthier, a member of the Menominee tribe from Keshena. “There’s a long history in Wisconsin of extracting resources,” he says. Native American activists from his reservation in northern Wisconsin have been protesting an open pit mine proposed near the state’s border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Known as the Back Forty mine, environmentalists say the operation could leach acid and arsenic into the Menominee River. Wisconsin has seen its share of oil pipeline activity as well, with developers and activists battling over the Enbridge Sandpiper project and the tar sands pipeline that runs through Dane County.
Jessie Kushner (second from left), of Madison, runs an adventure-based therapy program that helps at-risk youth, many of whom are Native American. Jud Gauthier (left) and Micah Nickey (right), both Native Americans from Wisconsin, are volunteer mentors with Kushner’s program. Nickey’s son, Sequoyah, is second from right.
Gauthier speaks of the Native American prophecy of the Seventh Generation, which foretells a time, seven generations after European colonization, when Native Americans would join with other races and lead an uprising to win back stewardship of the land. Many at Standing Rock believe that the movement is a manifestation of this prediction. But Gauthier believes that corporations can operate with a Seventh Generation mentality as well. Pipelines can be defeated, but they can also come back, years later, offering the same jobs.
“This is a generational fight,” says Gauthier, whose parents were environmental activists. “There’s always more work to do.”