War and Peace, and Water Cannons

It's taken me a ridiculous amount of time to write about my experience at Standing Rock. Nothing does justice to the extreme contrast of war and peace, greed and selflessness, hatred and love. 

Sorting donations in the children's tent

The moment my friend and I arrived at camp, we became part of a deep, committed family, one that shares stories, sacred herbs, meals, and moments of recognition for our camp’s greater purpose. We immediately shifted into a lifestyle of prayer, living out each minute as a part of the grand ceremony that floods every corner of camp. Our egos were thrown to the backseat as we pulled on ankle-length skirts and got to work.

We scrubbed dishes, chopped firewood, sorted donations, built shelters, and everything else necessary to keep the community going strong. In the words of my native sister, “No one wants for anything,” because each member of camp would readily give their last spare minute, to their last clean shirt, to someone in need. Everything flowed like a well-oiled machine made from love and dedication, one where every misfit could feel like they were finally home. 

It was a love bigger than I’ve ever known.

But with this big love came the reason we were all so needed: to fight the Black Snake that had been prophesied to destroy the native's sacred lands. 

In addition to developing a winter-ready camp, we attended orientations and action meetings that would assure our knowledge of legal and safety protocols for the front lines. It can be said that the "front lines" are anywhere, as even land indisputably owned by natives is under intrusive surveillance, flooded with DAPL spotlights, and subject to the multiple planes and helicopters that fly constantly overhead. 

Sacred Stone Camp: No alcohol, firearms, or DAPL

At the very least, these aircraft interfered with our cell phones and other devices, draining the batteries and rerouting us to fake towers the authorities monitor and control. Beyond an ability to call home or shoot footage, the planes were also rumored to be crop dusting our camps at night, something impossible to ignore at 3 a.m. as the low drone of the darkened planes soared too close to your open tipi.

Either way, an attack on the water protectors was lived out in full after what's being called “Water Cannon Night.” 

For many in our country, footage of this horrendous night would be their first glimpse at the harsh realities of the Standing Rock actions, despite the police forces’ best attempts to shoot down the drones that would expose them that night. After finally being caught with their pants down, they were forced to withdraw their previous proclamation that no water cannons had been used, and instead declared heroism as they allegedly put out the fires started by the Indians.

This was the first time I saw the blatant lies and corruption with my own eyes. 

A fellow water protector and I had been praying in our tipi Sunday evening, feeling off and desperately in need of grounding and centering all day. Among the deep peacefulness that lay like a blanket over camp, a call for help erupted.

“Water protectors to the blockade! Water protectors to the blockade!”

The message echoed all over Sacred Stone, the original camp tucked back in the hills where I had made my temporary home. Grabbing our friends and gear, we ran until we found a pickup truck bobbling along, and hopped in the bed. The truck filled itself to the brim with natives and allies as we made our way along the bumpy dirt path toward route 1806.

Respirator and goggles after Water Cannon Night

We jumped out as the truck slowed, and began jogging down the road, rounding the hills and stopping on our heels to take in the scene. I had only been to one action so far, and it was a small, short, silent sit-in on the bridge just days before. My tipi mate and I decided to stick with the buddy system, and moved forward into this very different scene.

Countless gallons of water flooded the crowd of water protectors from two enormous cannons pulled right up to a giant wall of razor wire, lined shoulder to shoulder with riot police. Natives sang and danced in ceremony, praying for their lands, their families, and their future generations as they endured the heavy water in subfreezing temperatures. 

As we made our way closer, many were already rushing back away from the action, consumed by tear gas and soaked to the bone, calling out for medics or loved ones they lost in the crowd. Concussion grenades and the poisonous gas now just ahead, we stopped to put on our goggles, bandanas, respirators, and ear plugs.

On the yellowed grass beside the bridge, we walked forward as far as we dared, and stood together in prayer with other brothers and sisters, watching as the media crews scurried about to capture the scene while their equipment held out. I took in the details of my surroundings, more alert than ever before as I watched brave feet kick grenades off the nearby dry grass and into the river.

The police were starting the fires with their weapons, and we were putting them out.

After a few more minutes of prayer, we walked back onto the bridge, and I handed out earplugs to ward off pain from the LRADs, or Long Range Acoustic Devices. With my back to the razor wire, a concussion grenade flew overhead and far in front of me, shifting my reality as I realized they were aiming not just for the front line, but the crowds in the middle and back of the bridge as well. 

Thanksgiving Day action at Turtle Island

If you’ve seen headlines announcing that the water protectors were “trapped” on the blockaded bridge, that was why: heading back the way we came was suddenly no safer than being mere feet from the police forces. Almost instantly, another grenade landed a few feet behind us, and we quickly scurried through the crowd as the gas made its way in our eyes and down our throats. In search of water, we found a couple medics rushing around delivering milk of magnesia for the creeping burn, and thanked them for the relief.

From about 6 pm to 11 pm, I chanted, prayed, helped where I could, and avoided direct hits from the so-called “less-than-lethal” weapons they deployed on hundreds of unarmed water protectors. As my crew decided it was time to head back, I grabbed my friend's car, stopped at our tipi, and shuttled a group of us down the road to the hotel and casino. 

Surrounded by fellow drenched and shaken protectors, we were grateful to be offered showers and a bed by people with reserved rooms. We took in the events of the night as we shared stories and basked in the luxury of being warm and indoors, dealing with the thick gas that lingered in the room from a brother that rubbed his face, reactivating the gas and its effects along with it. 

Meanwhile, dozens of water protectors remained at the bridge for hours to come. An elder suffered two cardiac arrests from rubber bullets, some were knocked unconscious and incurred head injuries, many faced hypothermia, and a woman named Sophia endured a month of surgeries with a lifetime of medication to save her exploded arm.

Police stated the injuries must have been caused by weapons from the natives, while dozens of witnesses, including Sophia, and myself, can confirm the weapons continued to fly from one side, and one side only.

Two days later, my tipi mates and I prepared our beds for the night as another plane flew low overhead. I desperately tried and failed to hide the panic I’d been ignoring. I finally wailed and sobbed in the arms of my newfound sisters, creating noise from the fear and releasing the tight grip that formed that fake, hardened exterior. Newest at camp, they assured me I was simply a mirror for the emotions they were all experiencing. I allowed myself to feel messy and human until my cries calmed me.

Standing Rock sunset

Despite every feeling that I couldn’t possibly stand on the front lines again, I went on to join two more actions that week, one on Thanksgiving day and on in the town of Bismarck. I recalled my mental training from yoga, that we can always do more than we think we can, and I used the bravery of my brothers, sisters, and poncho'd elders to stand tall again and again.


We left Standing Rock to head back home to Cleveland a few days earlier than originally planned, so when the opportunity to return only a week later arose, I wanted to jump in with both feet and both arms and everything ready to go, getting back to the fight for peace and clean water in person. 

But just before my second journey to North Dakota, I checked in with a friend I thought would most understand the anxiety I was feeling, as a U.S. veteran. A cup of coffee and a quick hello turned into several hours and refills as he helped me get to the root of my worries.

I realized I was going back so soon because I could, not because I was ready, and not because I felt called to go back yet. I made a choice to leave the extreme cold to others who were better prepared, and felt instant relief from my decision to make sure I was ready before I needed to be my strongest self back at camp again.

In global prayer with Standing Rock in Cleveland, Ohio

But weeks have passed, and this relief unfolded into guilt that drives itself deeper into my gut every day. Seeing my brothers and sisters on Facebook still at Standing Rock makes me ache for the most loving community I’ve ever known. It makes me ache to stand beside them again, to do everything I can to make sure they stay safe, and warm, and free. It makes me ache for my own heart, who felt too afraid to jump back into a freezing warzone too quickly. 

Whether or not I made the right decision, the girl who just faced riot police four different times in nine days is now having trouble getting off the couch once again. All of my interests seem like trying chores, and hours have turned into days and weeks so much faster than I can believe. 

But a month after returning from Standing Rock, I am finally starting to put my experience into words. Like the great boulders that gave the sacred land its name, I finally feel the pieces of my story breaking loose, ready to launch forward and spread the word about what's really going on at the North Dakota reservation.

Stay tuned for more stories, photos, videos, and interviews from my time at Standing Rock, and please shout out any questions or post requests you may have in the comment section below.

Peace and love,
Niki

 

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