A cheery spirit of industry runs through the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. You can hardly walk 50 feet without coming across someone sawing wood or pounding in tent stakes or lugging a crate of canned tomatoes to the kitchen. A small army of independent documentarians-turned-butlers scurry from tent to tipi carrying thermoses of coffee and bowls of powdered soup to tribal leaders. The lawyers in Legal Tent deliver their spiels about bail funds and the Fifth Amendment with steady compassion. The cooks in the kitchen smile as they labor over steaming, industrial-sized stockpots filled with cabbage and well-stewed meats. But the most important enterprise — and certainly the only truly accurate marker of whether or not a bunch of people can stay dug in the tundra — are the shitters. When I arrived at camp in early December, the economy of shit had mostly been handled by clusters of meticulously maintained porta-potties, each one stocked with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. This, I was assured, was only temporary — that very week, a specialist had arrived with experience with hot and cold composting toilets.
A city was being built, and although everyone agreed the city should grow, not everyone knew why. In one of the long lines for the porta-potties, I overheard a conversation that reminded me, absurdly enough, of my time in the old Condé Nast cafeteria, where I would listen in on young editorial assistants chatting about what actress had agreed to be in a sponsored-content video or what Grace Coddington had said or how they had gotten out to Montauk without having to step foot on a bus. The topics were different (as, of course, were the clothes) — the campers were talking about all the reasons why their terrible bunkmate hadn’t come for the right reasons — but the tone carried the same performative, perpetual exasperation that the world and all its ugly demands had dared to get in their way.
This undercurrent of insecure moralizing pervaded the camp — everyone wanted to know if you were there to devote yourself to the Sioux or if you had only come to post about it on Facebook. On the icy road outside Oceti Sakowin, my producer Evan and I met a young woman with gray eyes and a hacking cough (Full disclosure: I went to Standing Rock to record two segments for VICE News Tonight on HBO). She said she had come from Ohio with an acquaintance who was not, she assured me, “an actual friend.” The acquaintance had gone missing, most likely back home, leaving the young woman stranded.
You know, she just didn’t want to adjust,” the young woman said while dragging on a Marlboro Red. “It’s not easy here — you have to wear a skirt to the Sacred Fire and you can’t like do certain things if you’re on your period. But that’s, like, their culture.” She wished me all the best and straggled off down the road, coughing into her mittened fist.
Nearly everyone who has been at Standing Rock for more than a month has a cough. The origins are unknown — some speculate that it comes from smoke inhalation from all the campfires,others say there’s some bacterial infection that’s never quite been expunged. Within two days, perhaps because of the leaky stove in my borrowed tent, or maybe to cover up my fraudulence, I was coughing too.
Fair is fair and as long as we’re talking about why people went to Standing Rock, I should say that I only went to see a fight. A few days before I flew to North Dakota, Jack Dalrymple, the governor of North Dakota, had just issued an emergency evacuation of the camp, citing extreme cold on the way and unsanitary living conditions. No one seemed sure what this meant, but it might have been in response to the news that some 2,000 veterans, led in part by Wesley Clark Jr., the son of the four-star general who ran for president in 2004, were planning on coming to act as “human shields.” Some confrontation seemed imminent, which is why I, and a small army of fellow journalists, started flying into Bismarck to make the icy drive up to Oceti Sakowin. Most of us in the media who rolled up to camp in rented SUVs and fresh performance winterwear wanted to see violence in the tundra, one where the sympathetic lines could be easily drawn — the dancing and praying Native Americans against the militarized, corporate destroyers of the environment.
This, I know, was not the noblest reason to go to Standing Rock, and over the past few years, I’ve found myself wondering if the sort of journalism I’ve practiced has much use in the world anymore or if I, and everyone who believes in a “better” way to tell (usually retell) a story, might be looking for nuance in the wrong places. Before leaving for Standing Rock, I reread Renata Adler’s reporting from the March from Selma in The New Yorker. It’s a dour, effortful account full of dispassionate observation that feels, in itself, a bit performative. Adler tells the reader about the watery scrambled eggs served at the Negro First Baptist Church to the disorderly lines of marchers and their lack of a “sharply defined sense of purpose,” and as you read, you can sense she is trying to elbow out some critical distance — if she can sneer, even lightly, at Selma, she can assure the reader that nothing was above critique from her journalistic eye. I don’t doubt Adler’s reporting — I’m sure both the eggs and the coffee at Negro First Baptist Church were watery and I’m sure the lines of marchers strayed from their rows. But I can no longer think of a place for this style of truth-signaling, where details are strung together to present what is supposed to feel like an objective counternarrative. The dispassionate journalistic distance has always been a performance, I suppose, but the audience has shrunk down to fellow journalists and those who want to align themselves with causes like Standing Rock but never quite make it there.
Before sunrise on my second day in camp, the protectors stood in a large circle by the sacred fire. They were backlit by the soft, eerie glow of the moon’s reflection on the ice. As leaders on a megaphone chanted “Water is life,” women passed out little Dixie cups of water and walked by each protector with a burning cord. With bowed heads, each protector would cup a handful of the smoke from the cord and throw it over his shoulders. The solemnity of the ritual reflected the spiritual stakes at Oceti Sakowin. The Standing Rock Sioux are part of the Great Sioux Nation and come, in part, from the Lakota nation. A Lakota prophecy warns of a black snake that will come to destroy the world. For so many of the Native Americans who came to Standing Rock, the pipeline was the black snake and the fight against it was a religious one.
“Get that black snake out of the ground” was the refrain heard over and over again throughout the camp. It was why Wambli, a Cheyenne River Sioux from downstream South Dakota and a retired police sergeant, had left his family and his dogs behind to come serve as part of the Aki’cita, the security force that patrolled the camp. He told me about his lands, which sat between two rivers. “When — and it’s when, not if — that pipeline leaks, the currents will send that oil right up next to my home.”
We were sitting inside a plywood shack warmed by a cast-iron stove set high up on cinder blocks. Wambli wore a thick leather vest affixed with radios, a GoPro camera, and a badge embroidered with a white horse’s head. In the corner, a young boy stroked a feather he’d earned for his bravery during the clearing of the North Camp, when National Guardsmen came in with tractors and leveled tipis and put out sacred fires. When the heavy machinery and armed police came into camp, he was knocked off his horse and injured his back and ribs.
I asked Wambli what he thought about all the outsiders in camp. Had he seen the grumblings in Facebook activist circles about the festival heads who were turning Oceti Sakowin into alt-spiritual Burning Man? Wambli said that anyone who stood with them was part of his family and that he felt personally responsible for their safety. “When we go to those front lines, the Aki’cita’s job is to make sure everyone stays calm and peaceful,” he said. “We stand with our backs to the police, so if an Aki’cita ever gets shot by a bean bag or a rubber bullet or worse, it will always be in the back. We are always facing our people.”
The next day, I met a man named Isaiah from the Seneca tribe. He was tending to the smoker, a giant, double-chambered grill that looked like it had welded together from spare truck parts. Isaiah had left everything behind in Carson City, Nevada. His previous life, he said, didn’t matter anymore – he was here to do whatever was asked of him. Today, that meant roasting up a heavily seasoned platter of alpaca meat. “I’ll go home when that black snake is out of the ground and when the last piece of trash is picked up off these lands,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long, man.”
The veterans began to arrive in earnest on Friday. The much talked-about blizzard had stayed away and by the early afternoon, the frozen roads inside camp melted into pits of mud. The day before, I had met Sgt. 1st Class Mark Sanderson and a handful of other veterans who had been clearing away space and hammering up shelters for their incoming brothers and sisters. During his time in the military, Sanderson had provided tactical training for fellow soldiers. He now hoped to bring those skills to Oceti Sakowin. “So many of us veterans have these skills we can’t use as civilians,” Sanderson said. “For a lot of guys here, this is about redemption.” He went on to tell me that he, and many of the other veterans he’d spoken to, had come to Standing Rock because they knew they had fought in a bad war in Iraq and wanted to fight on the side of the American people, for once. During my time at camp, Sanderson would routinely text Evan and me on a secure messaging app to alert us to big things going on behind the scenes. When we arrived, we would find him harrowed and drawn. “I know I must seem really spun out,” he kept saying by way of apology.
PTSD was an open topic of conversation among the veterans in Sanderson’s camp. Each one talked about all the training he had received and how it had all been rendered useless, whether by the psychological toll of combat or by the banalities of civilian life. By the veteran’s fire, I met a young man who could not stop crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he had seen the call to come to Standing Rock and had immediately gotten into his car and driven overnight to get there. He couldn’t explain what had compelled him to come, but being back around his brothers, he said, was bringing back memories of his service.
Every veteran we spoke to echoed Sanderson’s hope that this mission would help redeem their pasts. They had come from around the country, the vast majority with the best intentions but the particulars of their mission kept changing by the hour. The veterans had explicit orders from the tribal leaders to stay peaceful and only serve as protection and support for the people in camp. This directive was, in part, a response to an “operations order” in which the leadership of the veterans group had openly discussed aggressive, if still technically peaceful, actions against the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. The call to stand down, which was repeated at every veterans event over the weekend, was undercut by deep factionalism within the Oceti Sakowin camp, itself. By Friday night, it became clear that some of the veterans had more serious intentions and that there were some in the Native population who agreed with them. This profound miscommunication, it seemed, originated with the leadership who had put out the original call for veterans to come to Standing Rock, namely Wesley Clark Jr.
On Saturday, Clark had a hand in a takeover of power at Oceti Sakowin. Wambli’s Aki’cita, who had been the prevailing security force at the camp and the first line of resistance at the front lines, had been replaced by a new group. At a crossroads near the veterans camp, Evan and I watched as Clark, wearing a blindingly white fur poncho, met with the heads of the Aki’cita, one of whom had come armed with a hatchet. The meeting ended with Clark weeping uncontrollably and collapsing into the arms of a friend. Evan and I spent the rest of the afternoon driving around camp with the new head of security, a thin, handsome Native Army veteran from the Red Lake Reservation who called himself Thundercat. He explained to us that the transfer of power had happened because of an outbreak of sexual assaults around camp. When I asked him how often these attacks happened, he said, “Every night,” but then told me that when they had finally caught the alleged serial rapist on camp, they gave him a bus ticket and asked him to go home. The deposed Aki’cita, who had been in charge of security during the assaults, later told me there had been one confirmed attack and a handful that had been proven to be false allegations.
It would later be revealed that Clark had also been asked by the tribal elders to relinquish command of his veteran group due to concerns that they might turn violent. “Look, me and our whole staff, and most of the vets I know here, we all have PTSD,” Clark told Adam Linehan of “Task and Purpose” magazine. “So if we go to the front line and they start hitting us, I’m perfectly happy to take a few blows and stuff, but some people may flip out. And we can’t have an incident where there’s any question in anyone’s mind of who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.”
On December 5, George Custer’s 177th birthday, Clark attended a forgiveness ceremony for veterans to atone for crimes they had committed against Native Americans. Tribal leaders burned sage and offered up prayers of forgiveness. Clark, for his part, knelt, weepy and morose, and apologized on behalf of the military. He wore, stunningly, his cavalry uniform, complete with cavalry hat.
The win came on Sunday afternoon, as the lines of cars were still streaming into Oceti Sakowin. Around 4 o’clock, the news began circulating around camp that the permit to continue construction underneath the Missouri River had been denied. An uneasy celebration broke out. Many suspected that this was a diversionary tactic to get the critical mass of veterans out of town, and as a light snow fell over camp, a battalion of soldiers in fatigues lined up on the main road and started marching doggedly toward the construction site, waving American flags. They were met by Thundercat’s new security force, who asked them to please head back and await further orders. But as night fell, the celebration picked up — cars honked as they passed one another on the road, fireworks were set off, and strangers hugged one another without shame or reservation. Evan and I ran into Wambli outside the main meeting tent. “We won a victory, but the war isn’t over,” he said. “But we celebrate all our victories, so we’re celebrating tonight.”
Around dinnertime, Evan and I came across a drum circle that had formed outside a dining hall. Men and women of all ages beat a slow rhythm and sang their lungs out. I cannot imagine that anyone who came to Standing Rock and saw their fellow protectors get hit with rubber bullets and water cannons will ever forget that victorious sound.
In early November, after a day of violent, militarized police response at Standing Rock and a week before the presidential election, a group of young activists walked into Hillary Clinton’s offices in Brooklyn. They demanded help for the people who had been injured and an end to the construction of the pipeline. In response, Clinton’s campaign, which had been silent about Standing Rock, released a statement saying “All voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects,” and that “everyone respects the demonstrators’ right to protest peacefully and the workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.” She had, in essence, said that the protectors should stand aside and let the construction continue, but maybe protest it without getting in the way.
In the weeks that have passed since Clinton’s loss, the usual stewards of the Left have talked about a growing divide in the country and theorized ways to bridge it, whether through some nebulous vision of “reaching out to the middle of the country” or through a more full-throated version of Democratic politics-as-usual. I don’t really know if a “bubble” blinded liberals from the concerns of working-class centrists in, say, Michigan, but I’m certain there’s a growing disconnect between the shaky coalition of young and old who went to Standing Rock and the liberal politicians and media who, in the past, took their support for granted.
In the past, the simplest and cleanest way to cut through and ultimately co-opt this shaky coalition would be to place a broad, moral filter over it — the Native Americans, compelled by religion and solidarity, can be held in patronizing, lobotomized regard and the misguided veterans and young, feckless activists can be sneered at and dismissed. This splitting, which is performed just as much on the left as it is on the right, tends to crack along lines of “authenticity” – the actually-oppressed are lacquered in noble suffering while the well-meaning are cast as naive and capricious. The young woman who had lost her traveling partner to the chefs in the kitchens to the spun out veterans at Standing Rock all felt the pressure of this divide. I admit that after two days in North Dakota, I found myself doing the same thing.
At Standing Rock, an economy of “being there” replaced the assumptions of shared liberal beliefs, and, in some way, staved off the inevitable divisions. Everyone kept score on who had been there “since the beginning,” but there was still an abiding acknowledgment that everyone, save the media, had put their bodies in the path of the pipeline. The warmth behind this recognition, which expressed itself in friendly smiles, the sharing of food and firewood, and an abiding spirit of charity (any time you heard the high-pitched whirr of tires stuck in the snow, you’d see a line of people jogging over to help the driver), inspired activists, whether from Black Lives Matter, environmental or legal movements as well as Trump-supporting veterans to come to North Dakota and walk unsteadily over the sheet of ice that covered the Oceti Sakowin camp. Ultimately, what mattered was that they had bothered to come at all — the physical trumped the ideological.
In the upcoming years, there should be a lot written about why the tens of thousands traveled to Standing Rock and why so many stayed, despite its remoteness, freezing temperatures, and what felt, for months, like a hopeless mission. The reasons should range from the usual theorizing about the power of social media to the thornier question of how the struggles of Native Americans can be excerpted from any broader American narrative and placed within an ahistorical context in which the usual, impossible questions that are asked of all activists can be replaced with thoughtless sentimentality. The water protectors will be Noble Savaged far more than anyone should be willing to admit. The lessons drawn, I imagine, will center around the clarity of the objective — unlike other social media–fueled protests, whether the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock simply asked its protectors to stay until the pipeline stopped.
What we can’t project yet is what it meant that they actually won, even if winning only meant a temporary end to the drilling of the pipeline. Sanderson, for his part, returned to his home state of Texas and started talking to tribal leaders who have been planning Standing Rock–styled protests that would block any construction of a wall along the Mexican border. Wambli and the Aki’cita are still in camp, as are hundreds of Native Americans, wary of what the Trump administration might have in store for them. Whether this misshapen coalition has inspired a new season of protest remains to be seen, but this much is clear: We, the comfortable Left who have always assumed their allegiance and who build unified theories of liberal politics around their actions, can no longer claim them. They, and we, are mostly on our own now.