THE BUZZ: Protectors and Protesters

By on November 29, 2016

As more folks from Jackson and beyond visit Standing Rock, native people are faced with a new set of concerns.

Under the watchful eye of law enforcement, hundreds of water protectors peacefully assemble on Thanksgiving Day in front of Turtle Island, a sacred burial ground for natives. (Photo: Jessica Sell Chambers)

Under the watchful eye of law enforcement, hundreds of water protectors peacefully assemble on Thanksgiving Day in front of Turtle Island, a sacred burial ground for natives. (Photo: Jessica Sell Chambers)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Dakota Access Pipeline protests have drawn an influx of people near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, including groups of Jackson residents. For some natives, the steady stream of visitors has stoked apprehension that stretches beyond pipeline construction. According to elder proxies, the flood of non-natives has carried with it a new kind of colonization and gentrification.

During Thanksgiving, known to some native people as the Day of Mourning, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, a historic gathering of the Great Sioux Nation north of Standing Rock, swelled from approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people. More than half the crowds were comprised of non-natives. Those who come, elders say, are bringing with them outside objectives, expectations, and culture, and “taking more than they leave.” An elusive group of elders has been attempting to guard the sanctity of the camp from the changes brought about by guests. However, not everyone supports the group’s tactics and ideas.

The influx of non-natives is seen by some as the infiltration of white privilege to OSC, or as non-natives wanting to be part of a native spectacle. Natives fear non-native projections on the camp are sullying its purpose as a “spiritual resistance ceremonial camp.”

Three weeks ago, to address the growing numbers of non-native visitors, which sometimes result in conflict with law enforcement on the front lines, elders implemented an orientation for new people arriving. Held every day at 9 a.m., the orientation is an encouraged practice for all visitors before they take part in any activity at OSC; there is a separate orientation for direct actions on the front lines. The information delivered is determined by the elders and draws a clear distinction between natives and non-natives. In practically all settings, like a form of affirmative action, natives are given the floor first for prayers, questions, trainings, starting with Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. At the same time participants are reminded there is no hierarchy and all must take care of each other, elders and others in need especially. Participants are left with four guidelines: keep it indigenous centered and directed; build a new legacy not based on co-opting others; be of use; and bring the peace and tactics learned at OSC home to local struggles.

The orientation highlights the process of colonization occurring within the camp as more non-natives arrive and bring different ideas and dominant cultural practices. Lakota customs and traditions are shared, as well as basic etiquette for prayers and asking questions of native elders. Visitors are told: “This is not a festival, not rainbow festival, not Burning Man.”

Participants are advised to check their expectations at the gate, to be mindful of the camp’s happenings, and to sit with the discomfort they feel being in a place that does not belong to them. One of the leaders advised: “Do not be here in the way you expect to be here, but in the way you are asked to be here.”

Often the various practices or ideas people bring to the camp are benign and done with good intentions. Mark Henderson, a Jacksonite who went to OSC in September after water protectors had been attacked by security dogs, admittedly did not know what to expect upon arriving. When he landed in Bismarck, he went to the nearest outdoor shop and bought rations to donate. However, his dog was not immediately well received. “The natives were on edge about dogs and it probably wasn’t my best move,” he said.

Henderson noticed the impact of various non-governmental organizations asserting agendas within OSC. Many natives told him that this was not their fight, that it was a resistance that “has been going on for hundreds of years against a government who has marginalized us.” He said he was told many times natives do things their own way, slowly.

Hoback resident Chris Christian visited OSC one month ago. “I thought I’d be doing transportation and supplies and that’s what I did. I was elated by being there,” she said. Christian said she only heard about “protectors” and that anyone who used the term “protester” was misspeaking or corrected themselves. She advised a crew from Jackson traveling to Standing Rock over the holiday break to bring insulation for the winterization efforts.

Orientation attendees were cautioned not to “speak before thinking” or to problem solve for natives. Similar to substituting “All Lives Matter” for “Black Lives Matter,” the usage of “we are all one tribe” was discouraged. Guests were warned not to appropriate native culture. Prayers, songs, dances “are not for the taking.” People are told not to take encounters with natives personally but to give some space for difference. Photography was permissible for media only and was restricted. Those who were at OSC for short stays were advised to help within the camp instead of going to the front lines.

Splitting time between Jackson and Bozeman, film student Alyson Spery said upon arriving she had an ethical dilemma similar to when making a documentary. “What is my story to tell?” she asked herself. Her story, she decided, is about owning her personal experience while recognizing her ancestors’ culpability in genocide and whitewashing history. “I went to Standing Rock to be an ally, but how? How can I show support without overstepping and imposing my values?” she asked. Ultimately Spery says she embraced being “a witness while being forced to acknowledge how I may be getting in the way of what is an indigenous led movement.”

Other non-native visitors interviewed for this story became uncomfortable and avoided questions about how their attendance might affect native culture.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Jackson residents guiltily discussed their presence at OSC while nested in a warm R.V.—the irony of the conversation and its location was not lost on anyone. The discomfort with the subject matter was palpable. The group ruminated on if it was possible for a white person to feel the experience of a minority. Privilege and dominance is not easily cast aside. Minorities cannot step out of their experience. Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon noted that no matter what, the reality is white people in a place like OSC can always leave and go back home to their “regular” existence.

Visitors help buck and split donated wood. People who plan to stay for only a few days are encouraged to work around OCS to help with winterizing activities instead of going to the front lines.  (Photo: Jessica Sell Chambers)

Visitors help buck and split donated wood. People who plan to stay for only a few days are encouraged to work around OCS to help with winterizing activities instead of going to the front lines.  (Photo: Jessica Sell Chambers)

Although not everyone agreed on issues, natives easily discussed white people at OSC. A 30-something native man from California who manned the information tent in front of the Sacred Fire, Dustin Ilar said, “There’s too much separation built into the orientation. People sacrificed a lot to get here.” When asked how non-natives should comport themselves Ilar said, “Well, I came here knowing I am a visitor in another people’s home. You do what the host asks of you. As a native man, when I asked the elders what was needed I was told, ‘we just need you to pray with us, stand with us.’”

Meanwhile, Cedric Goodhouse, an older native man, was lobbying elders to impose a limit on non-natives. He said there were too many white people wandering around camp instead of taking part in direct action, the prayer circles on the front lines. Goodhouse blamed groups he referred to as “foundational warriors,” for “bringing in other causes.” He stressed the need to remain focused on the agenda and protect Standing Rock’s drinking water. “I don’t want to keep it [oil] in the ground, I drove my truck here. We need to remember what we’re fighting here,” he said.

Orientation leaders shared that pipeline construction would very likely continue because the fines imposed were inconsequential relative to the profit gained by the energy companies. Therefore, everyone was encouraged to operate under the framework of Lakota values: prayer, spirituality, respect, compassion, openness, honesty, humility, and wisdom.

On Black Friday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who, citing safety concerns and increasingly cold temps, issued an eviction notice for the camp by December 5. In a statement Sunday, the Army Corps clarified it will not forcibly remove anyone but is instead seeking a peaceful and orderly relocation of camp. Those who remain, however, will be trespassing and may be subject to prosecution, the group warned. Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chair David Archambault II maintains the Army Corps is making a mistake and vows they will remain. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier called the timing of the eviction letter disrespectful and “continuing the cycle of racism and oppression imposed on our people and our lands throughout history.” Frazier’s letter states that neither he nor the Army Corps has authority over the land or people in question due to boundaries in place from the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.

In response to escalated tensions in the area, Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Jared Huffman (D-CA) called for an immediate sit-down with President Obama, Indian Country Today reported on Monday. They pointed to the events of November 20, when police shot protectors with rubber bullets and icy water in sub-freezing temperatures after protectors attempted to dismantle obstacles to access the pipeline construction site. Later an explosion occurred, The New York Times reported, severely injuring 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, whose arm may require amputation. Law enforcement accounts, according to The Times, suggest protectors are to blame while demonstrators maintain police were behind the explosion. PJH

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