After Trauma at Standing Rock, Recovery and New Resolve

Songs and prayers, words of encouragement, and spaces for recovery are at the core of the healing happening here at Standing Rock.
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On Wednesday a confrontation with police began when a group of water protectors tried to build a bridge to cross a marshy tributary of the Cannonball River to pray on disturbed sacred lands of the Sioux. This is also within a short distance of the pipeline construction. When police destroyed the bridge, people began to swim to the other side. Riot police met them, firing Mace into the crowd of swimmers. The standoff lasted for hours. Photos by Sarah van Gelder.

The water protectors’ camp at Standing Rock is a hive of activity—people splitting firewood, erecting a giant geodesic dome, patrolling on horseback, constantly cooking food over wood-heated stoves.

At the same time, the camp is struggling to recover from trauma resulting from last Thursday’s raid by a multistate militarized police force. Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault said 40 people were injured and more than 140 were arrested.

The camp is struggling to recover from trauma resulting from last Thursday’s raid.

The trauma continued when a man was caught speeding toward camp with an automatic weapon. The Bureau of Indian Affairs police took him into custody. Dakota Access pipeline security identification was found in his truck.

Then, in the middle of the night, a pickup truck was spotted crisscrossing the hillside across the highway from the camp. A grassfire broke out, burning acres of the hillside. Eventually, helicopters turned up with buckets, scooped up water from the Missouri River, and doused the fire. But it was frightening to those in camp to see the flames across the hillside, creeping closer.

This all happened in the days before I arrived at Standing Rock on Monday.


Monday evening at the sacred fire, the central gathering place for the camp, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, one of the spiritual leaders of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, called on President Obama to step in. And Roberto Mukaro Borrero of the International Indian Treaty Council reported on a visit from a United Nations representative, Grand Chief Ed John, who spent two days at the camp collecting testimony about human rights abuses. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights once again will have a U.S. representative. Someone asked: How can the U.S. have any credibility at the commission when it is violating the rights of its own people?

There was a report from a mediator on her efforts to secure the return of items confiscated from those who were arrested and being held at the Morton County Jail. Among the missing items was a sacred pipe. To have this sacred item taken by law enforcement, even just temporarily, was traumatizing.

As men drummed and sang sun dance songs and women’s voices blended, the wind whipped the flags of the hundreds of nations who have joined in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s stand against the Dakota Access pipeline. The wind blew the smoke of cedar and sage across the crowd circled around the fire. When the pipe was finally returned at that Monday night prayer circle, many were in tears.

Songs and prayers, words of encouragement, and spaces for recovery are at the core of the healing happening here at Standing Rock.

A woman announced there would be a sweat lodge later that evening at the Rosebud camp for the women who had been jailed. There would also be a four-day ceremony just for women. The trauma will echo through their lives, but the prayers and community support help.

Ownership of this land is far from clear.

Though the camp is grounded in prayerful strength, it is never far from signs that it is under siege. Across the road, black scars from the recent fire cover much of the hillside. Overhead, helicopters and small airplanes take turns circling the camp, in apparent violation of the FAA’s no-fly zone. The road to the north remains blocked by burned vehicles and a police barricade to keep out those who would pray in the path of construction.

The place where the “1851 treaty camp” was torn apart by law enforcement remains inaccessible. Construction has now continued through where that camp had been just a week ago, and drone footage shows that construction has nearly reached the river.


The police claim to be simply doing their job of protecting private property. But the ownership of this land is far from clear. “That land was illegally taken from us,” Chairman Archambault said to reporters in Bismarck, North Dakota, following the Thursday confrontation. The land, according to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, belongs to the Sioux Nation. Like so many other places, the treaty was not honored.

There’s another reason Energy Transfer’s claim of ownership to this land is questionable. The state of North Dakota has a law that prohibits corporate ownership of agricultural land. Energy Transfer’s ownership of what was Cannonball Ranch, where construction is going on now, would seem to violate that law, which was intended to protect family ranching and farming.

Still, the full weight of state law enforcement is on the side of the pipeline company.

So the camp is in prayer and ceremony. The camp is in mourning.

It is also planning its next steps. It is building structures for winter and putting out calls for help: Clergy, human rights observers, anyone who wants to protect the water should come to Standing Rock, or add their prayers, wherever they are.

The camp is also calling on President Obama: Do as you promised when you came to visit Standing Rock. Stand with the nation’s indigenous peoples.


In the morning, the camp is cold and dark; winter is setting in to this northern landscape miles away from any city. A few stars still peek between the clouds. The only electricity comes via solar panels and a few generators. But floodlights on the hill just to the south are a constant reminder that police are near. The flags lining the camp entrance break the steady, harsh glare with the motion of the wind.

At the main gathering spot, the fire has been burning all night. A small group is gathered there, some who are just waking and searching for coffee and answers, others who were up all night protecting the camp.

An elder walks over to the dark canopy where the microphone is kept. “It’s going to be a good day!” he calls out to sleeping campers. He speaks for a while in the Lakota language and then switches back to English. “Sun dancers, get up! Pipe carriers, get up! Christians, dust off your Bible and get up! The black snake is getting near the river. Get up and do something!”