Shouts could be heard Friday afternoon across the encampment at Standing Rock when the long-anticipated U.S. District Court ruling was announced. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s attempt to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline had failed. The judge would allow construction to move forward.
Then, just 20 minutes later, the ceremonial grounds at the camp erupted in cheers and drumming, people raised fists in the air, some clutching braids of sweetgrass. An order had come from three federal agencies to turn a defeat into what seemed like a stunning success —one with implications across Indian Country, and well beyond. A late afternoon rainstorm pelted the crowds, but spirits were flying high as elders, mothers with babies, young activists, all danced and sang, all celebrating, drums echoing across the camp.
“It truly was an interesting event in the universe,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, member of the Yankton Souix and an elder with the Brave Heart Society. “In one minute we had the judge ruling against us, which we expected, and then all of sudden, the United States issued a memorandum that said the whole issue needed to be looked at. That is major. We affected a nation.”
Dallas Goldtooth agreed. The move is evidence of the power of nonviolent direct action, said Goldtooth, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.
“This federal statement is a game-changer for the Tribe,” said a statement issued by the Standing Rock Tribe. “We are acting immediately on our legal options, including filing an appeal and a temporary injunction to force DAPL to stop construction.”
“I think this is a watershed moment in U.S.-tribal history regarding sovereignty and relationships between the tribes and the United States,” said Leonard Forsman, chair of the Suquamish tribe. “There is a momentous and significant cultural and spiritual expression going on in Standing Rock right now. It’s impressive to me. It has a life that goes beyond what we’re doing at this particular time.”
No one had anticipated what took place Friday.
Thursday, the day before the judge’s denial of the tribe’s injunction request, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault called the camp together, calling for prayers and nonviolence. Rumors swirled through the camp that the National Guard had been called out and might try to evict the thousands of people camped there. Archambault confirmed that the governor had called out the National Guard, but said troops would not come to the camp.
One elder from Standing Rock reminded me that the Native people in this region are subjected to violence of all sorts from non-Natives and said he feared what would happen to local residents when supporters left town.
That evening, the camp was electric with anticipation – a rock concert on one end of the camp continued on late into the night with fiery lyrics about protecting the sacred and doing what was necessary. On the other side of the camp, drumming and singing continued into the morning hours.
Friday, on the morning of the ruling, hundreds left the camp on foot, on horseback, and piled into pick-up trucks and vans. They were led by traditional pipe carriers and others with eagle staffs. The nearly silent march followed the highway up to the site where bulldozers had earlier plowed through an area considered sacred to the Standing Rock Tribe and where the private security with snarling dogs attacked self-described water defenders. The procession stopped there for prayers, a pipe ceremony, songs, and more prayers, all out of view of cameras. Horse riders stood watch on the nearby ridges.
After a final prayer for the desecrated land, the crowd went back down the road to camp.
Archambault put out another call for calm. Regardless of which way the ruling goes, he said, there will be appeals. So this is not the end of the story.
Then the decisions came, one after another.
To be clear, the federal order does not halt the pipeline – it just stops, for now, the portion under the Missouri River and on either side. And it asks the Dakota Access company to voluntarily halt work 20 miles outside of that.
“We can’t let our guard down,” Spotted Eagle said. “If they went out yesterday and used bulldozers, what’s going to stop them from continuing; they’re getting pressure from their investors.”
“There was rain yesterday, and it’s too muddy for anyone to do anything today,” said Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Tribe. Her tribe’s reservation borders Standing Rock and the Missouri River. “They’re not working today. They’re not destroying sacred sites and burial sites right now. Today is a good day.”
“But we have to remember that they are laying pipes in South Dakota, that sacred sites and burial sites are at risk.”
Still, Spotted Eagle believes the network that came together to defeat the KXL Pipeline, which re-activated to support the work of the Standing Rock Tribe to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, is well-positioned to win in the long run.
“One of the things I’ve learned as a person trying to decolonize myself is things don’t operate in isolation. Everything is connected downstream,” Spotted Eagle said. “What you’re seeing is networks that are really humming because of the Keystone XL Pipeline work. When the call came, everyone got in the cars and on the planes. We had a little bit of a respite, but not much, and then we’re back in battle.”
The unity among the tribes, the national and international attention that is building, is making it hard to defeat.
“It’s like when you make good soup—in this case the soup is made out of prayers, and the prayers keep getting stronger,” Spotted Eagle said. “Some of the prayers may be from 100 years ago. No one ever said a prayer would come in two weeks or a month. And we’ve only been out at the site since April, but our people have been praying for a long time.”
What will that look like? The encampment is setting up for a long fall and winter. And the struggle will continue far beyond Standing Rock.
“This is just one of 200 plus [pipeline] water crossings. And the James River, the Mississippi, the Des Moines River is known to have burial sites,” Braun said. “Many other tribes are threatened right now, and most of those tribes are here at this camp.”
But here is where all pipelines may finally be stopped.
The joint memorandum from the Department of Interior, Army Corps of Engineers, and Department of Justice calls for a reassessment of the policies involving Native American lands, resources, and treaty rights. Tribes across the nation will have new openings to protect their scared sites from pipelines and other forms of disruption.
They will need support, including financial support. Native Americans are the poorest population in the United States, and the costs of pushing back on these project will be tremendous. They will need much broader support than the supplies and donations currently pouring into the Standing Rock camp.
Spotted Eagle said, “We’re thinking we’re going as far as we can with this, because we’ve been waiting. I just sat in a circle with a woman from Standing Rock, and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting 45 years for you to come.’”
The ones who are waiting are not just at Standing Rock, or even on reservations across the continent. The ones who are waiting are future generations who will look back on this as the time when a decision was made: oil or water. Or as the water defenders here at Standing Rock might say, oil or life.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.