OPINION: Standing Rock Standoff… A Personal Perspective, Part One
I made the decision to travel to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and water protectors’ encampments early in November. I wanted to learn the truth about what was going on (see Show Your Solidarity with Standing Rock #NoDAPL) and report what I saw. I chose to be there the weekend of the benefit concert that headlined Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Jason Mraz, among others. The deal was sealed after reserving the last room available at the Prairie Knights Lodge & Casino (owned by the Standing Rock Sioux), and purchasing a ticket for a great seat at the concert.
The two-day drive from Salida, CO to Fort Yates, N.D., where the Lodge, Casino, and concert Pavilion were located, was pleasantly uneventful. The lodge lobby was full of people hoping to get a room, but forced to settle for the wait list. One lady tried to trade her RV for my reserved room. Nice try.
My room was spacious, equipped for eating-in, and a great place to hole up for three days when I wasn’t at the encampment. After unpacking and settling in for a moment with a vodka, I ventured back to the lodge lobby and casino, hoping to engage in conversation about the encampment and the standoff. It was earlier this day (November 25), that the Army Corps of Engineers had delivered a letter to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe notifying them to vacate the camp by December 5.
The lobby was full of circles of small groups speaking in low voices. I walked around, trying to pick up a word or two, here and there. I heard, “Obama will give an easement….” from one circle. I asked if I could listen in, and they said no, they were having a meeting, and I could leave my card with them. I left my card with three different groups that late afternoon, and never heard back from any.
Discouraged, I went back to my room. If the people don’t trust me, and won’t talk to me, what good am I? Why am I here?
I woke up early Saturday morning, anxious to travel the seven miles to the Oceti Sakowin Camp and learn what I could. The early morning view from my warm room was lovely.
It was 9 a.m. and 18 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, on the other side of the bridge over the Cannonball River. I was told to get a media pass from the media center on Media Hill. I encountered this…
So with an hour to burn in freezing cold, I walked around, and with numb fingers took photos of the early morning camp. The wood fire stoves and tribal fires created a haze, and, as I later discovered, the smell of burning wood permeated my hair. I didn’t want to wash it out.
I practiced my selfie technique, which is severely lacking.
Finally, the media center opened. I had the creds to get a press pass, so on to the media orientation.
It started with the usual, ask permission before photographing or recording people, especially, minors. No ambient recordings of voices. “There’s great natural ambient sound, as the flags on flag row. Or go down to the river.”
“No alcohol. No drugs. No weapons. This is a prayerful and peaceful gathering.”
The press orientation slowly took a turn to the surreal.
No photos of tribal fires or sacred ceremonies. Or anything sacred, including wood piles.
Or horses. “Some of these horses have bloodlines that go back to the horses of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.”
Obviously, the best photos I had shot earlier that morning were illegal. Delete, delete.
“Always ask permission to enter a camp. Be empathetic to the fact that they’ve been here since April, and we’re issuing a hundred press passes a day, and everybody’s looking for the story. Be gentle, and kind, and you’ll get a better story. Respect individual tents and tipis.”
“We retain the right to revoke your media pass.”
“Your press badge has to be visible at all times, except on the front lines. I suggest you put your media pass inside your coat, because the police are targeting media, and it makes a nice thing to aim at – a little red square – “.
I had read that the the police were targeting media. Disturbing to hear it is true.
“Find some young fleet thing to throw your camera to, because if they arrest you, they’ll take your camera, and you’ll never see it again”.
“If you end up in an ambulance, make sure you know who the ambulance drivers are.”
“We are water protectors, not protestors. There are people here who never protested anything in their lives. They are here to protect the sanctity of this water for future generations.”
A press person asked, “So in the stories, you don’t want us to use the word ‘protestors’, just ‘water protectors’”?
The reply was, “Yeah, we’re just holding space. What we want to see is press that shows the imbalance of power here.”
“This is not the place to charge batteries. It’s not that kind of a media presence. There’s a bicycle out there… Sorry… it’s tricky out here. Tell your colleagues to come prepared.”
“We’re not getting the kind of coverage we need to get. We need it now. Fast. There are deadlines.”
I asked a question. “You said we are guests of the Lakota. Pardon my ignorance, but how does that relate to the Standing Rock Sioux?”
“‘Sioux’ is a white word. ‘Lakota’ is how the people refer to themselves.”
After the orientation, a woman explained to me, “It’s all one nation. In the 1851 and 1868 Treaties, they went halfway through North Dakota and all of South Dakota into Nebraska, and that’s the land that was taken and taken and taken. There are seven council fires in the nation, and that is what Oceti Sakowin means. …it’s seven council fires of one nation.”
On Monday, we’ll begin Part Two with Oceti Sakowin Camp’s low-tech Media Hill… there’s a bicycle…