Memories of Standing Rock, Five Years Later: Part One An eyewitness account of the end of the engrossing first act of the Standing Rock movement.

Standing Rock's main camp, Oceti Sakowin, December 4, 2016. (Photo by John Griswold)

Dennis Banks said that AIM was against violence, but that it might take another Watts to bring home to the public the plight of Native Americans. Russel [sic] Means remarked to some reporters that the media were ignoring us: “What do we have to do to get some attention? Scalp somebody?” It was on this occasion that I learned that as long as we “behaved nicely” nobody gave a damn about us, but as soon as we became rowdy we got all the support and media coverage we could wish for.

—Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman (1990)

 

 

 

Five years ago, in 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was about to be completed by drilling under Lake Oahe, on the Missouri River, a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in North Dakota. Native Americans and their allies who call themselves Water Protectors said it put Standing Rock’s only source of fresh water at risk, mutilated sacred sites, and violated borders still contested in nineteenth-century treaties.

Early that year, some of their young people had looked to tradition and established a camp on the Cannonball River, on reservation land owned by LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, Lakota historian and genealogist. This became the first #NoDAPL camp on April 1. They also received guidance from The Indigenous Environmental Network, which had helped with a “spirit camp” in protests of the Keystone XL pipeline. Sacred Stone grew and spilled across to a grazing pasture that would become Oceti Sakowin, the main camp.

“I think it’s a rebirth of a nation,” Faith Spotted Eagle told CNN at the end of November. “And I think that all of these young people here dreamed that one day they would live in a camp like this. […] We’ve always resisted. We’ve always been oppressed. So no matter what they do to us, no matter what that pipeline does…these prayers are gonna take power, and that pipeline is going to be destroyed.”

As the movement grew on the idea that the U.S. government has broken every treaty with the Indian nations, Native Americans’ goal became not just to stop the pipeline but to have it out of the ground. But the 1,172-mile line was complete but for that short section and cost 3.78 billion dollars—nearly a third of it spent in North Dakota. Eight other non-DAPL pipelines already crossed Lake Oahe.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company that owns the pipeline, hired a Blackwater-style security firm, TigerSwan, founded by former Delta Force officer James Reese, and had agents in five states on the case. They worked with the Morton County Sheriffs Department, police officers from several states, and the North Dakota National Guard, and shared information with an “Intel Group” of local and state law enforcement and federal agencies such as the FBI, Homeland Security, BIA, Department of Justice, and Marshals Service.

By September, Water Protectors were met with increasing force and surveillance by ground and air. Hundreds of arrests led to reputed abuses such as co-ed strip searches, dog-kennel-like detainment, and police taking selfies with prisoners. In a September 3 clash, unlicensed security guards let dogs attack a crowd.

TigerSwan described Water Protectors as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” that “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model….” The company expects the “continued spread of the anti-DAPL diaspora [but] aggressive intelligence preparation of the battlefield and active coordination between [state] intelligence and [private] security elements are now a proven method of defeating pipeline insurgencies.”

By September, Water Protectors were met with increasing force and surveillance by ground and air. Hundreds of arrests led to reputed abuses such as co-ed strip searches, dog-kennel-like detainment, and police taking selfies with prisoners. In a September 3 clash, unlicensed security guards let dogs attack a crowd.

On the night of November 20, North Dakota law enforcement used chemical agents, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and a water cannon against some 400 people on the Backwater Bridge, which lies between Oceti Sakowin and the drill pad. Amnesty International condemned the “excessive use of force.” Authorities denied the water cannon, since it was well below freezing, but videos of it and of the camp went viral on social media.

These scenes of concertina wire and ghastly klieg lights, tipis and army tents, up-armored Humvees and hippie buses, riot gear and traditional dress, warrior horses and helicopters, dogs and high-tech weaponry, all side-by-side on the Great Plains, captured the public imagination. It did not look like America, many said, and amplified the sense of strangeness in Donald’s Trump’s election win and growing national division.

Matriarchs in the tribe were acquainted with Wes Clark, Sr., NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, under Clinton, from his run as a presidential candidate in 2004. They had hopes he might lobby on their behalf or help make contacts for an effective lawsuit.

Instead, his son, Wes Clark, Jr., a minor former Army officer who had served in George Armstrong Custer’s old unit, the 7th Cavalry, got involved. Clark said he was a screenwriter, and IMDB listed his work on something called The Objective: “A military special operations team, led by a CIA case officer, are on a mission in the harsh and hostile terrain of Afghanistan where they find themselves in a Middle Eastern ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of ancient evil.”

Clark, Jr., later told me his father did not want him to go to Standing Rock. Clark, Sr., had surprised many in 2015 when he seemed to call for internment camps for those considered a domestic terror threat. But the younger Clark hastily co-organized Veterans Stand for Standing Rock (VSFSR) with Michael A. Wood, Jr., a young veteran and former police officer in Baltimore, and made plans to have a “non-violent direct action” against DAPL at Standing Rock. Clark told me the original plan was to have a ceremony with the tribe, then everyone would walk to the drill pad and encircle it with linked arms. He thought there would be a handful of veterans, but as word passed on social media the expected numbers grew exponentially in a few days. No one knew at the end of November 2016, when VSFSR was forming, what eruption might result.

VSFSR said vets should expect to serve as human shields and spoke of body armor, gas masks, ear protection, and tactical exploitation of weaknesses in the police line. They spoke of “opposing and friendly forces,” “platoons and companies,” “adjacent and supporting units,” and “trained combat medics.” Clark, who wrote the strange civilian “operations order” that got thousands there, described an “Enemy [that] has rubber/plastic bullets, CS gas, pepper spray, and an LRAD sound cannon…. Most dangerous Course of Action–live fire with lethal rounds.” However, “This is not an action of violence, if you feel any potential for violence or antisocial behavior, do not participate in actions, contact us for resources to address that first.”

“Our mission is to prevent progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline and draw national attention to the human rights warriors of the Sioux tribes regarding the United States lack of treaty enforcement,” the op order read. “In the ultimate expression of alliance, we are there to put our bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost, in complete non-violence to provide a clear representation to all Americans of where evil resides.”

One of the vets I would go with said the event, if successful, would be a template for occupied resistance in the Trump era. He believed veterans earned moral capital by their service, and DAPL would suffer by videos of veterans, some wearing their old uniforms, being beaten at Standing Rock.

Some elders, matriarchs, and headsmen at Standing Rock stressed peace and prayer, but others, such as Red Warrior Society (“Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism, Resource Extraction, and Genocide”) favored “direct actions” that were not prayer circles, and many of the arriving vets expected a melee.

But veterans are not of one mind, any more than other groups. Going by social media, non-Native vets had on their minds: the environment in general, Indigenous rights, anti-corporate sentiments, anti-government sentiments, a sense of adventurism, a nostalgia for esprit, a desire to participate in violence, the wish to serve a greater good, and the hope to use skills and experience no longer needed as aging civilians.

On December 1, the chairman of “the North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council (NDVCC) which is made up of the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign War, and the Vietnam Veterans of America,” issued a public statement to Veterans Stand organizers, saying it “adamantly opposes anyone representing themselves as a U.S. military veteran or a Veterans Organization to associate or involve themselves with the illegal activities which have occurred or take part in any unlawful or unbecoming conduct or assembly in protest to the DAPL”:

 

“As military members you have fought for our constitution, defended our freedom and our way of life, you have respected and protected the US Flag. […] By aligning yourselves with protesters who have committed these atrocities and continue to do so you are going to greatly diminish the good image of yourself as a veteran, veteran organizations, and veterans as a whole. […] You have identified the Morton County Sheriff’s office and other ND law enforcement agencies as your opposing force and enemy. This is unacceptable.”

 

In fact, so many people got involved, for so many different reasons, that the event was (nearly) a blank template. “If you’re a conservative, then this is about limited government,” the “op order” said. “If you’re a libertarian and you want freedom for your people. This is it right here. If you’re against money in politics and you don’t want to see our police and soldiers being treated like private employees to beat our citizen’s. It doesn’t matter where you come from in your approach. THIS IS YOUR FIGHT.” [all sic] (It did not mention progressive or leftist views.)

This gave many opportunities for conflict and few firm measures of success, except oil never flowing in the pipeline. Some elders, matriarchs, and headsmen at Standing Rock stressed peace and prayer, but others, such as Red Warrior Society (“Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism, Resource Extraction, and Genocide”) favored “direct actions” that were not prayer circles, and many of the arriving vets expected a melee.

Communication before VSFSR was poor. Wes Clark apologized on video for disappearing for a week, right before the event, as vets wondered where they would stay when they got to the prairie, and how they would be reimbursed for travel as promised.

The main thing, Wes Clark wanted people to know, was that the confrontation at Standing Rock would be “the most important event up to this time in human history.”

 

On December 3, 2016, a meeting for early-arrived veterans was held at Sitting Bull College, in Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock reservation. (Photo by John Griswold)

 

•  •  •

 

The group I went with the first time got to Standing Rock a couple of days before the mass of other vets arrived on December 4, 2016.

Oceti Sakowin sat in a bowl on the east side of Route 1806, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Cannonball. Hills rose in the distance, and at night 50 klieg lights shined up from a ridgeline to the north, with washed-out dots of military and police vehicles under them.

This was not a camp but a village. A tangle of dirt roads and paths twisted through large white tipis, army tents in OD green and desert sand, yurts, a canvas longhouse, camping tents, campers, buses, cars, trucks, a horse pen, several permanent buildings in various stages of construction, mess tents, cutting yards, and a carpenter’s shop. Flags lining an unpaved central avenue snapped in the sharp wind of the Plains and the smoke of wood fires. A few thousand people were living on the multi-acre field, and perhaps 5,000 veterans and other allies were on the way. (No one including Clark, apparently, kept records of camp population.)

The Missouri River’s big freshwater smell was on the breeze. On the hills to the north stood the armored vehicles, radio masts, slinkies of razor wire, and observant men holding weapons.

On the western edge was a tall hill. For months it had been called Facebook Hill for its homemade cell tower, but at this time it was renamed, significantly, Media Hill. The tents for the Press and Legal departments were on top, with other structures and parked cars, including a van that served as broadcasting studio for Spirit Resistance Radio.

From the hill, the panorama looked like a refugee camp abroad, some said; a post-apocalyptic settlement; a postmodern jumble of images from three centuries; a time-traveler or alternative-history film.

A yellow DAPL helicopter was on orbit my first morning. Two hawks circled; a drone whirred. The Missouri’s big freshwater smell was on the breeze. On the hills to the north stood the armored vehicles, radio masts, slinkies of razor wire, and observant men holding weapons. North of the police line was a two-mile-wide corridor, 150 feet across, that DAPL had bulldozed on September 3. The Standing Rock Tribe specifically decried it as “desecration.” Beyond that was the drill pad.

 

•  •  •

 

Foes would claim the camp itself was the environmental hazard, for everything from its wood smoke and fuel use to the amount of garbage it produced. They would say Water Protectors were hypocrites for claiming to want to save the river from contamination, when the camp was built on a floodplain, and tons of material could end up in the Missouri at spring melt.

But in the first week of December the possibility of flooding was not widely known. Porta-potties were placed around camp, and compost toilets were being built, thanks to a donation by actress Patricia Arquette. Giant roll-off dumpsters were used for trash collection. Unlike the city of Paris, Oceti didn’t seem to have so much as a pile of dog poop on the ground; any clutter was stuff waiting to get used.

A couple of small alternative-energy companies had brought in a handful of solar arrays. Seven central kitchens kept individual cooking fires to a minimum, and tent-dwellers without heat could keep warm and safe in the kitchens and in two connected geodesic domes used as a community center.

Many times Native Americans told me the metaphor of crabs in a bucket: how they could all escape if they would cooperate, but when one got near the lip the others pulled him down.

People checked on each other, and medics went around all day, every day, asking how everyone was doing. Security kept the peace, and though there were accusations of sexual assault and other problems, it is notable that no one died in 10 months in the occupation from conflict in or out of camp, from drugs or alcohol, from traffic accidents, or from the harsh weather. (One body was found downriver long after the camp closed, though no one knew how the young man died.) There were often traditional doctors or nurses on-site, as well as “alternative healers” of various stripes, and mental-health counselors.

A sense of common purpose was deepened by the weather and (for some) the imminent arrival of thousands of reinforcements, many of them combat-trained, young, and fit. The most optimistic said the pipeline would be stopped, not even rerouted, and the camp would become a historical landmark in the struggle for human rights as well as a model of sustainable living. Even non-Native people said they felt the spirituality of the sacred fires, Native prayer, and rites.

But unity is hard to organize.

Outside an army-style mess tent in Oceti Sakowin, December 3, 2016. (Photo by John Griswold)

 

Many times Native Americans told me the metaphor of crabs in a bucket: how they could all escape if they would cooperate, but when one got near the lip the others pulled him down. Carl Bruce, a Standing Rock Sioux, told CNN, “Oh hell, I can move north of [a pipeline] break and get my water over there.”

Native Americans, after all, serve in the BIA police and other federal jobs, or are conservative and pro-business, or work in the Bakken fields or on other pipelines themselves. The Navajo were in Arizona begging for their coal-digging jobs, it was pointed out. Seventy-eight percent of Native Americans in the US do not live on tribal lands. There was a lot of talk about what it means to be a “real Indian.”

Besides, the camps cost the tribe money, time, and inconvenience. Robert Fool Bear, Sr., District Chairman of Cannon Ball, where the camps were located, said, “It irks me. People are here from all over the world. If they could come from other planets, I think they would.”

Oceti Sakowin was not self-sustaining. There were no trees to fell for firewood, no stockyards, poultry pens, gardens, or even fresh water. (The Missouri is already the seventh-most polluted waterway in the United States, with nearly five million pounds of toxic releases added each year.) The camp was 100 percent dependent on donations, from food and water to firewood and propane. So many other donations—sleeping bags, winter clothing, gas masks, batteries, medical and hygiene supplies, etc.—poured in by mail, FedEx, and UPS that volunteer crews had to be formed to get them from town before they were sent back.

Donations were not just things, such as trailers filled with frozen meat. The official Veterans Stand for Standing Rock page alone at GoFundMe raised $1,155,760 from 25,989 donors in little more than a month. (As late as perhaps 2019 GoFundMe alone still listed 4,026 #NoDAPL Standing Rock-related funding projects, down from what the tribal council said was as many as 10-20,000.)

With the camp standing for sovereignty, traditional ways, and sustainability, total reliance on outside help made it vulnerable to political rhetoric.

Yet there was something about the fact that it had no GDP, no money of its own, nothing to sell or export, other than resistance, that made it seem purer and more precious to its cause. There was nothing to buy, no billboards, no TV, no leaf blowers, and rarely anywhere to be beyond walking distance.

The camp’s main value was its physical manifestation of an idea, and this idea could be photographed and shared around the globe with an efficiency those of us who grew up before the Internet could still marvel at.

“We have no hunger here,” Myron Dewey, the Paiute and Shoshone drone operator told Rolling Stone. “There’s no one homeless. We have free health care, free mental health care. You want to see where America is great again? Come here.”

The camp’s main value was its physical manifestation of an idea, and this idea could be photographed and shared around the globe with an efficiency those of us who grew up before the Internet could still marvel at. (But you really had to want to share it. The police had done everyone a favor by jamming the grid; there was no Internet, no cell phone use, no Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, unless you were masochistic enough to hike up the hill and wait for a signal.)

There was awe in the camp’s solidity, its defiance—its occupation of the landscape—but also its fragility, and how in a day or two sheriffs, state police, and the National Guard could push everyone onto the state road and bulldoze everything into piles. There was no question they could, though it would probably mean deaths. All that remained to be seen was if they would.

 

•  •  •

 

A young White vet named Tom was briefing the early vets at a woodpile outside a shack used as the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Tom said we needed cultural sensitivity but seemed to struggle for specifics. Let’s see, he said: It was a matriarchal culture. There were sacred fires. He didn’t have time to explain all that, but we would catch on. We should act as if our grandmas were standing next to us. Act as if anything we said or did might be videotaped for a court case, because it might. “A’ho” was something said a lot by the Indians, he said—think of it like the “hoo-ah” of the military, an acknowledgment and gesture of enthusiasm. Above all, we must show respect as guests in a different culture. Never, for instance, ever, give a Native woman a blanket, because that signified marriage.

He stood, legs spread, in a white wool poncho, like Clint Eastwood, as he talked to an independent news crew. He looked exactly like his father and had a purposeful, no-nonsense expression. His voice was deep and resonant.

A combat vet told me, “We got all these people coming, we need to get these barracks built—going to magically fit 4,000 sweaty, overweight, angry, medicated vets into one plywood mega-shed. […] Why the fuck would I give some strange woman a blanket when I could just turn it in to the giant heap of fucking blankets [tent]?”

“Look!” Tom said beatifically, pointing behind me. “The General has arrived!”

“The General” was Wes Clark, Jr., the former four-year captain. He stood, legs spread, in a white wool poncho, like Clint Eastwood, as he talked to an independent news crew. He looked exactly like his father and had a purposeful, no-nonsense expression. His voice was deep and resonant.

There had already been accusations of the camps being treated like Bonnaroo or Rainbow Gatherings (“Dear Fellow White People: Standing Rock Isn’t Goddamn Burning Man,” a GQ title said on November 28), and fears expressed of culturally-clueless people taking over the movement with dreams of being White saviors. One could imagine the frustration of Native Americans trying to keep the thing under any control, let alone theirs. Now the macho adventure of veteranism was being added.

“This isn’t Dances with Wolves, and you aren’t Kevin Costner,” a vet from the Navajo Nation said in a video that listed Faith Spotted Eagle as “Cultural Consultant.” Spotted Eagle was briefly famous during the 2016 election when she received an electoral vote for president from another Native American, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Elsewhere Spotted Eagle said of White people coming to Oceti, “It’s gonna be a challenge, because, there are non-Native people who have come here, bless their hearts, that are looking for their spirits. […] So now they’re looking to try to be Indians. And we don’t have their answer. We need for them to stand in their full spirit. Otherwise they’re a weight on us.”

Spotted Eagle also spoke of the “settler mind” of those coming to the camp, those who, as if it was “in their DNA,” begin building houses and “scrapping for space.”

 

•  •  •

 

Cornell West on Route 1806, outside Oceti Sakowin, December 4, 2016. (Photo by John Griswold)

 

On Saturday night, December 3, a meeting for early-arrived veterans was held at Sitting Bull College, in Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock reservation. The crowd included a large number of Native vets, some in BDU caps or Marine covers with eagle feathers attached. Native kids in camo coveralls, too young to have served, swaggered through the crowd. White old-timers wore cowboy-style cavalry hats; young guys had on new BDU pants or odd cold-weather boots and gaiters from Arctic-warfare posts. Several young men wore keffiyehs around their necks. T-shirts proclaimed, “I’m the infidel Allah warned you about,” “Desert Storm vet,” and “Proud to be US Navy.” There were rancher jackets, ski jackets, and foreign-military berets. Operators and hipsters had disturbingly similar fashions.

A Native woman in a patterned skirt ordered us to fall in. She was 39-year old Loreal Black Shawl, an Oglala and Northern Arapaho veteran and descendant of a survivor of the first Wounded Knee. The assembled vets stood looking at each other in confusion, and Black Shawl got louder and shriller, calling “Fall in!” over and over. Most of the vets began slowly to organize themselves into rank and file, but some got up and walked away.

Black Shawl said she was the spokesperson for VSFSR and our “sergeant major.” She said the house rules were peace and prayer. As “military,” we “had to have a chain of command.”

“You take your orders from me,” she said. “There will be no direct action at all… You will not do anything to agitate the other side.”

A White male vet next to me said to his buddy, “She’s got the wrong crowd. This group doesn’t take its orders from anyone.”

A Veteran Service Officer from Standing Rock welcomed the vets as brothers and sisters and thanked them for their service and for “the accomplishments we will make,” which went undefined. A young man saged the room. Black Shawl stalled for speakers who had not arrived but left everyone standing in formation and paced back and forth at its head, hands behind her back. According to a veteran site, she had been a buck sergeant and unit supply specialist, and in the terrible class-bound snobberies of the military, this made her a low-ranking REMF and a pogue, and her manner gave her away. Still, the root of it might have been “woman and non-White.” The combat infantry and Special Forces vets whispered to each other.

A Native woman in a patterned skirt ordered us to fall in. She was 39-year old Loreal Black Shawl, an Oglala and Northern Arapaho veteran and descendant of a survivor of the first Wounded Knee.

She sensed their restlessness and began to call out each branch of the military and demanded they sing their service songs, but the Marine vets did not know all the words to theirs and tailed off in embarrassed mumbling. Everyone laughed.

There were many speakers in the next hours, but it was hard to know what was expected in the mix of inflammatory language and peacemaking religiosity.

A man said he was Sitting Bull’s great-nephew, I think, but there was a developing sense these claims signified more. Who among Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse capitulated or did not, and what did this mean to their relatives’ reputations? What did “relatives” mean, and who were “hang-around-the-fort Indians?”

When a woman said we who had been enemies had come together, did she mean Native/non-Native; U.S. military/Native warriors; Sioux/Crow (traditional enemies)—or all those? An elder in a Choctaw Casino Powwow jacket made a speech, but I wondered who he was speaking to. Could the Lakota understand Choctaw? Could the Dakota? The Nakota?

If, as one man said, we were there to honor anti-imperialism, was the U.S. military an imperialist tool or a means of honorable service to country?

Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Tribal Council, spoke. Archambault had been arrested in August, on a misdemeanor for prayer vigils in opposition to DAPL, and had been strip-searched. He said vets had defended this nation (the United States). Now we were standing with this (Sioux) nation. He said it was a shame what was done to original people.

“You guys are very symbolic,” he said. “That’s precious.” The next day he would ask everyone at Oceti to leave and get called DAPL Dave by his own people.

“As long as the pipeline is not under the river, there’s hope,” he said. It was “not in there yet” because of people’s interest around the world. “I believe this: no pipeline will go through indigenous lands in future,” he said. “If we use violence, it [hope] is all going away.”

But, he said, 3,000 vets equaled “fear for the other side, and rightfully so.”

A friend leaned over and said, “This is all well and good, but what the fuck does any of this mean?”

I leaned to his ear to agitate. “Fuck you,” I whispered. “It’s not about you.”

“That’s fine and right,” he said without missing a beat, “but tell me what the fuck to do.”

Wes Clark said Phyllis Young, a former tribal councilperson, had asked him in September to do something, so he had contacted lawyers, journalists, and diplomats, but no one was interested enough to take the time or stake their reputations on helping.

Who among Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse capitulated or did not, and what did this mean to their relatives’ reputations? What did “relatives” mean, and who were “hang-around-the-fort Indians?”

“I have no power, I have nothing,” he said, but he had wanted to help and had raised a regiment. “We join the service to help people, not kill them,” he said.

US Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told us we were “once again answering the call to duty” and were all interconnected as people to the land. The warrior ethos ingrained in us was still within us; “put that mission first…never leave a fallen comrade.” (On the eve of her appearance at Standing Rock, Paste magazine wrote, “Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Who You Think She Is: From homophobia to Islamophobia to cultism, she is no progressive’s dream.”)

The meeting committee wanted to honor an Italian veteran for coming, but he was in the toilet. An 80-year old elder got up, hot about somebody turning the sacred sun dance into a county fair, and something about Russell Means and Dennis Banks having snow cones and burgers: there was a merry-go-round! And fruit stands! Sophia Wilansky really got viral media going, he said—he never had that much media attention in his life! Rubber bullets, gas, water hoses in 24 degrees! That event got us here!

Ululations, applause, hoo-ahs and a’ohs.

 

•  •  •

 

Native veterans celebrate the news that the pipeline has been temporarily stopped, December 4, 2016. (Photo by John Griswold)

Sunday, December 4, 2016, was sunny and warming. With more people in camp, the ground was churned up, and walking the roads was like slogging ankle-deep through a hog pen. Cars and pickups drove through the ruts, making bow waves, and the occasional group of horsemen splashed past.

At a long interfaith service at the main fire circle, a Jewish-Native speaker said this event was the first for the rest of the universe, and she praised sacred Mother Earth and Father Sky. A young man named Nic, in his turn at the mic, said all that was true enough, but only because it was a “euphemism.” Yes, things might actually resonate from here, and that was odd, because many may not have come intending to be peaceful. But the narrative was now peace and prayer, he said, and maybe, when Trump took power, Oceti would have served its purpose, after its original function was over. The crowd around the fire and in line for coffee ignored him.

Now there was a 10-minute wait for toilets, 30 for food. A young Native guy named Bandit was carrying donated meat from an 18-wheeler trailer to a mess tent. His pants hung low, and he moved with an aggressive, I’m-in-motion-and-don’t-fuck-with-me stride. A soft White kid named Henry stood in Bandit’s line, trying to heal something that had happened the night before. Henry talked a long time, but Bandit was impatient.

“Can we hug?” Henry said. Bandit gave him an awkward, angry hug and got back to work.

With the sun well up, here came the mass of vets and, with them, mainstream media trucks twice the size of police MRAPs. Tavis Smiley stood on Media Hill, discussing with producers how to make things seamless with Los Angeles. (“I’m Tavis Smiley. As you can tell by my gear and the weather elements around me, it’s a bit frigid out here. But the fight over this Dakota Pipeline is heating up.”) Jonathan Demme, in one of his own last acts, was running Smiley’s second camera. On the road outside the main gate, Cornel West, magnificently attired, was mobbed for selfies. A stream of cars, trucks, and tour buses stretched to the hilly horizon.

At midday, people began to swarm up 1806 toward the barricaded Backwater Bridge, for no reason other than others were too.

“That’s why we’re here, that’s why we drove 20 hours,” said a guy carrying an American flag.

The melting ice was even more slippery, and the crowd of vets, camp dwellers, and news crews walked cautiously along the verges and on the decline of embankments, where there was still snow and grass, or climbed to the tops of the surrounding hillocks. Young men from the camps yelled at them to get down. A burnt-out dump truck and a trashed car spray-painted with slogans sat to the side. Two figures in Anonymous masks danced on the car.

Jonathan Demme, in one of his own last acts, was running Smiley’s second camera. On the road outside the main gate, Cornel West, magnificently attired, was mobbed for selfies. A stream of cars, trucks, and tour buses stretched to the hilly horizon.

A yellow rope had been strung across the road well short of the bridge, and two men from camp, pulling security, told people to stay on the camp side. When they were ignored, they herded the large crowd, step by step, in the direction of camp. Jeff, from South Carolina, also carrying a large American flag, groused, “We shouldn’t be retreating—no surrender!”

A nice White couple asked me to take a photo of them. They stood posing on the side of the road, smiling under the sun.

“We survived!” they cried, as if providing the Facebook caption.

A Native American man in his 30s, in buckskin and braids, hobbled through the crowd with a cane. I had seen him around the casino and would come to know him as one of the loose cannons of the movement. In a few weeks he would take a rubber bullet at close range. He was complaining now, loudly, and countermanding security’s orders.

The two men continued to urge us back. “Don’t feel you’re retreating, people. Respect the Lakota elders.”

I went past camp and headed down 1806 in the direction of the casino and South Dakota. Traffic was now stop-and-start for miles, occupants peering out, gaping, jubilant. A half-mile up the road I met a massive Native American dressed in winter camouflage and face mask. He said his name was Paul, from the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He called himself Water Militia, “because it sounds cool.” He said something about DAPL’s permit being pulled that I could not make out for the mask.

By the time I reached the main gate, news had begun to spread: President Obama had told the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend the permit for DAPL’s easement, which meant for now the pipeline could not be finished. The celebration had begun.

The road, which had just been emptied, filled again. A Native elder in full eagle-feather headdress told the crowd he was the sixth-generation grandson of Sitting Bull. (Later, the “closest direct relative” of Sitting Bull, his great-grandson, told me no relative of Sitting Bull was there.) People with cameras encircled him.

On the edge of the crowd two young Native guys were grab-assing and talking behind their hands.

“You’re a little too Indian, don’t you think?” the first said. They snickered.

The man in the headdress commanded everyone back to camp with the authority of his bearing, dress, and lineage, and camp security agreed.

“Last time I walked up here, we were at war,” the first kid said to his buddy.

“War’s not over,” the second said.

The man in the headdress commanded everyone back to camp with the authority of his bearing, dress, and lineage, and camp security agreed.

“If we don’t keep pressuring them, they’ll just take it back,” the first said.

As the crowd slowly turned back, an angry White vet looked into others’ faces because he had something to say. I met his eyes.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes! Who will watch the watchers? Trading one form of authority for another,” he shouted. “Never thought I’d see fellow vets telling me I can’t walk a public road!”

Fireworks burst over the camp that night to the sound of drums, singing, and ululation, but only the willfully or cluelessly optimistic thought the victory would last.

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