Standing Rock Stronghold: Where Sitting Bull Lives on and the Struggle of Our People Unfolds
Mní Wičóni. Water is life. We are born in water. We have come together in peace and prayer from the four Sacred directions to protect this gift of life, now and for the generations to come. If the “fossil foolish” industry is allowed to poison any more of our waterways, it will be environmental genocide.
I was called to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock and the Water Protectors on the frontline of a spiritual resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline snaking through sacred places, unmarked burial grounds, and cultural sites. The Fortune 500 company, Energy Transfer, is building a $3.78 billion, 172-mile long crude oil pipeline on 1851 treaty land adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
On a hot August afternoon, with more than 300 Native Nation flags flying in solidarity along the main dirt road of the camp, I realized that I was part of a historical movement: a cultural, moral, and social action initiated by our youth with the unprecedented support of spiritual leaders, tribal leaders, Water Protectors, friends, allies, and their families dedicated to halting the Dakota Access Pipeline’s advance to the Missouri River. Because if the construction of the pipeline is allowed to go under the Missouri, the poisoning of the sacred waterways of our people is inevitable.
That evening, as the purple sunset faded into the northern plains, the camp gathered around the sacred fire. Winona, a Lakota traditional cook from Cheyenne River, and the many kitchen helpers from all walks of life, prepared buffalo stew and fry bread to feed the more than 5,000 supporters, friends, and allies of the resistance. Delegation after delegation from Indigenous Nations around the world expressed their solidarity, bringing truckloads of food and supplies, offering prayers, and sharing their songs and personal stories of what brought them to Standing Rock. I, too, was welcomed into the circle and invited to share a few songs of resistance.
It has been more than 100 years since the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Nation have come together. This historic moment presents a paradigm shift, an opportunity for human beings to better understand their relationship to the natural world. The smell of sage, cedar, and sweetgrass burning, the laughter of children playing, the powerful Sundance songs and healing Jingle dress dances makes me wonder: who are these men financing, building, and protecting the pipeline? Are they men who have forgotten that they were born in water? Are they so disconnected that they are unaware that they are raping our mother, the earth? Is their thirst for riches and hunger for power insatiable? Is their greed so strong that they will extract every last drop of the world’s precious resources at the expense of their own children and generations to come?
The significance of this movement crosses cultural boundaries and resonates symbolically and politically all over the world because of the unprecedented corporate land grabs that continue to displace and dispossess Indigenous and marginalized peoples for bottomline profits that benefit only the one percent. Today, a young Lakota man approached me after returning from the frontlines. He greeted me in his traditional language, and shared a story of how hard it was for him as a young warrior to stand peacefully while being shot at point blank range by rubber bullets as he witnessed his fellow Water Protectors being assaulted with mace and tear gas. He pulled from his torn pocket a silver case dented by rubber bullets. He was smiling, knowing that his ancestors had protected him.
Words cannot describe the experience of Oceti Sakowin Camp, from the morning prayer circles to the calls to action when the camp is mobilized, to the front lines to peacefully and spiritually stand directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline to stop the Black Snake and its toxic poison crude oil from reaching the Missouri River. From the time I arrived in early August, the frontlines have intensified. The response from the North Dakota Sheriff ’s Department has evolved into a militarized assault on unarmed youth, women, and men, our spiritual and traditional values, and our right to protect our land and life.
Our signs (Mní Wičóni. #WaterIsLife #NoDAPL), our traditional drumming, ceremonial songs, and our prayers have been met with armored tanks and humvees, sound cannons, and riot SWAT teams. We have been shot with rubber bullets, surrounded by snipers and mercenaries, assaulted with batons, taser guns, mace, and pepper spray—not to mention the countless infiltrators and the 24/7 surveillance planes, helicopters, and psychological warfare directed at our camp. What we are experiencing is an escalating military response to an unarmed spiritual resistance. There will be no spiritual surrender.
More than 400 Water Protectors have been arrested as the North Dakota Sheriff ’s Department continues to spin lies in order to justify the excessive militarized crackdown on our peaceful actions. The Sheriff ’s Department appears to be protecting the interests of the Wall Street-backed Energy Transfer Corporation rather than the safety and wellbeing of the people. Their actions are evidence that they have abandoned their duty to protect the broad coalition of American citizens and non-Native supporters from around the world who stand on the front lines with us. We come in peace, unarmed with prayers. Yet they come armed with weapons of destruction to provoke confrontation and violence.
We met with Reverend Jesse Jackson on the frontline of our camp. I asked him to urge President Obama to intervene in a real way with an executive order to stop the Black Snake pipeline and to safeguard water protectors and defenders of land and life from excessive military response to unarmed women, children, and men, and to safeguard our spiritual resistance to the desecration of sacred ground, our cultural and burial sites. One evening following an action where 141 Water Protectors were arrested, those who escaped arrest and made it made it back to the main camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, gathered around the sacred fires and sweat lodges. You could hear the ceremonial songs of many Native Nations echo throughout the night. As I lay in my teepee on my buffalo robe, I could hear the powerful prayers of our people reverberate throughout the camp as if calling to our ancestors in a united prayer for strength, patience, and compassion. As I stared into the fire inside my lodge, I became acutely aware that:
I was born on the reservation in 1973 on a trail of tears from Choctaw to Cherokee in the spirit of Crazy Horse and our people buried at Wounded Knee.
Ghost dancers thread the prairies of my mind, dancing through history on smoke signals of time as we fight for our lives against the Black Snake Dakota Access Pipeline.
Across the waters of Sand Creek, winter winds blow cold from Cheyenne River to the Standing Rock stronghold where Sitting Bull lives on and the struggle of our people unfolds.
I was born on the reservation in 1909 in a prison of unjust men whose laws are not mine in the spirit of Goyaale Geronimo and the Water Protectors on the frontline.
I was raised in the trenches of a cultural firefight. I saw Mountain Spirit Dancers in the sacred firelight. A cry for peace echoes through a reign of terror in the night.
I was born on the reservation on a fateful Big Foot ride. Hotchkiss cannons rang out; unarmed men, women, and children died.
The Cannon Ball and Missouri, rivers of tears our people cried. From the battle of Little Bighorn to the Massacre of Whitestone, hundreds of nations strong, people of ceremony resisting at Sacred Stone. They polluted the waters of justice and won’t leave our water alone.
I was born on the reservation in 1862; 38 Dakota died that day for me and you, in the largest mass execution the U.S. ever knew.
America was built on lies, genocide, and slaves, machines of destruction plowing through unmarked graves. To us the earth is the loving mother; to them she’s something to desecrate and pave.
I was born on the reservation in 1890 in a struggle for cultural survival in the land of the free. Now I’m standing strong in Standing Rock, all my relations and me.
I was born in Oceti Sakowin Camp in 2016 during the largest spiritual resistance this world has ever seen. My people they named me Mní Wičóni.
—Robby Romero (Apache) is president of Native Children’s Survival and frontman of rock band Red Thunder.
For more information on Standing Rock, visit: www.standwithstandingrock.net
Photo: Robby Romero (left) with American Indian Movement leader, Dennis Banks (Anishinaabe). Photo by April White Crow.