Water of Life – Journey to Standing Rock

Answering the Call


My journey to Standing Rock began in Martinez, California. The train station was tucked behind Shell refineries and wetlands of inland Bay Area. Petroleum crude is boiled here, creating a strata of different products, such as jelly, gas, jet fuel, fertilizer, plastics, rubber, and roof tar to keep out the rain.

The train roars east passing abandoned cars and decayed merchant vessels noosed to anchors in the shallows. There’s a kind of release watching the tensile industrial infrastructure dissipate, revealing rolling open hills and morning sunlight bathing the marshes in gold. Birds lift out of the water away from the train. We pass open pastures of cows with electrical towers planted in them, carrying the load over the grid. There’s a palm tree in Davis, California, reminding me of the equatorial region’s annual expansion. With the icecaps in an accelerated melting process (resulting in a greater absorption of solar heat), I’ve been asking myself:

What is more important than addressing this condition?

For the reader’s clarity, I also traveled to Standing Rock to cover the pipeline protest as an outsider. The natives are concerned that the pipeline will eventually leak, destroying their sacred sites the water within the sovereign territory of the Standing Rock Reservation and beyond.

The economist Alfred E. Kahn described market behavior as the result of “the tyranny of small decisions”. His observation was later adapted to describe our environmental footprints. By the roar of the train whistle, there is a real sense that we are headed for an extremely dreadful moment of philosophical reckoning. What will it be like to die, and watch those we love die, on a land we loved that is also dying, because we did not take stewardship of it while we had the chance? Where are the leaders of this cause?

What is my part in the tyranny of small decisions?

And lastly, how do we fully reduce the demand for petroleum – especially at the cost of safe drinking water?

There is a thin dusting of snow surrounding Donner Lake on the far side of the Sierras. The train snakes in and out of tunnels, descending the eastern slope towards Reno, Nevada. I love to travel. It educates me by default, deepens old friendships and fosters new ones. It does away with the restlessness that haunts a fully domesticated life. I’ve driven, flown, boated, walked, biked, motorcycled, piggy-backed, hitched, snowboarded, surfed, and ran. With every step, I’m aware there is a commodity that is being used, manufacturing demand, giving rise to the need of a corporate entity to supply the energy – and security to protect it.

I am made of water, using petroleum, to protect water.

We roll down the eastern slopes into the metropolis of Reno. Beyond Reno, the light casts long across the blond desert hills and basins beneath a cold grey sky. The peace out here is impossible to separate from the feeling of abject alienation in places like Reno. Pure madness can overtake a man out here and it seems nothing short of a healthy reaction. But pull over on one of the mountains and wander into the sagebrush and wildflowers pondering the sycle moon and you will feel a silence in your heart like the ringing of blunted eardrums after a profanely relieving concert.

The sun sets over the Nevada skyline. Around the tracks lay the glories of industrial infrastructure, all of it drinking people and petroleum. Irrigation canals feed farmlands in the desert. The mountains in the horizon become shadows of themselves. They seem to whisper off the heat of the day. Cloud holds the warmth in like a down blanket. This is fun. My life is fun because of oil and water. The prospect of a small fraction of us escaping to explore the cosmos beyond the approaching bottleneck is possible because we have had an energy solution – for now. Psychologically, I need the frontier.

It was 3am when the taxi pulled up outside of the two houses, both dark, one bearing a great banner stating “END CAPITALISM.” The driver said, “Which one you think is the anarchist house?” I walked up the steps, entered, threw my gear down and passed out. The next morning I met a group of earthen builders traveling to Standing Rock. I also learned that my ride was delayed, so I poked around SLC for the next few days.

In that time, the news from Standing Rock became grim. NPR released two stories, one that effectively blamed the Sioux for not coming to the meetings regarding the pipeline, failing to mention the injunction they’d filed on August 3rd; and another relaying a statement from President Obama, declaring that he thought the Army Corps of Engineers was considering rerouting the pipeline. The Army Corps of Engineers did not corroborate this speculation on the part of the president.

Standing Rock


There are three camps that roughly descend away from the frontline. They are Red Warrior, Oceti Sakowin (the main camp), and Sacred Stone Camp. On the southern side, atop the hill behind Sacred Stone Camp, is an effigy of a sitting red man. He faces north toward the pipeline, the Missouri River to the east and the highway on the left. Sacred Stone Camp was established when the pipeline was miles away, but now approaches to less than a half mile of the shore.

There are flags from 300 native communities and nations represented in Oceti Sakowin. From the highway, a port of entry consisting of a few native men makes a preliminary inquiry into each non-native entering the camp. Main camp is otherwise unprotected and self-policed. Infiltrators slip unseen in a sea of water protectors while helicopters circle low over the camps. There are public dances between dusk and around midnight. The beat of the drums is heard across the camp like a heartbeat in your ears if you hold very still and listen. The singing rises and falls like a continuous wail, moving between octaves in a scale reminiscent of playing piano using only black keys with slight pitch shifts. I don’t know how to summarize the dance except to say it moves in a circle, curling in on itself and coiling around the fire.

commissaryThere is a commissary made of old army tents that feed everyone. The dust, mists and fire smoke mix together in a lightly odorous haze that catches the light in the north from the incoming construction crews who work 24 hours a day. At night, stadium lighting illuminates the construction zone, glowing eerily over the camp all throughout the night as the moon waxes from thumbnail to crescent.

On my second day I went to an orientation on getting arrested during an action. The basic approach to this non-violent approach is to encumber the legal and penal system with a glut of arrests, in order to put strain on state resources while creating media attention. In order to prid pro quo this maneuver, the state has made prison really, really shitty for water protectors. Before prison, it is likely to be hit by tear gas, pepper spray, be beaten, shot with rubber bullets, and cuffed with tight zip ties. Strip searches are common. So is being locked in dog kennel to await processing. Videos on how to avoid sexual assault are showed, too. This is either because it’s scary, or because it’s happening. Unfortunately, these reports are not an exaggeration, but it’s hardly surprising considering the costs of delaying construction of the pipeline.

frontlinesFurther up the road past Oceti Sakowin are two burned out DAPL vehicles. Immediately past them is a bridge with two large military vehicles blocking the opposite side, and two rows of stereotypically inauspicious-yet-threatening SUVs. While there, three native girls approach with their hands up, indicating they are unarmed. They climb the large military vehicles blocking the far side. A swarm of SUVs come over the hill towards the bridge carrying reinforcements. A crowd of us begin to move forward, as we expected to do, but the native leadership asks us to back up – This engagement is not authorized by the elders.

A rumor spread that elders had banned collective actions for 30 days. In light of this, peaceful prayer marches were arranged to the front lines. A group of 500 marched on the courthouse in Mandan, North Dakota, in to forgive the police for their abuses and sing for the protectors still imprisoned. We all joined hands circling an entire city block around the courthouse and sang. Another march of 400 brought us from the Oceti Sakowin up to the front lines where a hive of riot police scrambled into position. On the hills above us were said to be snipers, but it seemed like a scare tactic. We knelt in silence while the native youths presented the cops with gifts.

After this, I became concerned we were acting too friendly with an entity that simply didn’t believe in anything other than money and active resistance. It became a stressful argument causing strife and division between camp members. Why were the elders telling us to stand down? This would have no affect on the continuous construction.

But I’d overlooked something important. Standing Rock is trying to stop a pipeline.  Although many of us came to fight this, it is also a place for people to be heard and empowered.

What I Know So Far…

One of the Water Protectors in Standing Rock created a body of research that I tapped into to write this article. Their work has been accumulated at www.standingrockclassaction.org for any curious parties. I encourage everyone to explore the arguments inside of this independently developing class action lawsuit.



My time at Standing Rock has been difficult in way I never imagined. In camp, we speak knowing that infiltrators are listening, too. They spread misinformation in order to sabotage our efforts and divide the collective resolve. Lost in an ocean of new faces, we newcomers listen to the loudest voice. But I had to put it aside. At a meeting, I announced that I was concerned that we were not executing direct actions against the pipeline. We were missing a vanishing opportunity to disrupt construction. That night, my phone reset itself and then crashed. This (violation of the 5th Amendment) happens to a lot of phones out here – search “StingRay” and “phone” for more info). Meanwhile, a plane circles the encampment nightly, illegally running without its lights on, in order to keep us awake, worrying. The floodlights in the north shine toward us and from the construction zone like a dozen sapphire eyes of Sauron. Since beginning the writing of this article, someone has tried to illegally access my email in a city a hundred miles north of me.


The next morning, Donald Trump, a primary investor in Energy Transport Partners (the contractor building DAPL), was elected President of the United States. This was actually had an emboldening affect upon the spirit of the camp. It was like our country had gone in for a general checkup only to discover it had brain cancer. We set the loss aside and resumed building a place to sustain the Water Protectors in their defiance of those who have no respect for the Constitution or the People it belongs to. The bastards even had the nerve to steal our large cooking pans in the night.


nightIt can be difficult to say “no”, but that is exactly why we are here. So many friends who I haven’t spoken to in years are writing to offering support, or simply to thank us for being here. I have been touched by the amount of support both emotional and material I have received. Every bit helps keep my head on straight in a politically and emotionally and ecologically trying time. To me, the water protectors carry the collective moral outrage felt by millions against this pipeline and what it represents to environmental justice.

In 1874, a geologist traveling with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer discovered gold deposits in the Black Hills in western Lakota Oyate (the Lakota Nation). The United States offered to buy the land. The Lakota declined their offered price. Regardless of this, gold prospectors came and set up lawless towns such as Central City, Lead, and Deadwood; they eventually requested army protection from the hostile Indians. In this effort, Lt. Col. Custer and his men died in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, thus beginning the “Great Sioux War”. In 1877, the initial Treaty of 1851 was renegotiated, thereby mollifying the Lakota’s control of the Black Hills in the west. Over the next century, the land holding would be reduced several more times.

Today, the same thing is happening at the western end of the Standing Rock Reservation, and just like back then, the people who are defending the rights of this tribe are being portrayed as unreasonable and violent because of their proximity to a profitable commodity. This time, it’s sweet crude from the Bakken oil fields.

The fight to protect the cultural capital and water resources at Standing Rock is, to me, a disagreement in timeframes. Back in 1874, the Lakota fought to keep their land. Now, they (and 300 other nations + non-natives) are fighting to preserve their ancestral artifacts from desecration and protect their water from being poisoned for future generations. DAPL and those who approved it are operating in a shorter timeframe. In the long run, the question is not if a pipeline will break, but when. Our economy and global security does depend on oil. Everyone senses this dependency cannot overrule environmental concerns, and yet the economics of the problem persist. Oil is like gold, sugar, salt, and slave labor.

In 1831, Mary Prince published The History of Mary Prince. The book was an account of her life as a slave. There is a scene where slaves are making table salt in the surf. Some had open wounds on their legs that would bleed and pickle in the salty water. Since salt was a necessity for Great Britain, and it was implied that salt contained the blood of slaves, no one could say they weren’t eating small bits of human flesh with every dash. It was a highly provocative piece of writing, and ultimately aided to the abolishment of the slave trade by 1865. People were terrified of abolitionists. Without cheap labor, prices would skyrocket and the markets would collapse. Interestingly enough, it actually created a lot of jobs. Right now, oil represents the slave labor. Our use of it is a necessity. The price is the depravation of water rights and the desecration of sacred sites (as sacred as a cemetery where your grandparents rest).

But is the Dakota Access Pipeline actually illegal?

The permit to drill beneath the Missouri River at Standing Rock was approved by State Engineer Todd Sando on April 1st, 2016. This was one of his last acts before retirement. Col. John W. Henderson, P.E. of the Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) followed suit on July 25th, 2016, stating that no significant environmental, economic, cultural, or social effects – and was not injurious to the public interests.

The Environmental Assessments signed by Sando and Henderson declare that the Missouri River will not be polluted. However, a route that passed upstream of the state capitol, Bismarck, North Dakota, was dismissed because of this exact concern. Upstream, it was a problem. Downstream, it was safe-ish.

Downstream, the possible consequences were acceptable.

On August 3rd, 2016, an injunction was filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It was rejected by the court of appeals, and you can read why here. There are various interpretations of this ruling so I won’t attempt to speculate.

But what laws, if any, are being broken?

According to Section 2 of FS-600, the Forest Service National Resource Guide to American Indian and Alaska Native Relations, “The reserved water right as applied to Indians is derived from Winters v. U.S., 1908. This landmark Supreme Court case held that “sufficient water was implicitly reserved to fulfill the purposes for which the reservation was established.” This Doctrine of Federal Reserved Rights established a vested right (a right so completely settled that it is not subject to be defeated or cancelled) whether or not the resource was actually put to use, and enabled the tribe to expand its water use over time in response to changing reservation needs.”

In terms of water rights, DAPL clearly threatens to violate Winters vs. U.S. To complicate matters, the Department of Defense has specific guidelines that violate Winters vs. U.S.. According to the DoD’s American Indian and Alaska Native Policy, “There is no obligation to consult with tribes in advance of a proposal that ‘may have the potential to significantly affect’ tribal interest.” It goes on to recommend general consultation.

The second concern for the tribe is the harming of sacred historical sites along the pipeline route. In the injunction filed against DAPL, they were accused of violating Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). There is a lot of evidence that they have disturbed and moved archeological objects. See the link at the top of this article for more up-to-date information.

14955932_10153938506896860_9159910641828158765_nIt is important for us to remind ourselves that we are the ones being oppressed, not the pipeline. And by “we”, I am also referring to the state police who have been forced to abuse protesters to deincentivize engagement. With so much tension and emotion in camp, it’s easy to want to blame the cops. It’s also easy to look at the people here and overlook their quiet sacrifice for being here. They’re hippies. They’re fools. They’re hypocrites. They are conquered people. But to quote the great Malcolm Reynolds of the show Firefly, just because you’re on the losing side of a fight, doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong side.

Living under the fascism of this pipeline’s security apparatus has been very educational. Anyone you meet could be an infiltrator, so you have to look hard into their eyes for proof, and never be sure. It takes time to earn trust. It grips your heart with fear, knowing you’re targeted by a dominator with vast resources. Without being able to speak for these communities, I would speculate that this is how the poor feel, this is how African Americans feel, this is how LGBTQ feel, and this is how Native Americans feel.

This is why the Constitution was drafted just so.

To all those who support me in this life. Thank you for being a part of the journey. I will try and write something again soon. I apologize for the scattering of thoughts, but I hope they have returned you to your center more aware of our struggle out here and how you are part of it.


The Prarie Nights Casino in Cannon Ball, North Dakota


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