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Mnookin: Standing Rock

I had joined a group of Vermonters who traveled by bus to the Standing Rock Reservation to join in solidarity with indigenous water protectors. Just hours after we arrived, heavily militarized police clashed with unarmed activists on the nearby front lines. Pickup trucks transported the wounded to medic tents; anyone entering had to be decontaminated from tear gas. More than 300 people were injured.

Daily, the Indigenous Peoples Power Project offered nonviolent direct-action training that’s required before joining the front lines against the Dakota Access Pipeline and its route through sacred, treaty land. They explained essential principles about being protectors - not protesters - and remaining peaceful, prayerful, and nonviolent.

First and foremost, this was an encampment of ceremony and prayer. Our group tented at Oceti Sakowin Camp, named for the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribal nations. Mornings, we awoke to the words: “Wake up, relatives. Come pray with us.” Often, we walked to the river for a water ceremony of sage smudging, drumming, tobacco offerings, and song.

This was also a resistance camp: resistance to colonization, land theft, genocide, and resource extraction. It’s a 500-year-old struggle that’s still going on today. We were reminded that this is an indigenous-led movement. Then, we were invited to shift out of our white supremacy culture and build a new legacy.

On Thanksgiving, a day of mourning for many Native Americans, thousands at Standing Rock participated in direct actions while hundreds more prepared a shared meal. For nearly five hours, I served dessert to 1,300 people from around the world, indigenous and allies alike, sharing gratitude for our solidarity feast.

The next day, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a December 5th eviction notice for the camp. Although the Army Corps has said they have no plans to forcibly remove anyone, they haven’t ruled out arrests. And the North Dakota governor has since ordered an immediate evacuation, citing harsh winter conditions. This could result in impactful road closures and limited access to emergency services. In response, a coalition of groups, including Camp of the Sacred Stones and Indigenous Environmental Network, released a statement saying they will not be moved.

On the bus back to Vermont, I was flooded with emotions as I reflected on what the elders had asked of us: to be self-reflective, to show up with heart, to be of service, and to bring our experiences home.