Daily Life in the Oceti Sakowin Camp


It’s the base of all that is happening at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s main Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannonball, North Dakota. It’s also the gentle tide under the protective actions in relation to the Dakota Access Pipeline, or “Black Snake,” as it is also widely known.

Care is either being used as a deep well of respect and action and prayer by the protectors, or against, in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline workers and their tentacles of Energy Transfer Partners, major US banks, and an increasingly aggressive local and regional law enforcement presence that is violating human rights on such a scale and frequency that the Obama administration, Amnesty International, and United Nations have mobilized.

Care is what is the heart of this movement against another systemic ripping of a national treaty, this time with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. For more about the treaty and history of the what has been happening with the DAPL, please click on the links below at the end of this article. 

Here however, focus rests on my direct time in the Oceti Sakowin Camp over nearly two weeks.

First, daily life around the camp is peaceful, slow, and filled with conversation, prayer, song, dance and communal meals. Conversations between thirty minutes and an hour and a half when you meet someone are normal. The direct actions and ensuing spot news headlines are but a sliver of the whole arc of the story. Protectors acting on behalf of their people, as well as all of the families of every color and size down the Missouri River, show their commitment by steadfast presence. At both ends of the day, and home away from any non-violent direct actions, this is where the majority of the people will be. This is the heart, along with the sister and original Sacred Stone Camp across the river. At any time of day or night, I felt infinitely safer than in the San Francisco bay area where I live. The possession of alcohol, drugs or weapons is strictly forbidden in the main camp, and regularly repeated over the center microphone throughout the day. There is a large banner hanging down from the the main camp entrance checkpoint that reads “WE ARE UNARMED.

Second, here is what the camp really is to me.

Oceti Sakowin Camp to me is Dean on top of a hill fielding loving nuzzles of his young daughter as she giggles and kisses for his attention. It’s Roselyn inviting me inside her trailer after preparing me soup on a cold rainy day, to educate me about sweat lodges and the preparation of tobacco ties. It’s Rachel telling me about how she was put up for adoption as a baby along with one other of her seven brothers and sisters, because the government continued, even in the seventies, a culturally disastrous relocation program started in 1948 to take natives out of their lands and place them in cities were they would find more “opportunity.” It’s Frank galloping by on his horse wearing a trench coat and a smile, maybe with a woman holding on tight. It’s Tom politely asking me why I came to the camp and how I was aiming to help. It’s Ron helping at the donation tent and deadpaning that though his last name is His Horse is Thunder, that in fact his steed is “slow as shit.” It’s James preparing coffee at all hours of the day and seeing his eyes shine when describing his passion in making violins. It’s Warren offering a tent for me to sleep in in case mine is too wet. It’s Edward welcoming with a smile and showing his two white horses at sunset. It’s Phillip sharing coffee and explaining how his horses that he brings to the camp every week are also used in at-risk-youth and veterans therapy programs. Then telling me he is the fifth generation grandson Chief Running Antelope, the only Native American to ever grace the face of a US banknote. It’s the traditional dancers and singers of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Hopi, Apache, Crow, Algonquin, Aztec and Navajo nations around the central sacred fire. It’s Elijah discussing historic racism, advanced biology, chemistry, current affairs, astrology and human rights.. then learning he’s 15. It’s taking my hat or head-covering off during prayers that are voiced in any number of languages. It’s being asked not to photograph or film during sacred times. It’s being humbled to enjoy these experiences outside the viewfinder. It’s the delightful heart happy smell of smudge (tobacco / sweet grass / cedar / sage) near ceremonial sites and areas of gentle purification. It’s the grin of Dallas as he heads down the hill into the camp to be in ten thousand places at once. It’s Phyllis asking to be in the photo too, next to the congressman. It’s a community of communicators nestled around the solar arrays to charge their smart phones. It’s Robert telling me about sun dances and showing me scars from the ritual while tearing up about what is happening to the land. It’s Talon telling me about the Winter preparations for the camp and hearing his excitement about working with rescued BLM mustangs. It’s Kim proudly showing Tanka bars, made in North Dakota and sold worldwide, which were named after her little brother. It’s Waskuya explaining the family history of her great, great, great grandfather Little Crow while she shows me the steps of preparing sweet corn. It’s Courage dashing back and forth across camp to help with the kitchen, or teach a civil disobedience direct action class. It’s Deborah swiftly walking about in bare feet in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat while talking on the soul crushing emptiness of the wild buffalo herds. It’s hearing Victor and helping him connect with his girlfriend so that she can make it back over to the camp. It’s Erika holding her flag from Ecuador in front of a line of tipis. It’s Stephanie delighting in her ability to use her white heritage and privilege as a tool to secure paperwork and connections through government agencies. It’s Alicia and Liljana with their energetic group from Southern California setting up camp and looking for the chairman to hand deliver a large donation. It’s returning back to California with part of my heart left behind in Standing Rock.

Photographing for nearly two weeks in and around and main camp, there bubbled a constant theme - peace. Not just among the local people… or even the other indigenous nations who have appeared in solidarity by the hundreds with staked flags waving in long-term support on Flag Row… but also among the journalists, activists and allies the world over. 

Donations come from every corner of the globe in forms of clothes, food, water, shelter, medicine, toiletries and day to day items such as lighters, flashlights, batteries and solar powered smart phone chargers. Larger donations include logging shipments on flatbed trailers, moose and buffalo meat, entire tipis and tents and sacred items such as pipes and regalia. Donations striking more of a personal chord are also arriving, such as a basketball and nylon nets from a kind heart in the San Francisco Bay area for the youth at camp who adore the sport. Also materials for the children’s onsite home school.

Asking for help spreads throughout all here. Coffee, chopping wood, meal prep, washing dishes, receiving shipments, building shelves, butchering buffalo, staking and clearing tents and camps - it all seems like a living, breathing organism fueled by generosity and balance. One palpable wonder? People help. People help instinctively, tapping into something that in mainstream US culture or big cities is largely lost… one person, two people, three or four.. a swarm of hands and eyes appear, often without a second asking.

Care is the real story of Oceti Sakowin camp, and what the protectors and their allies stand for. It’s a place of working together, in league with humanity and the earth, so that our grandchildren can be honored by our actions, and not shamed by them.

Here is a link to official Oceti Sakowin Camp’s website, for many more details and donation information - http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/

Images aligning with these words can be found in a series of photographs here - http://www.douglasdespres.org/standing-rock

Intro to info about the 1856 Fort Laramie Treaty - https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/sioux-treaty, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Fort_Laramie_(1868)

Intro to the water protection efforts at Standing Rock - http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/dapl-dakota-sitting-rock-sioux/499178/


Using Format