The Last Days at Standing Rock
The decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to block the Dakota Access Pipeline arrived just as internal tensions threatened to fracture Standing Rock's Oceti Sakowin camp
On Friday, December 2, Bobby Robedeaux and seven other members of the Pawnee Nation left Pawnee, Oklahoma, hauling a trailer full of firewood 900 miles north to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. From the highway, Adrian SpottedHorseChief posted on Facebook: “Pawnee war party on the move.”
The weekend promised drama. After a four-month standoff between Native American protesters and law enforcement over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, both the governor of North Dakota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered the “water protectors,” as the protesters call themselves, to evacuate their camp by Monday, December 5. Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. armed forces veterans were slated to arrive on Sunday to serve as “human shields” for the Native Americans.
The Pawnees were not a literal war party. Although they were prepared to march the barricades, they were unarmed. Their primary mission was to pray. In early September, Robedeaux and SpottedHorseChief made their first journey to the Oceti Sakowin camp on the banks of the Cannonball River to hold a traditional all-night ceremony.
That was when I met them. Robedeaux is a former wildland firefighter with scarred fists and knuckles that hint of rough years behind him. Now 35, he has settled down, raising two children with his fiancée in a Tulsa suburb while studying pre-law. He is over six feet tall, a block of muscle with hair pulled back in a ponytail. He is quick to laugh, quick to tears, and a complete ham. I once saw him walk up to a satellite news truck, take his place uninvited in front of the camera, and proceed to address the folks back home in his hill-country drawl: “Hi, I’m Bobby Robedeaux of the Pawnee Nation in Pawnee, Oklahoma…”
SpottedHorseChief, 41, is a former high-school football player who wears a mohawk and served as an adviser during the making of the film The Revenant. He sits on the Pawnee Business Council, the tribe’s governing body. He was raised by his grandparents, who taught him traditional ways, and he now lives in the same small house on a dirt lane that he grew up in.
That day in September, I helped them set up the teepee that would house the ceremony, a process that began with a blessing of the poles in both English and Pawnee. When it was up, they looked for a stepladder so someone could fasten the flap above the door. A young Pawnee turned to me and said, “I’ll have to climb on your shoulders.”
I thought he was kidding. But he wasn’t.
I squatted, he mounted my shoulders, and I straightened my legs, quivering a bit beneath the weight. He was the lightest of the group, and the older guys thought the sight of him sitting on this 45-year-old white dude was pretty funny. I soon learned that this was his first time performing the task of threading the dowel rods through the holes. It took some coaching from down below, and some practice.
One of the guys said, “Turn around.”
“Yeah, turn around,” another said. “Mark, stay how you are.”
That cracked them all up.
We prayed all night, sitting cross-legged in a circle in the teepee, burning oak and walnut wood they’d hauled from Oklahoma. We prayed generally for family members and for cures to illnesses, and specifically that the creator and the Army Corps of Engineers would stop the Black Snake that might destroy the drinking water on what remained of the Great Sioux Nation, which had been drastically chipped away at since the treaties of the 19th century. At dawn, we ate corn paste and pinto beans and oranges and candy bars. The mood was festive. That day, the local Lakota Sioux held two feasts for their ancient enemy, the Pawnee, in gratitude for the prayers.
But even then, signs were ominous. The same day of the ceremony, September 3, dogs attacked protesters as they tried to block bulldozers from destroying sacred burial sites. And back home in Pawnee, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the reservation, destroying historic sandstone buildings built in the early 20th century. The earthquake epidemic in Oklahoma is thought to be linked to the proliferation of fracking, when wastewater is injected deep underground. Some fracking occurs on the Pawnee reservation, both on land owned by the tribe and land owned by individual members—all of which is administered by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Seeing the mass resistance flowering in North Dakota, the Pawnee wanted to right the wrongs in their own home.
Traveling with the Pawnee party last weekend were two tribal elders. Andrew KnifeChief, a Marine Corps veteran, is the executive director of the Pawnee Nation. For three months, he had been approving expenditures and supplies to support the Pawnee camp in Standing Rock. Now he wanted to see it with his own eyes. Morgan LittleSun, a welder and truck driver and teepee maker—one of the tribal chiefs—was making his fourth visit to Standing Rock. In August, he set up a teepee at Pawnee camp on the banks of the river. In October, he brought and pitched the 20-by-40-foot canvas army tent, and in November, he outfitted it with a wood-burning stove and a chimney.
Morgan LittleSun’s comings and goings were typical of many I met at Standing Rock. They established their camps, but then made trips home to tend jobs and families. The Pawnee camp had been established in August by Marcus Frejo, an Oklahoma hip-hop artist who performs under the name Quese IMC. Frejo, 38, had been coming to Standing Rock for many years, serving as something like a motivational speaker to teenagers during an epidemic of youth suicide. Last summer, after a contingent of young Lakota ran all the way from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C., to protest the pipeline, Frejo arrived at Sacred Stone Camp, which sat on private land on the reservation on the south bank of the Cannonball River. In August, when Dave Archambault, chairman of Standing Rock, was arrested for blocking construction crews, thousands of allies began to stream in, quickly overflowing Sacred Stone. The tribe established an overflow camp, Oceti Sakowin, on the north side of the river on Army Corps land. Frejo wanted a place for his relatives to stay, and he told me that after praying, he was led to the riverbank within Oceti Sakowin, where he pitched his tent. Four months later, it has been home to dozens of Pawnee—and thousands of others—as they made the pilgrimage to North Dakota. I had made four trips and spent nearly five weeks in Pawnee camp.
This December, the Pawnees arrived late Friday night. On Saturday morning, they attended the Oceti Sakowin camp’s daily meeting inside a vast white geodesic dome. Although the Standing Rock Tribe is nominally in charge of camp, it doesn’t manage the overwhelming day-to-day tasks of feeding, housing, and providing medical care for thousands of visitors. Those tasks were left to a loose coalition of facilitators and volunteers—some native, some white—and it was often unclear who was leading.
As they looked around, the Pawnees realized that Oceti Sakowin had changed. To begin with, despite the snowstorms and cold snap, the number of people in camp had substantially increased. In August, there were fewer than 5,000 people. Now, according to Desiree Kane, a volunteer media coordinator since July, the weekend crowd had swelled to about 11,000, including 4,000 veterans. Snow-covered yurts and wall tents and motorhomes and tipis and vehicles were packed across the bottomland as tightly as they would fit.
Next, the water protectors were no longer free to come and go north to Bismarck on Highway 1806, which was now blocked by armored military vehicles and spirals of razor wire to keep them off the construction site. On the bluffs above camp, pipeline workers had erected a row of stadium-style floodlights that shone down on camp all through the night to prevent anyone from climbing the hill to the drill pad. A helicopter and an airplane circled the camp at all hours. It felt like a prison or a demilitarized zone, especially after the summer’s peace met autumn’s pepper spray, batons, fire hoses, and rubber bullets, not to mention the nearly 600 arrests. The images of armored light-skinned police inflicting pain on unarmed dark-skinned citizens brought uncomfortable echoes of the Jim Crow South.
But what the Pawnee noticed most, inside the dome, were the white people. In a crowd of 200 attending the morning meeting, the Pawnee were among fewer than a dozen natives. In August, natives comprised about 80 percent of the camp, but now it seemed like it was closer to 20 percent. Natives still led the movement, but in calling for allies from around the world to join them, they had changed the makeup of camp. For the most part, the alliance was harmonious, with nonnatives assuming important roles, from building to cooking to getting arrested on the front lines. But some racial tensions had flared up, and on social media, natives accused whites of ignoring tribal protocols, disrespecting elders, treating the experience like Burning Man or some other way station on their own “spiritual journey,” or even “colonizing” camp by helping themselves to space, food, and firewood without giving back.
Seeing the mass resistance flowering in North Dakota, the Pawnee wanted to right the wrongs in their own home.
I had witnessed the full spectrum. One white friend arrived with a four-wheel-drive truck and chainsaws and expertise and was essential to keeping things running. On the other hand, I’d picked up a white couple who’d hitchhiked from California with ten cardboard boxes of acorns and leather, intending to teach the natives to make flour and moccasins. Just last weekend, I rescued a white guy who was sitting on the snow in a blizzard, too tired and hypothermic to keep walking. As the Pawnee fed him soup and warmed him by the fire in their tent, he lectured us about the philosophy of anarchism.
LittleSun, Robedeaux, and KnifeChief volunteered to help around camp. They spent the morning unloading a trailer of lumber that was used to build winter structures. It wasn’t clear who was in charge. Then they were asked to haul 40 bags of clothing to the thrift store in Bismarck. Normally this would be a 40-mile drive, but because of the road closure, it was 70. They were also handed $2,100 to buy supplies. The men completed the tasks but not without qualms. Robedeaux couldn’t help but notice that all these clothes donated to Standing Rock protesters would now be given to a community that has been hostile to Native Americans. He voiced this to the people giving orders but was informed that the camp had received more donations than it could possibly use. By the time the Pawnees returned to camp, it was dusk, and they had trouble finding someone to give the change and receipts. As they unloaded supplies, someone barked at them to move their truck.
When the men finally pushed through the canvas doors of their tent, where I was sitting, they were frustrated. They pulled up chairs to the woodstove to warm themselves. The green canvas roof was dry above the fire but frosted everywhere else. Battery-powered lanterns swung overhead. An entire wall was stacked with shelves of food, propane stoves, pots, and pans. Cots and air mattresses covered most of the floor, which was lined with plastic tarps. A small summer tent in the corner provided one private bedroom. Mounted on a propane tank was a rickety device called Mr. Heater that looked capable of emitting a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.
Just then, a bearded guy with long blond hair poked his head in and said that so-and-so had a question about the receipts and wanted them to come back and discuss. Bobby told him to send so-and-so over here if they wanted to talk, that he was done running errands for the day.
Andrew KnifeChief called a meeting of his relatives. (Pawnees consider all members of the tribe relative, even if they are not closely related by blood.) He described what he’d seen as a circus. Standing Rock wasn’t at all what he’d expected. Instead of a well-run native organization, he’d seen a chaotic festival run by hippies. They’d heard more talk about yoga and meditation and the wellness tent than they had about stopping the pipeline. KnifeChief was worried that if police were to raid the camp, neither the unarmed band of volunteer camp security forces nor these well-meaning white folks could ensure the safety of the Pawnee. What’s more, he said, the Pawnee needed to concentrate their efforts on the fight at home. Just a week earlier, the tribe had filed a lawsuit against the BIA and the Bureau of Land Management, alleging that the fracking leases on Pawnee soil were illegal. While Standing Rock had emboldened them to fight their own battle, maybe it was time to return home.
Just then, the flaps of the tent parted. Buoyed by an icy wind, two people pushed through: the blond dude and a stylish young white woman in a scarf and wool hat and designer eyeglasses.
“I have serious issues,” said the woman.
She marched toward the woodstove where we were huddled and pulled an envelope from her parka, revealing a pile of cash and a stack of receipts.
“We gave you over $2,100,” she said. “But there’s more than one thousand missing.”
The men jumped to their feet in protest.
“We spent $1,700,” said Bobby. “And we brought back $400.”
“You only spent $800,” said the woman.
Howls of anger rose up. Bobby demanded to see the receipts. Rifling through them, he said, “See? Here. We spent $1,253 and 74 cents at Home Depot!”
But the woman didn’t believe it. “I just had three other people look these over. We’re missing more than $1,000.”
“It says so right here.”
The woman peered at the receipts. Someone jeered, “Maybe your glasses are foggy.”
The woman saw that she’d make a mistake.
“How dare you come in here and accuse us of stealing,” said Robedeaux, his voice rising.
“I didn’t accuse,” she insisted. “I said it’s a serious matter—“
“It’s serious now!” bellowed Chief LittleSun. “Count that money in front of us! You’re about to get me riled up.”
Andrew KnifeChief stepped in and extended his business card. “I’m the executive director of the Pawnee Nation.”
“Do I get to speak?” she said.
“No, not right now,” said KnifeChief. “We’re all tired. We didn’t expect to spend nine hours today delivering stuff. I am the guy in charge of our nation’s government. We don’t steal from people. Especially not on my watch. So, now you can speak.”
“Thanks.” The defiance was gone. “I didn’t actually accuse anyone of anything. And I have been working 16 hours a day for the past three months. A whole bunch of stuff actually did get stolen from us, like, within the past two hours. So I am very stressed out because I’m working on a very serious thing right now, a number of very serious things that involve people’s lives.”
“Can we shake hands?” said KnifeChief.
“Yeah, I got no beef with you. But I also feel a lot of anger and accusation that I’ve accused you of something, which is not what I was doing.”
Robedeaux said, “What angers me is that we have ways of doing things. These Sioux people have ways. So you guys need to learn these ways. Because this is their land.”
“Respect Indian ways,” said SpottedHorseChief, jabbing the air with a finger, “of how to treat and talk to people. It’s respect.”
“Yeah, you’re working 16 hours,” said Marcus Frejo. “I’ve been here since day one. I got a felony. I’ve been through the hardships of all these battles. Now I see all these white people all around us. And as Indian people, we’re thinking about heading out because it’s been taken over. And then you come in. All my relatives here. We have chiefs here. Elders, veterans here. It hurts my heart. Because this is what this camp has become.”
“When your stuff gets stolen,” said Robedeaux, “know this: when it was all natives, nothing got stolen. Now, things being stolen: look at your people.”
“I apologize to come into you guys in what felt like a bad way,” she said.
This sacred camp, a beacon for tribal sovereignty, had eroded into a place where Indians were bossed by whites and presumed to be criminals. It had become like the rest of America.
She asked to shake Robedeaux’s hand. He refused. And with that she left. Robedeaux found himself weeping. The chief threw his arms around him.
To heal the bad energy, Chief LittleSun pulled a pile of embers from the stove with a shovel, then sprinkled on sprigs of cedar. They blessed themselves in the fragrant smoke. Many of the men here had, in middle age, begun taking classes to learn their language, and they prayed in Pawnee. They decided that the incident was part of the creator’s plan. It had happened for a reason. They hoped the woman had learned something from it. For them, it confirmed their fears about what the camp had become. They decided to go home.
“We came in a good way, and we’ll leave in a good way,” said LittleSun.
In the 19th century, as many as 45,000 Pawnee peopled the Great Plains along the Missouri River. But by the time of their forced removal from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1875, there were fewer than 1,000. Today, the tribe’s numbers have rebounded to more than 3,000. They couldn’t afford to lose any up here in North Dakota if a police confrontation grew violent. So Andrew KnifeChief finalized the decision to head home. He shook his head gravely. “There’s just so few of us.”
This sacred camp, a beacon for tribal sovereignty, had eroded into a place where Indians were bossed by whites and presumed to be criminals. It had become like the rest of America.
Bobby Robedeaux felt moved to speak. Not just to his relatives. He wanted to address the entire camp. His elders granted permission. About an hour after the confrontation, he wrapped himself in a Pendleton blanket that showed the Pawnee flag: a red wolf’s head on a blue background. He removed a fan of eagle feathers from a case. Then he and LittleSun set out into the snowy night.
Instead of following the well-traveled paths, Robedeaux picked a route between tents and cars. I asked why. “People been walking these same paths, but they been in the wrong,” he said. “I don’t want to follow them.”
When we arrived at the sacred fire in the heart of camp, we found a large crowd around a circle of drummers and singers. A few people were dancing. But what struck me was that there was hardly a Native American face in the crowd. Robedeaux asked around but could not find out who was in charge. He convinced one of the drummers to give him the microphone. The music stopped. The crowd looked on at Robedeaux in his wolf blanket, mic in one hand, eagle feathers in the other.
“I’m looking for a Lakota elder,” he said.
“I need to speak with an elder from this camp, a Lakota or Nakota or Dakota.”
After what seemed like a long time, a small gray-haired woman approached. He bent down and consulted with her, the microphone not capturing their words. It lasted a few minutes. Still the crowd looked on curiously.
The woman took the mic. She greeted us in the Lakota language, and then spoke Lakota for five minutes. Then she translated, saying that it was important that the camp respect native ways, and that the Pawnee people had been treated unfairly. She wanted them to speak. She invited the whole Pawnee delegation to the front, and as snowflakes fluttered in the night sky, the eight men and one woman lined up alongside Robedeaux.
A lot was riding on this. After all, the Lakota Sioux and the Pawnee have been enemies for centuries, and the unity at Standing Rock to fight the Black Snake brought a historic truce. The Lakota didn’t want their guests mistreated, and the Pawnee were careful not to come across as ungrateful.
Bobby took the mic and, holding the eagle plume, began to speak. He said that back in September, a stream of native people would walk past camp and introduce themselves, but now white people didn’t even say hello. He spoke of how powerful it had been, and how it now seemed fractured. He kept his words gentle, though, never mentioning the alleged theft. He announced that the Pawnee would be breaking camp and heading back to Oklahoma. Then Adrian SpottedHorseChief took the mic and recounted the accusation by the white woman. I looked behind me and saw that dozens of Native Americans had moved to the front. “Don’t come here and try to change things,” he said. “If you come here, join in and learn from us.”
Marcus Frejo took the mic, and after praising the white allies he’d met, he spoke bluntly. “Some of you white folks don’t even acknowledge us here. So why did you come? If all you ever said was I’m here to stop a pipeline and not once said I’m here to pray with this water, acknowledging the power and spirit of the water, then you have no right coming to stop the Black Snake, because you are the Black Snake.”
When they were done, the Lakota elder asked everyone in the crowd to shake their hands. A long line formed, and we approached and shook each hand. A lot of people—both white and native—thanked Bobby for what he said. These kinds of things had been going on for weeks, they said, and it was time someone finally brought it up.
The Lakota didn’t want their guests mistreated, and the Pawnee were careful not to come across as ungrateful.
That night, the cold front arrived. I slept in the back of my car in heavy down sleeping bags. Bobby hardly slept. He spent most of the night wandering camp, waking the chief to pray and smoke tobacco on the riverbank before dawn. I asked what he’d seen in the night. “A lot of teepees with no fire in them,” he said. “A lot of people who didn’t know why they were here.”
As the morning sun emerged clear and cold, we walked to the sacred fire. Thousands of veterans were streaming into camp, a line of traffic backed up a mile, as far as we could see. We walked to the front line, the barricade across Backwater Bridge that for the past six weeks prevented protesters from marching to the construction site. Earlier that morning, U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, walked to the barricade. The police agreed to remove their armored vehicles and personnel from the bridge as long as the protesters agreed to stay off it. Something like a deescalation had occurred.
Nonetheless, the vets—and the water protectors—were fired up. With their numbers higher than ever, many wanted to overrun the hated barricade and the cops once and for all. But the Standing Rock elders had other ideas. They gave orders for camp security to send all marchers back from the bridge to camp. When we arrived back at the fire, the plan was announced. We were going to pray. We were going to form a circle, hands held, around the entire camp, and we would pray. I heard at least one groan, and one guy wrapped in camo fatigues muttered, “You mean we’re not going to stop the pipeline?”
A team of riders was dispatched to circle the camp on horseback and spread the word. Robedeaux, with his Pawnee flag, joined the procession. An hour later, the circle was not quite complete. Many in camp either didn’t get the memo or didn’t care and just went about their business. Chief LittleSun and I headed for the mess hall to get some lunch. We could see the prayer circle forming all around us. Just as we reached the buffet, I heard two reporters behind me in line: they’d heard word that the Army Corps had denied the easement.
The United States had blocked the pipeline.
With my plate of stir-fry, I hurried to the sacred fire, arriving just in time to hear whoops from the crowd. The prayer circle was disbanding as everyone rushed to the fire. Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault was jubilant. “We won!” he said. “You can go home and spend the winter with your families!” Drums pounded, and the high wails of a victory song rang into the cold sunshine. Hundreds stomped their feet in a victory dance. Another elder, Phyllis Young, announced, “We are making peace with the United States of America!” LittleSun and I pushed to the front, where we saw the blue and red Pawnee flag bouncing at the center of the circle. There were SpottedHorseChief and Robedeaux, tear-stained cheeks, crying with joy.
That night, the Pawnees tied a traditional drum by spreading rawhide across a ceramic bowl filled with water. They burned sage and cedar and sang songs of thanks—victory songs. By the next morning, they’d be on the highway to Oklahoma, where they’d get the news that yet another earthquake had shaken their homeland. I stuck around another day, only to find that the celebration was short-lived.
Even as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asked all protesters to leave the camp and go home, a white guy wearing a serape walked through camp with a bullhorn, entreating people to stay, claiming that DAPL planned to continue drilling despite the Army decision. This could not be confirmed, partly because the drill pad is closed to reporters. But that same day, its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, pressed a U.S. District Court to reverse the decision and issue the easement. A spokesperson for President-Elect Trump said that he supports the pipeline—indeed, Trump owns stocks in several of the parent companies, and Kelcy Warren, the CEO of ETP, contributed $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund. It’s unclear if a president can legally overrule a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Meanwhile, a blizzard tore through with 50 mile-per-hour winds and subzero temperatures. On the morning I left, the last holdouts in the Pawnee tent awakened to find a thin layer of snow had whipped inside a gap in the flap. As roads iced and visibility dropped to zero, dozens of vehicles slid into ditches, and thousands of vets and water protectors were stranded, either bracing against the bitter cold in camp or taking refuge on the floor of the nearby casino. Leaders from Sacred Stone Camp and several other native-run activist groups ended the call for new recruits to join the camps.
In the end, the Pawnee went home satisfied. They had traveled north to pray. And their prayers—at least for the moment—had been answered.