Everything You Need to Know About Standing Rock

On February 22, the last of the Dakota Access pipeline protestors in North Dakota were ordered to evacuate. We look back at the best reporting on the months-long saga.

Campers set fire to structures in preparation for the 2pm deadline to vacacte the Ocetisakowin Camp in North Dakota. (FEREX/AP)
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After nearly a year of clashes between activists and law enforcement officials, Dakota Access Pipeline protesters were ordered to leave their largest permanent encampment on the banks of the Missouri River on Wednesday afternoon. Though officials said that a few hundred activists remained after the deadline, the majority had evacuated the flood-prone encampment on federal land near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

While the Obama administration, heeding the calls of the protesters, halted the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline last fall, President Trump cleared the way for the project in the first week of his presidency. Construction resumed earlier this month. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing construction of the pipeline, ordered protesters to leave.

The demonstration was among the largest environmental protests in U.S. history, and united Native American tribes long-divided by cultural tensions, while calling attention to two of the greatest issues facing the country right now: climate change and institutionalized racism. As the last of the protesters are removed, we look back at the five essential stories about the protests and their legacy.

1. "What’s Happening at Standing Rock?" (Outside)

In Late August, Outside’s Mark Sundeen loaded up his station wagon and drove to the demonstration site:

Several thousand Native Americans from around the country had arrived at Standing Rock, the 3,500-square-mile reservation with 8,250 residents. They were joined by a smattering of earthy white folk and a crew of Black Lives Matters activists from Minneapolis. The camp was just outside the boundary on land administered by the Army Corps. State troopers blocked the highway to Bismarck, allowing protesters—or “protectors,” as they insisted on being called—to leave but not return.

Sundeen’s September article details the early stages of the Standing Rock protest, when Tribal Chairman David Archambault II and others were arrested blocking excavating machinery and halting the construction of the $3.7 million project. Not long after, inspired celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio were tweeting about the movement and the hashtag “#NoDAPL” emerged.

This account of the movement’s early days describes the manner in which the camp was formed and the prevailing spirit of unity that brought Native Americans and other activists to Standing Rock from all over the country.  

In five days I witnessed no violence, lawlessness, alcohol, or even hostility. A couple speakers even welcomed “European relatives” such as myself. The days were filled with peaceful marches and prayers at the idle construction site, ceremonial welcoming of newly arrived tribes, and as afternoon temps rose to the nineties, flinging ourselves into the cool waters of the once-mighty Cannonball.

2. "Reckoning at Standing Rock" (High Country News)

In October, Paul VanDevelder placed the Standing Rock movement in historical context in a long article for High Country News. This piece traces the United States’ relationship with Native Americans back to the founding fathers and our country’s earliest treaties with indigenous populations. VanDevelder compares and contrasts the way in which Standing Rock relates to previous land wars, treaty negotiations, and conflicts surrounding the protection of Native American rights. The article details how United States policy evolved from George Washington to Andrew Jackson and beyond.

If we could conjure the ghosts of Andrew Jackson and his contemporaries and restore them to flesh and blood in the 21st century, nothing would surprise them more. When Jackson was elected to the White House in 1828, the extinction of the Indian looked as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise. But the Indians, who are nothing if not careful students of historical ironies, fooled everybody. Today, they comprise about 1 percent of the nation’s population, but the outback real estate they were forced to accept in the 19th century holds approximately 40 percent of the nation’s coal reserves.

For anyone hoping to better understand the broad and complex history of the United States’ relationship with tribal nations, reading this is a must.

3. "Standing Rock’s Next Big Challenge: Surviving a Brutal Winter" (Outside)

Grayson Schaffer spent his Thanksgiving at Standing Rock in order to see how well equipped the camp was for a brutal North Dakota winter where record lows approach 50 below. The Thanksgiving holiday was one of the last stretches of warm weather, and since then protesters have been battling the elements. This piece details the provisions undertaken by Native Americans and activists in order to prepare for the winter. 

“The Sioux method of camping avoids digging into the land. Teepees are set on the ground, not dug in. To prepare for the snow, hay bales are ringed around the edges to function as a skirt. In previous generations, they would have had buffalo hides to drape over their teepees as insulation, but many of the modern iterations are made from canvas or even plastic, in which case it's known as a tarpee.”  

Schaffer’s piece offers images and anecdotes regarding the manner in which activists came together to support each other, share resources, and persevere through the dark, cold days that followed.

As we left camp, cold rain was falling. By midnight the rain had turned into sideways snow and North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple was calling for a weather-related evacuation of the camp. But nobody moved. The firewood had all been cut and stacked under canopies. People piled together in tents and teepees and old travel trailers. The North Dakota winter has arrived, but the camp appears to be weathering it.

4. "The View From Sides of the Standing Rock Front Lines" (New York Times)

This New York Times piece from early November is one of the most balanced accounts of the Standing Rock controversy. Jack Healy visited the camp in late October and spent time with two men on opposite sides of the issue—Mekasi Horinek, a leading Native American activist, and Deputy Jon Moll of the Morton County Sheriff’s Office in North Dakota. This article attempts humanize not only the Native American protesters, but also the officers responsible for keeping peace at the protest site and, when necessary, enforcing the law.

For months now, Mekasi Horinek and Deputy Jon Moll have lived these demonstrations, day in and day out. But they fall on opposite sides of the front lines, reflecting a community that is as divided as, well, oil and water.

This article relays the perspectives and personal histories of Horinek and Moll, both of whom deny accusations that they are the “bad guys.” This piece is worth reading if you’re looking for a refreshing bit objective news coverage that offers an empathetic account from both sides of the Standing Rock controversy.

5. "The Last Days in Standing Rock" (Outside)

Mark Sundeen returned to Standing Rock in early December to see how the camp had evolved from what he’d witnessed four months earlier. Protesters had been ordered to leave by December 5, so Sundeen traveled back to the camp for a firsthand glimpse of how things were going. Winter was in full swing, and morale was significantly lower than it had been during his first visit.

The camp, which initially was comprised of about 80 percent Native Americans, was now only about 20 percent natives, Sundeen wrote. He noticed that the indigenous population and influence had been diluted by the influx of white activists from all over the country.

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.

This piece offers another detailed, intimate dive into the daily life of Standing Rock protesters, and traces the evolution of the movement. Ultimately, while some protesters remained at Standing Rock, many left seeking refuge from the weather and following evacuation orders.
 

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