by Michael “Renaissance” Moynihan
I did not journey across the country to learn anything, I ventured to stand in solidarity with our Native relatives, but while I was at Standing Rock in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I was taught and learned much. One of the first things I learned was how vast the camp is. I do not know what I thought I would see, but I was not expecting an entire valley filled with tents, teepees, campers, vehicles and people.
I have been part of many demonstrations in opposition to unjust exploitation of peoples and planet, but I have never been part of anything like Standing Rock. There were thousands of people from all over the world, many of whom were represented on Flag Road, which seemed to go on forever identifying all the nations and peoples in solidarity with Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), which is the “proper name for the people commonly known as Sioux.”
What I witnessed is that a shift is underway the likes of which we have not experienced since the time of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) and the American Indian Movement (AIM), when the oppressed peoples from all over the world are uniting in a common cause: to end the harmful exploitation of our peoples and planet, and caring for our world and peoples in such a way that ten generations from now our descendants will inherit a healthy and vibrant world to share. And yet however much a shift in culture is neither without opposition or complications, it is nonetheless beautiful to see coming into fruition.
This level of unity among the oppressed peoples must be terrifying to the repressive state regime because it is losing its legitimacy and control, and people are losing faith in this state’s ability to manage our world. This is evinced by the harmful and repressive actions the state has engaged in to retain its control of the people and the situation. The state has enacted counterinsurgency tactics and technology against its own people in the worst of ways. From the targeted arresting of people, to the excessive use of lethal force, to the eviction of peoples from their lands, to the complete disregard of humanity of indigenous peoples and people of color; the entire operation is laden with human rights violations.
The right to peaceably assemble and to the freedom of religion are not only guaranteed by the US Constitution (First Amendment), but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18; Article 19; Article 20). Furthermore, Article 9, of the UNDHR states that “no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.” Article 5, of the UNDHR, says that no one shall be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; which should entail being sprayed with water from fire hoses when it is twenty degrees outside, or shot in the head with rubber bullets for praying on your own lands. Not that it needs to be mentioned, but in case people have forgotten, cruel and unusual punishment is also protected against by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Using intimidation and legalized terrorism is not managing, it is tyranny and it is out of control. The problem lies in the reality that this sort of behavior has been normalized in the United States when the state is interacting with indigenous peoples, people of color, and active political dissent from the harmful practices of this state and its agents. However, the oppressed peoples are uniting as the legitimacy of the state is faultering and we are being joined by those who are also losing faith in the motivations the state and the results of its decisions.
Oceti Sakowin Camp is a prayer ceremony on treaty land (Treaty of Fort Laramie 1868), that is, the land the camp is on and where Energy Transfer Partners LP is constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) belongs to Oceti Sakowin. First, if someone were to come into your or my home and start destroying things, especially that which our ancestors or predecessors left to us, we would most likely stand in physical opposition to the intrusion and destruction, and we would be well within our rights to do so. It is a twisted way of thinking about development and progress—the doctrine of Manifest Destiny—that informs people’s perception that the manner in which our Native relatives have chosen to be stewards of the land is neither efficient nor correct.
Notwithstanding that false perception, this land belongs to Oceti Sakowin and the infringement into their land is no different than an intrusion into our homes. Thus, when physical opposition has occurred, the people who engaged in these acts have been completely and entirely justified in doing such. In fact, the actual motivation and justification for the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was to protect against the arbitrary and tyrannical abuses of power by the state over the people. The fact that it mentions weapons only provides one of the means by which this may or should be accomplished. The spirit of the amendment is that state repression of free and equal peoples is not to be tolerated when the repression is unjust.
Yet, while that is not only the law and the right of the people, the state, the corporations, and the media has sought to villainize and make illegitimate the actions of Water Protectors, as if they believe something else, or would have behaved differently should this have happened to their homes and their families. Painting with a broad stroke the entire camp and opposition movement as riotous villains in an attempt to discredit Oceti Sakowin and gain legitimacy for state tyranny, is wrong and unaccountable to the Amerikan people and the people of the world. And yet however justified physical opposition is, the majority of the opposition, and the vast majority of the people at Standing Rock are in prayer, and have been for most of the time the camp has existed.
Every morning before sunrise, a water ceremony occurs that is usually led by elders who are women. The people at Oceti Sakowin Camp are called to the Sacred Fire to participate in the ceremony as the people first ask to commune with the Creator, before asking the Creator to protect the headwaters of the Midwest. Many people from Amerika are not familiar with prayer in the form of song and dance because many of us come from a Judeo-Christian background, and so, it may not be immediately recognized that a prayer ceremony is occurring, but that does not alter the immense power that is felt participating after being invited into one of the ceremonies. From the Sacred Fire after the initial prayers are completed, the people are led to the water (Cannon Ball River) to bless and pray for the water that heals our bodies and our souls. As the sun rises we are standing on the shores of the waters giving thanks for the resource and element that provides so much for us and all that lives on the planet we share. Starting the day in a thankful spirit of gratitude for a precious and limited resource has the impact of directing our whole day and shifted my thoughts from what I need to take for myself and instead focused them on what I have to offer.
The time I spent at Oceti Sakowin Camp led me to re-conceptualize my perception of direct action, even as a seasoned activist. Often direct action is referred to as a demonstration. For example, when a Black Lives Matter protest occurs on Black Friday, in any city, challenging the very institutions of capitalistic economy that buttresses and profits from the prison industrial complex and by extension the brutality of police, and the school to prison pipeline; the objective is to interrupt. Wherein there may be lockdowns, blocked traffic, or interruptions of broadcasts. However, at Oceti Sakowin, when the people leave camp to any location, it is in prayer just like the morning Water Ceremony. The prayers are not discriminatory, but universal, which means that the people are praying for the health of the water not only for Oceti Sakowin, but also those part of the repressive state regime spraying Water Protectors with water from fire hoses in twenty degree weather. Behaviors with these motivations in other settings have often been referred to as acts of unconditional love and brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement of the Black Liberation Era. I know many of the stories, but have not exactly been able to bring myself to love those I have seen and felt as my enemies as they continued to harm me and my peoples.
Growing up, I was racially profiled by police more times than I can count or even remember, but a few situations stand out. I was pulled over for nothing besides driving while Black and when the cop could find nothing else to charge me with, not a tail light, not a failed signal, not an invalid license, he placed some sort of light detector on my tinted windows to try to find anything to justify his harassment of me. Another account was when my father called the police because some of our neighbors were threatening to kill my brother and I when we were eight and nine, respectively, and when the police came they arrested my father. I can remember walking home from high school with my book bag, only to have a cop car jump the curb and come to a screeching halt in front of me, before slamming me against a wall and searching through my school books, only to find school books.
And one night when I was walking down the sidewalk, two plain clothes cops simply decided not to identify themselves, and instead to beat me almost to death before hauling me off to jail for absolutely nothing. I was never even apologized to or given bus fare home, but was released from their custody to walk miles home at three-thirty in the morning in the middle of winter. I recount these personal experiences now only to evince that my hatred for the institution of police is not only systemic, but also personal. When we arrived at the camp we were asked to set these feelings aside and to pray for the police, the army, the militias, and the mercenaries suppressing the people at Standing Rock. This was difficult for me, as it was for many others, too. Then I heard a report about one of the leaders of the International Indigenous Youth Council, speaking directly to how the people interact with the police during a prayer ceremony;
“It is our duty not to dehumanize others, as we seek to establish our own humanity.”
What I learned from this is that I am no better if I create the same trauma that I am seeking to overcome. I cannot become my enemy and still expect to overcome the oppression I suffer from my enemy. The means must be consistent with the ends, if the ends are to be just.
So, while the people at Standing Rock are completely justified in mounting an armed resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the suppressive agents using counterinsurgency tactics against the people, they are in fact, praying for all of us. I have never experienced this amount of love and forgiveness. I have read about and studied it, I have heard stories from the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, but I have never felt it. This is the spirit of the people that our government has permitted helicopters and planes to fly over the camp surveilling and is suspected of spraying chemicals on, all day and night. This is the spirit of the people that the government is utilizing cell phone suppression and corruption technology upon. This is the spirit of the people that the government is throwing concussion grenades at, shooting in the head with rubber bullets, unleashing the Long Range Sound Device, the LRAD sound cannon—the same technology used in Ferguson after the execution of Michael Brown—on, and spraying with water from fire hoses in twenty degree weather at; all of which are prefaced as non-lethal instruments, but when applied together and in the conditions they were used, are all individually lethal and are especially so in conjunction with one another. The state has been arresting, imprisoning, and nearly killing people for praying, and on their own lands no less.
The state is a force to be reckoned with, many of us now this acutely and personally well from first or second-hand experiences, and it must be confronted and challenged. There are also other complications that can and do often emerge when people who have been oppressed unite among themselves, and when the oppressed people unite with people who are from privileged classes. It is not the issues so much as how they are addressed that is truly important. At Oceti Sakowin Camp there was a lot of very positive and encouraging work being done to overcome much of this while simultaneously challenging neo-liberalism, capitalism, and state repression.
During orientation at Oceti Sakowin Camp on my first morning there we were told that we should not have come to learn, or to take anything because that is a continuation of the colonial apparatus. Yet, still, because so many people flooded into the camp over ‘Thanksgiving’ week, who were honestly concerned about what is and has been happening at Standing Rock, who were by no means prepared enough in a socially conscious manner for the work ahead, some instruction was necessary. I am a photographer and this has been a major component of the liberation work I have engaged in over the years. I am also a historian and a philosopher, and the three of these skills combined help me tell stories as objectively as possible.
(My cameras were stolen from me by the police in Bismarck when I participated in a prayer circle and was unjustly abducted and duhumanized, so I do not have images to share at this time.)
During the orientation, the proctors mentioned that the act of taking a picture “take, take, take” is an act of colonization, which is all about the extraction of people, land, and resources. This was used as an analogy to expecting to have time with Native elders who could “tell the history correctly” because people had “come to learn the truth” from the people most impacted. Not realizing that the imposition of time, from primarily white folx, was another act of colonization playing itself out, many had rushed to the elders. Many people had also been walking through camp with their cameras out, snapping shots of people in front of their teepees, which is no different than standing on someone’s lawn and pointing a camera into their home; taking, extracting, and feeling ‘entitled’ to do so. This colonialist imperative of take all you can for yourself, this capitalist motif is precisely what the people at Oceti Sakowin Camp are opposed to. It is this colonialist imperative and capitalist motif that Energy Transfer Partners are operating under; and they are precisely what underlies the exploitation and degradation of the planet through the burning of fossil fuels. Cultural appropriation, is stealing, it is taking without permission or understanding. We were informed that this was a camp of giving and of self-sacrifice for the common good, for the rest of humanity and all the creatures we share the world with. Thus, many of our beliefs and practices that people came to camp with needed to be unlearned and ceased because they are components of the very things that brought us to Oceti Sakowin in the first place and what we are working to overcome and evolve beyond.
Oceti Sakowin camp embodies the way of life that many of us are aspiring towards. A world in which the first thought is how I can fulfill the needs of others around me, instead of the first thought being how I can take care of my own needs by extracting things from others.
Living among the people at Standing Rock I learned that I do not need everything I think I need in order to not only survive, but to thrive healthily and to be happy.
When everyone is giving, then there is no lack. There is no need to be fearful that the things we actually ‘need’ will not be provided. This social organization is so completely contradictory to anything that most of us within the borders of Amerika are familiar with that it almost seems impossible because of how we have been indoctrinated to think and feel, but it works well. Not only is it liberating, but it is efficient and limits the amount of waste our society tends to produce and accumulate.
Many of our people suffer from forms of historical trauma, especially people of color, or are the beneficiaries of a long line of privileges gained from historical traumas, such as men and white folx, or both, and so the work to unpack, unlearn, and heal continues. These are deep emotional and intellectual processes. As such, they are not easily overcome. In fact, we tend to bring these things with us even when we are working to remedy human rights violations and to alter harmful practices.
Unfortunately, there were more than a handful of events and occurrences from which to draw examples from at Oceti Sakowin camp. Notwithstanding that, and although it was problematic that a lot of misinformed, or uninformed, well-intentioned white folx poured into the camp during the week of Thanksgiving; it was nonetheless inspiring, to see so many people who are beginning to wake up and see our state of affairs for what it truly is. That being said, there is no doubt that a lot of emotional labor was unduly placed upon our hosts and other people of color to inform, correct, and instruct a lot of the people who simply did not understand things like, it is not cool just to walk up and touch someone else’s hair because you think it is fascinating. That is entitlement plain and simple, and it is an extension and an expression of colonization, one of the very things the people in the camp and elsewhere are working diligently to overcome.
Entering into another person’s personal space, and especially touching their body without prior consent because of either an implicit or explicit belief that you are entitled to do so (and this includes rape and rape culture) is a colonial and patriarchal act. Consent is vitally important to healthy relationships. Firstly, consent signifies that there is respect between two parties and an acknowledgement of both their humanity and their agency.
The Dakota Access Pipeline that Energy Transfer Partners is placing in the ground without the consent of Oceti Sakowin, is an act of colonization.
They have come into Oceti Sakowin lands, desecrated their ancestral burial grounds, and threaten to poison both the land and the headwaters with faulty technology that in addition, will also promote the distribution of CO2 from the burning of the oil, thus exacerbating the rate of climate change and the destruction of our environment. None of these outcomes are desirable to Oceti Sakowin, which is why they have gathered in opposition and put the call out for many forms of support. The Army Corps of Engineers, and Energy Transfer Partners have failed to respect the humanity and the agency of the peoples from Standing Rock, and by corollary the rest of us. The reason that so many in our society, and even among those who journeyed to Standing Rock to stand and work in solidarity, embodied and acted through this colonial lens is because that is what we have been indoctrinated with. Most do not understand that these every day, seemingly minor expressions are what permit the larger, more broadly impacting expressions to exist and persist. Although, it is true that these things will not be overcome in a day, and that it should not be the responsibility of those who have already been harmed so much by this system and society of injustice to emotionally labor with those who still harbor, whether knowingly or not, colonial and patriarchal prejudices, ideologies, and beliefs, they must be continuously worked on; simultaneously within the system and within ourselves.
More than anything else, what I felt most while I was at Oceti Sakowin Camp, from the people at the camp, was love. What I felt from the people in North Dakota who opposed the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline was sheer hatred and anathema. When I was abducted by the police in a most violent and unjust manner while the people were praying for protection of our water, the bystanders denied our humanity in a manner of which I have never felt in my life. I was accosted by a woman who stared me directly in my eyes as I lay hog-tied on the ground in agonizing pain, when she proclaimed;
“Prison food is horrible. The way they treat you in prison is horrible. I hope you enjoy it there. You are getting everything you deserve.”
This was said moments before a chant for “blue lives matter,” then a chant stating “oil is life” began. At this very moment, without restraint or regard for the welfare of people, the police were chasing unarmed, unthreatening, escaping, and innocent people tackling them like linebackers from the San Francisco 49ers, slamming them into walls and doors indiscriminately; merely selecting people of color they thought might have been involved in the prayer.
In stark opposition, as was mentioned above, much of the spirit of the people in the camp was along the lines of not dehumanizing as we all sought to establish and assert our own humanity. There was much forgiveness and grace, but more importantly, there was love. Criticism, when it is done constructively, and with the intention of improving the relations between relatives, is an act of kindness and love. I suppose that is why when that woman looked at me with such disdain, and spoke to me as if I was not a human being, that I did not become angry at her or her actions, but instead, I felt pity and sadness, and began to pray for her. Ironically, and quite contradictory to my previous sentiment, I also prayed for the police officers as I prayed for our water, our people, and our collective future.
I am still not a fan of and am starkly in opposition to the police institution as it exists, the militarization of local law enforcement all over the country, the prison industrial complex, the school to prison pipeline, the counterinsurgency against social movements to achieve justice and equity, but something definitely shifted in me during my time at Standing Rock.
Although, most of us who made the journey did not do so to learn or take anything home with us, I do not think it is possible for a person whose heart is open to spend time at Oceti Sakowin camp and not return home affected in some positive manner.
Many know that we need a new and redesigned legal and political system, which includes a new economic structure. However, more and more are coming to believe that the actual shift must occur on a spiritual level and must spread naturally among us as if it were a scent on the breeze that we all become aware of. A spiritual transition is not something that can or will be motivated by force, it is more about attraction than promotion or proselytizing. It is slower, but much longer lasting.
When this manifests, then many of the officers, militias, and military personnel who, because of the authoritative structure and plausible deniability who feel secure in participating in human rights violations, may begin not to silence their consciences and moral aptitudes any longer, and may begin to question the unchallenged consent to execute unjust orders against innocent human beings. If it truly manifested, then those institutions would no longer be necessary. The state will continue to issue orders, but the people will cease to follow them or step down all together. To be balanced, it has often been argued that the people in these positions lack consciences and that appealing to them is doom to failure, disillusionment, and further repression.
That has more often than not been the case, so this perspective is completely rational. I have stood with my people in front of a line of cops screaming until we had no voices left dropping facts about the institution’s dehumanizing and brutal actions only to be beaten and unjustly arrested; and nothing seemed to change afterward. So, I have seen it with my own eyes. Yet, there are cops leaving the force all over the country because the brutal suppression of innocent people is not what they signed up for, and police departments have made public statements in direct opposition to the Trump policy of racially profiling people to inspect their citizenship documentation. Small steps to be certain, but it is evidence that a shift is also beginning to occur there as well. Like the Veterans who also journeyed to Standing Rock and participated in a major apology ceremony for their participation in the brutal suppression of indigenous peoples and made the declaration to oppose the practice. The indoctrination of lies and division that has sprung forth from Amerikan capitalism and imperialism is being torn apart and delegitimized.
Bernard LaFayette, the organizer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who went to Selma Alabama and began the voter registration campaign there, also believed in and practiced seeing the humanity of our oppressors. There is a certain healing power in it, and it is also pointing toward a future when we see and feel more points of unity than division and difference among us. It is my belief that this shift in cultural understanding is well under way and is spreading. I felt more than the embers of this at Standing Rock, with people from all over the world, from many different backgrounds, with all kinds of stories all standing in unity under the leadership of the most impacted by this system, our Indigenous relatives. We all have much healing and growth ahead of us, and the state is ramping up its repressive regime, but it is inspiring to have witnessed and been party to the cultural shift of resistance that is underway, not only at Standing Rock, but all over the world.
Renaissance is a social justice activist and organizer from Seattle who has worked against police brutality, climate change, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline, and for just transitions, equitable law enforcement, access to education and employment, and for human rights. You may have seen him on the front lines of a Black Lives Matter march shouting over megaphones and police speakers, or at Ringside Slam spitting fire. A recent graduate of UW and long time advocate for the people, Renaissance is a warrior for justice and a poet, but most importantly, he views himself as a servant.
Featured image by Alex Garland