This is not a party. This is not a festival. This is about more than a pipeline. In one sense, this is something we’ve never quite seen before, and at the same time it’s been happening for hundreds of years. This is Standing Rock.
On April 1, 2016, tribal citizens of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation and ally Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota citizens founded a prayer camp along the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Concerned about their land and water, these citizens intended to peacefully stop the pipeline, which has been dubbed “the black snake.”
When the camp started, three flags flew representing the three nations that came together in that initial moment. Now there are over 300 flags representing the different tribal nations that have gathered in support of Standing Rock, some as far as Tibet and New Zealand.
It’s hard to get a sense of what’s truly happening at Standing Rock. Between the myriad voices from the field, misinformation from the opposition, and the near absence of major media outlets, it takes a lot of work to get the real story.
I just came back from a mission to Standing Rock with a crew of Burning Man participants and staff, some of whom are still on the ground. Here’s what we saw, what we did, and what we learned.
Burning Man’s Involvement
Burners Without Borders was first approached about Standing Rock by members of the Theme Camp Red Lightning at Burning Man 2016. In the weeks that followed, requests for support started to increase substantially. Our community was clearly drawn to Standing Rock, and we saw there were some skills Burning Man might be able to lend to the efforts, particularly involving temporary infrastructure and city building.
A core crew of Burning Man representatives — Rosalie Barnes, Kate Gonnella, Terry Gross and I — started to research ways the Burning Man community could make a meaningful impact. We consulted with local elected tribal officials, camp leadership, and NGOs on the ground, as well as Burning Man community members who had been there. It quickly became clear that the situation was complicated, involved many stakeholders, and any engagement would need the blessing of tribal leadership.
Furthermore, the festival and Burning Man communities seemed to face a general distrust. By now, many non-indigenous allies had shown up, many of them under-informed, which was starting to cause friction. Whether or not those causing problems were actually Burners, Burning Man has become associated with a broader festival culture that the outside world sometimes views negatively. (I think we’ll be seeing more of this as time goes on.)
Some just showing up at Standing Rock might think it’s a lot like Black Rock City with the camping, community, temporary infrastructure, and sense of magical temporality. Needless to say, it’s quite different: It’s a ritual space, and it’s a peaceful occupation. When non-indigenous allies show up with traits valued at Burning Man like self-starter leadership, D.I.Y. mentality, and Do-ocracy, these skills can be seen as “settler mindset,” and no matter how well-intentioned our actions and words are, they often carry a deep-seated root of colonization. The speed at which things happen in Tribal Council is different from the urbanized life many outsiders live, and even well-intentioned allies who’ve shown up have been viewed as disrespectful or unwilling to listen to tribal leadership.
The first thing we did was prepare our group with the best information available to mitigate these cultural risks. We used the BWB website and a Facebook group as platforms to gather and orient interested Burners. There we listed essential information sources which included:
- Standing Rock Resource Pack
- 12 Loose Rules to Be an Effective White Ally
- Standing Rock Syllabus
- Protectors Alliance Cultural Resources Page
Later, after our own trip, we drafted two additional resources to help educate the wider community that was heading out there:
- How the Festival Community Can Support Standing Rock
- Letter to the Global Festival Community & Individuals Thinking of Coming to Standing Rock
Around this time, a Burner, festival producer and amazing human being named Becca Dakini reached out to us. She had a vision of a neutral, unified platform and a partnership of organizations, skilled workers and producers from the global festival community. She called it Protectors Alliance, and she wanted to collaborate. Instead of duplicating efforts, we joined forces. BWB decided to incubate the fledgling alliance by assisting with legal and financial issues when possible.
The next step was to visit Standing Rock. All our conversations seemed to arrive at the same place: We needed to see the camps ourselves before attempting a real infrastructure project. So the Protectors Alliance — minus Jamaica Stevens (Reinhabiting the Village) — team made the trip on November 7.
Going to Standing Rock, Getting to Work
There are three major camps at Standing Rock: Sacred Stone, Rosebud, and Oceti Sakowin Camp. We decided to spend most of our time at Oceti Sakowin Camp because it was the largest in population (ranging from 2,000–10,000), home to the traditional 7 Council Fires, and needed the most winterized infrastructure.
Upon arriving in North Dakota, we followed Becca’s research notes and met with Alisa Puga Keesey and Patricia Arquette’s nonprofit, GiveLove. They focus on composting toilet systems, and they collaborated previously with one of our BWB International Affiliate organizations, Communitere.
The toilet infrastructure at Oceti was going to be an issue pretty soon, as porta-potties freeze in the cold and become unusable. GiveLove had the experience and know-how to start the project but needed a partner for building and fundraising, which was exactly what Protectors Alliance had come to Standing Rock to offer. This project was even more interesting for its long-term sustainable vision. The composting site (pending approval from the Tribal Council and Environmental Protection Agency) would be built on reservation land, and all the toilet infrastructure would be mobile. This way, no matter what happens with the legality of the camps, and even when the protection efforts end, this infrastructure could be used long-term by either the Standing Rock Tribe or another indigenous sovereignty battle.
The fundraising effort is still ongoing for the Standing Rock Composting Toilet Project, and we need your help!
Becca has stayed onsite and formed an amazing team of builders from a variety of communities including Do LaB, Symbiosis, and Burning Man. Her vision of a unified team of allies has come to fruition in record time and against many obstacles. The team is set to finish the first phase of the project by December 8.
We ran into a bunch of Burners all working hard on various projects. Red Lightning is out there and has built their da Vinci Dome from Burning Man. The dome has been gifted to Oceti leadership, and the tribe directs the programming there, including the 9 a.m. All Camp Meeting as well as the daily Winterization Meetings.
Bianca and Nick Heyming were the first Burners we were aware of on the scene who wrote an excellent article about their own experience here.
Morgan, Hale and Naomi Langley are working on their project, Burning Clean, at Sacred Stone, which includes winterization efforts, legal cases, and an innovative plastic recycler being built by Sam Smith. Mike Willenborg from BWB Detroit was there assisting on the front lines. There are many others we’re aware of too, and even more we haven’t made contact with.
I think this is pretty stark counter-evidence to the narrative that Burners were causing trouble. There’s obviously a steep learning curve out there, and some outsiders might not have aced the test, but it also may have been a smear campaign, as some have argued.
The World Is Finally Watching
The mainstream media finally showed up at Standing Rock on December 4 to announce that the Army will not grant easement for Dakota Access Pipeline crossing. Then, that night at 11 p.m., Energy Transfer Partners announced that not having the permission for the easement won’t change their plans at all.
The more I research this issue, the more I understand that what’s happening at Standing Rock is one battle in a much longer fight over indigenous lands and sovereignty. Looking back at the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, or to the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, all these actions stem from a treaty signed with the Sioux people in 1868 at Fort Laramie, which is the legal basis upon which Standing Rock is arguing today. This resistance is an old story, because the violation of treaties and native land rights is an old story.
No matter what happens at Standing Rock in the next few days and weeks, the research and the trip to the camps has ignited a fire inside me. I might have always known it subliminally, but I now know it viscerally: It’s our responsibility as engaged and aware citizens to be more aware, to consciously share this planet with the First Nations, and to be part of a healing process that has been centuries coming. I dream about the ways the Burning Man community and Regional Network might play a part in this, if we are able to slow down for a moment and listen to the beat of a different drum.
Editor’s note: This post originally stated that Energy Transfer Partners “will opt for the daily construction fines rather than investigate a re-route.” That was not confirmed to be accurate and has been corrected.