Skip to main content

Justice Studies Faculty Visit the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota

Justice Studies Faculty Visit the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota


I write this from the Business Center of a Holiday Inn Express in Jamestown, ND in the midst of a blizzard.  Professor Shannon Williams and I are attempting to return to Eastern Kentucky University after a visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota where thousands of dedicated water protectors are living and practicing peaceful prayer and direct action for a purpose. They have been camped in tents and tipis since April opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline was supposed to cross under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for 13 million people, including the Standing Rock Sioux. An ancient Lakota prophecy refers to the Black Snake that will criss-cross the land and go underground bringing death and destruction in its wake, and the Dakota Access Pipeline is seen as the fulfillment of this prophecy and therefore often referred to as “the black snake.” The company in charge of operating the pipeline post-construction, Sunoco Logistics, has a consistent record of oil spills (over 200 in the past six years alone, more than any of their competitors). It was this track record combined with concerns for public safety that resulted in the pipeline’s path being rerouted away from Bismarck, North Dakota and instead directed toward the land of the Standing Rock Sioux. 

Since April, water protectors have been attacked with increasingly escalating force.  Hundreds of injuries have been reported. One woman, Sophia Wilansky, nearly lost her arm after being hit by some sort of grenade fired at her by police.  Another, Sioux Z, lost an eye to a tear gas canister. The United Nations has opened an investigation into the state-sanctioned violence committed at Standing Rock in the name of protecting corporate profits. We felt compelled to travel there and bear witness after viewing continued reports of this violence perpetrated on the water protectors by private security forces and local law enforcement assisted by officers from several dozen other law enforcement agencies from around the country.  For months, we have spoken to our classes about these issues and how they connect to larger social problems relevant to the study of justice and safety in the United States, and indeed around the world.  More specifically we have discussed the historical political, economic and cultural implications of what is happening right now at Standing Rock.

Our journey corresponded with the anticipated arrival of over 1,000 US military veterans. We packed Mrs. Root’s Nissan Rogue with all the cold weather gear we could come up with (or have donated, in my case!—thanks everybody!) and along with our friends Kevin and Sam, an Iraq war vet and extraordinary musician respectively, hit the road.  After traveling roughly 18 hours we arrived at our rally point: the reservation of the Cheyenne Sioux in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.  Every half hour or so for several hours until we finally fell asleep on the floor of the reservation’s bingo hall we witnessed busload after busload of veterans arriving, registering and being briefed on their mission.  These folks came from every state in the union and represented every age, race, creed, etc. as well as every war and branch of the military.  All shared the belief that what was happening to the land of the Sioux in North Dakota at the hands of the Energy Access Transfer Partners was unethical, indeed unconstitutional and criminal. They viewed it as fulfilment of their sworn oath to protect the US Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic to go and use their bodies to shield the water protectors[1] from the harm being visited upon them by law enforcement and the company’s security forces.

As Shannon, Sam and myself are not veterans, we decided not to board a bus and ride to Standing Rock with the veterans and instead opted to drive ourselves.  We drove into camp the next afternoon and were awestruck by just how many people were camped across the land.  Hundreds upon hundreds of tents, tipis and other structures dotted the landscape many of them sending smoke into the air from the wood-burning stoves inside. We finally found a spot to park and set up our own camp (minus the wood-burning stove, unfortunately!) and were greeted by Jen, a kind and friendly social worker from Minnesota who was returning for her second visit.  She gave us a quick rundown of where things were, such as the multiple mess halls (over 26,000 lbs of food were donated to the camp the day we arrived in Eagle Butte), the information dome, the Sacred Fire meeting area and several medical tents (filled with donated supplies and staffed by doctors, nurses and EMTS all volunteering time).

While wandering around looking for somewhere to help, we were invited to participate in an action that involved hundreds (thousands?) of people holding hands in prayerful contemplation and circling the entire perimeter of the camp. We heard many greetings and chants and read many signs with the phrase “Mni Wiconi,” which is Lakota for “Water is Life.” I held hands with a 70-year-old retiree named Joe who has been regularly driving a bus back and forth from New York to Standing Rock because, as he put it, “People need to be here and to see this.”

View from our campsite^

Flag Road, Oceti Sakowin Camp^.

It was in the midst of this action that a man and woman came running down Flag Road (so named due to the placement of the flags of hundreds of tribes represented at Standing Rock, apparently the largest inter-tribal gathering since The Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876). They were yelling that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and cheers went into the air seemingly from every square inch of the camp.  Hundreds (thousands?) of people made their way to the Sacred Fire where elders from the Lakota, Oglala and several other tribes confirmed that this was true. There was a great celebration including dancing, singing, drums and a whole lot of laughter, tears, hugs, high fives and fists raised in the air.  One elder spoke on the importance of forgiving, but never forgetting and the power of prayer and people. The mood was overwhelming and contagious but after a short time talk turned to a recognition that while this was an important moment and progress worth celebrating, that this struggle was certainly not over.

Rumors circulated that the company had already stated that they would continue to drill and simply pay the associated fines in spite of the Army Corps denial of a permit.  Others indicated that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department intended to arrest anyone caught drilling without a permit. A Native man with a megaphone loudly stated that, “If you fully trust the United States Government, you might be in the wrong place!” We were reminded of the words of Red Cloud and how “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Those in attendance prepared for a harsh North Dakota winter were urged to stay and continue to help protect the land and the water. While we MIGHT have been able to survive such a scenario, Shannon and I were resolved to return home to share what we had seen and experienced with our students and on Monday we set out to do just that.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was in a bit of a mood and maybe fifty miles from the Sacred Stone Camp, just past the Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, we found ourselves caught in a blizzard.  One hit and run later (we were the ones hit, not the runners!) we decided to turn around and seek shelter from the storm. Along with hundreds of other veterans, Native Americans, assorted other water protectors and native North Dakotans we converged upon the Prairie Knights Casino (owned and operated by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe). They were overwhelmed by the influx and quickly ran out of rooms, putting hundreds of us into the Pavilion, a theater usually reserved for concerts and other shows. Showing the same resourcefulness they brought or were bringing to the NoDAPL action, our fellow refugees quickly assembled a kitchen and a medical facility staffed with nurse practitioners and nurses from NNU, National Nurses United.  A large ceremony took place for the veterans and other water protectors present and everyone tried to make the most of the time there, even attempting to minimize the impact on the overwhelmed and understaffed casino employees (many of the workers commute from Bismarck and were likewise unable to travel due to weather and road conditions) by volunteering to wash dishes or bus tables in the casino restaurant and/or help in any other ways needed.

We were fortunate enough to spend hours conversing with people from all around the country, veterans and non-veterans alike, about their motivations for coming to Standing Rock. Consistently themes of justice and safety were reiterated. From the grave social and environmental harms resulting from the crimes of the powerful via the collusion of states and corporations to the militarized brutality used to shield such criminals from accountability, these refugees were quite hip to some of the more critical components of criminal justice and criminology (if not always conscious of the authors, the theories or the research).

I have been utterly terrified by the brutal conditions of winter in North Dakota and simultaneously awestruck, humbled and incredibly inspired by the land and its people.  Thus far, my attempts to describe, explain or even wrap my own mind around the whole experience have been entirely inadequate, if not utter failures. But I return home with an overwhelming and mostly unfamiliar optimism.  Here are some of the initial notes I made on my phone while warming up in the car one morning titled “Lessons learned from Standing Rock”:

  • We can raise an army fairly quickly to protect water, life, people and land.
  • We can create self-policing and self-sustainable communities with an abundance of food, water, clothing, medical (and assorted other) professionals and associated supplies and equipment fairly quickly.
  • We can work around media blackouts to bring enough attention to immediate political problems requiring this kind of organization.
  • We can find common ground across a vast sea of often conflicting cultures and ideologies.
  • We are walking, watching and waiting for the opportunity to embrace that beautiful better world that Arundhati Roy ensures us is not only possible, but inevitable.

Personally, I suspect that the impact of these lessons, which are likely nothing new under the sun but more or less a process of remembering instead, will have a ripple effect across the country and well into the future.  Much like Joe the bus driver from New York, I think it is important for people to travel there and to bear witness, but I would certainly recommend that you wait until it is a little warmer!

About the Author:

Carl Root is a Lecturer in the School of Justice Studies.  He has taught courses in Terrorism, Social Forces and Policing Society, Ethics and Foundations of Corrections.  Carl received undergraduate degrees in Art, Philosophy and Sociology from Eastern Kentucky University as well as a Master's in Criminal Justice.  He is currently finishing a doctoral education from the University of South Florida in Criminology.

[1] The term “water protectors” is preferred to “protesters,” due to the negative connotations associated with the latter. 

Published on December 14, 2016

Open /*deleted href=#openmobile*/