Devotion, despair fill teeming Standing Rock protest camp
CANNON BALL, N.D. — By her own admission, Mama Bear’s kitchen isn’t much.
A tiny structure fashioned out of wood and tarp, the space has room for little more than a couple burners. The counter space is limited to a rickety table scattered with condiments and tubs of Folgers coffee, and the floor is a patch of dirt.
“It’s not the cleanest place,” Mama Bear, whose real name is Lelani Running Bear, said on a recent morning, as she hustled to prepare a breakfast for a dozen or so protesters here at the Oceti Sakowin camp. “But I try.”
She moved here in August from her home on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline — a $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile project that will carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois. Since then, her makeshift kitchen has become a kind of sanctuary for both her and others — a space to escape the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that have come to define life here.
As temperatures continue to dip and tension between protesters and local law enforcement intensifies, a sense of unease has fallen on the Oceti Sakowin camp, a sprawling, expansive stretch of land that is near the reservation and that has served as ground zero for the pipeline protests.
On Friday, the Standing Rock Sioux’s chairman revealed the Army Corps of Engineers would be closing the camp on Dec. 5, raising the possibility of a tense showdown between protesters — who have since vowed not to leave — and whoever might seek to remove them.
Thousands have made the pilgrimage to stand in opposition of a project that they contend will threaten water supplies and cut through ancestrally sacred land.
The protest camp, off Highway 1806 near the Cannonball River, is marked by row after row of colorful tents and tepees, some secured with duct tape. Visiting tribes mark their affiliations with flags or spray-painted wooden boards. At night, the smoke from countless campfires hangs heavy, casting an eerie glow.
Their concerns are scrawled on the signs they post to their tents — and in the words they bellow at law enforcement officials during daily protests that can range from a couple dozen people gathered in prayer to boisterous groups of hundreds: “Water is Life;” “Defend the sacred!”
Here, the pipeline is not identified by the given name; it is simply “the black snake.”
“We understand we might not win this battle,” says Vic Camp, a burly 41-year-old from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota who sports a wispy mustache and a Minnesota Vikings hat. “But we also know that this is a responsibility given to us by our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers, our ancestors. We have to take comfort in knowing we stood up, that we put our bodies in front of this pipeline.”
Doing so has been an often grueling process.
While social media attention and reports of celebrity appearances have given the protest a note of glamour, the reality of daily life within the camp — particularly for those who’ve been here for months — has been daunting.
The campsite has sometimes struggled to accommodate the influx of visitors. Dumpsters overflow with trash bags. Dogs and horses wander the property, their droppings littering the area. Showers can be weekly or biweekly affairs, at least for those sleeping here, while even basic necessities — food, fire wood, thawed drinking water — can be difficult to come by.
“Life is hard here,” said Trish Zapata of Los Angeles, a member of the Yaqui tribe in Arizona who is two weeks into her latest stay at the camp. “Things change daily. Things are cold, frozen. It’s a daily struggle.”
The psychological toll can be significant, as well. Fatigue and a lack of tangible progress have left many on edge, occasionally prompting loud confrontations among protesters throughout the camp. Some have left families behind to be here, and these days, said Camp — who has four sons back home — it is not uncommon to walk past tents and hear people crying.
A lack of reliable information, meanwhile, has fueled frustrations; on Thanksgiving Day, for instance, rumors of an impending raid sent a ripple of fear through the campsite. So, too, have tensions with law enforcement, which came to a head last week when police used water hoses, rubber bullets, and tear gas to push back around 400 protesters who had gathered at a bridge near the campsite, a confrontation that reportedly left nearly 20 people hospitalized, including a 21-year-old woman with a potentially debilitating arm injury.
Since then, tensions between the two groups have continued to simmer, with aggressive comments coming from both sides. Asked in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune whether the use of force was necessary in protecting officers during last week’s confrontation, for instance, Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler responded, “It was effective. Wasn’t it?”
On Thanksgiving Day, hundreds flocked to the foot of nearby Turtle Island to trade verbal barbs with law enforcement. As police stood atop a nearby hill, yelling warnings through a megaphone, protesters angrily unleashed a mix of insults and incredulity.
“How can you live with yourself?” shouted one man, in a refrain that has become common on the protest line.
“You’re on the wrong side of history!” yelled another.
And yet, despite the uncertainty, the camp has endured, fostering an often surprising sense of community.
Sitting in her tepee at the edge of camp one recent evening, 32-year-old Wanikiya Win Loud Hawk described the pull of a place that has become, in many ways, a kind of extended family.
Among the first pipeline protesters, she arrived in August, back when the Dakota Access Pipeline had yet to enter the mainstream lexicon. Months later, she’s still here.
“We go home and it feels like we can’t even think, because we’re worried about what’s going on here,” said Loud Hawk, who was part of the group last week doused with water hoses in 20-degree temperatures. “And then when we come back, it’s like home.
“I believe in our way of life,” she added. “As our ancestors fought, it’s our responsibility to fight.”
And it’s a fight, certainly, that has resonated. Every day, cars arrive boasting license plates from across the nation. The movement spans generations, race, nationality — a diverse group pulled here by a feeling of duty.
There is the 30-something man who, finding himself with time off during the holiday weekend, decided to drive from New York, his car brimming with goods to donate. And the group of young men from Seattle who came to build wooden structures for tribe elders.
There’s Angela Ohmer, 47, who after an October trip to the camp was so moved by what she witnessed that she returned home to Encitas, Calif., quit her job, and last week moved to the camp permanently — despite the protests of her 21-year-old son.
“I would wake up thinking about being here, I’d go to sleep thinking about being here,” she explained, sitting on the bed of a pickup truck on a frigid recent evening.
And at a part of the camp known as High Star, there’s Mama Bear.
Until recently, she admitted, she had not devoted much thought to the pipeline, her own struggles garnering most of her attention.
Then one day, back in August, she visited the Oceti Sakowin camp to attend a marriage ceremony for her cousin — “It was right over there,” she said, pointing — and later that day found herself walking among the tents and tepees. Back then, she says, there weren’t nearly as many camped out, but something about the ones who were there, their sense of sacrifice for a cause, touched her. She began to consider what the pipeline might mean for her daughter, her grandchildren, those who fill the Standing Rock Reservation she calls home.
“That was the first time I was awakened to the damage being done,” she said.
That night, on a river bank near where she now sleeps, she lay in her boyfriend’s arms and cried.
The next day, she moved into the camp permanently.
In the months since, she has been a constant presence, a friendly face who has found purpose in the minutiae of the everyday tasks — cleaning, welcoming visitors, doling out bowls of beef stew and slices of fried bread to the 20 to 40 people that High Star — one of numerous similar groups that fill the area — typically houses at any given time.
“She’s been a blessing,” said Camp, the leader at High Star. “I’ll tell you that.”
In her kitchen one recent morning, Mama Bear bustled about, packing hamburger and peeling potatoes.
As she worked, she was regularly interrupted by familiar faces trickling in and out, a devoted contingent that has come to count upon this 45-year-old woman to keep them nourished, keep them sane.
“I brought broccoli,” said one young woman.
“Any coffee?” asked a man bundled against the cold.
To each, she offered a smile, a snack, some good-natured ribbing.
Outside, the sun was rising over the campground, a new day sure to bring new challenges. Soon, of course, there would be more for the group to reckon with: snowfall, the approach of the Dec. 5 deadline to depart the camp, the clash that seems likely to follow — and the possibility of a future that includes the Dakota Access Pipeline.
But that would come later.
Inside her makeshift kitchen, as the light did its best to poke through and the visitors came in and the burgers sizzled on the stovetop, Mama Bear just smiled before inviting others to come in and eat.