“We are caretakers,” says Eryn Wise. “We are life givers. We are keepers and protectors of the sacred. I think women more than most people understand the connection to water. Simply because we are born from it and we carry it inside of us to give life to others.”
Women have stood at the center of the Standing Rock water protectors since the beginning. The water protectors began their first encampment, Sacred Stone Camp, on April 1, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. They insist that the pipeline violates indigenous and treaty rights, as well as endangers the drinking water of people who live on the reservation and millions more downstream.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, together with a handful of others, organized the Sacred Stone Camp on land that she owns. The founding group’s name, Chante tin’sa kinanzi Po, translates as People, Stand with a Strong Heart. Oceti Sakowin, the larger Seven Council Fires camp, came later, on nearby federal land.
Wise, who is Apache and Pueblo, came from her home on the Jicarilla and Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico. Allard, a tribal historian on the Standing Rock Reservation, stands right where she lives. Thousands of women and men, Native and non-Native, came from all across the country and around the world to join the encampments along the Missouri. Flags of more than 200 tribal nations fly at the camps. Young people organized as the International Indigenous Youth Council. Together, they claim the name of water protectors, not protesters. Mni Wiconi, they say. Water is life.
The water protectors have taken a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile, multi-billion dollar project of Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline, which many water protectors say is the “black snake” of Native American prophecies, was rerouted from its first path, north of Bismarck, North Dakota, in order to safeguard Bismarck’s water supply. The current route crosses under the Missouri River, a few miles from the Standing Rock reservation.
The camps ban alcohol, drugs and guns. Water protectors at both camps share a commitment to prayerful, peaceful resistance. Alicia Crosby, an African-American religious and social justice activist from Chicago, who went to Oceti Sakowin with a group in late November, describes the camp as “an entire culture based on what it means to posture yourself around prayer.” She joined a march to barricades where hundreds of water protectors stood and prayed for hours, including prayers for the law enforcement officers facing them, “for their families, for their needs to be met, for them to not lack anything, even as they continued on in actions that made them our aggressors.”
The “posture of prayer” continued in daily activities. “As we were mixing and chopping and adding things to pots and sticking things in ovens,” Crosby says, “people would thank the Spirit for provision of what would nourish the family that was assembled at Standing Rock.”
Though women’s leadership at Standing Rock has been unmistakable, cultural norms also define gender roles. The Oceti Sakowin web page asks women to wear dresses as “culturally appropriate attire” in the Lakota tradition, advising, “when possible, try to wear skirts over snow pants.” Both camps ask women to refrain from participating in ceremonies while menstruating. The Oceti Sakowin website says, “Women who are on their moon must avoid the Spirit Fire. Also avoid the kitchen areas where food preparation is happening and refrain from handling food that is being cooked.”
People of many different religious and nonreligious traditions came to Standing Rock. Crosby, who is Christian, says, “We went in with the understanding – yielding to a culture that is not yours, remembering that we were guests of the Dakota nation. That meant to not complain, not go in there demanding anything.” She says that the Lakota culture views women’s energy as very powerful, especially during the moon cycle, so that, “it should be, in one sense, kept away from sacred space, because this person had the power to impact or shift energies.”
Pam Costain, a white, lifelong social justice organizer from Minneapolis who grew up in North Dakota, began traveling to Standing Rock in August. She is now part of the Nonviolent Peaceforce’s mission to North Dakota, the international organization’s first U.S. mission. She says that, while women have not held many formal leadership positions in the camps, they have significant power and influence. Costain described a silent, women-only march that went through both camps, and then proceeded to the bridge and sat down. “They were very disciplined, not a word was spoken,” Costain says. “After the march was over, the elder noted the power of unity and focus and discipline.”
Wise acknowledges that patriarchy is “still very much alive in Indian Country,” but she insists that “we are a matriarchal society.” She also notes that in the International Indigenous Youth Council, “more than two-thirds of our group identifies as two-spirit, so they recognize both the male and female balance within themselves. A lot of us are queer.”
According to Wise, “Standing Rock, these camps, have been a place for a lot of people to reclaim their power. I think it’s been a scene that’s been set for women specifically to reclaim a lot of what has been stolen from them – their autonomy, their children, things that have been taken from them via rape culture, the voice that has been silenced for so long.”
Allard is one of those strong women’s voices. She spoke at a November 28 press conference after North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had ordered people to leave the camps. “What do you do with injustice?” she asks. “You stand up against injustice. You stand in prayer. You stand in the best way that you can, but you stand. … This is the time. This is now. We are not standing down. We are in our home. We are strong. And we have prayer. The governor has no idea what he is facing.”
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe standingrock.org/