By: Chris Laursen
I have just recently returned home from my second trip to Standing Rock. And now, after some decompression and much-needed sleep, I feel as though I need to pen some of my thoughts and experiences. Here it goes.
My first visit to Standing Rock was purposed for help bringing supplies to Oceti Sakowin camp and promoting Jill Stein’s presidential campaign. The supplies were comprised of the remaining remnants from Mississippi Stand and generous donations from everyday people in Iowa. Mississippi Stand was the title affixed to the organized resistance to Dakota Access’s site where they bored under the Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa.
After a long thirteen hour drive in a 20′ UHaul truck, crammed full with everything from winter clothing to Milk of Magnesia for treating tear gas victims, we finally crested the hill and peered down into the valley that held Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps. Oceti Sakowin is on the north side of the Cannonball River and the smaller Sacred Stone camp on the south side. A place that I had been visiting everyday for months in the pixels of my cellphone. It was early morning, and the rising sun illuminated the haze of campfire smoke that blanketed this huge encampment. I was finally here!
It was everything that I imagined in my mind and more. Oceti Sakowin camp stretched out over a wide swath of river bottom and is adjacent to the confluence where the Cannonball pours into the Missouri. The site where Dakota Access is determined to shove their 30″ rusting, leaking, rupturing oil pipeline under the Missouri River. The only source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.
The camp was crowded with tipis, tents, yurts, semi-permanent makeshift structures, porta-potties, vehicles, and people. People from all over the world. People by the thousands. All gathered at this one place on earth trying to stop this impending ecological disaster that winds through four states, including 346 miles through my home state of Iowa.
Our group decided to camp across the flag-strewn road from the sacred ceremonial fire. The heart of Oceti Sakowin. Oceti Sakowin means seven councils fire. Our campsite was also next to large roped off area filled with the personal possessions of the ill-fated occupants of the Treaty camp. The camp named after the Treaty of 1851. The treaty in which the U.S. Government permanently ceded this particular land to the Sioux only to renege on the deal a few years later. The Treaty Camp had been raided the previous week by a militarized police force. Some of the camp’s occupants had been tear gassed, tased, shot with rubber bullets and arrested for not wanting to leave. Their possessions were heaped into three large dumpsters and dumped on the side of the road at the corner of Highways 24 and 1806. Just down the road from Oceti Sakowin.
It has been reported that some of Dakota Access’s employees had urinated and dumped other unsavory on these people’s possessions. I saw a huge pile of clothing at the reclaim area that was too badly soiled and needed to be thrown out. They even took the time to saw tipi poles in half. Among the dispossessed items were children’s clothing and shoes. My blood began to boil.
Evening air at Oceti Sakowin is filled with Sioux drums and songs that echo through the camp until the wee hours of the morning. After a couple of hours of sleep, I awoke to a booming voice that came across the PA system at 4:30 am. “Get up! You are not on vacation!”. I laughed to myself. He was right. He then went on to beautifully describe how we are all one people and how we are all connected.
After morning ceremonies it was off to Mandan, North Dakota. The county seat of Morton County. And the location where they detain arrested unarmed peaceful water protectors. It was a “Walk of Forgiveness”, organized by indigenous leaders. Amalgamated, we peacefully strode through the streets of Mandan and encircled an entire city block that contained the Morton County Jail. It was something to behold. A peaceful demonstration involving approximately a thousand strong. Some of our group offering and giving hugs to Morton County police officers as a gesture of good will. The same police force that had been committing immoral atrocities against them. Needless to say, I was not feeling benevolent enough to offer a hug.
I returned home and wrapped up my responsibilities as the state coordinator for Jill Stein for President. I was itching. I needed to return. Not on a supply trip or to promote a political agenda but as a water protector. I felt like Captain Willard from “Apocalypse Now.” I was waiting for a mission. Then came the call for veterans to stand in solidarity and if need be to act as a human shield to protect the vulnerable peaceful demonstrators. I was going back to Standing Rock.
I returned to Standing Rock with my friend and fellow veteran, Gary Schreiber. Gary was a former Marine who had served in Vietnam. He is a source of information and valuable insight to me. We arrived last Sunday morning and set up our camp on the outskirts of Oceti Sakowin at a place called Horse Camp. It lies right on the banks of the Cannonball River. After setting up our camp, we set off for Facebook Hill to make a few posts and then to Highway 1806 that leads to the barricaded bridge where police and water protectors have been standing off.
As soon as we arrived at the road, it was clear that something was happening. Something was wrong. We were asked immediately to come help guard the road with some twenty others to keep veterans and others from continuing down the road. The tribal elders did not want people going down to the bridge that day. This was their fight, and they were running the show, so I had no choice but to respect their directive and not allow anyone to pass. I had just arrived at camp and found myself in the epicenter of a standoff with fellow veterans. Tomorrow was the day slated for veterans to march to the bridge. I was just as eager to go to the bridge, but we needed to respect their wishes and be patient.
After about an hour of this surreal standoff, it was announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just denied Dakota Access the permit to drill under the Missouri River until a full environmental impact study has been completed. Something that should have been ordered a long time ago. An environmental impact study should have been issued for the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers too. Plus their numerous tributaries that that pipeline will cross. The news was received with great excitement. And the situation was quickly defused, and the crowd dispersed.
The mood at camp was euphoric. People were smiling and chattering about the recent development. There would be a great celebration at the sacred fire that night and all throughout the camp. It was the first real win. Not a victory but a win. As night fell, one could still see the line of headlights winding up the highway hill waiting for their turn to get into Oceti Sakowin. It was truly awe-inspiring.
That night as I was lying in my tent I could not sleep, despite the fact that I had virtually no sleep the night before. My mind was filled with thoughts of my children and the woman that I love. I was restless. I decided to get up and at 3:30 am I went down to the river. Cloaked in the darkness, I skirted the banks of the Cannonball until I reached the bridge. I was curious about this place. I wondered what the day would bring. I was ready.
After making my way back to our campsite, I decided to go to the sacred fire that continually burns night after night and day after day. When I arrived, only the fire tender was there wrapped up in a homemade quilt and fast asleep in a lawn chair. I sat down and just stared at the fire. Soon others began to trickle in. Some were offering prayers, but no one spoke. We just sat in the cold dark morning air watching the licking flames. Each person deep in their thoughts.
Later that morning at the sacred fire someone from the media tent came racing down the hill to deliver the message that Dakota Access had just announced that they would not cease work or reroute the pipeline. They would pay the fines but would continue their greed driven endeavor. This was in direct violation of the U.S. Army Corp of Army Engineers order to cease work. Will the Morton County Police now turn their water cannons on the pipeline workers? Will they now be shooting them with rubber bullets and tear gas? The answer is no. These corporations answer to no one. This is what happens when big oil buys your government.
At 1:00 pm veterans were due to march to the bridge. A blizzard was just starting to set in. It was important to me to be on the very front line of this march. And I was. I carried with me the flag I took to Philadelphia as a Bernie national delegate. The flag that I had draped around my shoulders the day of roll call. A roll call from a rigged primary. I walked out of the convention hall that day after roll call with that flag just as I was going to march to the bridge. With my chin up and my chest out. Veterans were dawning pieces of their old uniforms. Some were even wearing goggles and gas masks. No one knew what to expect. We marched forward with media cameras clicking and video rolling. A tribal leader was singing a song in his native tongue. I had no idea what the words meant, but it was beautiful.
We arrived at the barricade at the south end of the bridge and nothing. No police, no armored vehicles, no nothing. Just a pair of solitary headlights in the distance past the north end of the bridge. Had I come all this way for a photo op? Apparently, it is okay to attack unarmed indigenous people and water protectors, but it is not in their best interest to attack a large group of veterans. We marched back down the hill and backed up again gathering more veterans. The wind was howling, and the snow was flying. We stood at the barricade for about an hour and was then dismissed. A lot of us I think was spoiling for some action. We wanted to take what they had been punishing others with at the bridge. But maybe we were missing the point. The point being that this was a win. We had gathered thousands of veterans here to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, and the world was watching.
After the march, my coat and bib coveralls were frozen stiff. My hands were stinging from the cold. My tent door zipper was snow covered and not wanting to cooperate. My food and water supplies were frozen. Ahh, the beauty of a North Dakota blizzard! Everyone hunkered down for an unpleasant night.
The next morning the wind was still blowing hard. Tents were stressed and battered. People were frantically throwing their gear into vehicles to get out of camp after a brutal night and the prospect of highways being shut down. Gary and I had originally planned to leave the following morning. But the four-wheel drive on his jeep had gone out shortly before arriving at camp, and the more adverse weather was forecasted to come our way. We collectively made the decision to leave camp and head for home.
Leaving Oceti Sakowin was no easy task. The roads were covered and jammed with vehicles getting stuck in the snow. It was a frozen imbroglio. We made it out after some time and headed to the gas station next to the Prairie Knights Casino. The line to get gas was long, but we fueled up and headed over to the hotel casino to get a hot meal before hitting the road. As we arrived in the casino, we were greeted with the news that there was a “no travel” advisory in effect for all the highways in North Dakota. We had no choice but to stay there.
Refugees from the camp were there by the hundreds. There was no vacancy at the hotel; the buffet line was a mile long, and they were not serving alcohol at the casino that day. A few beers and a nice warm meal were at the very top of our list. Nevertheless, the hotel-casino was very accommodating to everyone. They opened their pavilion to let people camp out and even allowed people to just throw their sleeping bags out and sleep in the hotel’s hallways.
Later that evening I met a woman. She was 31 years old and a mother. I easily recognized her from her picture on the internet. She wore a bandanna covering one eye. She was the woman that was blasted at point blank range from a tear gas canister. Leaving her permanently disfigured and permanently blind in her one eye. I offered and gave her a hug. I told her I was sorry for what happened to her. But I didn’t know what else to say. My words failed me. I also often wonder about the young woman medic who was assisting the wounded at the frontline when her arm was blown apart by a concussion grenade.
Let’s make something clear. The atrocities being committed at Standing Rock are inhumane and morally unacceptable. History will view these mother frackers and those who support them as pariahs. Our children and grandchildren deserve better than this greed fueled agenda that our government allows happening because they too have become their employees.
Fracking oil is a bust. The oil being fracked from the Bakken oil fields is a heavy, dirty oil not even suitable for refinement into gasoline. Most of it will be exported for industrial uses. The Saudis will continue to sell barrels of oil under $50. The $50 a barrel threshold which makes the cost of extracting oil by fracking economically unviable.
What do we do now? We keep spreading our message on social media. We keep supporting causes like Standing Rock, Mississippi Stand and the initiative to stop Florida’s Sabal Trail pipeline. We take our money out of the banks that are financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Banks like Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, US Bank, Bank of America, etc. We stand up in the ballot booth. We continue to fight!