Standing Rock #NoDAPL. It’s not so complicated. But it is complex.

Mark C. Johnson, Executive Director, The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice; UN Representative, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, New York; Member of The Community of Living Traditions, Stony Point Center, Stony Point, New York
Published 23 November 2016

Reflections on November 11-19, 2016 Destination Standing Rock North Dakota Oceti Sakowin

It’s Not So Complicated

An encampment was established in March/April of this year along the north bank of the Cannonball River where it flows into the Missouri River on Reservation Land of the Standing Rock Nation of Lakota Sioux and privately held but Sacred Territory on the south bank. The site was chosen because it was nearly in the path of the North Dakota Access Pipeline Project of Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas based Hedge Fund consortium, which is projected to carry North Dakotan Bakken oil under the Missouri River at this point1. The crossing point had been moved sixty miles south of Bismarck when residents and officials determined that the risks to the water of that large, and largely white, community would be at risk with an original crossing just north of the City.

The redirection of the pipeline meant that it would (and now has) crossed large stretches of historically occupied Sioux Nation territory including a path ripped through burial grounds and ceremonial regions. The goal of the action has been to stop the construction of the pipeline on this pathway. In the course of the action an ever growing population of resisters has been educated as to failures of permitting processes and consultations with Treaty Protected Native People. Those gathered in four connected camps on either shore of the Cannonball River are considered Water Protectors. They are engaged in actively building a movement of resistance to this pipeline and similar corporate practices of fossil fuel companies across the country and around the world. This includes growing a cohesive community, an educated community, and a community trained in and committed to active nonviolent resistance.

It has also come to serve as an opportunity to reestablish solidarity and support among a large number of separate Indian Nations and an opportunity to educate a global, non-Native population about the history, belief, practices and culture of Native Americans. There is some evidence that preparations for this action go back some years and include the work to stop the Keystone Pipeline and the rise of Idle No More among Canadian and U.S. First Peoples on earlier fronts. So it is not really so complicated: build a community of resistance (Water Protectors) and stop the pipeline.

But it is complex.

Estimates vary as does the actual census of those present from a few thousand to many thousand at any given time (two – five thousand). Hundreds of people arrive and leave every day. Some for the first time some as part of repeated comings and goings. These are individuals who must quickly be brought into a cooperative understanding of the purpose and culture of the camps. They need to establish shelter, be fed, trained for action, engaged in the ceremony and rituals of the action, care for the place and themselves, and, during the few days we* were there, begin a quick transition to approaching winter.

Visitors are first invited to a daily morning Water Ceremony and then to a community gathering which begins at 9:00 am with announcements of interest to the whole community. First timers are then quickly escorted to an orientation lasting about two hours. There were nearly 100 individuals in these newcomer orientations each day we were there. Additional meetings were held at 1:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. for updates, in the early afternoon for training in active nonviolence, and in mid-afternoon for those who were helping with winterization of the camp. Food was available in a half dozen kitchens spread through the camps. Oceti Sakowin (which translates as Seven Councils) included that many and more sacred fires around which people gathered, often in the presence of elders, for conversation. And encampments which were more homogeneous were spread across the campgrounds, often with their own sacred fires. The number of fires was a growing health concern, particularly for elders and children, an unintended consequence of the success in gathering representatives of a large number of Indigenous Nations from around the world. Efforts were under way, as we were leaving, to reduce the number of fires used solely for heat.

The orientation reviewed Seven Lakota Values which are at the center of life and reflects the nature of a commitment to following indigenous leadership at all times. While this explanation greatly simplifies the purpose and content of the meeting its substance can be found in a set of documents created by the “Solidariteam”, at a collective of trainers, some of whom I have worked with in other contexts and places including Egypt and Washington, D.C.

Next steps included visits to the Legal Tent to fill out forms for legal support should one be arrested in an off-campus action or in the event of an occupation of the camp itself by police forces. The forms and routines were standard to conditions where civil disobedience takes place. A Media Tent also allowed registration for those with formal connections to communications beyond the camp and upon a return home. Photography was discouraged though those constraints were loosened even during the few days we were present and were not strictly enforced.

The Solidariteam also appears central to the agenda and schedule of actions off the grounds each day. At some point during the morning a caravan would form of as many as 100 vehicles and many hundreds of individuals who would leave together for a site relevant to the status of concerns about the pipeline on that day. (Members of the Community of Living Traditions, a week prior to my visit, had responded to a Clergy Call made by an Episcopalian Priest from Cannonball, which resulted in actions at the State Capital in Bismarck and in front of Governor Jack Dalrymple’s residence there, and included the arrest of Stony Point Center Co-Director, Rick Ufford-Chase). Actions included prayer vigils in front of the barracks for State Police and Army Reservists policing the camp and actions and supporting the oil company’s pipe-laying and drilling efforts, at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offices in Mandan, North Dakota, and in Bismarck. Police forces from a many as a dozen neighboring states have been called in under activation clauses of emergency cooperation agreements. Yes! Magazine has done outstanding work identifying sources of police support and people to contact to object to their presence.

Typically such actions resulted in some use of pepper spray, macing, tear gas any fire-arms (with rubber bullets or bean-bags), blockades, searches and impoundments of vehicles, arrests and related disruptions by the collected police forces. Some actions would also take place closer to camp as close to the construction site as possible and with higher levels of response by the authorities including water cannons, concussion grenades, beatings etc. I did not participate in any of the physical actions, but one of my travel companions did, witnessing pepper-spraying, road blocks, vehicle impoundments and arrests. Dozens were arrested or assaulted each day we were present, hundreds have been over the course of the engagement. The incidents of last Sunday evening, November 20th, after our departure, have resulted in more media attention nationally, largely because of the tragic an traumatic injury suffered by Sophia Wilansky of Westchester County, New York.

The orientation meetings also served as the method by which people were notified of needs for volunteers, the tasks to be accomplished and where to go to be helpful. Because weather reports at the beginning of the week threatened snow, wind and deep cold, for the first time since the camp was created, emphasis was on the process of winterizing the camps.

To back up for a moment, when we arrived on Sunday afternoon we entered through Sacred Stone Camp, an encampment on the banks of the Missouri adjacent to the town of Cannonball, sort of the “backdoor” to the complex of camps. It was largely populated by non-Native young people who were in some ways replicating the larger Oceti Sakowin encampment but on a significant learning curve about Native American culture and process overall. Some had moved to the site after a brief stay in the Oceti Sakowin encampment, it seemed to me, as a way of negotiating a level of discomfort (even if not fully conscious of it) of following indigenous leadership AT ALL TIMES. (Overall I would guesstimate that about 80% of those at Standing Rock (a collective term for four distinct camps) were in their 20s and 30s. Maybe another 10% were 65 or older. The remainder are 35-65, or children.)

We pitched our tent in an out-of-the-wind ravine “residents” were calling Peaceful Valley and watched the nearly full supermoon rise that night. The next morning we walked through Rosebud-Sicanju Oyate Camp to Oceti Sakowin for the orientation meetings. I returned to Sacred Stone to disassemble our set-up there and move to Rosebud-Sicanju Oyate Camp while my companions jumped in to trainings and orientations in Oceti Sakowin. The residents of Sacred Stone Camp were building a full-framed structure as a kitchen facility, and a hay bale school house. They were also discussing how to relate to Oceti Sakowin agenda setting process.

Rosebud-Sicanju Oyate Camp had been established originally to support the Sicanju Oyate Lakota/Rosebud Sioux Nation from South Dakota. While they were still a presence in the camp, a growing eclecticism included a bus of 40 from Cascadia in the Northwest, a major Cree contingent from Texas, and an Indigenous World Youth Movement encampment established along the south bank of the Cannonball River. The bridge serving to connect Rosebud-Sicanju with Oceti Sakowin was at the west end of the camp and security was established at either end of the short bridge defining entrance into each camp. We camped for the next three nights in Rosebud-Sicanju which was filling up rapidly, in part because Oceti Sakowin was being reorganized around a winterized ground plan. We set up camp in a line of neighbors which included two canvas carport structures for sorting and distributing clothing, a cooking/kitchen tent, a donations center for donated food goods, a medical tent and a large community center tent. Behind us the community was in the middle of building a large root-cellar, a hay bale building as a resource center, and a compositing site. Nearby one crew was assembling 30 barrel size wood burning stoves to install in a quickly growing construction of Teepees, TarPees, Yurts, and U.S. Military Tents which were arriving by the dozens on a daily basis.

Off in a more removed field of the Missouri flood-plain, more nearly at the foot of the ridgeline that carries the snaking pipeline down to the shores of the Missouri River, still along the banks of the Cannonball River, was a small collection of Teepees and a circle of dark worse-for-wear cars. This was the camp without a name, the black-snake camp, the camp of the angry and disaffected, of those more ready to use force, maybe even violence. People pointed to it but didn’t visit. It is off the beaten path. At night sets of headlights wind out and back. The circling planes, helicopters, and drones seemed to pass over it on each broader circling of Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud-Sicanju, and Sacred Stone; day and night almost continuously, until they were almost ignored. At night that ridgeline across the Cannonball came alight with the flick of a switch and the entire area was under the lights like a movie set.

In the end the karmic reason for my trip at this time may have been to facilitate the arrival of Jun-san Yasuda, a Nichiren Buddhist nun in the order of the Nipponzan Myohoji now long resident at the Peace Pagoda in Grafton, New York. The Nipponzan-Myohoji Daisanga was founded in 1917 by Nichidatsu Fujii As a young nun Jun-san was missioned to the birth of the Red Power Movement’s Longest Walk from San Francisco, California to Washington D.C. in 1978 by her master/teacher (Guruji) Nichidatsu Fujii. She developed a close working relationship with Dennis Banks and Russell Means and became a part of the continuing spiritual framing of Wounded Knee in American Indian History and of the work of AIM (The American Indian Movement) more broadly. When it became clear to the indigenous leadership of Standing Rock that the world indigenous presence lacked an Asian and Buddhist representation, Jun-san was an obvious candidate to visit the camp and an invitation was extended to her. [Such a move follows a long standing practice in the propagation of nonviolent witness which first took Henry David Thoreau to Maine (where he met Joseph Attean and Joe Polis and gained an appreciation for their incarnation of respect and reverence for Creation), and Gandhi to England and South Africa, then Bayard Rustin and Howard Thurman to India, like Nichidatsu Fujii, to meet Gandhi; the journey that took Thoreau into the work of Alexander Humboldt, Tolstoy into the work of Thoreau, Gandhi into the work of Tolstoy and Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. into the work of Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh, ad circularis.]

When Jun-san learned I was headed for Standing Rock she asked if I could take some of the materials she wanted to contribute from the Pagoda so that her flight out five days later would be more manageable. In the end she led me to my fellow travelers and I was the one to collect her from the Bismarck Airport for her arrival in Standing Rock. As we entered Oceti Sakowin at sunset she beat her drum and chanted the Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo amongst the rising Teepees and Yurts eliciting smiles and bows and then cries of recognition. Women who had been children on the Longest Walk were present here with their grandchildren. Chiefs and other indigenous leaders who had walked in various campaigns broke in laughter and exchanged hugs with her. Jun-san was where she needed to be when Standing Rock was there to welcome her. We crossed paths a few times the next day as she sought out Cherokee friends from the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. As we were packing to leave she was on her way through Rosebud-Sicanju to Sacred Stone Camp in the company of an ally from the Indigenous World Youth Movement.

What We Saw (and helped do in some small way)

Teepees (one was 32’ across) raised by sacred poles by coordinated teams, Yurts of Mongolian design with carved wooden doors and Eastern art on their sides, TarPees (a cross between Teepees and Yurts), tents of all sizes and forms from summer to arctic, mud and stick lodges such as beavers might build, hay bale buildings with metal roofs, root cellars, Army tents, geodesic domes, solar panels, small wind generators, campers, trucks, shipping containers, tracker-trailers, flatbeds; fire circles, sweat lodges, compost piles, resource centers, food pantries, kitchen tents, dishwashing circles, clothing tents, medical tents, healing arts circles, wellness centers, meditation centers, sacred fires, check points, training sites, volunteer tents, Moon Camps, donation centers, legal tents, media tents, orientation centers. How we were powered: prayer, chants, drumming, dance, wood fires, boiling cauldrons of hot water, propane, solar panels and arrays, lamps, flashlights, torches, generators, engines, battery packs; what we ate and drank: coffee, tea, water, soda, cocoa, oatmeal, eggs, pancakes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, hash-brown potatoes, fry bread, soup, venison, chili, squash, beans, rice, corn, canned goods, home-made jams, apple butter, fresh fruit, honey, nuts, crackers, candy. What we wore: sandals, shoes, boots, sneakers, bare feet, flip-flops, moccasins, slacks, overalls, shorts, skirts, wraps, sarongs, sweats, parkas, sweaters, jackets, kafiyas, scarves, hats of many sorts, feathers, headbands, braids, babies in back-packs and slings, blankets, gloves, mittens, and smiles.


  1. For those raised and living in a highly individualized society it is not an easy transition to thinking and acting in support of the needs of the community collectively, forestalling even one’s curiosity for why decisions were made or how priorities were being set. Putting the needs of the community ahead of the more immediately obvious opportunities to meet the needs of an individual was leading to a growing effectiveness in preparing the camp for winter, and keeping the actions focused on larger long-term goals.

  2. For those living in a largely relativistic society it is not easy to understand the operation of respect for traditions and cultures other than one’s own in shaping one’s behavior as a visitor in what one might consider one’s own country but which in fact is contested land. The distinctions between respect for diversity, commitment to pluralism, tolerance for the other are all different than understanding the place and value of traditions, the rights of primacy in stewardship, the role of wisdom as a resource for survival.

  3. Two cultures intersecting here might be characterized as the “brothers/sisters” solidarity culture and the “all our relatives” indigenous sustainability culture. The brothers and sisters come from identified communities of color, from intersecting campaigns for social justice, from peoples movements dedicated to human rights, from progressive/activists movement building structures. The all our relatives indigenous sustainability culture is interspecies, global, indigenous peoples with a Creator/Creation spirituality coming together around their own deep sense of integrity and respect for all life. The two cultures are not at odds, but nor are they always speaking the same language or practicing the same life-styles and spiritualities.2

  4. Even at the heart of the leadership of indigenous peoples here there are differences of opinion, strategy, tactics, the primordial confrontation of generations. I heard young warriors complain of being held as “spiritual hostages” to “Elders” they couldn’t find when they sought permission of an action of their own. There were frequent complaints of the “whiners” though this seemed to be the principal complaint – that there were whiners. Referral to the tools of communication (white boards, meeting places and regularly scheduled meetings) and practices of taking initiative within the cultural guidelines of the camp were frequently voiced in exasperated tones by those hearing the same questions and suggestions over and over again. Momentum is a hard thing to build.

  5. It is working. The four days of transition from a comfortable climate to a winter-threatened camp were impressive. Arctic geodesic domes, hay bale insulated structures, Teepees and TarPees and Yurts with insulated floors, walls and wood stoves, sorting of supplies and ordering them for security and usefulness in sub-zero blizzard conditions was impressive. They are there to stay, if only so long as it serves as the right base to confront the powers and principalities and so long as it is strengthening the movement for multiple fronts and actions. They are survivors – we are their relatives.

[1] see [2] A further expansion and interpretation of this point.

In announcing my intention to drive out I was connected with two additional partners, an activist and massage therapist from Buffalo, New York, and a carpenter and interpretive dance artist from Hudson, New York. We rotated driving and sleeping in the truck bed, driving straight through the nearly 1800 miles in about 33 hours. We carried two tents and outfitted the truck for sleeping so camped together. We sent our separate ways most days using our talents and interests to our best effect.

A poetic sequence is also being written to accompany this report. The first nine stanzas are included below with the understanding that they are in draft and incomplete. There is no way to estimate when it will be completed.

Among the ways to follow this situation include the following websites:

A photomontage as a PowerPoint page accompanies this report. Many outstanding photographs are already available on the websites above.

Water Is Life – Mni Waconi


Water is life
Without water
There is not
Before the Word
There was Water
We are all water
And a pinch
Of tobacco
Fire floating
Light reflecting
Off the water
Water drinking light
We are the drinkers
We are water
Almost all water
Medicine wheels
Turning water buckets
Life is water
Water is sacred
Water protectors
Spirit calls.


The red moon rises
Full of fire and light
Over Mother Missouri
Cannonball River her tongue
She opens as an eye in the river
The gray clouds become Rapids
They roll, she rolls, we roll
The full moon smiles
On the many-fires
She lights the way
They warm hands and hearts
We have arrived
As leaves of grass
We have come to the altar
Of her rising Sacred Stone
We are the Sparks lifted
Into the sky on Standing Rock
The drums beat in our guts
We’ve come to dance
We’ve come to the fire
We’ve come to the river
We’ve come to life.


The Earth is beaten down
Hard to the touch smooth
Many-feet walking on her
Grass like hair dry knotted
Seeds like dread-locks
Rattles with our passing
Buffalo on the prairie
Without a word or water
We become pustules
Tent bumps on the land
Truck ruts of roads
Snaking like the river
We weave left and right
We are flood in the plain
We slither on the path
Of the Black Snake
As Prophecy
And its fulfillment
The hills shine their many-eyes
The metal birds twirl their blades
Midnighthumming the drums
Pacing the chants are lullabies
We sleep purring and thrumming.


Water is life
Gunpowder is death
Water is joy
Pepper spray is pain
Water is peace
Police power is war
Water is an embrace
Mace is a slap
Water is a river
Oil is a snake
Water is the moon’s shawl
Tear gas is a whip
Water is a blessing
Petroleum is a curse
Water is sacred
Money is filthy lucre
Water is home
Ash is a grave
Water is a mirror
Spotlights are blinders
Water is music
Bullhorns are clangs
Water is a chariot
Roads go to Hell
Water is music
Guns are klaxons
Water is life
Greed is doom.


As sitting in dark days,
Lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain for light, for hope,
From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,
(The sun there at the centre though conceal’d,
Electric life forever at the centre,)
Breaks forth a lightning flash.
-“From Far Dakota’s Canons”, in Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1876)

These rolling hills of grass grazed to seedy rattle stems and dry silage treeless and expansive
The hay baled in great rolls and stacked toylike against approaching winter
The cattle with their thickened coats of black hide against the brown landscape in small herds
The hiding place of the great black snake buried beneath a new scar across the plain
A roadside altar of charred tires and scorched markings of a momentary standoff
Lines are drawn as ancient as the faults of earthquakes in a best borderless land
Police with batons, shields, heavily tinted masks, helmets, padding, boots and guns,
The camouflage of conflict, of warriors home from Iraq and Afghanistan, home…home
What are they doing here arrayed against the aboriginal inhabitants, those here before time,
Who stand red mace-faced, tears of pepper spray on their high cheek bones, tear-gas streaked
Bringing that war back home…home…to lubricate the path to pollution, destruction, extinction
Riding in their armored monster vehicles reborn bones of dinosaurs from Cadmus’s strewn teeth
These hills once forests and lakes, great expansive seas, glacier conveyors, paradise
Long the unfettered range of roaming bison the hill hidden Sioux the horse riding Lakota
The Dakota, the People, reduced now to hurdles to be lept by tanks surveyed by helicopters
Those who camped by the curving banks of the Cannonball River offer tobacco prayers on sacred fires
And rise to protect the mighty Missouri forming a phalanx on her banks to staunch a wound
Before a cut should loose the black blood and fill its flow with oil and certain death.

As sitting in dark days, lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain for light, for hope, from unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof, …
Breaks forth a lightning flash.


Water will not run uphill
But it cannot be stopped when it runs down
Water will rise and rivers will roll
It will not stop until it gets to the sea
Waters will be still and they will roil
Their energy is in their mass kinetic potential
Waters will part and will bless
They will buoy us up they will kiss us
And so it is and so it is and so it is with Justice.


I awake laughing, happy, there is a bluebird on my forehead
The spot on its breast is the rosy orange color of the rising moon
The bluebird has flown out of the thicket of a manzanita tree
On its smooth limbs are two pairs of copulating iguana
Their skin is indigo and turquoise their chins lifted their tongues out
The night is filled with drums and chanting celebration not mourning
The air is filled with the smoke of ash burning and tobacco offerings
The full moon is directly overhead the tent like a lantern full of its light
The wind is beating the tent walls in time with the drums and chants
I am not awake, I am awake, I am not awake, and I cry happily.


“For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as I see thee…
Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair or tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rock and hill return’d,
Launch o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unspent and glad and strong.”
-To A Locomotive In Winter, from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

I know that distant rumbling
Its call and message, its Muse-provoked music and imagination,
This same train will some days from now roll by the room where I normally asleep,
And here as there I hear its mournful warning no longer glad but still strong,
One more invention perfected to do destruction rather than boonful service to this nation;
This tent tonight is an ear to the ground, like the ear of the child on a rail in youth,
The thrill and fright of the monster which comes out of the night headlight thrown ahead
Swung first across the hills of the Dakota and dappling the blue black waters of the Missouri.


Trains Nights Mares

Trains of trains
Assemblies of assemblies
One hundred cars long
Rumbling muffled steel
Wheels and wheels and wheels
Coupling clanging holding
Against the chain of cars
The cattle that they carry
Are cars, stacks of cars,
Hidden now in cages
Of punctured metal mesh
So stones won’t mar finishes
Buffed on in distant factories
Brands of chrome leather
Upholsteries cattle sourced
All night they slip by with a whistle
All night they fill the marshes
With a song of rolling freight
Cattle cars carrying cars
To the stockyards of suburban
Dealers who line the roads
With them tethered to balloons
Corrals of cars noses to the ground
Ships of cars crossing the ocean
Steerage as silent as slaves
Trucked across nations stacked
On the backs of tractor trailers
Wheels on wheels on wheels
While on the other track rolls
Oil in tanker after tanker black
Outside and in ominous slick
Barrels in barrels of black crude
To fuel the cars and trucks the
Ships and trains rolling stock
All night they announce their
Passing with a whistle and
A lowing roll a rumble of hard
Steel on harder steel wheel
On rail the train carries its freight
Of cars inside of cars and oil
To keep them rolling and smoke
Say it know it human smoke
Risen from forging smoke stacks
Carbon in boney chunks and
Flowing like black blood to
Furnaces melting steel amalgams
Molding bodies to be greased the
Gears grinding wheels on steel
Tracks train after train night
After night the whistle warning
We are being wound into furnaces
That will burn us, drown us, choke
Us carry us all to a holocaustic end.