The Spirit of Standing Rock Lives

[I wrote this piece after participating in the Native Nations Rising march in downtown Washington, DC, on March 10, 2017]

The story of the Standing Rock people’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been in and out of the national news for well over a year now. By most accounts, the story ended with Donald Trump’s presidency, and his overt pressuring of the Army Corps of Engineers to ignore the Obama administration’s last-minute commitment to conduct the necessary environmental impact study about the pipeline’s possible long-term effects. With the Army Corps reneging on their agreement and granting the necessary easement rights on Federal property, the doors were reopened for the DAPL to be completed.

So why did the recent march from the Corps of Engineers headquarters in downtown DC to Lafayette Park, across from the White House, feel so empowering? The Washington Post story​ about the march ( conveys some of this spirit, featuring short interviews with native peoples from all over the country who had made the journey to be in the Capital for this historic gathering of “Native Nations Rising”. The long, hard struggles at Standing Rock over many months had served to create a growing consciousness of indigenous rights and a uniquely indigenous world view that had entered the consciousness of many Americans, native and otherwise.

My wife Andrea and I had participated in the historic Women’s March in DC on January 21. We traveled down to this march together on Metro again, exiting at the same station where we had joined the overwhelming throngs just six weeks ago. The Native Nations Rising march was on a much smaller scale – a few thousand or so compared to an estimated half-million on 1/21. But like the Women’s March, it was a lively and inspiring affirmation of people willing to put their boots on the ground to both oppose the Trump agenda and commit to a sustained opposition movement.

I’d been downtown the day before and had visited the Standing Rock encampment on the Washington Monument grounds there. There were half a dozen white teepees and a larger food tent on the wide-open Monument grounds. It was a warm, sunny day and people were gathered in small groups, talking, singing, eating. The permit didn’t allow for overnight camping, but it was clear that a hundred people or so had succeeded in creating a welcoming environment of friendly fellowship. The months-long encampment at the Sanding Rock Reservation had reached up to 15,000 people at some points, and it felt like the sense of community created there had been transplanted to DC.

I made a special trip afterwards to get supplies for a march poster. The teepee encampment had many banners expressing “Water Is Life”, and in Lakota, “Mine Wachoni”. One of the elements of the Standing Rock story that irked me most was that the original route for the DAPL was for a Missouri River crossing near the city of Bismarck, ND. The city officials had responded to popular concern about the safety of the city’s water supply and prevailed on the drilling company to move the pipeline. The site chosen was further south towards the Standing Rock Reservation. My carefully hand-lettered sign would say:

“Water Is Life, in Standing Rock as in Bismarck”

Joining the march at its tail end on 4th Street NW, we were immediately taken in by the high spirits and positive energy. Despite a cold, slushy rain, people were chanting slogans, and proudly displaying their posters. Many native people were dressed in colorful, traditional attire. Friendly marshals kept us on our assigned half of the street as our long line of men, women and children twisted its way through the streets of downtown DC.

The march turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue just before the Old Post Office building, now the Trump International Hotel. It was a sobering moment to stand in front of one of our new business-mogul-president’s recently renovated hotel ventures just blocks from the Oval Office. The march paused in front of the hotel for a good long while. A team of Native Americans assembled a small white teepee under the four large American flags hanging in front of the hotel. They proceeded to enact a mock ritual using a life-sized cardboard effigy of Trump that was placed on the street surface near the teepee. Natives in traditional attire proceeded to jeer and poke ribboned batons at the effigy right there in the very heart of his real estate empire.

By the time the march resumed its trek down Pennsylvania Avenue to its terminus opposite the White House, the sun had begun to peak through the heavy, gray clouds and the drenching sleet stopped entirely. The sense of physical relief from the cold and wet was palpable. A small stage had been erected in the middle of Lafayette Park, surrounded by large trees in spring bud. As the main part of the march filled the park, other smaller contingents remained outside the White House gates chanting their disapproval of the new president, who had almost single-handedly upended a carefully worked out agreement to reconsider the routing of the pipeline.

The speakers at the rally included Standing Rock’s chief David Archimbaud and others who testified to their sense of being disrespected and dismissed by the new administration. But included with these grievances were strong statements of resolve that the spirit of Standing Rock would persist, fortified as it had been over the many long months of the encampment. Many younger native men and women spoke to the re-igniting of their tribal consciousness, and to the fundamental teachings of the Elders regarding the primacy of the Earth, the Air, the Water, and all the creatures of the Earth beyond any attempts to expropriate or marketize them.

The spirit of the march was positive, creative, friendly, and affirming of the unity that had emerged among the Native Nations and their many non-native allies. The prospect of ongoing resistance was evident not only in the street theater in front of Trump’s hotel, but also in the fact that eight people had engaged in a peaceful act of civil disobedience during the march, chaining themselves to the entrance of the Sun Trust bank, an institution that continued to engage in large-scale investments in the DAPL and other fossil fuel ventures.

The DAPL may well be completed, but the spirit of Standing Rock remains strong, nurturing and sustaininng the long-term resistance movement that is now taking root.

John Bayerl,  Washington, DC; March 10, 2017



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