Ohitica and the Rez Dogs of Standing Rock

During the six months that I spent at Standing Rock, I learned about the life of the rez dogs and their relationship to the people they live with. It’s not the tidy house-dog life of city dog… Instead, the dogs of the reservation are their own people. They are relatives in their own right.

From Lisha Sterling

When I first arrived at the Water Protector camps in Standing Rock, I lived in the Sicangu camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river, by highway 1806. My days were spent busy on Media Hill in the Indigenous Environmental Network’s media tent or talking to folks in the Legal tent, or else running back and forth between the different camps, the place we came to call “Hop Hill”, the Prairie Knights Casino, the town of Cannonball, and the town of Fort Yates. I’d often roll back into my home camp at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, exhausted. That didn’t leave much time for being social in a non-work atmosphere. But when I could, I’d sit by the sacred fire for a bit to listen to the elders talking.

One night, I rolled in late and parked my van near the kitchen tent. I could see that there were people inside, so I went in to join them. A large pot of chicken soup simmered on the fire. Two young men and one young woman were in there, talking and eating left over food from the evening’s dinner. They offered me some food, but I wasn’t hungry. I just wanted to listen in on the conversation.

After a little while, another young woman came into the kitchen. She had a baby sling across her body, and a couple of bottles in her hand. She asked if there were any measuring spoons in the kitchen. Her voice had a worried, nearly panicked tone to it, “I need to measure out a teaspoon of this medicine for the puppy!” She turned and we could see the limp German shepherd puppy in the baby sling, “He has worms really bad. The vet says he isn’t going to make it. She wanted to put him down, but I made her give me the medicine. But now I can’t find a measuring spoon!”

I noticed that one of the bottles in her hand was a prescription bottle and the other was an herbal tincture bottle, “You have something to measure with right there,” I told her. “One dropperful is ¼ teaspoon. Four dropperfuls is one dose of his medicine.”

She looked from me to the dog and then to the bottle in her hand, surprised, “Really?”

She put the bottles down and began to open them both. The other young woman jumped up to help her get the medicine measured and dropped into the dog’s mouth. The puppy barely moved.

The young woman with the puppy explained what her day had been like. She’d been at a friend’s house, and they had this puppy. It was the last of a litter but had never been picked by anyone who came by. It had started to get sick, and the family had just figured that it would probably die. She asked if she could have the dog. Her friend’s family said yes, and she immediately drove up to Bismarck to find a vet and see what she could do to help the dog. “But he hasn’t moved the whole time. He didn’t move when I picked him up. He won’t eat. He didn’t move when the doctor checked him. He’s just been like this all day.” By now she was at the edge of tears.

Now, let me take you on a tangent here for a moment to tell you that, under normal circumstances, it is said that you should never mix Lakhota medicine with any other kind of medicine. There have been some major exceptions made in terms of “Christian medicine” in the sense that these days even many čanupa (sacred pipe) carriers are also Christian, but on the whole the admonition not to mix Lakhota medicine with anything else still stands. However, we were in a different situation than usual. The elders and the holy people had specifically called on people of all nations and all religions to bring their prayers to Očeti Šakówiŋ camp. And with those prayers comes some of the other practices and medicine of those other nations. It was in that context that it seemed wholly appropriate for me to mention a bit of Jewish folklore to the young woman for the benefit of her puppy.

“In Jewish tradition, if someone is very sick and it looks like they are probably going to die, we sometimes change their name. It is said that changing their name can trick the angel of death. Other’s say that changing the name gives a person a new job to do in life. It’s common to rename a person in such a situation ‘Chaim’, which means ‘Life’, but sometimes the name is something else. It can be like a wish or a prayer for what you want in that person’s future.” I told her.

“I like that tradition. It sounds good. He doesn’t have a name yet.”

Just then, one of the wise old ladies of camp walked into the kitchen tent. She’d barely stepped inside when she was asked by the woman with the puppy, “What should I name my dog?”

Theresa Black Oak looked at the puppy, a bit confused, and asked why she was naming the puppy. So, we explained the situation to her. Then she looked closely at the dog for a moment and thought about it.

“Ohitica. His name should be Ohitica, which means Brave.” Theresa announced.

The young woman repeated the name, “Ohitica. You are Ohitica!” She told the puppy.

As this interaction was going on, one of the young men prepared a bowl with a little bit of the chicken soup in it. He suggested that she should try feeding the dog some of it. She took the puppy and put him on the ground in front of the bowl. He stood up a little wobbly at first, but then he was stable on his feet. He sniffed the bowl and began to drink the broth. Then he ate the pieces of chicken. He finished the whole bowl of soup, and then he began to run in circles and bounce around like a puppy does.

Everyone’s eyes were wide with surprise, not least of all the woman who had brought the puppy in.

“Wait, he didn’t move all day?” Someone said in surprise.

“Not at all,” She answered with wonder.

“Well, a little bit of medicine and a brand new name, makes good medicine!” I laughed, so relieved.

About a month later, I drove up to Media Hill to meet with someone at the Indigenous Environmental Network tent. As I arrived at the fence around the IEN area, there was a German shepherd puppy tied up next to the entrance. I bent down to say hello, “Oh my goodness! You are so cute! You look just like Ohitica, only you are much bigger than him!”

Just then, the woman who had walked into the kitchen with a tiny, sick puppy in a baby sling walked up. I saw her feet first, but when I look up and saw her face I nearly whooped in joy, “You ARE Ohitica!”

And so he was, and that healthy young dog left Standing Rock a few days later to a new home far away.

Dakota and her puppies say,
Image by Kelly Kai Botak all rights reserved

In February 2017, amidst all the other indignities of the expulsion of the Water Protectors from the camps at Standing Rock, we had to see news reports about how the good people of Bismarck, North Dakota had to go down and rescue dogs that had been left behind by “protesters”. It was true that the people who came down from animal rescue agencies found dogs in and around the town of Cannonball, but it was absolute privileged, self-righteous, colonialist White ignorance to believe that these were dogs left behind by the Water Protectors. Like so much else that was reported by the White press in North Dakota about the camps and the people in them, the prejudice and refusal to acknowledge the people and culture of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was at the root of problems invented for the sake of the pro-pipeline narrative. Those “abandoned” dogs were, in fact, rez dogs who were moved off their rightful home just as their Native human companions had been before them.

During the six months that I spent at Standing Rock, I learned about the life of the rez dogs and their relationship to the people they live with. It’s not the tidy house-dog life of city dog who gets adopted into a quaint idea of a “forever home”. Instead, the dogs of the reservation are their own people. They are relatives in their own right.

Most of those dogs go inside when they want to and stay outside when they want to. Some never go inside at all, even in the coldest part of the winter. Some dogs have more than one family, and they travel between houses when they feel like it, spending a day or a week with one set of humans before visiting their other set of humans. Other dogs prefer to roam around most of the time in little packs, though they’ll show up on their family’s lawn when it’s time to eat.

In the autumn there were several litters of new puppies born in the vicinity of the Water Protector camps. When the puppies were old enough to be weaned, several families walked around the camps with their surplus puppies to see if anyone wanted one. Every puppy that came through camp in that way got adopted and went home with a new Water Protector family.

In the depths of the winter when the Cannonball recreation center became both the Očeti Šakówiŋ Camp Media headquarters and the Standing Rock emergency shelter, there were a number of local dogs who decided that all the bustle of the rec center was their preferred place to be. We let the dogs come and go for a while, and even fed them if they looked hungry, but then some of the elders of the tribe made it known that they didn’t want the dogs in there. “They have homes. If you feed them they won’t go back to their families and then we’ll have a pack of dogs who think that the Rec Center is their new home.”

So, we kept the rez dogs out of the Rec Center, and most of them went back to their normal routines. Most, but not all.

One big, fluffy white dog who was probably about four or five years old curled up outside the front door of the rec center for days. If you didn’t happen to come out when he got up to go find food elsewhere, and if you didn’t notice that he never had more than a few hours of snow over top of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he’d just frozen in place there.

A very sweet and gentle health care worker stood in the Rec Center in tears because she was afraid for this wonderful dog. I reminded her that this dog had obviously lived through other North Dakota winters. He knew how to survive out here. This was his home. He had long fur, so he probably wasn’t nearly as cold as she thought, and he knew how to snuggle into his own little shelter in the snow bank. I also showed her the signs that he had been moving around and wasn’t just frozen to the spot. She calmed down, but she was still concerned. A few days later she tracked down the family of that dog. He was fine.

Another large golden retriever mix kept insisting on coming into the Rec Center, long after he’d been officially kicked out. In January, his family showed up at the center when they’d heard that their dog was over there. We discovered the dog’s real name was Cinnamon, and that his family had thought he’d died since they hadn’t seen him in two weeks.

“Did you try to look for him?” someone asked.

“No. He’s old. If he felt he needed to go find a place away from here to die, that’s his right. If he was well, we knew he’d come home eventually.”

The folks running the Emergency Center insisted that the family needed to take Cinnamon home. They did, but two days later he was back at the Rec Center. This went back and forth a few times.

Another Water Protector who was getting ready to go home spoke with the family and asked to adopt their dog. They agreed. Cinnamon went off to a new city with a new name and a whole new human family.

In reality, quite a few rez dogs adopted humans from among the non-local Water Protector population. But many rez dogs stayed on the rez where they had always lived. Their lives are not the lives of city dogs, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad lives. They are just different lives.

And yes, many dogs came to Standing Rock with Water Protectors, too, but none of them was left behind. Once the population of the camps grew in late October, even the dogs who had previously been able to run free in the camps were required to stay on leash or in a tent or structure at all times. Any dog seen wandering without a human in camp would be taken to the sacred fire where an announcement would be made that the dog had gotten loose. If the dog’s owner did not agree to keep it under control, the camp security said that they would take the dog away and send it to a new home or an animal shelter. As far as I know, no dog was taken from its humans in that way. Instead, camp dwellers kept their dogs well under control, leashed or in their makeshift homes. And when they left camp, their dogs went with them.

After the camps were cleared, a bunch of White people who were full of their own certainties about the world went down to the reservation in search of the abandoned dogs that they “knew” Water Protectors would leave behind. Perhaps law enforcement had something to do with it. Maybe the many sheriff’s deputies and federal agents from across the country had seen the rez dogs in Cannonball and told people about them. Either way, they assumed that these dogs were homeless, and that irresponsible, dirty hippies and Indians who had spent as much as nine months living in tents through every kind of weather the prairie can dish out had just left without them. No one bothered to ask the people in the houses on the reservation about the dogs wandering around the area in packs or by themselves whose dogs these were. The White people “knew” and so they took the dogs to shelters and made a big deal about showing how righteous their cause was.

The difference between reality at Standing Rock and the ideas that White settler culture in Bismarck imagines is as stark today as it was a hundred fifty years ago.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


Support our work here.

Assholes and Infiltrators

There are, in fact, two kinds of people in the world of activism. Assholes and infiltrators. Every single one of us good-intentioned activists is an asshole.

From Lisha Sterling

A Water Protector on the tech team takes a break in the warm tent.
Tech Team tent and Water Protector in December 2016. Photo by Lisha Sterling.

In the 2003 Battlestar Galactica mini series, the cylons now look like humans. They can blend into the population. When Commander Adama and President Roslin find this out, they have a meeting to discuss the problem. They decide that they can’t let the fleet know. If everyone knew that cylons could look like humans, they’d all be accusing each other of being cylons, and terrible things could happen.

When I first saw that scene, I could understand intellectually why they made that decision. After having spent 6 months in the camps at Standing Rock, I have a visceral understanding of why they made that decision.

In the intense environment of a camp under siege, we knew that there were infiltrators among us, but it was usually hard if not impossible to figure out who those people were. Sometimes the infiltrators were easy to pick out. They didn’t cover their tracks very well, they projected their actions or they asked questions in a way that made them all too obvious. But we knew that there were others who were better at hiding their true intentions, and that did as much to cause division and strife as anything that the infiltrators were doing directly. Any time someone would do something stupid or destructive, any time someone would refuse to follow the instructions of a leader, any time someone lost their cool there was someone who would say of that person, “Do you think they’re an infiltrator?”

It took me over a month to get the Internet connected at camp. I was very stubborn in the fact that I was not going to use satellite internet to solve our problem (it’s too damned expensive) and I wanted the backbone connection to go through the tribally owned Standing Rock Telecom. Unfortunately, I had no idea what political back and forth that goal was going to take or the culturally appropriate path to get the right people on board with my plan. In the meantime, I fielded emails and phone calls from people several times a day telling me how I should set up Internet at the camps. I would listen to each one and then explain to them what was wrong with their plan and what we were doing instead. Towards the end, there were a lot of people who thought that I was intentionally stalling. “Is she an infiltrator?” they asked each other.

The question was asked about Johnny Aseron, the man that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe had assigned to be second in charge at the camp, the one who led the 9 am meetings for months and who was the go-to person for every possible issue at camp. He has his issues, just like all of us do, and when he had a string of unfortunate disagreements I heard a lot of people ask the question, “Do you think HE could be an infiltrator?”

One of the people on the tech team pissed me right off one day while I was away from camp to get supplies in Bismark. He took it upon himself to reorganize the tech team tent, a tent which he did not live in. He didn’t just reorganize the solar and wind power supplies that he worked with. He reorganized everything, including the computer equipment and network gear. He also managed to lose the keys to my van. He did all this by himself without the consent or cooperation of any of the other team members, despite the fact that four of us lived in that tent along with all that equipment. When I got back I was livid. When he left the tent, the other team members asked me, “Do you think he’s an infiltrator?”

No. Not an infiltrator. Just an asshole.

There are, in fact, two kinds of people in the world of activism. Assholes and infiltrators. Every single one of us good-intentioned activists is an asshole. Even those people who you know are absolutely the salt of the earth, sweet, wonderful amazing people. They are assholes, too, at least sometimes. We do stupid things, destructive things even, not because we want to destroy the movement but because we are flawed human beings. We all have personal ideas about how things should be done and personal agendas that may have nothing at all to do with the issue we are are working on that can get in the way of working well with our comrades.

If you traitor jacket someone, or declare a person in the movement to be an infiltrator, and you get it wrong, you will create serious division in the movement you care about and you will cut the movement off from the talents and skills of the person so wrongfully accused. The backlash from such a move can utterly destroy a group. Whatever it was you were planning together can be wiped out by bad blood, and with it whatever effectiveness you would have had.

But there are real infiltrators out there.

In the 2004 season of Battlestar Galactica, the scientist Gaius Baltar invents a cylon detector. It works perfectly. His first beta test is on a volunteer and the results come back positive. As he sits there looking at his screen and then looking at the person who volunteered to be tested, Baltar freaks out.

You can imagine all the things going through his head. If he tells this person that she has tested positive as a cylon, she may turn on him. Does she know she’s a cylon? Why did she volunteer to be the first one? What if she kills him for finding her out? What if she leaves that room and does something that will destroy the ship? It’s just not safe to call her out, even though he knows that she really is a cylon.

In real life, there is no blood test for infiltrators, but the risks of finding one out are still the same. You may have noted all the signs of an infiltrator in one of the members of your cohort, but that doesn’t mean that you want to immediately spread the word of what you’ve found. Depending on how well trained they are and what their mission is, they may pretend that you have falsely accused them. They may go into high gear to assassinate your character, destroying your credibility to save their own. Or, having been found out, they may do something drastic to cause as much damage as possible on their way out.

If you are very certain that you have found an infiltrator in your midst, speak privately with some trusted people before taking any action. Do not announce that you have found an infiltrator. Instead, play the game of “Asshole or Infiltrator”. Compare notes. See if the other people you trust have seen the same signs of an infiltrator that you have. See if you can determine together whether the behavior of this person is just normal human trouble or if it is something more problematic.

The game of “Asshole or Infiltrator” isn’t really a game, as such. It’s just a lighthearted take on the problem of deciding what to do with a person who has done something destructive inside your movement. By calling it a game we take some of the stress out, find room to laugh about the stupid things people do, and that can help us see more clearly when the behaviors we are concerned about constitute more than just a personality conflict.

Once you have determined that a person’s behavior is causing serious detriment to your group and goals, the next step is to decide what to do about that. One option, of course, is to call them out and remove them from your group. Unfortunately, even when you have more than one person on your side agreeing that a person is probably an infiltrator, calling them out can still have all the consequences mentioned above.

This is why it’s important to have some ground rules before you ever get to this point. Those ground rules should include a code of conduct specifically designed to bar the sorts of activities listed in the Media For Justice list of behaviors linked to agents provocateur. If someone is breaking that code of conduct, you do not need to address the person as an infiltrator as such. You simply need to cite the ways in which they have broken the code of conduct in order to bar them from your group. Now, when they try to kick up a fuss, you have your documentation of exactly which rules they broke and the risk to the larger group or movement is reduced.

But what if you just can’t tell what’s going on with a person and need to make sure that they can’t hurt your cause? What if they are just people that haven’t yet gained your trust? What if they are real assholes? Maybe they are assholes with serious mental health issues. You don’t always want to kick possible infiltrators out of your group. Sometimes you can use them to help you instead.

Joel Preston Smith is one of the many people that I met at Standing Rock. Today he is the director of the nonprofit Frontline Wellness United which provides healthcare including mental health support to activists, whistleblowers, and hackers. (The good sort. Like me.) Back in the 80’s, however, Joel was trained by the US Army to be an infiltrator at anti-war rallies. He became a conscientious objector after that, and his insights helped a lot in dealing with some problematic characters at camp.

Joel’s strategy is to give people who have low trust or a history of problematic behavior jobs which will help you but cannot cause significant harm. You want them to be busy, but out of earshot of sensitive discussions and away from sensitive equipment that they might sabotage. He lists tasks like stuffing envelopes or putting up fliers as an example of that kind of activity. Another example might be researching news articles and sending them to your social media manager for posting. In one case at camp, Joel took a particularly problematic character and set him to work building new shelves and a door for a food pantry. It was work that needed to be done, that the person could do alone, and that kept the person away from sensitive equipment and discussions.

In the end, there may well be some people that you never figure out are infiltrators until long after everything is over and you’ve run a FOIA on yourself to see what the FBI has to say about whatever campaign you are working on today. The best solution to the problem of the unknown infiltrator is not to distrust everyone, but rather to maintain strong security culture throughout your group and insist that your code of conduct be followed by all participants no matter who they may be. If you isolate people who refuse to maintain your agreed upon security protocols or who break your code of conduct, then you will have effectively defeated the enemy in your camp.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


Support our work here.

A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.

FirstDayOnHopHill-ByRobertoMonge

Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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A Standing Rock Story Part 1

“I’ve owed Rhyd a post for well over a year. Not just one post. Lots of posts. I’m sorry this has taken so long. I hope that you’ll understand why it’s been so hard to get this first one written…”

From Lisha Sterling

TimYakaitis-TheRevolutionWillNotBeTelevised
Photo by Tim Yakaitis

It’s been a year and a half since I packed my van for a camping trip and headed east to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. There were thousands of people camped there to stand up for indigenous treaty rights and to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL) through sacred grounds and across the Missouri River. In a matter of months, an empty field between the 1806 highway and the Missouri river had turned into a bustling village of tents, RVs and tipis. There was no mains electricity, no running water save for the cannonball river and the Missouri herself, no Internet fiber, and precious little cell phone reception. People from over 300 tribes across the Americas and beyond were gathered there in this perfect example of a “low resource situation” and I was headed there to see how the community of Geeks Without Bounds could help the community in the #NoDAPL camps with their infrastructure needs.

The funniest thing of all is that one year ago, just a month after returning to my apartment in Washington state after two seasons in the land of The Great Sioux Nation, I thought that the experience hadn’t really changed me much. It wasn’t until May when I met up with fellow Water Protectors at UC Santa Barbara’s “Standing Rock in Santa Barbara” event that I realized how much I’d been reshaped by the fires of Oceti Sakowin.

It’s hard to write about those changes now, hard to know where to start and how to organize all the pieces so that they will make sense to someone who wasn’t there. I don’t want it to seem like I’m telling “the story” of anything. I’m telling my story. I’m sharing the things that I learned. When we were exiled from the camps by the colonialist government authorities, the Native elders told us to go back to our communities and continue the work. They told us to remember to keep praying. They told us to tell the stories of what happened. They told us to keep fighting for our Mother Earth and for the Water and for All Our Relations.

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

From the outside, the world saw Standing Rock as a protest. From the inside it was a community and a family. While many people who spent time in that village would call themselves capitalists or might tell you that they believe in the rightness of capitalism, I will tell you that the very existence of the camps and the way they functioned was anti-capitalist, anti-extractivist, and anti-colonial. Money and goods were tranvested from the capitalist over-culture and absorbed into a space where human needs were met simply because they were needs and where work was done because we cared about each other and because we cared about the Earth we live on.

This would-be idyllic existence was marred by the fact that we were in the middle of a war. It was a surreal war, completely asymetric, where the capitalists tried to prove how right they were through the use of intimidation, misinformation, guns, pepper spray, water cannons, airplanes, helicopters, and an assortment of illegal activity. Meanwhile, the local newspapers and the conservative press called us “law breakers” and sometimes even “terrorists”. We had to pass through road blocks manned by the National Guard or drive more than an hour around them. Law enforcement mobile command centers sat by the side of the road near by, sometimes two or even three together.

Our side of this war was not fought with guns. It was fought with prayer and Facebook livefeeds. There was prayer every morning and every night. There was prayer before every meal. There were sweat lodges every day, and sacred fires that burned without stop. The outside world heard about us through social media and they flooded us with support. People showed up by the thousands and those who couldn’t come sent donations.

I keep talking about “us” and “we”, identifying myself as one of the Water Protectors, but it didn’t start out that way. I was certainly moved to help the NoDAPL movement, but when I arrived I did not see myself as part of the community. I was just there to assist with the tools and resources I had available. I thought I was just going for two weeks to set up an Internet connection in collaboration with a member of the Lenca Nation of Central America. By the time I had been there two weeks I discovered that I wasn’t there just for “them”. I was there for “us”.

I was at Standing Rock for all the people who drink water that has been poisoned by industry and for those whose water we hope to protect from such a fate. I was there for all the people who have had their land and livelihood taken away from them, whether through the enclosures in Europe, the settlers and Manifest Destiny in America, or by banks and governments today. I was there for people who have been told that clean water is not a right, that medical care is for those who can afford it, that housing is something you must pay a third or half of your income for monthly, that healthy food is the most expensive kind, and that your neighbors are dangerous criminals who will steal your things and abuse your children. I am one of those people, so like it or not, I was there for myself.

I didn’t come to that conclusion by myself, though. All of us who were there were invited. The elders knew that we are all bound together on this Earth. They knew that we all drink the same water. They knew that by standing together on sacred ground, joining the prayers of all our peoples together, we would effect a change inside ourselves and in the world around us. There were many times when I heard an elder say, “We even invite the infiltrators to be here with us. Let them come! Let them see what’s happening here! Even if they are against us now, they will be changed. This is their water, too.” And they were right. Some of the infiltrators from those days have become whistleblowers. The power of all that prayer moved things in everyone.

Photo By Lisha Sterling. October 2016

Oceti Sakowin

Oceti (say oh-CHEH-tee) means “camp fire” in the Lakhota language. Sakowin (say shock-oh-WEEN) means “seven”. Together, they are the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people. The Lakota are one of the three parts of what is known as the Great Sioux Nation in English today. The other two parts are the Nakota and the Dakota. All three names mean “friend” or “ally” in their respective dialects.

When the first Water Protector camp started up at Standing Rock in April 2016, it was at Sacred Stone which is located on the Standing Rock (Hunkpapa) reservation, just south of the Cannonball River and west of the Missouri. By June of 2016 some people had moved out of Sacred Stone and onto a large open field to the north of Cannonball river. This was not in the modern boundaries of the Standing Rock reservation, but it was part of the original treaty territory that was to belong to The Great Sioux Nation. This new camp was on land where the Seven Council Fires had met 140 years before. They came together once again for the matter of their sovereignty and protecting the sacred land and water, and so the camp was named Oceti Sakowin in respect of that historic gathering.

After December 5th, some people started calling the camp “Oceti Oyate”, which was meant to mean “Council Fire of the People”. In modern usage, Oceti can also mean “stove” in some dialects, and so one elder declared that this name actually fit the camp pretty well since we were the “People of the woodstove” that winter.

Many of us who were at camp for a long time now simply call the camp “Oceti” unless we are speaking specifically of the section of the camp where the Seven Councils met (called The Horn), the sacred fire that was in that place, or the continuing work of that joint council.

There was another camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river called Rosebud or Sičangu (say See-CHAN-goo). That camp was organized by the Sičangu band of the Lakota from South Dakota, and it had it’s own kitchen, sacred fire, sweat lodge, tent sites, security detail, and so on. In discussions of coordination and internal politics it was considered to be part of Oceti Sakowin or completely its own camp depending on context.

For many months at Oceti, there was a meeting every morning at 9am where people could learn about what was happening around camp, voice their concerns, and coordinate working teams throughout the camps. That meeting was facilitated by Johnny Aseron from the Cheyenne River reservation, but for one week in November when he was sick, I had the privilege of facilitating the 9am meetings at the Dome. By that time there were literally hundreds of new people showing up to the camp every single day. Some would stay for just a few days, but most would show up at the Dome on the morning after they arrived for the 9am meeting and orientation.

When Johnny led the meeting, he would take a few moments before sending the newbies off to orientation to say hello and give them a few words about where they were. On the days that I led the morning meeting, I had my own spiel for the newcomers:

“This camp is called Oceti Sakowin. Oceti means camp fire. Sakowin means seven. This refers to the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people, and it is also the name for the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Nation, what the US government calls ‘The Great Sioux Nation’, in their own language. You are on treaty territory. You are in the land of The Great Sioux Nation. If you’ve never been outside the United States before, congratulations! You, like me, are here on a special visa waiver program. We have all been invited by the Lakota people to be here with them at this historic moment, but do not forget that you are not in the United States any more. You are in a foreign country. Treat the people and the culture with the respect that you would do in any other country that you visited.”

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

Arrival

Before I even got to camp, the Oceti Synchronicities had begun. My friend Roberto Monge had some friends from his town who had just been at camp and were heading back home at the same time I was heading towards Standing Rock. He introduced us via email and text message and suggested we should meet up somewhere on the road. They contacted me and suggested we meet up for dinner in Billings, Montana. My day got off to a bumpy start, though, and I didn’t even get on the road until about 3 in the afternoon. It turned out that they also didn’t get into Billings when they expected, so at 11pm we all agreed to meet up for breakfast in the morning.

As I rolled into Billings at 3 in the morning, I wondered where they had gotten off the highway for the night. There are three highway exits, and I had no way of knowing which one they were closest to. I picked one at random and began to look for a safe place to park my van, make my bed and go to sleep. As I turned a corner I saw an outdoor sports chain store that is known to let people in campers and RVs sleep in their parking lots. I pulled into the parking lot, climbed into the back of my van, set up my bed, set my phone alarm for 6am, and caught 3 hour’s of sleep. When my alarm went off, I sent a text message to the people I was trying to meet up with. A moment later they texted me back with their hotel address. It was a directly across the street from where I was parked.

I pulled into the hotel parking lot, went in to the breakfast room, and sat with my new friends. They drew me a map of the camps and told me how to get there. They showed me where they had been camping, tucked back into a grove of trees which protected it from the harsh winds. They gave me names of people that they had met, and suggested other people that I should contact when I arrived. Their 30 minute orientation between bites of waffle gave me everything I needed to know before Roberto showed up with the equipment to set up the Internet a few days after me.

That evening I got to Bismark, North Dakota about an hour before dusk. There was a conference call with Roberto and some other friends of his to discuss their arrivals, things they would bring, and what we each needed to do. I knew that there was no cell coverage in the camps, so I pulled over into a parking lot for the call before heading south on 1806.

About 10 minutes south of Bismark I arrived at the police check point. I say police, but it was really manned by several national guardsmen in army uniforms and carrying their rifles. I say checkpoint, but it was more of a road block, or like an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank. There were concrete dividers that went all the way out to the property fences on each side of the road and that came together in such a way that only one car could go through at a time. This was the first time that the reality of the war zone hit me. This was part of a classic military low intensity conflict strategy.

At the check point a guardsman asked me, “Have you been down this road recently?”

I said, “No.”

“Well, we’re just here to let you know that there are some people camping down the road a little ways here. They may be out walking on the side of the road, so it’s important for you to slow down and watch out for pedestrians, ok?” The soldier was cheerful and friendly.

My complexion is fairly pale, my hair sort of auburn where it isn’t dyed purple, blue or pink. I knew already from reports online that I would not have been allowed to go down this road at all if my skin and hair had been darker.

About 25 minutes later I had arrived at Oceti Sakowin, but it was dark and the driveway entrances were a bit confusing. I was trying to get to the Sičangu camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river, but I missed the turn off in the dark, drove into the town of Cannonball, following some signs for what seemed like an eternity, and then finally ended up at the Sacred Stone camp way to the east of where I’d meant to be. But it was getting late at that point, and I hadn’t had much sleep. I pulled up to the security gate, told the guards that I had meant to go to Sičangu, but it’s dark and could I sleep there for the night? They said “Welcome!” and pointed the way to a good place to park for the night.

Despite being very tired, I was not quite ready to sleep. I needed to greet the land and the spirits there. I pulled some tobacco out of a large pouch in the back of my van, and put it carefully into a smaller pouch that would fit into my pocket. Then I walked down the hill toward the Cannonball river. There is a path that leads from Sacred Stone over to Sičangu along the river, but it was very dark and the path is shrouded in trees that make it even darker.

I think that night it must have been somewhat overcast, because I don’t remember the stars that night at all. I just remember the river and the muddy path and the trees. I remember walking about halfway between the two camps to a lonesome place where I couldn’t see another human. I felt a bit afraid, like I was going to get lost or trip and fall into the river or like I was going to walk into some place I wasn’t supposed to be. So I stopped right there.

The tobacco in my pocket was for praying. I put my hand in the baggy in my pocket and pulled some out. I stood there with the tobacco in my hand and began to pray. I said thanks for the sun, the moon, land, the sky, the water, the trees, the other plants, the animals, the humans gathered there, for bringing me safely to that place, for making things work out just right that morning in Billings. And then, I took a few breaths and I began to greet the Land and the spirits on that land. I told them who I was and why I was there.

Normally, at this point, I should feel some response from spirit. There should be some sense that I have not been talking to myself, that the spirits I am talking to have heard me. But there was just silence. And darkness. And cold.

I assured the spirits that I would follow the requests and requirements of the people whose land I was on, and that I would also listen to the voices of the the spirits themselves.

I felt cold and fear. I felt distrust aimed at me.

I knew that the spirits didn’t believe what I’d said.

I gave the tobacco to the ground and to the plants. I prayed again, this time telling the spirits that if they were willing to teach and to guide me in the way that I should behave in their land that I was willing to learn. And if they were not willing, I promised to do my bumbling best to be a good guest and a good friend. I said a few words in Lakota, which I had been studying for a few weeks before my trip. I waited in the silence. The spirits were not terribly impressed.

At last, I thanked the spirits and walked back to my van.

As I prepared for bed, I turned my phone to airplane mode and unplugged it from the charger. The battery was at 100%. It should last me for two or three days like that. I set my alarm for 7am and went to sleep.

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Roberto Monge with antenna for long distance wireless Internet. Photo By Lisha Sterling October 2016

This Is (Cyber) War

The next morning I woke up. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was bright in the sky. I pulled up my phone to check the time and see what happened with my alarm. The screen was black. The phone would not turn on. The battery was completely dead.

If the checkpoint had been my first realization that we were in a war zone, this was the moment that I realized that the government was using cyber warfare on us alongside the more traditional fare. This was the moment that it hit me that someone could be using a Stingray device against the Water Protectors.

At first, I wasn’t sure what had caused my battery to drain. The idea that it might be a fake cell tower – also known as an IMSI Catcher, a cell-site emulator, or by the brand name Stingray – was in the back of my head, but one dead phone is not enough to say that was the culprit. These devices are used by law enforcement all over the United States under shady circumstances with questionable legality. At that point I was thinking that maybe my phone had been compromised before I had even arrived at the camps. If I’d gotten some malware onto my phone in the days leading up to my trip, that app could have been trying to ping home over the network even though the network was turned off.

I walked around Sacred Stone that morning, found someone who could tell me what time it was, and mentioned what had happened to my phone. They said that was a common problem. They figured it was because of the lack of cell towers in the area, and I had to agree that for most people, that probably was the cause of their phone going dead. But then someone else overheard the conversation and jumped in. They had also turned their phone to airplane mode and had it die on them.

After breakfast, I headed over to the legal tent on Media Hill (aka Facebook Hill) at Oceti. When I introduced myself, they knew who I was and had been expecting me. I waited for a bit while they handled more urgent matters, and then a few lawyers, a paralegal or two and I sat down to have a chat. Before we even got into the topic of the Internet set up, I mentioned what had happened to my phone and asked if they’d heard of anything like that. They had. That and much more.

Not only had people been complaining about phones going dead overnight, but they said that phones often went dead suddenly as one of the planes flew by overhead. But that wasn’t all. One person at the table had an almost unbelievable story about a car battery dying at night when a plane flew over. And then there were the reports of malware on people’s phones. The most prominent one was Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals. His iPhone would start the voice recording function at seemingly random moments. It wasn’t even secretive. The phone would announce that it was recording, and then the record app would be on the screen.

I listened to these stories and then I asked, “Has anyone called the EFF?”

They hadn’t called the Electronic Frontier Foundation yet, but that day they did. The EFF is a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world. They are like the ACLU for the Internet. The EFF sent a researcher and a lawyer up to the camps a few weeks later, and we worked together to try to determine what exactly was going on. The fact of the matter is that none of us knew exactly.

By the time the EFF researcher arrived, I was convinced that one of the weapons being used against us was an IMSI catcher. I had installed an application called AIMSICD onto my phone to track what cell sites my phone could see and connect to. There were patterns in the database that I believe suggest that there was an IMSI catcher on at least one of the aircraft that flew over the camps day in and day out as well as several other IMSI catchers at specific locations in the vicinity of the camps.

I am nearly certain that a short cell phone tower that was erected just to the south of the camp known as “1861 Camp”, “Treaty Camp”, or “North Camp” was there for the specific purpose of surveilling the people at that location because that camp was directly in the path of the pipeline construction, and immediately across the highway from a section of land that had already been dug up. That tower was only reachable if you were in the vicinity of the Treaty Camp, where only about 10 people were living but where many demonstrations were staged. The tower was completely invisible to the more populous camps a mile further south. Furthermore, that tower identified itself to some phones, including mine, as an AT&T tower, but other phones showed the tower belonged to Verizon. When I asked my contacts at the Standing Rock Telecom, a tribe-owned mobile phone company, they told me that tower was a legitimate Verizon tower. As time went on, there was more evidence that tower was there for surveillance purposes, but the clincher is that the tower was removed entirely by the time everything was over and the authorities had cleared out the camps.

Research into the capabilities of different models of IMSI catchers showed us that it was possible that, in addition to tracking our numbers and movements with the devices, they could also have captured voice, text and data transmissions and they could even install malware on phones through more than one method. It is also well known that IMSI catchers can drain a phone battery quickly by sending messages to the phone to disconnect from a tower over and over again. Each time the phone tries to reconnect to a tower, the battery usage spikes. But that doesn’t explain the incidents with the car batteries.

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Photo By Tim Yakaitis

We still don’t know what happened with the cars. When I first started talking publicly about the various cyber warfare incidents that happened at Standing Rock, the car batteries dying is the one incident that induced the most rolling of eyes and declarations of my professional incompetence. Obviously, the critics said, the car batteries died because of the cold. Everyone knows that the temperatures at the camps got below -20F (-29C) in December and January, but these car battery incidents happened starting in September! One incident in late October involved 5 cars in one parking area all having drained batteries at the same time. Another incident in November involved several cars and a couple of pick up trucks.

In April or May of 2017, after asking everyone I could think of what might have done that to the cars, an Iraq vet suggested that I go look up the word “Warlock”. He said that he thought that might be responsible for what we saw. What I found seems like an unlikely culprit since the Warlock series are just radio jammers of different sorts. However, there are other weapons that were created and tested in Iraq, such as the Blow Torch which is a high powered microwave emitter intended to fry the circuitry in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). That’s probably not what they used, but the sheer number of devices that have been created and tested in battlefields by the US military in recent years is suggestive.

More than suggestive, actually. Over and over again Native Americans from different tribes across the US told me the same thing, “They’re testing things on us before they use them on the rest of the population.” A common historical understanding among the Native community is that the US government tests different methods of population control on the reservations before using the most effective ones on other Americans. As the tech team struggled to understand exactly what tools were being used against us online, on our phones, and in physical space, we couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion. Despite a collective knowledge that covered many areas of cyber security and digital offense, there were still many things we found that were completely new to us.

This Is (Low Intensity) War

“Low intensity conflict is a political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low-intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of the armed forces. It is waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments. Low-intensity conflicts are often localized, generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications”

GlobalSecurity.org

The U.S. military doctrine of low intensity conflict has its roots in the counterinsurgency tactics developed during the Vietnam War. During the Reagan administration, in the 1980s, low intensity operations were used in a number of conflict areas throughout what was then called the Third World. The first International Conference on Low Intensity Conflict was held in 1986 at Fort McNair in Washington, DC where the methods of suppressing and subverting guerrilla fighters were discussed and codified.

In the context of guerrilla warfare, the dominant nation state actors will use various tactics to 1) turn the public against the insurgency, 2) break down morale within the guerrilla movement, 3) set individuals or groups within the movement against each other, and 4) sabotage the material support systems for both the insurgent groups and anyone who provides them assistance. Much of this effort comes in the form of psychological warfare which may include propaganda, infiltrators who plant rumors and conflicts, and consistent harassment of guerrillas and their supporters. Harassment includes but is not limited to checkpoints on roads, police stop and search actions against people who fit a certain visual description, aircraft constantly flying over the areas controlled by the guerrillas, the use of constant noise such as loud music or machines, and bright flood lights at night.

Once you know that the peaceful Water Protectors were considered terrorists by the government and Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is not surprising to learn that all of these tactics were used against the movement.

Planes and helicopters flew overhead nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as long as weather permitted. At night, aircraft would often fly without lights so that you could hear them but not see them easily, despite the fact that this is illegal. Sometimes a helicopter would follow the car of a high profile Water Protector when they left the camps.

Multiple mobile police command centers were parked near the camps at any given time. There were often one or two of the giant trucks to the north of the main camp and as many as three to the south. On many occasions there would be a mobile command vehicle parked ten miles south of the camps at the Prairie Knights Hotel and Casino, where Water Protectors would go to take showers, spend a night indoors, charge phones, use the Internet, and meet with journalists.

When Water Protectors needed to purchase supplies, we traveled north to Bismarck, where we were recognized by the layered clothing we needed to survive in the camps and by our distinct campfire scent. Some stores, restaurants and hotels refused service to anyone they suspected was a Water Protector. Police would see a vehicle with out of state license plates and trail them for miles, often pulling the vehicle over on false pretenses. People of Native American descent, or anyone whose complexion was more brown then peach colored, was at greater risk of citation or arrest during a trip to the city.

For days before the raid of Treaty Camp on October 27, 2016 there were rumors about what was about to happen. We knew that National Guard troops were gathering at a site north of us, off of highway 1806 between Standing Rock and Bismarck. Rumors were that they might raid Oceti Sakowin, and we created safety plans for everyone that included running across the Cannonball River to the Sičangu and Sacred Stone camps. A few days before the raid, many people moved tents and tipis north to the Treaty Camp in hopes of holding the line away from the most populated camp. The tension was incredible, and elders warned us that we needed to stay calm if we wanted to have energy and our wits when the soldiers and police finally came. Those with experience made sure that as many people as possible understood that this tension and uncertainty was part of the psychological war.

The day of the Treaty Camp raid finally came, but one of the longer term attacks against us came after the mercenaries, law enforcement and National Guard pulled people out of a sweat lodge during a prayer ceremony, destroyed tipis, threw sacred items into giant piles, stole personal items, and arrested 142 people. The night after they took Treaty Camp away from us, they took away the stars. From that night onward, the ridge just north of Oceti Sakowin was lined with massive lights pointed towards the camp. They said it was for security, but they knew full well that it also obliterated the view of the night sky.

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Photo by Tim Yakaitis

Inside the camps we had to be constantly aware of the risk of infiltrators. Some infiltrators encouraged people to use violent methods at actions so that the peaceful unity of the movement could be broken and images of “dangerous terrorists” could be displayed on TV, newspapers, and social media. There were people who came into camp just to spread rumors. The more confusion that could be spread, the harder it was for the community to stay united. And then there were people who intentionally created fights between different sub-camps or workgroups.

One infiltrator managed to break down the very good relationship that Tech Warrior Camp had with the camp of the Medic and Healer Council. After members of our team had set up a mini electric grid for the camp with the yurts and tipis where medical doctors and traditional healers from around the world cared for the Water Protector community, one infiltrator managed to create a fight between our two groups over the control and ownership of certain equipment. He told them that we had stolen some of their windmills (we had not), and told us that they were sending some of our equipment which had been stored in a utility yurt at their camp off to other Water Protector camps in Florida when we clearly still needed that equipment in North Dakota. I had to present receipts for every piece of equipment we had to representatives of the Medic And Healer Council, and still there was mistrust between our teams throughout January and February because of that incident.

Other infiltrators did physical damage to our camps. On one occasion, the Internet in the Dome was sabotaged when an infiltrator cut the wires from the network router to the deep cycle battery it ran off, and walked away with the battery. On another occasion, the entire solar system outside the Dome was was sabotaged before an infiltrator dressed as a utility worker cut the Ethernet cord leading to a small communications dish which he removed from the pole and took with him.

Only after the camps were closed did we have proof positive of some of the counterinsurgency tactics used against us. The Intercept published a series of articles along with leaked documents from TigerSwan, the private military contractor that provided “security” for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which showed that the mercenaries were working in close partnership with Morton County Sheriffs and the FBI. Those documents also showed that some of us where specifically targeted for surveillance both at camp and away from it, and that the mercenaries put special emphasis on creating divisions along racial lines at the camps to separate the Native community and their non-Native allies.

Some of the facts about what happened at Standing Rock won’t be known for decades. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information on some of the police and military tactics have been denied for various reasons. The FOIA requests sent out to Morton County Sheriffs, North Dakota State Police, and the North Dakota National Guard asking for information about possible IMSI Catcher use, for instance, were not just denied but “rejected on grounds of national security”. Such a rejection will not be overcome until the classification of that information is changed at some future date. In the meantime, we have to take what lessons we can from Standing Rock so that we can resist capitalist destruction of the planet and colonialist theft of human and community rights everywhere.

Next Time…

We haven’t even begun to talk about the community at the Water Protector camps at Standing Rock. I haven’t begun to share the spiritual impact the place had on me and so many other people there. In my next installment of my Standing Rock Story, I’ll tell you about what it was like to be a temporary immigrant on Lakota land for six months. See you in two weeks!


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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