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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Mannahatta circa 1609 / Manhattan circa 2015

The Welikia Project

Mannahatta circa 1609 / Manhattan circa 2015
Mannahatta circa 1609 / Manhattan circa 2015
Mannahatta then, Manhattan now
Mannahatta then
Manhattan now

So.

Did your stomach just drop? I’m sure you feel the weight of the import of whatever messages these images may convey. They can carry a lot of messages. One isn’t sure where to even begin… First, perhaps we should dwell in the emotions that rise; feel them, watch them, name them. These images give a visceral experience. Why?

For many of us, this place isn’t even our home, and we may have never even visited. But it still hits home, doesn’t it?

Something in us knows that something important is here in front of us.


These images are from the Welikia Project (formerly the Mannahatta Project) – a project of the Wildlife Conservation Society to rediscover the ecology of the New York City area before colonization.

Welikia (pronounced “way-LEE-kee-uh”) is Lenape for “my good home”. Lenape is the Native American language spoken in the New York City region at the time of first contact with Europeans.

The goal of the Mannahatta Project has never been to return Manhattan to its primeval state. The goal of the project is discover something new about a place we all know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life. New York does not lack for dystopian visions of the future…. But what is the vision of the future that works?” – from Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

One of the main messages in this special view of the past we don’t usually get to see – the land before our cities began – is one of avoiding urban sprawl, for the future of current natural areas.

With more and more of the human population moving to cities, with several mega-cities of 10 million people or more on the horizon, and with a growing urban sprawl development pattern in the USA and elsewhere, we realize that we have the opportunity to “do” cities a better way. Going back to 1609 allows us to see what NYC was before it was a city and to reimagine the city’s development in a way that would incorporate more of the natural cycles and processes (such as the hydrological cycle) that made the island the ecological gem that it was. This is not merely an academic flight of fancy. Rather, in undertaking this exercise, we will discover ways in which we can restore some of the ecological processes lost to NYC in particular, and more broadly, we will learn how to create cities that are more “livable” for people. For instance, maintaining natural waterways like streams and incorporating more open space and tree plantings into city planning would increase a city’s aesthetic value, water quality, and air quality for city folk. Making cities more pleasant and rich places for people to live will increase city folks’ standard of living, attracting more people to cities and minimizing sprawl development between cities where the ecological gems, the “Mannahattas” of today, currently reside.” – from the Welikia Project “About” page

Whether we “do” cities at all, in the future, and whether or not one prefers that cities might one day return to their primeval state, for now, if we do have cities, it’s important that we integrate them into the local ecology, instead of just paving over it, erasing it, and forgetting it was ever there and that ecology exists and matters, to us as well as to wildlife… matters to our lives right now, as well as to our common future.

The Welikia Project includes – besides the fascinating interactive map of Mannahatta/Manhattan – resources for teachers, students, and researchers, and an expanded effort to do the same research for all of New York City’s boroughs, with the ability for you to sponsor a block of your choice. This might be an excellent contribution for a coven, grove, or other group to make together, or for Pagans and others in New York City to make to get helpfully involved with the land under their feet.

Could something similar be done in our own locales, elsewhere in the world? Of course! Soon after reading Lorna Smithers’ moving piece, here at Gods & Radicals, on culverted waterways and resacralizing landscapes, I happened to go to my local river festival and found a booth for a project looking for support to bring not one, but two culverted streams that converge and flow into the river near my house back above-ground, and reclaim land currently crusted with run-down shops on the site to create a park and informational signage about the reclaimed waterways! We can do this. Look around, or start something, yourselves.


Thanks go to The Decolonial Atlas (a blog worth following!) where I discovered the Welikia Project, with a stomach-dropping shock to my system when I first saw the images I brought over here to share.

Book Review: Almanac of the Dead

By Heathen Chinese

Used for review purposes only.
Used for review purposes only.

If I were to recommend a single book to any pagan, polytheist, anti-capitalist or resident of North America, it would be Almanac of the Dead. Larry McMurtry writes in a blurb on the back of the book, “If Karl Marx had chosen to make Das Kapital a novel set in the Americas, he might have come out with a book something like this.” Perhaps, or perhaps not, since Karl Marx could not possibly have the same lived experience as Leslie Marmon Silko.

Silko is a Laguna Pueblo writer living outside of the Southern Arizona city of Tucson. Her 763-page novel spans the entirety of North America and Mesoamerica geographically, but it all revolves around the central nexus of Tucson. In the dimension of time, Almanac is simultaneously rooted in the codices of the past, unmistakably situated in the present day world of cocaine smuggling and television psychics, and oriented towards the apocalyptic changes-to-come of the near future.

This review is being published on May 13. One hundred and sixty-nine years ago, on this day in 1846, the United States declared war on the First Federal Republic of Mexico, formally initiating a war which eventually resulted in the annexation of New Mexico and Alta California, including most of what is now Arizona. The land in question, of course, was indigenous land, despite the territorial claims of the government of Mexico. The area surrounding Tucson (Tohono O’odham land, with a strong Yaqui presence as well) was not actually annexed by the United States until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but nonetheless, Tucson is a city defined by its location on the open wound known as the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a city shaped by liminality, and by the violence which gave birth to that liminality. Bank robber John Dillinger was captured there in 1934. Thousands of migrants continue to attempt to cross the harsh Sonoran desert—many do not make it all the way across. Silko writes, “Tucson was too close to Mexico. Tucson was Mexico, only no one in the United States had realized it yet.”

Tucson. Credit: Matthew Schallan.
Tucson. Credit: Matthew Schallan.

Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991, four hundred and ninety-nine years after a Genoese navigator first stabbed Taíno earth with the flag of Castile and León. In 1994, three years after Almanac was published, the Mayan rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. One of Almanac‘s nineteen “books” features a guerrilla army-turned-native land reclamation movement dealing with very similar tensions between orthodox Marxism and indigenous communities. Of course, these dynamics are nothing unique to the Zapatistas, they have been grappled with throughout Latin America for many decades. Yet it’s clear from her tone that Silko isn’t just writing about history, she is writing about the ever-imminent near future, and her words resonate with just as much ominous portent in 2015 as in 1991. Perhaps even more so, given the benefit of hindsight, though it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that “California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado—all the southwestern states will run out of drinking water,” or a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Silko hints at the possibility of a sympathetic magic or subterranean convergence between the struggles of the like-minded, and the pages of her novel serve as a meeting ground for a vast array of characters whose real-life counterparts may or may not have met in the waking world. A few of Almanac‘s most memorable characters: Clinton, an Ogou-worshiping black man organizing homeless veterans into a “Poor People’s Army;” the Barefoot Hopi, who prophecies to prisoners of all races about “the day all the walls fall down;” Mosca, a superstitious drug dealer who quits his job to join the Barefoot Hopi’s nascent millenarian movement; Calabazas, a Yaqui smuggler and Mosca’s old boss, who “would never abandon what he called ‘the war that had never ended,’ the war for the land. He wanted to call every successful shipment or journey a victory in this war;” Zeta, Calabazas’s former partner-in-crime who “had not argued with him, but [who] had had her own ideas about ‘the war;'” Zeta’s twin sister Lecha, the aforementioned television psychic (now retired—or more accurately, in hiding), who is transcribing the eponymous Almanac of the Dead. “When the time came, all these scattered crazies and their plans would complement and serve one another in the chaos to come.”

Ultimately, Almanac is about sovereignty: the governments of the United States and Mexico have never had, do not currently have, and will never have the sovereignty granted by the land itself. Of course, in her particular imaginings of what indigenous reclamation of sovereignty might look like, Silko does not speak for all natives (no single writer does). Non-native anti-capitalists should be careful not to cherry pick only those authors whom they can use to validate their own political ideologies. Almanac of the Dead, however, is such a rich and complex work that any reader’s perspective is bound to be expanded by it. What Silko writes about is bigger than politics, bigger than any one religious tradition:

What was coming could not be stopped; the people might join or not […] It made no difference because what was coming was relentless and inevitable; it might require five or ten years of great violence and conflict. It might require a hundred years of spirit voices and simple population growth, but the result would be the same: tribal people would retake the Americas; tribal people would retake ancestral land all over the world. This was what earth’s spirits wanted: her indigenous children who loved her and did not harm her.

Heathen Chinese

heathen chinese

Heathen Chinese is the son of Chinese immigrants. He is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s. He writes sporadically at https://heathenchinese.wordpress.com


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Restoring Sovereignty and the Path Forward

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Lia Fail – Hill of Tara photo by Ken Williams http://www.shadowandstone.com

(also posted at Strixian Woods)

The world we have inherited is one where the Sovereignty of the Land has been broken.  It’s not a single person’s fault.  It’s not a specific generation’s fault.  Throughout history, humanity has made a series of choices that have separated us from the spirit of the land, from the Otherworld, from nature itself.  Our broken Sovereignty reveals itself in our poisoned rivers and oceans that are becoming barren, in the extinction of species and our dwindling biodiversity, in our melting icecaps and rising seas.  Our unhealthy relationship to the Sovereignty of the Land is perpetuated when we vilify the poor instead of aiding them,  when we  foolishly act as if we have dominion over the Earth rather than acting as stewards of it,  and when we turn our backs on justice in this land and do not stand in opposition to these false judgements of old men.  As we withdraw ourselves from and choose to ignore the power of the land and the gifts of the Otherworld, the land sickens around us, our place on our planet becomes tenuous, and our societal priorities become selfish and obscene.  As a species, we stand today at a crossroads, at a place in our collective Wyrd where the threads of our fates diverge, some leading to our continued survival, and some cut prematurely leading to our extinction among the multitudes of other species extinctions.  Our path forward will not be an easy one no matter what choices we make, but there is a path ahead for us that will allow us a future, a path on which we encourage the return of the Sovereignty of the Land.

Before we can discuss restoring Sovereignty to the Land, we better take some time to define what I mean by the term.  I will be referring to the primary three types of sovereignty that are used in most discussions on the topic and attempt to define them and untangle their meanings. The types of sovereignty that I’ll be referencing I’ll refer to as either political sovereignty, or the authority of a state to govern themselves or others, personal sovereignty also known as personal autonomy, and Sovereignty of the Land, the numinous power of the Otherworld channeled through the Sovereignty Goddess to the ruler of the land.  These concepts are related, and each one has some influence with the others, but at their heart they all have different and nuanced meanings.

In a modern context, when the term sovereignty is used it is usually referring to political sovereignty.   This is often the type of sovereignty that causes much of the confusion.  It’s easy for us to look at the concept of Sovereignty of the Land in regards to Celtic lore and history and superimpose our modern concepts of political sovereignty over it.  This can muddy the meaning of both types of sovereignty.  The concept of political sovereignty, while crucially important to people’s lives, has become a corrupted by those with power.  A militarily or economically powerful nation’s sovereignty is determined by their ability through war or trade to prevent others from imposing their will on them.  In most cases, this type of political power is held through violence or the threat of violence.

A good case study of how this dynamic works is the state of Native or First Nations Peoples on this continent.  Technically, Native Peoples have been granted “sovereignty” for their tribal governments to rule themselves.  Although they had no real right to do so, the US and Canadian governments granted Native Tribes limited rights to self-rule and government.  In reality, they took this step not out of the goodness of their hearts or some sort of concern for the dignity of the people, but to appease the Tribes after destroying their livelihood, culture, and lives.  This continent was founded by people who, through murder, rape, disease, lies, and genocide, systematically wiped out vast populations of people.  The European people who colonized this continent have absolutely no legitimate claim to it.  They arrived and through a fluke of technological achievement, specific biological resilience, and an arrogant spiritual philosophy of dominion over all of creation, they took it.  Their claim of sovereign rights to the land they occupy rests on the childish and dangerous tenant of “I took it so it’s mine”.  With this in mind, the idea of these illegitimate foreign governments bestowing the right of political sovereignty to the peoples that had been living here for thousands of years is tragic and delusional and we must always look at this connection to violence when we consider political sovereignty.

Personal sovereignty on the other hand is rooted in the cultural values of personal autonomy and self determination.  It is based on the concept of a fundamental human right to self-determination.  Retaining our personal sovereignty has been one of the great struggles of our time and this struggle takes countless forms today.  The right for women to make decisions about their own bodies, right to express your free will, and our freedom of speech, all fall under the category of personal sovereignty.  Personal sovereignty does not come without responsibility and cost though.  To be able to have the type of autonomy and freedom that we desire and still live in a world populated with other sovereign individuals, we must be operating from a place of high moral accountability.  Accessing your personal sovereignty is reliant on an understanding and acknowledgment of other people’s sovereignty and rights.  We must understand and accept that we are part of a greater whole, that our actions affect others and affect the heath of the planet around them.  Our own honor, integrity, and sense of justice must guide our decisions, coupled by connections to our community and understanding of the ecological world around us.  In this way, personal sovereignty is much more closely tied to the Sovereignty of the Land.

When we speak of the Sovereignty of the Land, we are speaking of a concept that has been obscured by the mists of time.  We see this classical and historical concept of sovereignty throughout the lore of ancient peoples.  At the heart of this type of sovereignty is a contract and partnership with the Otherworld, the unseen spiritual world.  In the traditional sovereignty tale, a King is granted his right to rule though the Otherworld.  This power flows from the land through the form of the Sovereignty Goddess.  This power is usually transferred in the form of a mead cup or the act of sexual union with the Goddess.  The Sovereignty granted to the King is not unlimited power over his subjects, but a fluid force, the magical power of the land itself.  A power that must used for the benefit of both the land and the people lest it be withdrawn.  The Sovereignty of the Land flows from the Otherworld, is mediated by the King and from him flows back to the people to sustain them.  This contract, like most agreements with the Otherworld, is conditional and strictly regulated through a combination of ritualized behaviors (Geasa) and mutual obligations between the ruler and his people.  The failure of a King to meet their obligations either by breaking their agreements with the Otherworld or their people, resulted in withdrawal of Sovereignty which had disastrous effects such as crop failures and famine, the death of livestock, disease and hardship.  In a situation like this, the failed King would step down, die in battle, or be sacrificed to allow a more suitable King to take their place.

Sovereignty of the Land was never truly about power over the tribe or the land.  It was responsibility to both.  A good King was not selfish but selfless, willing to cede power and sometimes his life for the benefit of his people.  The health of the people and land reflected directly on the ruler.  A single person starving from lack of food was abhorrent to Celtic society and to have someone starve on your doorstep brought great dishonor to you.  In this system of Sovereignty, there was a strict social contract between the leader and the people.  Bound in layers of obligation, hospitality, and geasa, the King had a sacred responsibility to care for and provide for his people.  Our ancestors knew that community is essential to our survival, and also knew that connection and relationship with the Otherworld was necessary for our continued survival.  Those in positions of power in our world today have forgotten both of these things.

Our culture has cut all relevant ties to the Otherworld, and we have fetishized selfishness and self interest.  We stumble forward, stepping on the backs of others with little care for their well being as we strive for personal gain.  We are not appalled by our hungry neighbors, and we chose to create a land that is as dead as we perceive it to be.  The Sovereignty of the Land has withdrawn from us and we have been left with a poisoned land and a broken society.  Our leaders have failed us and we all suffer from their failings.  We no longer live in culture where the leaders work for the benefit of the people and the land.  Our leaders will not step down when they fail us and regrettably we can’t sacrifice them.  We no longer have Kings ruling us and that is a good thing, because we live in an age where we can be more and more responsible for ourselves.  Sovereignty has never left the land, we, as a society have chosen to ignore it and not to access it.   In an age defined by self determination, it is up to us to restore the Sovereignty of the Land, to maintain relations and contracts with the Otherworld, to establish a mode of existing with the world and with each other that is sustainable and life affirming.

But how do we return Sovereignty to the Land and how will that change our course?  How will our connection with the Otherworld help create a better world for everyone?  How will this provide for us a viable path ahead?

At the heart of this type of Sovereignty of the Land is interconnectedness.  It is the acknowledgement that as a society our future survival is dependent on working with each other, not fighting against each other.  It is understanding that on a greater level, our society’s survival and our ecosystem’s survival are intertwined.  When the health of our planet fails, our health fails with it.  When we cut ourselves off from our environment, from our communities, and from the Otherworld, we wither like a plant cut from its roots.  And we are withering.  Our bellies are full and we are starving to death.

We can take these basic steps and reestablish the flow of Sovereignty in our lives and in our land.

– Establish and maintain relationships with the Otherworld.  Honor your Gods, honor the spirits of the land, honor your ancestors and make your choices for those that will come after us, not for ourselves.

– Establish and maintain relationships with your communities.  Get to know your community and take part in it, both locally and globally.  Don’t ask what you are getting from your community, ask how you are helping it.

– Give more than you take, in all things.  Wealth and power are a flow, not something to hoard and hold onto.

– Stand for Sovereignty.  Speak out where you see sovereignty being compromised.  Defend others’ rights and their sovereignty, not just your own.

Taking steps to restore Sovereignty will not save us, but it’s the start of the mindset that we need to thrive again.  Like a spring that has been buried, the flow of Sovereignty awaits us.  As we dig into the soil with our bare hands we can restart the flow again: many trickles make a stream, many streams a river and many rivers fill an ocean.  We no longer need Kings to mediate the Otherworld for us, we can take our fate into our own hands and restore Sovereignty to our Land.