Standing With Standing Rock: Testimonies from the USDAC Lawrence Field Office

At the beginning of September, Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein and Citizen Artists Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen of the USDAC’s Lawrence, Kansas, Field Office joined fellow activists and artists journeying to the Sacred Stone and allied camps on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannonball, ND, site of opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This blog incorporates excerpts from their personal accounts. On Friday, 30 September, in Lawrence, the Field Office, in partnership with the First Nations Student Association at the University of Kansas, is sponsoring a march through downtown Lawrence followed by an evening of storytelling, arts and music.

Nicholas and Amber: One week before departing in early September to join the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in solidarity against the DAPL, USDAC Citizen Artist Michael Bradly of the Lawrence, KS Field Office quickly organized a collection of supplies from the Topeka and Lawrence communities. When videographer Nicholas Ward left Lawrence, his minivan was brimming with camping gear, art supplies, and other requested items for the encampment. Winter coats (donated by Vermilion, SD’s Civic Council Center) were crammed in up to the ceiling. Two days later, Nicholas, Amber Hansen, Connie Fiorella and Dave Loewenstein arrived at Sacred Stone Camp. We were later joined by members of The University of Kansas’s First Nations Student Association and Black Lives Matter.

Dave, Arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp: After a 12-hour, 750-mile windblown journey north, the encampment—really a village—appeared as we coasted into the valley where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri. From afar, it resembled an embroidered quilt framed by sage green hills and blue water; closer up, it resolved into a mosaic of tents and tepees and flags and fires. I’d never seen anything like it: a giant family reunion combined with the Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park and a county fair. There were people representing more than one hundred fifty Nations, a school for kids, corral for horses, community kitchens, medical tents, a radio station, and more.

At the entrance marked by hand-painted signs, we were welcomed with open arms and ushered through a corridor of brightly colored flags from Tribal Nations across the continent. We found the donation tent and got help unloading. It was festive and purposeful: people lifting, cooking, chopping, organizing, playing, conferencing, planning, befriending. We made camp close to the Cannonball shore.

 Camp Kitchen

Camp Kitchen

Nicholas and Amber: We set out on the 2nd of September to deliver requested supplies and to document the water protectors’ resistance against the DAPL. Our specific focus, tuned to the key of USDAC, was to tell a more nuanced account of the cultural and arts based efforts emanating from the heart of the encampment. [Watch the video here!] On this day, the combined camps swell to an estimated 5,000 people.

Our first day at the camp we spoke with Remy, a direct-action activist and movement artist working with First 7 Design Labs. On this day he was the facilitator of the camp’s first horsemanship event—even as the now-infamous dog attack and pepper spray incident perpetrated by employees of DAPL took place two miles to the north. Speaking passionately about the role of arts and culture in the camp’s greater community, Remy led us to a trunk filled with large-scale banners created with children at the camp’s school. “It’s more than just a banner when we take this to protests or to rallies. We’re taking those handprints, those prayers, those messages that are wrote on there and those are our people, so we’re not alone. When we take that up there we are taking our friends and our family.”

The USDAC urges us to imagine a world where arts and culture, stories and song come before the concerns of capitalism and quantification. In many ways this encampment is the embodiment of that vision.

Lakota elder Cedric Goodhouse, Sr. tells us that, “Our art is kinetic. Song, dance, language and art, is kinetic art. And by that I mean it’s movement, it’s holistic in movement, so you can hear it, you can see it, you can feel it, and that’s what music does, and then it helps you to understand better what’s going on.” He went on to tell us about new songs that are being written to mark this time and how music has been used to bring people together and to mark time throughout history.

Dave: Connie and I carried our first paintings to the Info/Donation tent, discovering that while we had been working, front-line protectors stationed where bulldozers had destroyed documented sacred sites were attacked by DAPL private security. Medics were dispatched. “Democracy Now!” was there. Here is their account.

Connie and I drove north to see for ourselves. We wove our way through beautiful rolling hills, past glimpses of the river, until the road was suddenly blocked by North Dakota State Police. Ten officers in full military gear behind heavy-duty concrete barriers: their purpose was not clear. As we slowed, a pole-mounted camera took photos of us. No questions, just a motion to keep going. Getting back was a different story. Nearly everyone was rerouted 30 miles out of the way, but somehow we squeaked through (I’m a white guy in my 40’s and told the officer we’d just been out getting ice cream cones….)

The ACLU and Amnesty International called the roadblock a civil rights violation, demanding that it be removed: "The U.S. government is obligated under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of Indigenous people, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly….Public assemblies should not be considered as the 'enemy.'”

Nicholas and Amber: The 11-hour drive home offers headspace for much reflection. The people we met are custodians and stewards with a long view of the ecological and spiritual health of this land. Considering the competing visions put forth by the tribes and the oil companies, it’s easy to choose who we’d want as upstream neighbors.

We take with us an unwavering confidence that those we have met are operating on an ecological altruism backed by prophecy and a deep sense of community pride that is growing stronger each day. In some ways, the protectors have already won.

We are humbled to be in the presence of so many people of all ages working together to create this multicultural community infused with the spirit of protection and resistance. On our journey home, we plan how to carry the experiences of our time at Sacred Stone back to our communities, standing in solidarity with the water protectors.

Dave: Our last night in the camp, most people and horses made their way north to the site where destruction had been halted and the dogs were unleashed. Our half mile-long procession spread across the road. At the site, we crossed the fence and with a blessing entered sacred land. We formed a large circle on the prairie filled with sage and wild flowers. Elders sang. We all prayed.

I was nearly overwhelmed by mixed feelings of loss, joy, and a sense of purpose. This was not only a denunciation of something bad and destructive, it was and is also a clarion call to the world, reaffirming the values of interdependence, gratitude, and love, acknowledging the incredible gift (and responsibility) of being able to share the earth with its creatures, waters, and peoples for a brief moment.

As the waxing crescent moon rose in the south, the northern sky started to flash, then rumble. Our Lawrence friends shared s’mores by the fire before a sideways rain forced us into our tents. We awoke to a calm, cool and overcast morning. Although our hearts would stay, we headed south towards home with the Missouri as our guide. 

For up-to-date information about the continuing opposition and background on the proposed pipeline, visit the Camp of Sacred Stones website and Facebook page.