When Stacey Midge, associate pastor of the First Reformed Church in the Stockade, traveled to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota on Monday to spend a few days with the water protectors, the Oceti Sakowin Camp was already blanketed in snow.
Though she made the trek on her own, Midge said “no one is alone long here.” She is one of several Capital Region natives who made the trip west to stand with Native Americans and other indigenous people protesting the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois if completed. Those protesting the pipeline say they’re fighting to preserve their land, their water and their sacred burial grounds. The pipeline cuts through miles of land that belongs to the Sioux based on the 1848 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
“It was important for me to be here and stand with them physically, and be willing to risk myself along with them,” said Midge.
When asked how she hopes future generations will look back at this moment in history, Midge said, “I hope it is a moment we remember as when people united to resist the oppression of indigenous people and protect our natural resources. I really hope we don’t remember it as an example of escalating violence against peaceful protesters.”
Though Midge could not verify why the cellular reception was spotty, she said cellphone service is basically nonexistent at the camp. She said it is “common opinion that the surveillance planes and helicopters are scrambling the signals.”
Midge said, “There have been a number of instances of police acting violently toward protectors. The trust between police and protectors is understandably low.”
Despite the cold weather and elevated use of force by police, Midge said, “people are positive and working together to prepare the camps for winter. They are confident and resolved in their cause.”
She said the water protectors are committed to peaceful protest. “Every action and speech at the camp stresses that this is a peaceful effort. No weapons of any kind are allowed in the camps. The most powerful part of my visit so far was participating in a silent walk for women. We made the greatest impact without verbal or physical violence.”
Commenting on the Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement that they would not forcibly remove protesters despite a Dec. 5 eviction date, Midge said, “There are clergy and veterans arriving this weekend, so my sense is that no one is going anywhere.”
Many veterans had already begun to arrive by Monday, according to Midge. She said the camp is preparing to welcome 2,000 to 3,000 veterans this weekend. “Hopefully their presence will lead toward a peaceful solution. Already yesterday, the police and protectors were able to speak to each other in a tense moment because there were veterans on both sides.”
Monday evening, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued a mandatory evacuation notice for the camp, citing harsh winter conditions. The executive order noted the severe weather is likely to continue through the spring.
The executive action, which urges the immediate evacuation of the property, states, “Any action or inaction taken by any party which encourages persons to enter, re-enter, or remain in the evacuation area will be subject to penalties as defined in law.”
Dalrymple directed state agencies not to guarantee emergency services to those who fail to evacuate the area.
Midge said she is concerned about how protests like these might be greeted under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. “Even President Obama has been mostly passive in addressing the situation, and has not offered unequivocal support for the water protectors. I believe it is almost certain that the Trump administration will side with the oil companies and the banks that support them.” She added, “I do not expect the rights of indigenous people or the protection of natural resources to be among the priorities of the upcoming administration, although I hope I’m wrong.”
Footage of a reporter being shot with a rubber bullet while interviewing a water protector at the Oceti Sakowin Camp has gone viral in recent weeks. Hannah Nesich of Troy met the man being interviewed in that video when she traveled to the Standing Rock reservation earlier this month.
“We spoke to him and another woman, who was from Hawaii and had been there since August, when we first arrived at the camp,” said Nesich.
Nesich, 24, said she and her boyfriend Joe, 27, stopped at Standing Rock on their way from upstate New York to their new home in Seattle. Nesich was determined to stand with those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, even though it meant taking a 10-hour detour.
“As someone who attended a liberal New York college, I’ve seen my fair share of organized activism on campus and in my community. However, we were both impressed with how meticulously organized this operation was,” said Nesich. “Everyone seemed to contribute in some way, whether it was by checking in water protectors [what they prefer to be called, rather than protesters], keeping track of donations, teaching legal defense classes, helping to prepare the campsite for winter, or engaging in sacred activities to help keep spiritual morale up, such as initiating prayer circles or songs.”
Nesich described the camp as a small tent city plastered with colorful flags and signs of protest. “At the campsite, there was a wonderful sense of community among all the protectors, but also a universal feeling of solemnity — these people know they are there for a grounding, important reason,” said Nesich.
While Nesich said she didn’t see any police officers during her Nov. 17 visit, she said it was “heartbreaking to see the individuals whom we’d interacted with on a human level just days before being abused on Nov. 20 by a militarized police force with tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets and various other inexcusable weapons.”
Jermaine Wells, a Schenectady-based artist and member of the Ill Funk ensemble, arrived at the camp Sunday and will leave today. Wells, who is staying in his rental car, joined protesters in hopes of being part of something unifying after a divisive presidential election. Wells said he expects these moments in history to be remembered either as “a continuation of the disrespect, despicable and unwillingness to honor agreements seen time and again, or it will be seen as a grand victory against greed.
“When it’s all said and done, water affects all of us,” Wells said.