Loren Lincoln, 31, was keeping warm at Oceti Sakowin camp around the Seven Council Fire yesterday just after 3 p.m. Standing Rock time. Wood smoke curled toward the sky in the center of an encampment of seven teepees. That’s where local Sioux elders have been living and organizing since July. Two emerged from their teepee and joined the fire. Happy rumors had already begun rippling through camp like answered prayers and Lincoln, a Wailaki Indian from Mendocino County, California who had been in camp for several weeks, was curious if they were true.
The elders confirmed it. The Army Corps of Engineers had pulled the easement they’d granted to Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco, the corporate forces behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. The planned oil-transfer route that was slated to run beneath the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers would not be permitted.
“I’m filled with joy,” Lincoln tells me shortly after. “To be part of history. It’s Custer’s birthday tomorrow and we stopped the pipeline!” Upon the announcement, songs, drums and cries rose from the various camps that together formed what the rest of the world know as Standing Rock—the now-historic last stand in defense of the long-ignored rights of Native American sovereignty. Over the last few months, activists have been beaten, gassed and shot at with rubber bullets, but still more kept coming. New arrivals, including up to 2,000 veterans of the U.S. armed forces, honked their horns and pumped their fists as they drove into the reservation. After law enforcement cracked down on protestors on November 20th, dousing them with water in icy temperatures, the camp tripled in size.
Like the Arab Spring, and, yes, even the Trump campaign, social media once again proved itself as the ultimate political tool.
The protestors and water protectors are an inspiring example of grassroots organizing, commitment to a cause and the power of the people when we band together, but after a rough few weeks of post-election reckoning, wherein fake news stained Facebook’s reputation, this was also a victory for social media. Like the Arab Spring, and, yes, even the Trump campaign, social media once again proved itself as the ultimate political tool. It’s an organizing platform, a fundraising mechanism and a news-distribution network that echoes and inflames political passions. In the Native American community, it can also be a digital extension of long-held oral traditions that once carried news across the Great Plains and from coast to coast.
The Native American community is just two percent of the U.S. population; that’s a small online world. From the moment the local Lakota Sioux dug in against the Dakota Access Pipeline last July and invited others to join them, their call whipped through news feeds and forums like a piercing Dakota wind and resonated like a war cry. “It’s not click bait,” says Brendan Emmerson, a member of the Chippewa nation in Ontario, Canada who has been in North Dakota since early November. “It’s digital smoke signals.”
Vanessa Castle, 31, a member of the Lower Elwha tribe in Washington state, has always taken pride in her heritage. For years she’s danced, prayed and participated in cultural events on reservations around the country, where she’s invariably made new friends, often other millennials. Those real-world friendships have been maintained and enhanced on Facebook and Instagram.
Thanks to social media, Castle saw the growing movement against DAPL, but she was too busy working on her bachelor’s degree to join the cause. When she logged onto Facebook on October 27, her logic crumbled. From the relative comfort of her Portland home, she watched private security and K-9 units evict activists (known in camp as water protectors) from what was then known as North Camp, the one closest to the pipeline construction site. “I saw my brothers and sisters pulled out of teepees and out of inipi (Lakota for sweatlodge) early in the morning,” she says.
Castle went home to her reservation on Washington’s lush Olympic Peninsula, known for its ancient trees, thick salmon runs and resident orca pods. There she sought the wisdom of an elder she trusted, one who had fought alongside other American Indian Movement activists in the 1970s. Castle, who will be featured with other millennial activists and water protectors in Playboy correspondent Yoonj Kim’s upcoming Journalista documentary on Standing Rock, knew what she wanted to do, but craved confirmation. “She told me, ‘Now is your time’,” says Castle. “’We’ve fought our fight. Go fight yours.’”
She withdrew from classes and by the following Saturday night, she was rolling into camp, past the billowing flags of 200 Indian nations. A mere three days later, Castle had become one of a small group of activists to swim across a frigid river to pray at a sacred Lakota burial site in the pathway of the pipeline, which the Lakota refer to as “the black snake.” One empathetic officer stepped toward her. “Please swim away,” he begged, referencing another officer nearby armed with a mace canister the size of a fire extinguisher. “Please. He’s going to mace you.”
“I’m not afraid,” she told the officer. Still wading in the river, she lifted her arms, wrapped her scarf over her face and took it. Three weeks later, on November 20, she was on the front lines again for the duration of an unconstitutional crackdown by local law enforcement on the Backwater Bridge. She and hundreds of others choked with tear gas and were pelted with rubber bullets that night. One young woman took a direct hit from a concussion grenade that melted her forearm to mush. Another lost use of one eye thanks to a direct hit by a rubber bullet. Although major media outlets monitored Standing Rock from a distance, they did not have reporters on the ground. Most mainstream news reports were issued remotely. Most images and video from that night got out only thanks to social media, especially Facebook Live, where millions of Americans tuned in.
Facebook Live gave viewers frontline access to an unprecedented, multi-national defense of native lands against corporate and government will. Rob Saw, a Canada-born member of the Mohawk nation who works as a musician and is based in Dallas, was in camp for three weeks. “I saw white people and black people, Asians, Australians, and Europeans going to jail to defend Native Americans,” he says. Money and supplies were also sourced through social media outreach and donations flooded in from those aligned with the cause but unable to drop everything for the fight. “In Native American culture there was a prophecy that the rainbow warriors would come together to save their mother earth, and this is what happened in Standing Rock.”
Over the next few days, a squadron of veterans signed on to join the peaceful protest. Their arrival brought an influx of major media and more supporters. Several camp sources estimated their population to be nearly 10,000. Perfect timing. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order for today, Monday, December 5. The activists had already cost Morton County as much as $9 million and prevented a completion of a pipeline that ETP promised investors would be finished by January 1. Stakes were high, and all signs pointed toward a climactic showdown—and more violence. Then came the unexpected victory.
A four-day celebration was set to begin on Monday. According to Castle, the festivities would take on the tenor of a powwow. People would dress traditionally, dance, drum and feast. Still, camp optimism has been measured. “I’m celebrating,” Saw says. “I’m happy, but [the US government] have broken every single deal they’ve made with the Native American people, so a lot of us are suspicious.”
“Now the eviction could come for plausible purposes,” Emmerson adds. “On paper, this is over, so for us to continue to be here doesn’t make as much sense. People are going to stop sending things and people are going to stop helping. The [sheriff’s] barricade is still up, a plane went overhead not long ago, they’re still running surveillance, they still have [flood] lights still on camp. [ETP’s] drill is still on the drill pad.”
ETP has said publicly that even without permission from the Army Corps, they will move forward and pay any fines they incur. Nevertheless, after a month of setbacks for progressives and people of color in America, at a time when the racist alt-right has gone mainstream, the Trump takeover is underway and corporate power looks as unstoppable as ever, this has to be considered a major win. That’s what Bernie Sanders called it on Facebook. If he’s right, perhaps this is the new blueprint for non-violent direct action in the age of Trump. Start small, stay committed, put yourself in harms way, bring your own cameras and broadcast far and wide.
Activists may get a chance to see whether the pattern holds up soon. On Monday morning, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote in the Guardian that “Canadian First Nations are preparing for ‘Standing Rock North’ along the route of two contested pipelines out of the Canadian tar sands.”
Until then, there remains unfinished business in the Great Plains. “This isn’t over yet. The black snake has not been killed,” Castle reminds me as celebratory firecrackers burst all around her. “None of us are going home.”
Additional reporting by Yoonj Kim.