Life With The Black Snake: What It Was Like At Standing Rock

Photo by Scott Olson / Staff / Getty Images

Stronger together

About a year ago, I sat eating with a group of colleagues at a swanky Miami restaurant during Art Basel week. I was then working as a director of an art gallery, a job I loved fiercely, but I knew that I wanted the coming year to bring change. As someone from the reservation and as an advocate for indigenous and environmental rights I wanted to be more involved in helping people and the earth; I wanted something outside of the commercial art world.

Change did come for me this year, just like I had hoped, but it came in a form I couldn’t have anticipated. Still, it was my long-ago desire for change that I focused on just a few days ago as I hovered in the freezing wind above an icy porta-potty seat, and reflected on my week at Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp at Standing Rock. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I'd wanted change, but that was okay.

I first went to Oceti Sakowin in September 2016 and then I returned earlier this month. I work for Dig Deep*, an organization that helps people get access to clean, safe water and was fortunate enough to be sent to North Dakota to represent Dig Deep, to report back on the situation, and bring aid to the camp. However, going to the camp was much more than doing my job for me. I am from the Navajo nation, where, for years, energy companies have been allowed to mine for uranium and coal, polluting our land and water. Along with many other people who live on reservations across the United States, I know firsthand what water contamination looks like and the utter destruction it brings; I know that we need to fight against it.

In September, I arrived just a few days after several Water Protectors—including a child—were attacked by security dogs from Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the proposed $3.7 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline. When I came back in December, I arrived just days after Protectors were once again attacked, this time by local police with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, mace, and water cannons; all these attacks took place at night in below-freezing weather. One woman was hurt so badly that she later had her arm amputated, while another lost her vision in one eye.

Beyond these violent atrocities, many other things had remained the same at Standing Rock in the time between my two trips, but much had changed as well. Temperatures were now in the single digits and there were blinding blizzards. Morale was still high, but there was a palpable sense of tension among many of the people there because the camp was nearing “illegal” status. The week before the Army Corps of Engineers had delivered an eviction notice, asking the Protectors to vacate and relocate essentially. There were now many more white people present and, I felt, fewer Natives. (Almost all of the non-Natives were supportive and hardworking, but there were definitely still the “1/32 Cherokee princess” descendants searching for spiritual guidance amongst us Natives. No shade, allies of all backgrounds are important, just stating the fact.) Now the highway leading to Bismarck was closed, as the bridge was barricaded and the camp was lit up by pipeline construction lights in the distance.

As they had since the beginning, people worked together for the overall good of the camp. Medics constantly checked all the tents and cars to ensure that everyone was safe, always asking if everyone had a warm place to stay. Some people sorted donations while others assisted in putting up more permanent and warm structures; hot tea and coffee stations were set up throughout the camp, as well as seven kitchens which served as gathering places to dine and warm up. I made many new friends and met a family member I had known of for years, but had never met in person. The air smelled smoky from the main Sacred Fire, which burned brightly and became a camp focal point; it was where the emcees cracked rez jokes and made community announcements. Around the fire, many people sang, danced, and offered prayers. Hundreds of colorful flags from all different indigenous nations flanked the main road, more flags were added as time passed.

My second time at camp would prove to be an eventful one. Over the course of a few days in December, following the attacks by the Morton County Sheriff Department, thousands of veterans trickled in from all over the country to offer protection for the Water Protectors. Their original plan was to form a human shield around the Protectors. 

An estimated 2,500 veterans came to Standing Rock, and my experience talking with them and learning about their journeys to camp was profound. I met an ex-Marine who told me he had come because, for too many years, he had “fought a war for oil” that he opposed; he believed that the U.S. needs to stop endangering and killing people over this non-renewable resource. I marched alongside a younger Native guy who, after learning the Water Protectors needed help, rounded up two other Army friends and drove 21 hours through a blizzard to get to camp. The three said that those whose jobs are to serve and protect should not viciously attack peaceful people and that someone needed to step in.

It was emotional to learn more about these peoples’ pasts and to listen to their reasons for coming—and what the costs of those journeys were. Veterans coming from the Navajo Nation had chartered a plane for which they were originally quoted $50,000, but once the charter company learned where they were heading, the price was jacked up to $160,000. The Navajo veterans ended up taking a bus that made travel much more difficult—but still, they came.

Although a human shield did not wind up being needed, the veterans still marched alongside protesters across the same bridge where Protectors had been brutally maimed by the Morton County Sheriff Department; we walked right up to the barricade. Snow was flying in all directions, and it was cold and wet, but we all stood there on the bridge singing prayers, standing together. It was profoundly moving to see so many people who had worked for the U.S. government, which is an entity that has ignored and participated in the desecration of sacred lands and violence against Native people for generations, come together to fight for this cause and for these Protectors.

December 4 was the day before the eviction notice would have gone into effect for Oceti Sakowin; it was also the day before the veterans were scheduled to form a shield. Instead, December 4 will become known for another historical event: The Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would not grant an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline; the construction would temporarily have to stop. The news spread throughout the camp—more like a small town at this point—slowly; most people were in disbelief. We all swiped and tapped our phones furiously, whispering to each other, asking for solid confirmation; once we had it, shouts and hugs broke out. I ran to the Sacred Fire where people danced holding hands, laughing and congratulating each other. 

Although this was an important victory for both the Standing Rock Sioux and indigenous people everywhere, the battle has not ended, not by a long shot. A lot of people assume that this decision means the Black Snake is dead. It's possible to see images online of people at camp celebrating and fireworks exploding. This did happen, but, for the most part, the emotion was a lot more muted than that. We were all happy, but cautiously so. As the sun went down and night fell, I stood on what they call Facebook Hill (the highest point at camp where everyone gets decent cell reception), with my family and friends looking across the land. The sky was still illuminated by the lights set up for the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and if you squinted, you could make out the construction equipment and drill pad. The eerie glow from those lights served as proof that this wasn’t over.

The day after the Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement, the Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, released a statement thanking everyone for their support and passion, and asked for Protectors to go home for the time being, so that they could be with their families this winter; Archambault said they would be welcomed back when needed. The Chairman’s request for people to leave is understandable. He says that it is unlikely that the pipeline company will do anything before the new year and temperatures have dropped dangerously. (Saturday was -26 Farenheit.)

And yet it is also understandable why Protectors do not want to leave. Now more than a week after the decision was made, remaining friends say that the construction lights are still on and the bridge is still barricaded. It might seem crazy to stay in such freezing weather and to risk your life, but I think many of us still feel that we need to be at Standing Rock to monitor Energy Transfer Partners, and to make sure that the easement denial is being respected. This was made especially clear after they responded to the Army Corps’ denial by saying they were committed to the completion of the pipeline and that “nothing this Administration has done... changes that in any way.” Throughout the course of U.S. history, Natives have been promised things by the government only to have the promises betrayed. There's no reason to assume that things will work out any differently this time.

During my first trip to Oceti Sakowin, I walked around very late at night with a dear friend. There were lots of people out and we could hear singing and drumming everywhere. We kept talking about how no one wanted to sleep because of how excited we were, coming together to fight the Black Snake. Back then, it was warm out and everyone was outside, but even now, in the icy weather, the excitement persists. We cannot and will not fall asleep on this. The fight is not over and vigilance is key.

I left Standing Rock about a week ago, and it took me much longer to write this than I would’ve liked. As soon as I arrived in Los Angeles, I became very ill and couldn’t do much besides lay around the house. I attribute this partly to being outside in the freezing North Dakota winter, but also because I had experienced so many different and powerful emotions, ranging from anxiety to sadness to bliss, all in a short period of time. I was only there for eight days on my second trip, but each day felt like a week. I can’t imagine actually being there for months, like many of the Water Protectors have been, especially in the current weather conditions. While I hacked up a lung in bed at home, I had a lot of time to reflect on my second journey and am eternally grateful that I was able to go out again for professional and personal reasons and that I was present when the easement was denied. I’ve also realized that it is important to remember that this happened not because of all the peaceful and prayerful work the Water Protectors did. Yes, it was the government that made the decision to prevent construction, but they made it because the Protectors stood strong.

But still: This fight is not over. We must continue to battle this pipeline. We must think about the long term. We cannot let this be the last fight we fight together, and we must not forget what we accomplished by banding together. The same must be done to fight against all the other projects and corporations that put profit before people and destroy our Mother Earth. I want to say ahe’hee’—thank you—to everyone who has been involved. None of this would have happened without them.

*This essay is a reflection of Robbins' thoughts and feelings and is not necessarily representative of the policy of Dig Deep.

Emma Robbins is an artist, activist, and environmentalist originally from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She completed her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied Contemporary and Modern Latin American Art in Argentina. She currently splits her time between Los Angeles and the Rez, with her dog Cindy Sherman, where she works as a director for a human rights organization that provides people on the reservation with clean, running water. 

Photo courtesy of Emma Robbins

Flag Road