Over Thanksgiving break, 14 Stanford students and one alumnus braved a 36-hour journey to support protestors at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
Since April 2016, a grassroots movement has come together to protest the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,100 mile fracked-oil pipeline under construction from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota to Peoria, Illinois. The pipeline was designed to cross under the Missouri River and through the Great Sioux Reservation, which indigenous groups say would affect drinking water for more than 18 million people and cut through sacred indigenous sites.
Since protests have started, the government has announced an easement and a reroute of the pipeline. The pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners, has continued building despite this announcement. President-elect Donald Trump has also made statements in support of DAPL.
Journey to Standing Rock
The students were funded through a GoFundMe started on Nov. 3. According to Isabella Shey Robbins ’17, the group raised some $6,205 that covered the costs of travel. Robbins is affiliated with the Diné tribe. All but one of the students identified as Native American.
The group also included two students from other California universities. The students were at the Standing Rock camp from Sunday through Thursday after facing bad weather and car troubles on its journey. Robbins recalls renting an 11-passenger van alongside a personal car and a pickup truck for all 17 travelers.
“There was some difficulty with the rental cars,” she said. “The drive ended up being a large portion of the trip. We had to stop over the Sierras to put on snow chains.”
After hours of driving, Robbins recalls driving up to the camp and seeing flags along the road from over 300 recognized tribes and nations, as well as other parts of the world like Australia and Palestine.
Helping behind the scenes
Once there, the students mainly helped with logistics behind the scenes of the protests. They helped sort items in the donation tent, where people dropped off clothing and coats for protesters.
Robbins said she particularly enjoyed working in the arts tent, where protesters could create signs and fabrics bearing the motto of the NoDAPL movement: “Water is life.”
“We didn’t feel really helpful at first,” Robbins said. “Camp is very much about family and community. I think the most important thing we brought was youthful energy.”
When students weren’t sorting or making art, they helped out in the largest part of camp, Oceti Sakowin. There, they stayed with the kitchen owner, who created traditional foods, like deer stew and bison meat.
Robbins described the camp as a cross between contemporary and traditional. One day, some students helped to build a longhouse, a traditional homestead and place for ceremony.
They also met the chairman’s father, who thanked them for coming with fresh energy.
“I still don’t know how to phrase it correctly,” Robbins said. “[The camp] was very much going to ceremony, being with family, being with friends and feeling a lot of love, even though this horrible thing is going on. I just appreciate that the people who were there were there for prayer.”
While many of the protestors were affiliated with recognized indigenous nations, the students recall mostly non-native people there. Robbins said that she was pleased to see so many people standing in solidarity, but she wished that the non-native population had been more prayerful.
“In a lot of ways, it made me feel like a minority in a space that was supposed to be my space,” she said.
Witness to confrontation
Although most of their work took place behind the scenes, some students witnessed the confrontations between the police and the protestors firsthand. Students who delivered sandwiches to the front lines witnessed peaceful protesters being sprayed with water in freezing weather conditions.
Chon Hampson-Medina ’19, an affiliated member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, was one of the students who brought food to the front lines. He said he witnessed a military-grade vehicle and barbed wire blocking the protesters from crossing the bridge they had built to cross the river.
“There were about 20 protesters left on the right side of the bridge and 30 police officers yelling on the other side,” Hampson-Medina said. “The protesters would have [swum] around, but it was way too cold.”
Hampson-Medina said that the front lines would rotate so that protestors who were sprayed with fire extinguishers and hoses could run back to camp and change into dry, warm clothes. At the camp, other students were able to help out by building fires for the protestors to warm up.
The next action that the Stanford students witnessed was on their last day in the camp near Turtle Island, where there are ancestral remains to the Standing Rock Sioux people. Hampson-Medina recalled joining a march of 200 people walking toward the bridge and barricade built near the hill.
There, Hampson-Medina said he witnessed racism by Morton police, who were yelling that the action of putting on gloves and goggles was an act of aggression. According to Hampson-Medina, the police described the protesters as “dumb, hypocritical and saying things like ‘That is not peaceful.’”
The protesters were putting on these items in self-defense against being sprayed. The police were armed with guns.
One man tried to run up the hill where some policemen were but was stopped by some of the camp’s elders.
“If that man had run up another 20 feet, he could have been shot,” Hampson-Medina said.
Hampson-Medina remembers praying in a circle, giving some protesters enough time to recapture control of the bridge. He said that about 300 protesters were able to cross the bridge that day.
The group had an agreement that if one of the travelers was arrested, that traveler would be left behind, so Hampson-Medina did not cross the bridge.
The Stanford group left the afternoon after the bridge incident. Later, the students were disappointed to hear that the bridge had been recaptured by police the following day.
The action occurred the same day that the announcement of a government-regulated easement of DAPL came out. Hampson-Medina and Robbins, along with many camp members, distrusted the news at the time, and since then, drilling has continued. Robbins said three times the number of people at the camp joined the protestors the day of the announcement.
“I think people there are not leaving until drilling pads leave,” she said.
Hampson-Medina agreed, adding that although there are no concrete plans to raise campus awareness on the NoDAPL movement, it is important for people to follow what is going on at Standing Rock.
“I hope that people know that it is still going on, because there are media spikes where it goes in and out of the public eye,” he said. “There are still things you can do about it, and there are so many other ways to help.”
Contact Gillian Brassil at gbrassil ‘at’ stanford.edu.