Standing Rock

Morning walk to the water ceremony conducted on the Cannonball River. Photo by Heather Sioux

Morning walk to the water ceremony conducted on the Cannonball River. Photo by Heather Sioux

The garbage waving in the trees, lit by the streetlight, looked for a minute like prayer flags, and although I was walking through Brooklyn, for a minute I was back in Standing Rock. The day that we walked to the barricade on Highway 1806. With the tree whose branches were full of multicolored prayers waving in the wind.

Our sacred sites lay just beyond the barricade with its masses of metal, machinery and men in full body armor. Sites of the brutal dog attacks, the ground razed over, a variety of sage growing all around. In Sept. I walked this highway back to the camp, after catching a ride up to see the sacred ground. The airwarm then, and the water on both sides of the bridge reaching out towards the surrounding hillsides. Now Nov. the water was low, grass dried and the hill above us blackened from the fire that was set to scare the protectors.

 It was my ancestors that first called me to Standing Rock. My journey beginning before I was aware of it. How else did I end up in my cousin's office at our Tribal building on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, hearing about my tribe's decision to send support to Standing Rock. I knew I had to go. Although I was only six hours away at the time it took me a couple thousand more miles and over two weeks to get there. Three days after I landed back in NY having been gone for months….I was on a bus headed to North Dakota. Nothing else ever felt so right. This was my first time hopping on a bus full of strangers headed for the unknown. I know I am better for it. My relationship of eight years had just ended and I was not only jobless but would have to move out. So riding out into the unknown felt like the next stage of freedom from all that bound me.

I was without expectation. Id heard of the conflict, the dog attacks. I knew the threat the pipeline posed. I knew something about the land it was connected to because I was born on similar sovereign land. I understood from the things my grandfather had said that they were finally coming for the last of what they had left us. I understood that had it not been for my ancestors fighting at the Battle of Little Bighorn, aka the Battle of Greasy Grass, neither I nor my mother or grandmother before her would have been here.

We arrived at night after a three day haul, the welcomes we received in each town we stopped in for the night were incredible. People opened their homes to us simply because they supported Standing Rock. The solidarity lifted our spirits as we crossed state lines. The bus was laden with donations of supplies, clothing, and food.

I met so many inspiring people, it is impossible to recount every story. I want to dispel myths but the only way I can attempt this is to tell my own truth.

As soon as we pulled in to the grounds I could hear the drums calling me home, like a mothers heart beat. Naturally the first thing I did was to wander towards them and I found myself at the Sacred Fire. Burning since April, kept by a Firekeeper 24/7 who is mostly busy trying to keep confused non natives from throwing in their cigarette butts, or conducting sing alongs, as though it were a mere campfire.The night was crystal clear and every star was out. You are asked only three things. 1. No drugs 2. No alcohol 3. No weapons. Meanwhile you are welcome to every community kitchen, each health, wellness and medic tent and any and all donation tents.

I started my mornings early at the fire.

In Sept. I spent a few days helping in the kitchen. One day while prepping fresh veggies for lunch someone noticed already prepped veggies in the refrigerated trailer that housed food donations. I ended up spending most of that day inside the trailer, clearing out food that had spoiled simply because it was hidden. Two women from Missoula had brought more food donations and when I told them what I was doing they jumped right in. We successfully organized the back stock and shelves. It wasnt until the last day there that I began to understand the way things worked in Standing Rock. Whatever need there is, will be filled. The food storage had gone for a few days unattended because the woman keeping up on it had to return home. I managed to fill that gap for a while and after me there was someone else who stepped in to help. People just jump in. You cannot wait to be asked in a place like this, nor should you have to be.

I had the honor to meet Joanna Starr from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is 78 or 79 years old; her son said she kept changing the number. He also said she would be there every day if she could. When I spoke to her she was in awe of the many different people that had come. Her face was beautiful and wizened with the biggest smile but she was too shy for pictures. So instead of photographing her as I initially wanted, I gave her my arm for balance and we walked together to greet new comers from Rome and Kenya. The woman from Kenya was in the brightest fuchsia garment, silky folds flowing like a river. Seeing Joanna hug her was incredible. It was truly nations coming together.

A group of young girls I met were working to keep their culture, hold onto and learn their language while getting a good education. Challenging their high school to provide all of this. One young woman was writing about Standing Rock even though the teachers had told them they werent allowed to discuss it. She was also advocating for Lakota to be taught in that school. She said 60% of the students were native. We agreed it would be good not only for those students but the non natives as well. To learn and appreciate the culture of their neighbors. Hopefully building a bridge, that in these border towns is so often staggered with missing pieces that there is no crossing.

 The night before we arrived in November there was an action on the bridge I would walk days later. The protectors were sprayed with water cannons in freezing temps, maced, shot with rubber bullets and had concussion grenades thrown at them. The first night there we walked to the fire. Needless to say the mood was somber. There was sorrow and tension but the drumbeats still carried on. A woman came and danced her heart out when she was done she announced that the dance was for her sister who then came forward. She was shot in the eye the night before and the local hospital wouldn’t treat her; she needed $150 to get home. She was able to raise that right there and then.

At the legal aid tent the next day I found myself writing the number to call in case of arrest on my forearm. In Sharpie the black numbers stark against my skin. Strange how these little details shape your experience. Then the plane started…..circling round and round. I stopped to take its photo, face up the sky more than once and Im sure they got mine.

I went to the fire.

One morning at the fire a call was made for volunteers in medic. I responded and lined up to help sort and recover personal belongings from the piles of mace filled soaking wet cold clothes from Sunday night. The stench is one Ill never forget, still so strong two days later that I had to wear a mask. Handling these clothes and sometimes seeing IDs of the people that were in them when they were attacked was sobering. The plane was back circling once more.

I went to the fire. 

Later I ended up helping to sort through the piles of donations that had been unceremoniously dumped at the medic station. Everything from clothing, toilet paper, and food to surgical supplies. Expired medicines, unsterilized products, loose tubes for intubation, a whole bunch of tracheotomy attachments that required hospital equipment to be attached to, things that were used.

 Afterwards. I went to the fire.

Two mornings I was awoken early by the call to morning prayer at the Sacred Fire. We stood in a circle and as others gradually woke and came up to sleepily join us our circle expanded. We walked to the water and offered prayers, tobacco and water.

On one of these mornings we were blessed with a medicine man who had traveled from the heart of Mexico to be there. He spoke to us all about his peoples medicine, their beliefs of how all of the gods from every culture had come together at the center of the earth. The center being where they cultivated their sacred herbs and medicinals. A trek was made annually to the sacred site for ceremony and he had just come from there to visit Standing Rock because it too was a Sacred site. He brought a candle which his people traditionally made from beeswax; they can no longer do so, because the bees are dying. The candle represents light, and he was bringing his peoples light to our people to be joined. It was beautiful.

That is all we are….light.

While I was still in NY I heard about the floodlights being put up that shined into the camp all night. It was an insult, the stars are also sacred.

I remembered being able to see the haze of the Milky Way in Sept. One night I heard a Lakota historian tell this story: the stars are our ancestors, and every time a child is born one of the ancestors comes down and is born through their lineage again.

The critical thing to remember when you take up space in Standing Rock is not only to be of service, but to recognize that each of your actions has an affect on the larger community as a whole, and in particular on the natives who call Bismarck, the Standing Rock Reservation, Fort Yates and surrounding areas home.

An action was taking place in Bismarck at a mall to protest Black Friday. An announcement was made that the council and the elders didnt want this. They didnt want people protesting Black Friday, they wanted people there to protect the water. As a result of the protest, a native woman doing her shopping at the mall was taken into custody. A water protector was sent to rescue her dogs stranded in her car in the freezing weather.

On the day we walked to the barricade as we passed security on the way out of camp, the warrior asked if I was ok, and if I was safe. I answered that I was and proceeded forward. The warrior then stopped my companions, two of the men from our camp. He didnt ask so much as tell them that they were to bring me back safe, unharmed and untouched, they would watch me and protect me if needed. He made them make this promise.

I had been compelled forward to this point and there was no stopping me.

We reached a point where a big beautiful tree grew, the bare branches covered in yellow, white, red and green prayer flags. The sun was brilliant and the prayers gently waved in the breeze, a man was singing his prayer next to this tree. We all stood in reverence while he finished his song.

Then slowly, four of us moved on, I met them right there and then. We each wanted to get closer to the site. Two of us wanted to challenge the distance and we walked halfway down the bridge before being asked to step back “for our own safety”. We complied and as we backed up I could see multiple glints from the militarized force behind the concrete blockade yards away. The journalists, bloggers, photographers and general media which were perched on the surrounding hillside checking their FB, making their calls all the while resembling sheep grazing in an open field suddenly turned and poured down to the bridge. 

We then stood at the edge of the bridge together arms raised in unison. One of us had sage but he was afraid to light it, afraid they would think it was something else, afraid they would shoot us when they saw it. So I held it up and announced that we were there to pray and what I held was sage which we were going to light. Next to me, my friend yelled, “Dont shoot!” 

The wind came up and as we lit the sage our prayers were carried across the bridge.

View of the floodlights overlooking the Oceti Sakowin camp at night. Photo by Heather Sioux

View of the floodlights overlooking the Oceti Sakowin camp at night. Photo by Heather Sioux



Heather Sioux is a Biologist, an Artist and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. She has recently worked with Brooklyn College and the NPS on a collective key project as Clean Shore Corps, focused on using authentic data collection to engage students and citizen scientists in learning about local and global issues of marine plastic pollution.