I grew up next to Standing Rock. But this past year changed my life forever.
This story is from Cody Hall, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and former media spokesperson for Red Warrior Camp, as told to Upworthy. It has been edited for content and clarity.
I was there during the siege on sacred ground, when the Dakota Access Pipeline workers came with their earthmovers.
They pushed the earth out, and they dug up rock effigies — what we know as sacred markers of our burial grounds. They pushed everything aside and erased our history. Those meant a lot to us in our Lakota culture, and it was devastating.
I’m a water protector from the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, next to the Standing Rock Sioux. We are the descendants of Chief Spotted Elk, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull — great chiefs and warriors who weren't afraid to put their lives on the line. But my ancestors always walked with a chanupa (ceremonial pipe) in one hand and a skull cracker in the other. That meant "I’m gonna come to you in peace, in prayer, because I have my chanupa. But if you have to fight? I’ll fight."
I was there when a young person on a horse approached the police.
A cop shot the horse with rubber bullets. Then they shot the water protector too.
People were scuffling and shoving on both sides. Law enforcement were pushing some of the water protectors back, and then the water protectors were pushing the cops back. One police officer accidentally popped off a tear gas canister near me. It hit the ground at a 45-degree angle, then ricocheted off the road and bounced into the sky where it burst all over us. I also felt the shock wave from a flashbang, or stun grenade. It sent my body into a panic, a fight-or-flight state.
To me, these are strategies used to provoke us, to make us respond without reason so they can say, "Well, that person was fighting us!" Of course I'm fighting you after that. I'm fighting to protect my safety and the safety of others because we're human beings with feelings and fears and we're going to react, no matter how much we try to stay grounded.
The police force was something we predicted could have happened that day. We tried to prepare ourselves for that mentally. But it's not the same as when you actually go through it. That’s not something you can practice for.
I even went to jail for the cause.
As a leader in the movement, I was an easy target at the beginning. Then I made myself a bigger target when I was seen on camera with Amy Goodman when they brought out the attack dogs on Labor Day weekend. People throughout the world saw the atrocities.
A few days later, I was driving a journalist back to Bismarck to catch their flight, and all of a sudden, the cops pulled me over and arrested me.
When I look at most of these police officers, though, I can tell they’re listening.
I can see it in their eyes: They’re thinking about this work we’re doing. They hear our plight. They also have a job to do, and I empathize with that. You can tell some of them are stuck in a hard place: "Well, I've got to follow these orders but I'm not cool at all with this."
Unfortunately, you can't make them drop their gun and all their gear on the spot and suddenly say, "I can't do this to people. I’m going to go stand with them." But maybe they’ll go home and talk to their families and say, "Hey I’m not going to go back to that." If that happens, I've done my part. We've changed their minds.
After my arrest, I kept on doing what I always did: providing aid to people.
I stepped away from the action-oriented camp after their tone had changed to a more militant approach. And a lot of people weren't comfortable with that. So I said, "Best of luck to you guys, but I’m going to stay on my course."
Now, I run supplies. I bring in sleeping bags. I disperse volunteers. I help coordinate support from groups like Greenpeace or the veterans when they came in. Whatever people need. That, to me, is rewarding.
It’s been nine months since the camp first started filling up with supporters.
At that time, there was tall grass and it was green, and the Dakota Access Pipeline was first making headlines. I remember feeling a deep connection with people and the planet back in April. I remember knowing that this fight was the right thing to do.
The first people to make their homes there came from different reservations. But many, like me, were part of the Oceti Sakowin, the seven bands of the Lakota and the Dakota people. There was this feeling of, "We’re here. We’re going to assert our authority that these are our lands. We’re going to live off our own system. And we’re going to live just like how our ancestors did."
Some people have said they've never felt more alive than they do here. That feeling still persists, even though there’s snow on the ground now.
Recently, we won a small victory: There's a re-route planned.
It’s a small concession, but something to celebrate.
Still, we are not leaving this camp we've created. We need to stay on our guard. Energy Transfer Partners isn't going to move their equipment, and they released a statement that says they're not giving up. They’ll have to pay a reported $50,000 fine for every day they keep construction going, but I worry they'll do it anyway, so they can push the pipeline through.
Eventually that pipeline will burst. They always do. I wonder: Who's at fault when that happens? Who's at risk? The answer, for me, is: "All of us."
When oil leaks onto land, suppose it takes about 1,000 years for the soil to be OK at top level, where the plants are OK for the animals to eat from again. I don’t know about you, but 1,000 years is a long time for us.
We’ll stay here because the pressure is needed, and the fight isn’t over.
This struggle has brought global attention to Native American issues and the environment on a huge level. This moment in time will be a reminder that a group of people can stand up for change. A group of people can take a corporation on. Maybe that group of people can even win.
It’s unlikely that something like this will never happen again in my lifetime, and it’s really cool to be part of it. To witness it. To feel this vibe. The sleeping giant is awake now.