Building a Bridge to Turtle Island — Dispatch from Standing Rock
Standing Rock (Nov. 2) — Drone footage taken of the ridge overlooking the camp showed that the water protecters worst fears had been realized. Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline had reached just a quarter of a mile from the river, plowing through burial grounds and sacred sites of the Sioux people. And the only access to the construction site was via a bridge that has been closed since last Thursday’s confrontation with police.
People at camp were tense and restless. A group of about 20, led by a guy named Angry Bird, decided to build a bridge to cross over a small marshy tributary of the river to “Turtle Island.” The crossing would allow the water protectors to pray by the disturbed gravesite and sacred lands of the Sioux. This is also within a short distance of the pipeline construction.
All night the team worked, using plywood, logs, rope, and other materials scrounged from around the camp. At 2 a.m., someone brought sandwiches.
We arrived at the bridge construction site just as it was getting light this morning, and there were just two sections of the bridge remaining to be rolled over logs along the creek and to be held in place with logs pounded into the creek bed. To the west, a long line of police cars were keeping track.
No worries, the bridge builders said. We are here just to pray. And Turtle Island is Army Corps of Engineers land; it does not belong to DAPL.
As the sun rose, things started happening fast. Word spread in camp that there was a prayer in the offing, and people started streaming in, some on foot, some in pickup trucks along the long rutted road across the flood plain. Young Lakota men on horseback arrived, also, along with a large drum and the team of singers that provide the sound track. High above, on the ridge across from the bridge builders, police cars pulled up to the edge of the cliff, officers looked down at the drummers and the bridge builders, and announced that the bridge would have to be dismantled and that all should return to camp. The suggestion was met with louder drumming, and suggestions that it was the police, not the water protecters, who were trespassing.
Soon, a line of about 50 riot clad police lined the banks of the river across from the bridge builders. After repeated demands by police to dis-assemble the bridge, a boat loaded with heavily armed police pulled up to the bridge, chopped the bridge rope support, and towed a section of the bridge away from the remainder of the bridge.
The action continued for hours after that. On one side was drumming and burning sage, sacred staffs and songs. On the other was millions of dollars spent on helicopters, imported police, heavy arms, helmets, boats, and rifles. Still, the police looked relatively relaxed. By now, they know these are unarmed, peaceful people, and that they have no reason to fear.
“Consider your own children and grandchildren,” water protecters called out. “What will the drink when the water is poisoned?”
People began to swim to the other side, where they remained in the frigid water facing the police. Some got up on land. Police fired rounds of mace into the crowd of swimmers, and there were reports also of rubber bullets (couldn’t confirm). A small boat carried people back who were overwhelmed by the cold or the mace, and medics waited on the shore to wash out their eyes and treat hypothermia.
It was a stand-off that lasted for hours and the two sides remain in a stalemate, North Dakota bringing in police from jurisdictions throughout the region, sending helicopters and planes to circle the camp and keep the camp under constant surveillance.
Water protectors believe it is not just for themselves that they are protecting the water, but for generations into the future, and that belief evokes the fierceness of anyone who is protecting their children. They repeatedly call for nonviolence, but they will not back down. Hundreds of clergy are here, now, answering a call from the local Episcopal Church. Human rights observers are here, too. And preparations for winter continue.
The stalemate continues as all await the Obama administration decision about whether the black snake will be allowed to cross the Missouri River.
© 2016 Sarah Van Gelder