The day I arrived at Oceti Sakowin, I felt like I had come home.
Today, the camps in Standing Rock that once held thousands of people are clearing out. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is focusing on legal action against the Dakota Access Pipeline, challenging President Donald Trump's executive action to speed up the project.
But even if the pipeline is built, Standing Rock represents a historic step for Native Americans toward recovering from the damages of colonization. It's a cultural awakening that can't be taken away.
I'm enrolled in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (I grew up in Seattle, and I’m Cherokee, white, and Chinese-Malaysian). I traveled to Standing Rock in November with 16 of my college friends. Between the 17 of us we represented 13 unique Native tribes and nations. We drove 36 hours to get there.
We arrived at Standing Rock early on a Monday morning. We’d been driving between barren brown hills for hours. Oceti Sakowin rose suddenly: a big camp, with hundreds of tipis and tents and RVs belted in by a fence.
From the fence hung hundreds of colorful signs and flags from the different indigenous nations there. There was a big sign at the camp’s entrance that read: “Absolutely no alcohol or drugs on you or in you. This is a camp of prayer and ceremony.”
I was here. I was at Oceti Sakowin.
Oceti Sakowin is one of the camps at Standing Rock and the only camp on disputed treaty territory. That means the Lakota people think the land is theirs and while the United States acknowledges it was taken illegally, it hasn’t given the land back.
My friend Maluhia Kinimaka was on the trip. For her Standing Rock was "the last straw." She and other Native Hawaiians recently fought the development of one of their sacred mountains on the Big Island of Hawai’i and she said that the same fight was happening at Standing Rock.
“It’s someone trying to strip you of your land and your culture and telling you that your values aren’t important,” she said. “Or a large corporation trying to infringe upon your rights as a human in order to make a buck. If you don’t start somewhere to push back then they’re just going to keep walking all over you.”
It wasn’t just Kinimaka who was fed up. Everyone in my group could name instances when non-Natives had taken or attempted to take their tribe's land against their will.
At Oceti I met Phyllis Baldeagle. Phyllis is Miniconjou Lakota. She’d been at Oceti since Sept. 1. She was there with her entire family: husband, children, and grandchildren. Phyllis had always lived on a reservation, except for when she was forced to attend a government boarding school.
“On the reservation, we’re colonized. It’s very stressful,” she told me, but here, children “feel free.”
“They’re able to learn our ways again, our culture, our way of life. They feel comfortable. They have no fear, they have courage. So when they’re here it’s different.”
Baldeagle said that at Oceti Sakowin, Native people lived in a way that they hadn’t for hundreds of years. “You meet your relatives, you meet your allies. You do your ceremonies and a lot of prayers. We did that back in the 1800s. So what’s happening today is history.”
At Oceti Sakowin, people prayed in their native ways every morning. One heard songs and drums late into the night. Lakota and other horse riders raced along the river. Teenagers played pickup lacrosse right outside the flap of their tipis. It felt like a cultural renaissance.
Today there are more than 566 Native tribes and nations in the United States. For the past 500 years, we have not been treated as distinct groups. And we’ve all experienced historical trauma from invasion, broken treaties, boarding schools and more.
The inter-tribal solidarity at Standing Rock is historically unheard of.
Over 300 Native nations camped out in North Dakota, all in support of one tribe. Leeroy Dejoli, who is Navajo, said it was like all of the tribes were different parts of the same body.
“When one part of your body hurts, we all hurt,” he explained. “I see myself as part of that body. I see myself looking at Standing Rock and they’re hurting. I’m hurting too."
I too am in awe of Indian Country’s unity. But, what’s happening at Standing Rock goes beyond Indian Country. My friend Leo John Bird III , who is Blackfeet and Haida Tlingit, explained, “We’re not just in this for our sovereignty, we’re praying for Dakota Access’ kids too. We’re praying for all of the generations to come after us.”
Native cultures share the value of looking out for future generations. That’s why we care so much about taking care of land and resources. The Dakota Access Pipeline could threaten the water of five states, and fossil fuel dependence threatens the earth’s future.
Baldeagle told me that Standing Rock is the beginning of a prophecy come true.
“Seven generations ago, our ancestors made a prophecy that the seventh generation will wake up the world and make this world a better place for them and for their children,” she said.
In the late 1800s, Lakota elders foresaw a time when Native people would overcome all the suffering that had happened to them. They would lead humanity to remake a circle with the earth. That time is said to be now.
“My children are the beginning of the seventh generation,” Baldeagle said. “Whatever we have to do as elders, we’re going to support the youth because of that prophecy. It’s happening and it’s coming true.”
It hurts to think about the past 500 years. Time after time, Native land is stolen and Native lives violated, and when we try to resist, sometimes it feels like nothing ever comes of it. What if Native people are supposed to wake up the world, but the world ignores us like it has ignored us?
I don't know if the pipeline will be stopped. But even if it isn’t, I think Baldeagle is right. Standing Rock is the start of something new.
I know Indian Country can wake up the world. It’s already begun to wake up itself.