Impressions from Standing Rock: An Interview with a Minister Who Witnessed the Scene

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Impressions from Standing Rock: An Interview with a Minister Who Witnessed the Scene

My friend Dave Swinton is a Methodist minister from Des Moines, IA who recently visited the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota in support of the DAPL protesters. His dispatches from the scene helped to spread the word about the violent police tactics being used against the protesters, including spraying people with high-pressure water hoses in sub-freezing temperatures.

Dave is now back home and back to work with his congregation at Grace United Methodist Church in Des Moines, and I talked with him about his experience at Standing Rock and his overall impressions and observations of the situation there.

What do people at Standing Rock most want the outside world to know about what is happening there?

The Natives who spoke when I was at Standing Rock wanted to be heard and believed. I had such a sense of people who have been ignored and abused over the centuries—ignored when they had needs, gifts, or grievances, and abused when they had something that powerful people wanted. But those are my words. What I heard were simple statements like “Water is something very sacred to us. The land is sacred,” Also, “All we want is clean water, why are you treating us like your enemies?”

I think the people who are camping Standing Rock most want people to know that work on the pipeline is continuing even though the Army Corps of Engineers has said that they have not yet given permission to drill. The equipment has arrived and Energy Transfer Partners has said they have every intention to keep going. They believe that they have all the approval they need.

I think the Water Protectors also want people to realize how much violence has already been done. When I attended the debriefing on Monday morning, the Native man who convened the meeting told people that the destruction of the North Camp last month was much more violent. People were beaten by private security forces and attacked by dogs. The barricade of trucks was set up immediately after that attack to protect people at the Oceti Sakowin camp from police and the company’s security firm.

How did the experience of being at Standing Rock compare with your prior expectations? What was most surprising about the experience?

The biggest surprise for me was how strongly I came to feel about the pipeline and the people of Standing Rock. I went up to North Dakota out of curiosity and because I wanted to spend a few days with my friend, Rob, who was traveling there to donate supplies to the protesters. I was concerned that the course of the pipeline had been moved to protect the drinking water for Bismarck, but that those some concerns didn’t apply to Native people.

I was deeply moved by the prayerful and ceremonial atmosphere of the camp, especially as led by the Native men and women. We were asked to treat each other with respect, to move slowly and solemnly about the camp, to treat the food preparation areas and the fires with respect, and to refrain from drinking, violence, and cursing. I felt fortunate to hear prayers and songs in Lakota within an authentic context and not as part of a performance.

We were told that our presence and support was appreciated but people who there for only a short visit and especially who were non-Indigenous people were asked to kind of keep a respectful distance; they did not want us to barge in and ask a lot of questions, make suggestions, or try to take charge. It became a personal discipline for me to simply do what I was asked.

On Monday, when we were part of demonstrations at Wells Fargo Bank, the Federal Building, and the sheriff’s office, I was just miserable. I don’t like confrontation. I thought that our group should have done some things differently. And I realized that as the minister of a large church, I am used to being in charge. But, then again, when I’m in charge, I complain about that all the time too. (I guess that’s why I just can never be happy.)

But the biggest surprise to me is how angry I am that the local police departments are functioning as though they are the private security force for the pipeline company. Why are the people of this country who are trying to protect the earth and water treated as criminals? Frankly, if I were one of those officers, I would be angry too. I would ask why I’m protecting pipes and not people. Is that really what they dreamed about doing as kids?

I haven’t had a chance to go back and view the press conference given by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department on Monday. But I read that they emphatically denied that they even had water cannons aimed at protesters (only later to acknowledge that it was a high pressure fire hose). They said that they trained a hose only on fires, despite video proof that they aimed them at protestors for hours. They denied firing rubber bullets at the protestors, but Rob and I were on the scene and we saw the bruises and the actual bullets. The department later said that they call them some kind of “sponge” projectiles. So now, when they also emphatically deny using concussion grenades, it is hard to believe them. Frankly, it’s hard to believe anything they now say.

When we were demonstrating, most of the police were glaring at us as if they were looking for the slightest provocation to arrest us or use the tear gas gun that one officer was toting. When you are looking for the slightest provocation, you will find it. It’s like the atmosphere at most people’s family Thanksgiving dinners.

What can people do to help the Standing Rock protesters?

I posted a comprehensive list of ideas and resources on my Facebook page, including how to donate, how to switch banks to put financial pressure on the banks that are financing the Dakota Access Pipeline, and more. Also check out this story from Indian Country Today that has more links for making donations to valid, trustworthy sources where the money will truly reach the people on the ground at Standing Rock.

I also would add that if people are from an area that is providing local law enforcement officers and other support to the effort to suppress the Water Protectors, then they should demand that they return. Here is an ACLU blog article with a list of departments whose officers are assisting the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

What signs of hope do you see that the situation can be resolved peacefully in a way that is favorable to the protesters? The federal government has a long history of violent suppression of indigenous people’s rights.

Sadly, I don’t see anyone taking leadership right now to be a sign of hope. As long as Energy Transfer Partners categorically refuses to negotiate, how can there be any change? I wonder, too, if the Standing Rock Sioux have left enough room for negotiation. Will they accept anything but a complete halt to the pipeline, or would they stop their opposition if the pipeline could be redirected up the river past the Morton County Sheriff’s office?

Other issues I want to feel hopeful about are fighting hydraulic fracking, climate change, racism toward Native peoples, and the militarization of policing. It’s hard to feel very hopeful about the first two issues. But surely massive numbers of concerned people should be able to make changes in the last two. (The first two also, but jeez…Trump.)

There was a Lakota phrase we heard several times at the camp that translated as, “Until my last breath.” I don’t know that the people of Standing Rock will win this immediate fight against the Dakota Access pipeline. I pray that no one will die. But to make the kind of changes needed, people like me need to give up our fatalism. Fatalism is a luxury for those of us who aren’t directly affected by these issues. Like the Native peoples, we need to think in terms of generations. What we are working toward today may not be accomplished for a century or more. We may be gone, but we are doing this for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Do you feel like the arrival of President Trump will be a bad thing for the Standing Rock protesters? (I’m not an expert on federal-tribal relations, but it seems like he might be temperamentally suited to ordering a violent response by federal forces.)

Because of Trump’s authoritarianism and demonstrated ability to empathize only with over-taxed (or simply ‘taxed’) billionaires, I don’t have much hope that he would do anything but exert the greatest amount of force.

However, Trump isn’t the only character here. The press has been just as wretched at covering DAPL as they have been in covering Trump. They have been unwilling to dig down and find out what is true. Rather they just report on who is winning and losing. They are far too willing to accept what they are told by authorities and ignore what eyewitnesses and even video say.

And people who are unconcerned about Trump’s bigotry probably also think that the pipeline, or environmental pollution, or racism, or police violence don’t affect them.

For more details on how to donate to support the Standing Rock Water Protectors, check out this article.

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