Standing Rock Reflections

By Antonio Rafael

Lisa Nemikigokwe, Soufy, and Supreme Flows were the first of our crew to drive out to Standing Rock. Lisa drove down to take supplies, representing her work as Four Directions Wellness, and her reservation, Lac Vieux Desert, an Ojibwe reservation near the border of Michigan’s upper peninsula and Wisconsin. The crew was welcomed by LaDonna Bravebull Allard, a tribal historian at Standing Rock, and the owner of land adjacent to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) Missouri River crossing. LaDonna called for people to come fight the pipeline, urging, “As we speak, they are violating our ancestors!” She began Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016. Lisa supported the water at Standing Rock, Flint and Detroit. Indeed, women are the keepers of the water. We must follow their lead.

The report they gave when they returned inspired many of us here. They said we were invited back on Thanksgiving weekend to perform at the MniWiconi concert. MniWiconi is Lakota for “water is life.”  As an organization, the Raiz Up has been opposing Columbus Day and Thanksgiving for the past five years through various events and teachings (Columbus Axe). This year we decided to take a road trip to the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in this century, to help in the fight against the black snake.

En route we saw the beginnings of the police cracking down on those taking supplies out to Standing Rock. They would later ban the support all together, issuing tickets of over $1000.  We saw multiple box trucks and step vans pulled over as we neared the encampment. The hills of the great plains rolled on, capturing our imagination, a beige-brown, treeless autumnal color as far as the eye could see. We wondered if any of those hills might be native mounds of the great Sioux nation. We have some mounds in a polluted area in what is called Delray in #SouthwestDetroit. On the advice of some friends, we took a less traveled route into Standing Rock to protect ourselves and our offerings.

The encampment is located where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri River, just north of a smaller tributary. This is where Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to take the DAPL across the Missouri River. This is where they had been staging their drilling equipment. At the time of our arrival, that tributary north of the Cannonball River had become the perimeter, the frontline. The bridge across the tributary on highway 1806 had been blocked off, with burnt cars standing on the road as relics of resistance. Just as you arrive, driving north on 1806, you can see both the now infamous bridge/military-like-blockade and the barbwired “turtle island” peninsula as you enter the Oceti Sakowin camp.  Sacred lands live where these waters meet. According to Ladonna, “Of the 380 archeological sites that face desecration along the entire pipeline route, from North Dakota to Illinois, 26 of them are right here at the confluence of these two rivers.” This #NODAPL movement is not only environmental work, but spiritual, decolonization work. Colonialism has never stopped.

There is a continuous stream of vehicles entering and exiting the camp. We were told the line of cars on Labor Day weekend stretched farther than one could see as nearly 10,000 flooded into the camp. As you drive up, the first things you notice are the flags of the indigenous nations represented from all over the Americas and beyond. I even saw a Palestinian flag. Our host Jenna told us about the background of the camp, which had evolved from the first camp, Sacred Stone. Oceti Sakowin was the largest camp on the North side of the tributary. The name means “the great Sioux nation,” represented by the seven sacred council fires. This was the first time the seven Lakota nations had come together since they defeated Custer 140 years ago. Today there are over 400 indigenous nations represented at Standing Rock. Jenna spoke of the roar of excitement that hit the Lakota when the Cree, a historic enemy of Lakota peoples, came to this movement.

The militarization of America’s police forces is a serious issue everywhere — from Ferguson to Palestine, Detroit to Standing Rock. We arrived just days after the November 20 action in which a protector, Sophia Wilansky, nearly lost her arm, and Vanessa “Sioux Z” Dundon nearly lost her eye. Around 300 people were injured. Dozens were shot. One elder went into cardiac arrest after the police used water cannons during freezing weather on hundreds of water protectors. Jenna communicated a sense of posttraumatic stress, as she led us around the camp. “I’m part of the Standing Rock Emergency Task Force. When we get told, ‘We’re gonna have some injured people,’ we come down with EMT’s and emergency services.” Jenna described the barbarity of the DAPL and police forces, who specifically target the heads and groins of protesters.  A few protectors proudly displayed large, brown, purple and red bruises on their legs, hips, and arms.

Adding to the atmosphere of surveillance, there was the constant noise of helicopters and airplanes circling above. We heard hundreds of eyewitness accounts of chemical crop dusting on the campers. The corporate-state, ETP and Morton County sheriffs also employed floodlights along the northern frontline to make it difficult to sleep and work at night. The security has abusively used dogs, LRAD (noise radar8*), tear gas, pepper balls, mace, barbed wire and electronic spy equipment against the camp.  “I’ve never been to war; but I feel like I was at war,” Jenna said, confiding that she almost breaks down when she goes home and reflects on her experience.

Before the snows came, the camp was a combination of built structures, vehicles, mini camps, tents, teepees and a geodesic dome. During our limited time there, it was well organized.  Located at central points near the sacred fire, there were corkboards with notices of various meetings and workshops that campers could attend. There was a lot of work to do and seemingly many able hands. There were orientation meetings for newcomers, decolonial meetings, and strategy meetings. The Indigenous Environmental Network had strict media policies for anyone with a camera. No photography or video of ceremonies or prayer was permitted.

For those considering supporting the movement in person, the Michigan camp in Oceti Sakowin is still open. Even to strangers, many of the protectors were extremely friendly and hospitable. There were multiple spots where anyone could walk up and grab winter gear — hats, jackets, sweaters — as they needed. There was a Medic and Healer camp. As we walked around, we were invited to come inside, warm up, and speak with people from all over. In the mornings, there would be a water blessing and prayer. There was drumming and food throughout the day.

We didn’t spend nearly as much time at the camp on the second trip. We performed, attended the forum, and met a tribal council.  It was a powerful atmosphere of indigenous-led struggle! Soufy, Nemiki, Supreme Flows and Reyes had been invited to perform. The Mni Wiconi Concert schedule kept us moving. We arrived and received a cultural presentation and introduction from the Tribal Council. Reyes of We Are Culture Creators and Supreme Flows of Awkward Theory performed at the Standing Rock High School with Supaman, Taul Paul, and Hell n Back, Renee Gardner and others. The following day at the Standing Rock Casino, Soufy and Nemiki performed with Nataanii Means, Lyla June, Frank Waln, Tabo of the Black Eyed Peas, and others. Emcees Supreme Flows and Soufy Anishnabe represented for #SWDetroit. Anishinaabe emcees had a chance to network with their native hiphop peers. I had a chance to meet some activist heroes like Dallas Goldtooth, Tara Houska, and Madeeha Benjamin.

I would love to have done some graff out there. I was able to share my hotel room with a group of protectors including a friend from Michigan, Samantha Magdaleno of One Michigan. Her partner BJ Nastacio is currently facing charges of “terrorizing” a DAPL worker for an incident in which BJ disarmed an overly aggressive guard who was pointing his gun at protectors. It was nice seeing our neighborhood and community shine at Standing Rock.

While we were in Standing Rock, the announcement was made that the camp would be evicted by December 5th.  According to a few friends involved with security, there was tension between Standing Rock Tribal Chief Dave Archambault, a liberal, and more radical folks concerning strategy and tactics.  Archambault stated that his aims were to get an environmental impact study and ensure that the black snake would be rerouted out of his tribal territory. However, many of those on the ground, including the Red Warrior Camp, who are consistently more radical in their aims, are seeking to “kill the black snake,” stop this pipeline from being built, period.

After we left, the first snow hit the camp and a large contingency of veterans joined the struggle. The camp population again swelled to nearly 10,000 people as the eviction day approached. In those tense moments, the Obama administration finally made an announcement that the Army Corps of engineers would suspend the easement that would allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River. The tribal leadership and many in the media declared victory. Dave Archambault went so far as to ask the campers to go home.  According to him, “the fight was over.”

But no company will leave a multi-billion dollar pipeline unfinished. Many are very skeptical of the staying power of the Obama executive action. The Red Warrior Camp released a letter that spoke to this concern and decided to take their movement to the rest of the country. A mass exodus of visitors staying at the camp followed soon after. The population is down now to roughly 1000 committed, well fortified, and supplied folks, who are hunkered down for the winter. These water warriors know that this struggle isn’t over.

There are many reasons to believe that President Trump will force the Army Corps of Engineers to allow the project to cross the Missouri, without changing route. Trump himself is financially invested in the ETP. His appointee to Energy Secretary, Texas Governor Rick Perry, sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners. At this moment, it is a waiting game. Maybe Standing Rock will make a call for more protectors to help resist when Trump comes into office this winter. I’d love to go back, yet it’s important to think locally too.

Back at home, I longed to be in the Dakotas. In Standing Rock, there was an incredible concentration of people I respect and admire. I was with indigenous activists and artists. Then it was back to the struggle, the mundane: checking in with my probation officer, paying bills, running errands, cleaning “my house.” Our lives are so individualized. That works well for capitalism. With everyone owning their own home, everyone is required to fill that home with cheap goods. I was decompressing and feeling low for a day or two. Others have communicated similar feelings. I regretted leaving Standing Rock. I had a bad case of FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. It was right in that moment that a Homrich demolition truck pulled up next to me at the traffic light. He was dragging a large compressor with the equipment to perform residential water shutoffs. In Detroit our water system is partially privatized and shutoff duties have been sold to Homrich demolition. I honked my horn at him, and I thought to myself:  Our water is under threat here. I’m exactly where I need to be right now.

We need to add to the formidable Standing Rock mass movement a decentralized movement based on local issues. The Raiz Up is part of the People’s Water Board Coalition. We collaborate with We the People, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Detroit Eviction Defense, the Coalition Against Tar Sands and other organizations resisting the extraction of our resources, the privatization of our public spaces, the taking of our homes and lands right here in Detroit. The City doesn’t have a reservation in close proximity, but we consider Detroit as an internal colony surrounded by contemptuous anti-black suburbs in a hyper-segregated metropolitan area. This area also has the highest concentration of indigenous populations in Michigan.

The Wendat and Anishnabe have lived in the Detroit area for well over 5000 years, with their respective names for this land being Oppenago, “where the waters meet,” and Zagajibiising, “where the waters go round.” Our connection to this place has everything to do with protecting our water, and our air — not for us, but for the next seven generations.

Environmental racism is another byproduct of our existing capitalist society. Pipelines lead to processing facilities, black snakes take crude from Canada to places like 48217 in Southwest Detroit, a historically segregated black working class community with some of the highest cancer rates in the country, a direct result of pollution by companies like Marathon and US Steel. Marathon is finishing up a 10 billion dollar expansion of its facility to process tar sands. Michigan also has the 63-year-old Enbridge Line 5 pipeline running under the Mackinac Bridge, right past the historic sacred Anishnabe lands of Mitchimakinak, carrying Canadian crude to Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous reservation across the straits in unceded Anishinabe territory near what is now called Sarnia, Canada.

We in Raiz Up feel called to connect the struggles of black Detroit folks in 48217 and our Anishnabe family resisting in Aamjiwnaang. Indigenous and Afrikan solidarity will be key in protecting our communities from monsters like Trump and Trudeau. 

               We are engaged in the struggle on multiple fronts. My homey Soufy wrote a dope song called “Pay to Be Poisoned” about the Flint water crisis, and we’ve supported the work of Flint water warriors, Water We Fighting For and Flint Rising. We have organized conferences, spoken on panels, facilitated workshops and engaged in popular education circles around these and other issues facing our gente. Our comrade Lucka and I just beat 12 felony charges for resistance graffiti, tagging “Free the Water” on a water tower in Highland Park. We are steeped in the struggle to protect water. We have resisted the shutoffs, turned water back on and supported folks like the Homrich 9 in stopping the Homrich demolition shutoff trucks. We will continue to use our art to build on a culture of education and resistance to these systems of oppression. MniWiconi!  Water is Life!


Antonio Rafael is a Xicano Boricua organizer, farmer, artist and entrepreneur from #SWDetroit He co-founded #RaizUp collective hiphop for decolonial education and supporting movement. More than just resisting the abuse of land, water and people, Antonio started #SWGrows urban farm and ecological design cooperative to expand art, agriculture and green development in his neighborhood.