The Black Snake

Totem Pole Journey Days Eight and Nine;  August 30-31, 2016
Standing Rock Sioux Nation
By Dr. Kurt Russo, Journey Organizer

There are some who insist that in this era of a collective attention deficit disorder, infomercials passing as news, and government as big-oil business, grassroots activism is a quaint throwback to an earlier time. They believe that such activism is at best a clever diversion for dissent and that the real power rests with a small economic elite, lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations firms.

These cynical skeptics would do well to visit the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and the Camp of the Sacred Stones.   We did, along with 70 tribal leaders from the Pacific Northwest, Canada, the Eastern seaboard, and the Southwest.

But before heading out to the Camp the journeyers and the tribal leaders stopped at the capitol of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. These tribal leaders were all too familiar with the struggle to protect the land, the water, their sacred sites, and their future generations from the onslaught and outfall of the fossil fuel industry.

Standing before the Standing Rock governing Council, Tribal leaders expressed their unconditional support for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, their treaty rights, and their fervent opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
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Tribal Leaders at Standing Rock Sioux Nation

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They also stood with the Standing Rock Sioux government in their message of peace. The tribal member from the Seneca Nation, the largest of the six Native American Nations comprising the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, was one of many who spoke of the power of prayer. “We can forgive our opposition and pray their hearts will soften,” he said. “You have many people praying for you all over this land.” As one of the Pacific Northwest tribal leaders put it, “We are the protectors, not protestors. We come in peace and in prayer.” Another leader from the Northwest delegation spoke about a dream one of their tribal members had about what was occurring that day. “She had a dream about what would go on here,” he said as his assistants walked around a large oil painting for the others to view. “She wanted to gift this to you as well as her interpretation.”

The people of the Standing Rock Nation have every reason to take up the fight. The Black Snake would transport approximately 470,000 barrels per day with a capacity as high as 570,000 barrels per day or more – which could represent approximately half of Bakken current daily crude oil production. Keep in mind that since 1986 pipeline accidents by even the most conservative estimate have spilled an average of 76,000 barrels per year or more than 3 million gallons, polluting the lands and waters for years to come.

“Remember the feeling of this day in your Chamber,” the Yakama Nation Chairman asked of the Standing Rock Council. “Remember this feeling of prayerfulness and unity for they will try to divide you from each other. It is what they do. It is who they are. It is an everyday challenge.”

When the visitors were done with their work the Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation was moved to speak:

“Men have come up to me, young men who said they were ready to lay down their lives. But I told them, no! We do not want that! We want you to live and prosper and be good fathers and grandfathers . . . This is all being lifted, now, and only good can come from this. I have cried many tears in the presence of the spirit for the prayers are so powerful. And because we all have great love for our Mother Earth. It is the honorable way.”

The entourage was warned that the authorities had blocked the main entry to the Camp, ostensibly for reasons of public safety and security. By one tribal account, however, the authorities said they were concerned about pipe bombs at the Camp. In fact, the tribal leaders spoke about “loading their peace pipes” as part of their prayer ceremonies. This misunderstanding is emblematic of the level of miscommunication, misunderstanding and mistrust—not to mention disrespect—the Standing Rock Sioux Nation leaders face on a daily basis.

The caravan entered the Camp in the early-afternoon of August 30. Over 1,000 people were in the encampment when we arrived, though the numbers greatly increased as the day wore on. Looking around you see on the gently rolling prairie landscape Natives and non-Natives, children, adults, and the elderly. Teepees scattered among tents. A sweat lodge. A Chief’s lodge. A day school for the children. Canopy tents with food and water. An emergency clinic. People in black arm bands signifying local Camp media and those in white arm bands indicating legal advisors. The inevitable line of portable toilets.   In one corner were two semi-truck trailers filled with provisions provided by the Yakama Nation of Washington State.

At the other end, on the road leading into the camp, a long line of flag poles displaying the flags of Native Nations from across the United States, with more going up by the hour.
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Flags representing Tribal Nations at Standing Rock Sioux Nation

In the center of the Camp was the gathering area for the speakers. Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation was among the first of the tribal leaders to speak. No stranger to battling oil pipelines, he is a legendary orator and prominent figure in the struggle against the Kinder-Morgan pipeline in British Columbia. Standing in the shadow of the totem pole he gave heart and hope to the assembly:

“From time out of mind we have been the protectors of this land. Now we are called upon to stand up, stand together, and stand strong. We know, no money can feed us like the spirit and the spirit needs Mother Earth, and she needs us, all of us—NOW! It is the job of the leaders to help give hope for the future, for that is what leaders do. But you are all the ones who will carry that hope into a day of victory for our Mother and the future generations.”

After Rueben finished one of the Yakama leaders took his place to speak:

We have a place called Celilo Falls. It is a special place for us, like this is for you. And then the Corps of Engineers told us they needed to build a dam so the Falls would no longer speak or help our salmon. Before they closed the dam floodgates that day they poured concrete over all those little canyons in the Falls. Why? Why do they do these things? They never asked us. They just… did it. And when it was done they called in the Wall Street of the West because it made so much money for them.

The speeches went on for five hours as the tribal leaders gave encouragement and moral as well as material support to the Camp. Near the end of the day Brian Cladoosby, the charismatic Chairman of the Swinomish Tribe of Washington State and President of the National Congress of American Indians, rose to speak:

We know about the Black Snake: its head is in Houston and its heart is in Washington , DC. But where now is Black Eagle [President Obama]? Did he not stand among your people, and hold your children, and speak good words to you, and drink your water, and eat your food? Where is Black Eagle now when he is needed?

Where, indeed….