By Matt Cortina, Allison Jarrell and Eric Heinz
A man who calls himself Soldierboy, inside of stove-heated tarpaulin dome at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp in North Dakota, makes one thing clear to the group: We’re at Standing Rock to build a nation.
In fact, the nation already exists. It’s a stretch of land in the Western Dakotas and Nebraska whose boundaries pre-date mid-18th-century treaties that have since been broken by the federal government. The nation has rules that, in order to stay in the camp, all must abide by, as they would in any other country. If the rules are not followed, the Sioux will boot out offenders, and they’ll do it, Soldierboy says, their way.
Soldierboy is tall with hulking shoulders that fill out a camouflage fleece. He wears a winter hat and jeans—it’s gusty and 10 degrees in North Dakota—and he addresses a group of protesters or “water protectors” in the dome for the first time because he says he has seen Sioux rules broken within the main camp of protestors in Standing Rock. Rules that prohibit photography around drum circles and horses; that protect the integrity of the fire; that require elders, women and children to eat first. There are forums for women to air women’s problems, and forums for men to air men’s problems. It’s their rules. That’s what sovereignty means. And there should be culture shock.
And yet, there are so many positions influencing what the protest camp is becoming that an announcement like that needed to be made. The movement to stop an oil and gas pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), from being built under the Missouri River, the area’s water source, began in April, on private land owned by Lakota member LaDonna Bravebull Allard. That camp has since become the Sacred Stone prayer camp, while across the river, the main Oceti Sakowin camp has been built on Army Corps land the Sioux believes is theirs. Scores of environmentalists, civil rights activists, indigenous peoples’ advocates and more have been drawn to the area. Their numbers can surge to 4,000 people on the weekends, while representing over 300 indigenous tribes from around the world—the largest meeting of tribes in at least a century. Media, too, has been abundant at the camp—the joke is that 3,000 people are at Standing Rock and 2,000 are journalists.