Happiness is Access to Clean Water: Lessons from Standing Rock

Happiness is Access to Clean Water: Lessons from Standing Rock by Jesse Kostenblatt

3/10/17 This week teepees arrived in Washington, D.C. as the Standing Rock Sioux prepare to lead the Native Nation’s March on Washington today.  “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Indigenous grassroots leaders call on our allies across the United States and around the world to peacefully March on Washington DC. We ask that you rise in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of the world whose rights protect Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) for the future generations of all.”  We are all now witnesses.  

A few weeks ago, I watched the live feed as the 1851 Treaty Camp of Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock prepared for removal and eviction, as enforced by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. The Water Protectors and community members began burning their sacred structures to honor their spaces for prayer and ceremony.  It was with deep sadness that I watched this happen, having been there just a few months ago with approximately 10,000 others, when the camp was nearly at its largest.  This eviction comes after it was announced that the Army Corps of Engineers has approved the final easement to complete the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under the Missouri River, or Lake Oahu, which is located along the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.  Additionally, President Trump’s Executive Action on both the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipeline, called for the streamlining of the permits, which eliminated the waiting period for such construction to begin and negates the actions of the previous Administration.  For those Water Protectors and allies all over the U.S. and world who have been speaking up and taking action since the spring of 2016, it’s time to #RiseUp in response to this deliberate attempt at silencing a powerful, peaceful resistance to the pipeline and billion dollar oil industry, which poses a significant threat to the water supply of millions of people.  

This article is a tribute to the Water Protectors for welcoming others to stand in solidarity and learn from their ceremonies; their story is important for all of us and it’s the story of the formation of what is the United States.  Our country’s historical negligence of Indigenous sovereignty, our legacy of genocide, of forcing Native children into boarding schools, and of breaking treaties with Native peoples is layered within any true discussion on what the Dakota Access Pipeline represents. My experience of holding space and ceremony, along with so many others, was powerful, moving, and emotional. A space where indigenous, elders, and people of color are leading and are naturally honored as the experts, held some powerful lessons: their movement has taught so many of us through their courageous actions, peacefulness, and their dedication to what connects all of us: water, air, and the environment.  

Standing Rock Experience

On the evening prior to our arrival, my two friends and I focused on preparing for our trip from Bismarck, North Dakota to the camps about an hour away.  Earlier in the week Water Protectors were met with water cannons in freezing temperatures, pepper spray and rubber bullets by police. A woman was in the hospital and there were reports of mass arrests, freezing conditions and brutal, inconsistent treatment by the militarized police force.  We also heard the main roads were closed, so we received alternate directions and used a map to route ourselves around the closed highway and the sections we heard had a large police presence.  

The first morning, we picked up supplies that were requested by the section of Oceti Sakowin camp where we were headed.  In bulk, we donated:  jugs of water, vegetables, fruits, spices, and some supplies.

On both days when we traveled in, we were part of a caravan with others from the U.S. and even Canada. Along the route of back roads, we saw multiple unmarked and marked police cars.  At the direction of my friends, with a black Sharpie marker, we wrote legal contact numbers on our bodies in the event of an arrest, accepting that possible outcome as a contribution to what people were facing daily. 

Pictured here is when we saw the sign for Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was the original of the camps (but we didn’t visit there). 

As we turned off 1806 towards Cannon Ball, about 8 miles down the road, we first saw the Oceti Sakowin encampment within the rolling hills.  We had no idea how many people were there!  It turns out, the camps were considered one of the largest communities in North Dakota.  


We could see teepees, flags, yurts, horses, and all kinds of supportive signs lining the bordering fence and entranceway.  At the gate, after a short line of other cars, we were greeted and told there are no weapons, drugs, or alcohol allowed in the camp.  We could see a handwritten sign indicating No Photos, so we put our cameras away and instead took in our surroundings.  The air smelled like campfire and what I later learned was sage!  We were welcomed and sent in the direction of the IP3 camp, which stands for Indigenous Peoples Power Project and served as the tactical part of camp where trainings were provided to anyone planning on going to a direct action.

The entrance road called the Drive of the Nations was lined with flags representing Nations offering signs of solidarity from all over the U.S. and world; there were hundreds of them.  In every direction, there were people, indigenous and non, men, women, young adults, teens, children, elders.  Vehicles had license plates from throughout the country.  People had tents, RV’s, yurts, vans, and teepees for camping.  Latrines were lined up in different sections.  Shortly down the main road was the main campfire, which was a place of music, announcements, and gathering.

Upon arrival, after donating our contributions, we participated in a Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) training, which was attended by about 150 people.  We were given the Principles of the camp, which were created by the tribal elders.  Here is what they include: 

During the training, which reminded all of us new arrivals of the existing climate and conditions in actions, the incidents at the front lines were reviewed to help prepare us for a multitude of experiences, including water cannons, sound cannons, and rubber bullets.  Two volunteers from the Legal Department of the camp reviewed what to expect and what to do if confronted by police or arrested.  Tales of the inconsistencies in how people are treated helped to paint a realistic picture of what we could experience.  All kinds of odd behaviors of phones had been reported, including loss of signal, and power and battery loss especially at the front lines.  Any incidents were asked to be reported to Legal at the camp as an EFF investigation was on-going.  A Medic then described what to do if attacked by mace, pepper spray, etc. and directed us on where to find the camp supplies of plastic gloves, plastic bags/covers, and eye wash to bring to an action.  After the presentations, we participated in a role play of a direct action, called a ceremony.  As we circled up, some of the trainers acted as police with pepper spray and batons.  Throughout the training, we were directed to maintain peaceful and prayerful, mindsets and actions.  We were encouraged to stay solid and together, take care of one another, and protect the ceremony. Though the overall experience was chaotic, it felt powerful to be linked with others; the young man standing next to me was kind and had a good sense of humor despite the fact that most of us were strangers.  


After the NVDA training, two of us walked around camp to find the Legal and Medic tents and gather supplies/fill out forms as directed.  We found Media Hill, also called Facebook Hill, where people could take photographs and had cell service; I was able to send text messages and a photo to my family indicating I was safe and surrounded by a sprawling, peaceful community.   In the distance of this photo taken at Media Hill, you can see the surveillance surrounding the encampment.  A security plane also flew overhead constantly, day and night; it wasn’t a comfortable feeling.  

We walked the road out of the camp and could see where 1806 had been blocked off by State Police.  Clashes between police and Protectors days before had made mainstream news.  


Walking around camp, we observed people building structures for the coming winter weather and cooking food. Signs of resistance and support were displayed at each individual camp site and section.  A few times as we walked around, we were offered warm soup made by groups of people.  It was a cold night and we were dressed in multiple layers including snow pants and winter gear; it was incredible to think of how many people were camping and preparing for the harsh winter.  


The most memorable part of our walk, for me, was at the community fire.  The space was alive with drumming, singing, prayers, greetings, announcements, and community.  Elders sat within the fire ring with elaborate headdresses and young people whooped and yelled as they were acknowledged for their work around camp and at the frontlines.  One young woman from a native group in Washington sang songs in her indigenous language and offered solidarity and support.  It felt intimate and spiritual; I couldn’t help but wonder how our country has continued to marginalize Native peoples, despite their wisdom, connection to the land, and longstanding resistance against oppression. Taking it all in, we realized how special and unique this space is, created out of protection, resistance, and peaceful ceremony.  It was a space for allies to listen and learn, and for the realities of colonial trauma to begin to be confronted.  

The next morning was cold, temperates plunged far below freezing. We caravanned into camp from Bismarck with others.  While most in the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving, we were grateful to spend the day supporting people standing for their rights and the drinking water of millions of people downstream of the Missouri River; we were told it was being called ThanksTaking Day.  The holiday was used as a symbolic day to host actions of taking back sacred land, including their ancestral burial grounds on Turtle Island. We didn’t know this as we entered camp that morning.  I went off on my own to the camp orientation at 9am; my plan was to attend orientation, find an assignment as a volunteer for the day, and then obtain a press pass on behalf of Happy Hudson Valley to help spread awareness about what’s happening on the ground.  My friends went off to another meeting, and we planned to meet up afterwards.  A group of over 100 of us entered a large yurt for the camp orientation, which was surprisingly warm without the cool air and cold breeze from outside.  Next to me was a group of people with hearing impairments; they rotated translating and signing the orientation to one another. The space was filled with all different kinds of people; most were non-native.  We were reminded of what I had learned the previous day about being involved in an indigenous-led and indigenous-centered movement. The themes of an opening prayer and the orientation, were of native wisdom, resistance to continued exploitation, honoring the sacred land and water, and remaining peaceful and prayerful.  For all the non-native people, we were challenged to put our own ideas aside in this space and instead listen to the direction of those leading this movement.

Our orientation was interrupted by a whisper coming from the back of the room being telephoned up to the front (where I was), calling for all women and children to report to a certain section of camp, as a police raid imminent.  At first I dismissed the announcement but the facilitators informed us that women and children should leave together immediately. The camp had been long preparing for this possibility.  An announcement was made urging that no one wander off alone, so when a stranger linked arms with me and invited me to join her group she changed the course of my day. Jen and I walked arm in arm through camp as I looked for my two friends; other women stopped us and asked if we had heard the message. It was easy to feel panicked; it seemed that people were responding to the raid possibility and many were packing up camp.  I didn’t have the chance to find my friends. We were told that women were sent to the Reservation land, where Rosebud/Sicangu camp was located.   Jen was camping there with a group of friends and she invited me to remain with her group while I was separated from mine.  I was trying to find cell phone service to contact my friends.  But there was none to be had.  It was hard to know what to do next.  It was in this moment of high tension and fear that I began talking with others and determining my next move. 

During this time of uncertainty I met some pretty amazing women.  There was a kind, generous, and calm woman who was indigenous, carrying her child comfortably in a wrap, who offered me a heated place to stay for the night.  I also met a wonderful family who offered me a long skirt, which women typically wear as actions take place.  Through all of this chaos while on my own, I realized that I was in a community which took people in, cared for each other, and were accustomed to a certain level of danger. Despite having been physically separated from my friends, I found myself among them none the less.  My courage began to return.  I did finally receive a text message that my friends had left for an action; I was relieved to hear they were accounted for, but still did not know where they were.

After some time, it was assumed the police raid rumor was most likely a scare tactic by camp infiltrators designed to spread fear and intimidation. To this end, they did succeed.  Once it was over I dedicated myself to being helpful and resisting that fear. The group of women who took me in had driven there with a UHAUL van full of food and supplies for their cooking service the next day.  They happily accepted my help with unloading the van and told me their story.  While helping them, I ended up running an errand to the main part of camp, where I found a large Kitchen area and Community Room with snacks, coffee, tea, and tables.  Needing to use a broom back at camp, I swapped some volunteer time to borrow the community’s broom.  Soon, I was helping to run the Community Center; I learned to make the large pots of coffee and direct people coming with donations.  For a few hours, I made sure to give more than I received while holding space there and cleaned, organized, prepared drinks, and talked with campers.  People were coming from other Reservations, as part of local groups, and on their own with car loads of warm blankets, food, charging stations, tobacco, and all kinds of camping gear.  The support for this movement was astounding.  

After a few hours of volunteering, I decided to head back, on my own, to Oceti Sakowin Camp to obtain a media pass and cover the day’s action. Once I had my pass and was provided with the parameters for taking photos and video, I was directed by some more kind strangers on how to get to the day’s action at Turtle Island.  I contacted my family to let them know I was safe and all checked in as media; I was heading to reunite with my group.

As I walked on the main road near camp, here is what I could see from the action in the distance… the police and security were lined atop Turtle Island, while Water Protectors held space and ceremony at the bottom along the water.  


To arrive there, I had to walk through the entire camp and cross a mucky, dry river bed.   


Pictured here is the river bed.


Water Protectors created a bridge to cross over onto the shores of Turtle Island. 

As I started to hear the chanting, see smoke signals, and be surrounded by Water Protectors, I could feel the electricity of this movement.  It was also symbolic to see the militarized police and other emergency services atop the ancestral burial grounds of Turtle Island and Standing Rock Sioux Treaty land, clearly in a position of power and intimidation, while protecting a multi-national energy corporation, Energy Transfer Partners, from the peaceful people fighting for all of our rights to clean water.   What draws these battle lines?  Who decides who deserves protection?  Are we really on separate sides or do we all need to protect water? 

Here’s a short video of the day made by Indigenous Rising Media and posted to facebook. 

In this large crowd, I found my two friends, who had been standing peacefully in solidarity as Water Protectors for several hours.  We swapped stories of our day and chose a point to meet up for when the action came to an end.  As I took photos, listened to the drumming and chanting, watched so many people gathered together in peace and solidarity, I decided to take a video with my phone.  Since it was cold and I’d been outside for 7 hours at that point, I had been carefully saving my phone battery until I was reunited with my group.  With over 50% battery left, I began filming. Just a few seconds into filming the action, my phone powered immediately off.  At first, I was a bit shocked, and then I remembered the lesson from the NVDA training, which warned all of us with reports of electronic interference at the frontlines and at the camps. To check this theory, after the phone died, I trekked back to the car at camp to check the battery and plug it in - within minutes it powered on and returned to 48%.  From there, I went directly to report the incident to Legal, as I was trained to do.


Once I returned to the car, my friends were there and finishing up from the action.  One of my friends and I walked through Oceti Sakowin camp back to Rosebud to deliver the last of our donations to the kitchen where I had spent the day volunteering.  We then went to thank Jen and her group of friends for taking me in during the rumors of a camp raid, and showed them I had reunited with my group.  I wished them luck as they rested before tomorrow’s feast.  With a last stop at the community fire for music, camaraderie and some silent reflection, my friends and I left camp that evening for our final night in Bismarck. We all left with a feeling that it’s time for a new narrative in the U.S., where our historical wrongs are confronted, treaties are honored, and environmental protection and indigenous wisdom is celebrated.  


It was just about a week after we left that a group of Veterans came to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, and offer apologies for historical wrongs, genocides, policies and battles which destroyed entire communities of native peoples.  Shortly after, on December 4th, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the easement for the DAPL to build under the Missouri River, calling for an Environmental Impact Study.  There was a sense of hope and celebration for the Water Protectors. Now, with a new Administration, the harsh winter reality for the camps and the clearing of the frontlines, the fight continues in courts, in actions, and with divestment campaigns.  

The lesson from Standing Rock is about more than just the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Without clean water, life itself is not sustainable.  We have all heard the stories coming out of Flint, Michigan as a generation of children have been poisoned by their water supply.  And what about the recent news of a water crisis right here in Newburgh, NY?  How quickly does our world become smaller as the struggles at Standing Rock and Flint are brought home to all of us?  One fight over clean water belongs to all of us.  Also in recent news in Newburgh, NY, and near where I live in NJ is the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline project;  it turns out there are Standing Rocks in every community as we begin to more openly acknowledge the dangers of oil dependence and pipelines on our environment as they can (and often, do)leak and are difficult to maintain.   Resistance has been sprouting up from Coalitions against the Pilgrim Pipeline (CAPP) in NY to Native Americans in Mahwah, NJ.  

As the Native Nations Rise on Washington this weekend, there are many ways to become involved and part of the movement for alternative energy and the protection of our natural resources. For indigenous news directly from Standing Rock and other indigenous groups, follow Indigenous Rising Media and the camps:  Sacred Stone camp and Oceti Sakowin Camp. If you’re interested in taking action, now is always the time.  If you like to write, write. If you like to march, join with organizing groups.  If you like to attend meetings and voice concerns, find local groups and government meetings.  If you like to make phone calls and write emails, contact your Representatives.  While the camps have been cleared, the movement is growing with millions divested from banks funding the DAPL and other pipelines, solidarity actions taking place around the world and country, legal battles in court remaining, and Indigenous groups coming together in the largest movements seen this century.  

All of us from New Windsor and Newburgh grew up with the Last Encampment of the Continental Army and Washington’s Headquarters in our backyards.  Prior to those settlements the Lenape Indians (later called Delaware Indians) called our area home.  The Lenape’s territory actually included all of New Jersey (where I live now), and parts of Pennsylvania and New York (where I grew up), Delaware, and Connecticut. One of the challenges made to all of us non-indigenous peoples at the Oceti Sakowin camp orientation was to honor the original peoples in our hometowns. This helps set the stage for understanding Native American Sovereignty and their current (and many former) battles over land, water, and rights.  Most of us European immigrants were not the first to live and have communities on the land we call home.  

That promise and challenge to “bring the lessons home” is one of the reasons I am writing this article; another reason is to share my personal experience as a non-native person in the peaceful, ceremonial space that was created there by the indigenous-centered, elder and female-led movement to protect water and sacred land.  Led by the Standing Rock Sioux, which is of the Dakota/Lakota Nations (meaning “friends” or “allies”), it is now known as the largest assembly of Nations people since the Battle of Little Bighorn, over a century ago.  It cannot be ignored.  

As Desmund Tutu taught us all… “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This fundamental idea is what leads me to be more vocal, to learn from others, and to challenge my worldview.  In closing, in celebration of what Happy Hudson Valley was founded upon, and to credit the importance of news which shines a light on the good out in the world, the light that so many fight and work towards: Happiness is access to clean water, is learning from others and our history, and is doing better when we know better.

     “Water is Life” “Mni Wiconi”


Jesse Kostenblatt is a Newburgh Free Academy alumna and licensed social worker. She currently resides in NJ and works as the director of community-based programs for a non-profit.