Pipelines and prayer: Our family’s experience at Oceti Sakowin camp, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota




By Alys and Danny

Every morning, just after sunrise, the call to prayer rings out from the main fire at Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires Council) camp in North Dakota. All over the camp, now numbering in the thousands, people stand and turn toward the main fire, heads bowed, and are reminded that we are all “relatives,” children of the same creator.

Not long after the prayer ends, another sound fills the sky: the whirring of a low flying, surveillance helicopter, which will circle the camp off and on throughout the day.

These two, conflicting forces defined our family’s experience at Oceti Sakowin over the past week. While, as non-natives, the full significance of much of what we witnessed is no doubt lost on us, it is clear that something powerful is happening there, and it is being watched closely.

Makeshift street sign in camp indicating all of the faraway places people have come from

Above all else, the gathering at Oceti Sakowin is steeped in prayer. Every meal is preceded by a prayer and an offering of one plate of food to the ancestors. The school starts its day with a prayer, and with the affirmation that children are beautiful, loved by the Creator, and that their prayers are powerful and important. Every new group that arrives is greeted with a prayer, and each new arrival, in turn, offers its own prayer, as well as ceremonial dances and singing, in the main fire circle.

The direct actions taken to oppose pipeline construction – the ones most of the news media focus on – are also rooted in prayer. Every day, the elders meet and pray together at Red Warrior Camp as they strategize about next steps. And the actions, themselves, are prayerful. This is remarkable in itself, but even more so in the context of the heavy-handed treatment indigenous people have faced from U.S. authorities throughout modern history. We arrived on the day that 20+ water protectors were arrested as they prayed near the site where construction of the pipeline continues. Provoked by what they claim was a ‘protestor charging the police on horseback,’ police in armored vehicles surrounded these people, and fired sound and smoke bombs while a crop duster passed overhead and sprayed them. Some now face felony charges, including “terrorizing a police officer.”

People at the camp were visibly shaken by the reaction from law enforcement, but sadly, it is the kind of treatment they have come to expect. Chas Jewett, a Lakota activist from Cheyenne River we were privileged to spend time with while there, puts it simply, “They have shot guns, we have prayers. Since the very beginning of our relationship with the federal government of this United States nation, this is how it’s been.”

We heard many stories of this type of treatment during our time there. For example, one morning Danny met a man who had rode into camp on horseback with the Dakota 38+2 group the night before. Danny asked him who the Dakota 38+2 were and the man calmly said that his great, great grandfather was among the Dakota 38+2 and he shared their story. He told me that in the late 1800s, the Dakota Sioux were moved from their land, which was in present day Minnesota, onto a reservation in the Dakotas. They continued to fight with the settlers that had taken their land and there was a war between the Dakotas and the US military. At the conclusion of the hostilities, the US military decided to execute over 300 Dakotas for fomenting this rebellion. The list and charges were sent to President Lincoln and he narrowed the list to 40 Dakotas. These men were slated to be executed. Two of the Dakotas escaped, while 38 of them were hung in one day in the largest one-day execution in American history. The two that escaped were later found and executed as well. His great, great grandfather was one of those that were executed.

The prayerful presence at Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone and other camps has now swelled to what is being called the largest meeting of tribal nations since the Battle of the Greasy Grass’ (which appears as Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand in the history books Danny and I knew in school). Several people we spoke with told of hearing as children, their elders speak of a disaster and uprising in this generation, ‘the seventh generation.’ Some described visions of a black snake, which some now take to mean the pipeline.

What’s happening at Oceti Sakowin is part of a broader tribal sovereignty movement, with its own history and objectives. Native people from as far away as Scandinavia, Mexico, South America and throughout Canada are there, and many of them have been fighting, and winning, their own battles to keep oil pipelines out of their tribal territories. Alliances with farmers and other landowners across the region are gaining ground, because, well, it turns out nobody wants an oil pipeline going through their backyard.

From the moment we arrived, it was clear that we – as non-natives – were guests on this sacred ground. What’s happening here is 100 percent native-led, and it is a place where non-natives do best if they sit back, listen, learn and try to be present and pay attention.

one of several open fire caldrons behind the main kitchen used to cook food for thousands three times a day.

The implicit message we took was: if you’re here to challenge the structures that currently benefit you and harm us (and people of color generally), then you are more than welcome to support this, especially if you can get to work washing dishes, helping prepare meals, sorting donations, and other grunt work. But if you’re here to rack up activist cred, or take over, even with good intentions, then this is not the place for you.

And there is plenty of work to do, especially as the camp prepares for a North Dakota winter. Building a community of 1,000 to 4,500 people (number of camp residents varies from day to day and spikes on weekends) on a piece of land with no infrastructure requires a lot of people to work, 24/7. The main kitchen prepares meals for thousands of people, three times a day, over open fires and without running water. The food is almost all local; people bring harvest from their own gardens and farms, and buffalo are butchered at the camp for stew. Just taking care of the recycling and waste is a monumental challenge.

Oscar and Nico both pitched in and learned to chop wood.

There is always wood to be chopped, a never-ending flow of donations to be organized and distributed, a medical tent, a legal support tent, sweat lodges, and security patrols to be sure the camp remains alcohol, drug and weapons-free. A school for kids ages 7-14 runs from 10-4 during the week, with native-focused curriculum including Lakota language, art, music, and home-school accreditation for kids who are staying through the winter.

Oscar’s reflection on school at Oceti Sakowin

The camp at Oceti Sakowin is not going anywhere, even as winter approaches.

Neither is that helicopter.

As we drove away, Danny and I wondered aloud what our kids would take from this experience, when they are older. I can’t say, but it seems to me that Oceti Sakowin is calling us to reflect on the kind of future we want for our children and grandchildren. Do we want to live from a position of scarcity, betting it all on fossil fuels and grabbing what we can before it’s all gone? Or do we want to trust in our Creator, who assures us that everything we will ever need was all there from the beginning, all contained within that first explosion of light, if we would only learn how to share it? Can we be creative and find new and sustainable ways to provide energy for this country – ways that do not jeopardize sacred sites, the livelihood of some or the well-being of future generations?

How the rest of us choose to engage Standing Rock may define the answer.


  1. Love this commentary! I bet Nico an Oscar will understand lots of what is going on ! It sounds like you are all learning! YOu are teaching the rest of us! Mom

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Nico, I loved your comments and also loved Oscar,s drawing! It looks like the 2 of you are really learning about helping, justice, what is fair!
    Love Detta


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