By Leonie Sherman
“Tomorrow only fasting and praying to stop the pipeline!” declared Dorothy Sun Bear. It was the night before a national holiday that’s been celebrated with feasting since the Civil War, but there was no appetite for gratitude in the Oglala Wounded Knee Dining Hall, half a mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation. Four dozen people turned to Sun Bear and the bustling army tent fell silent.
“We don’t have nothing to be thankful for! They’re still stealing our land, they’re still digging up our ancestors!” She spat the words in disgust. “And we’re still fighting like we have been for 500 years.”
Sun Bear, a Lakota woman from Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, saw a video of a grandma getting tackled by Morton County Sheriffs four months ago. The grandma was resisting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) where it was slated to cross the Missouri River. A spill, rupture or leak—there have been 3,300 such incidents nationwide in the past six years —would pollute the drinking water for her relatives on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota and 18 million people living downstream.
“I had to come here to defend her,” explained Sun Bear on Wednesday, Nov. 23. She brought six of her children and grandchildren. “We’re staying until the end, until we win. Then we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving.”
On Nov. 24, Oceti Sakowin, the main camp, swelled to an estimated 10,000 people. I had arrived four days early after a grueling three day driving marathon from Santa Cruz. “I think that one of the reasons people are coming here is because Donald Trump got elected,” says Madonna Thunderhawk, a Cheyenne-River Sioux who has been living at camp with her daughter and son-in-law since August. “I mean, where else can you go in this country right now to experience any kind of hope for positive change?”
It’s all about the land,” says Thunderhawk, gesturing at the brown rolling hills and bristling tipis of Oceti Sakowin. “People come out here with a lot of different agendas, but for us it’s always been about the land. Our ancestors are buried here. We come from here. We grow up here. This isn’t about climate change for us, it’s about the place we call home. The land is all we’ve got. We don’t have anything else left.”
“We aren’t just doing this for our people who live right downstream, whose drinking water will be contaminated by a spill,” continues Thunderhawk. “We’re doing this for all the rest of the people who live downstream as well, for all of us whose waters will be affected by an accident here.”
Security guard Hunter Short Bear, a Lakota from the Spirit Lake Nation, spent Thanksgiving Day responding to rumors of a camp raid and dealing with the constant stream of cars clogging the entrance station. “Today is supposed to be about giving thanks and coming together with family,” he says, gesturing at the dusty prairie bustling with activity. Supporters from around the world are bundled against the bitter wind, carrying lumber, sawing nails, hauling water and splitting wood. “Well, here we are. We’re all family now.”
“For us, Thanksgiving was never about family or friends,” says Tara Begay, a young Dine woman from the Navajo Reservation. “Our grandma used to tell us it was a time to remember those who have passed and what they fought for. To us, Thanksgiving was about genocide. It was about murder.”
Many people at the camp ignored the official government holiday completely. “There’s no vacations in camp,” says Everett Bowman, who is part Dine and part Paiute and calls the Owens Valley home. “We’re always working.” Sam Tame Horse Gallegos, a Mescalero Apache who lives in Pueblo Colorado, echoed that sentiment. “I came here to be part of this struggle however I can,” he says. “I’m going to spend the day helping out around camp, just like I do every day I’m here.”
“Normally on this day, the tribe gives us free food and we have a big dinner,” explains Sun Bear. “We’ve been programmed to celebrate the stealing of our land. That’s got to stop, we have to change that. We’re not thankful they took our land and stole all our natural resources. So, we’re fasting. My family won’t celebrate on this day anymore. We will fast and pray.”
BeaVi McCovey has been fasting on this day for over 50 years. She travelled here from the Yurok Reservation in Northern California and plans to stay through the winter. “My great-grandmother told me that the first mistake our people made in contact with white people was to feed them. She said if we’d just let them starve, we could have come back a year later and they all would have been dead,” she says. “We would still have our land and our way of life.”
“My mom thought Thanksgiving was a day to feed people who didn’t have money or a place to go, so there was always a big crowd at my house that day. Well, I thought this was a great opportunity to get up on my soap box. I would only drink water, and when people asked why I wasn’t eating, I would tell them what my great grandma told me.” McCovey smiles at the memory. She has fasted on this day since she was 9 years old.
But this year, she broke her fast. “I worked so hard with everyone, preparing the meal, I called it the harvest feast,” McCovey says. “It was such a communal effort. And then all these different natives sat down together and we shared what we had. It felt so great to be in a community of people that are gathered in prayer and ceremony.”
McCovey pauses to reflect on her time with the American Indian Movement and occupations she participated in decades ago. “We were more militant then, it seemed like a fight to the death. It feels so much more peaceful here. Maybe it’s because there’s no drugs or alcohol here, maybe I’m just older now.” She stops and squints into the smoky campfire. “The resistance here is so powerful because it’s a spiritual resistance,” she says finally. “We all have different beliefs, but we’re all here in prayer.”
Those joined in prayer represent the largest and most diverse gathering of indigenous people on the continent, maybe on the planet. “A month ago 3/4 of the registered tribes were present here and today there’s even more,” says Farron King, a 28-year old Cheyenne-River Blackfoot. “I was just kickin’ it with some Pawnee and some Crow; traditionally our people were enemies. So thank you oil companies for bringing all these indigenous people together!” He beams as he looks around at the young people with whom he shares the International Indigenous Youth Council Camp on the south shore of the Cannonball River.
One of those people is Mia Stevens, a 22-year old woman from the Paiute Reservation in Nevada, who is of Mexica, Ute, Dine, Paiute and Puerto Rican descent.
“On Thursday we wanted to make an honorable prayer for the trauma and genocide our people have been through, to heal the hatred and pain that led to. So we marched in silence to Turtle Island,” she says. Half an hour walk from her camp, on a hill above the Missouri River, lies an ancient burial ground that DAPL dug through to lay a section of pipeline a few weeks ago. Natives call the site Turtle Island. DAPL guards it with riot cops.
“We sang and prayed for the next seven generations, that they wouldn’t have to fight the way we do. Over a thousand people stood with us. We only sang our ceremonial songs. We approached the guards, in peace, and asked them to stand down,” she says, her eyes glowing with the memory. “They didn’t, but some of them lowered their face shields to respect our prayers. That was really big. Because we pray for them too. We know they’re just doing their jobs. We’re doing this for their children too.”
“Some celebrities offered us a big dinner and all this feasting, but we said no,” Stevens recalls, shaking her head. “We don’t want their pity food. We want them to stand with us. We want them to pray with us.”
“We don’t call what we’re doing actions or protests,” explains King. “We call them prayers. Everything we do out here is with peace and with prayer. When I came out here I started learning my language and our songs. When we all sing together, I can feel myself growing like a tree.” He inhaled deeply and straightened his spine, sitting up taller. “Now that we’ve found our way, we’ll never stop fighting. This is just the beginning.”