Taking the Back Seat to Victory

Dylan Gaffney

Revelations to an Infantryman from Afghanistan to Standing Rock

Chak Valley, Afghanistan, taught me that the way that a story is retold and passed around has everything to do with an individual’s experience. While I was in Afghanistan in 2011, my platoon got tasked to air-assault into a valley that has never had an established U.S. presence. For this week-long mission, my platoon was in charge of setting in two blocking positions on either side of a small Afghani town. On day one, the blocking positions became unofficially, but aptly named, ‘The Alamo’ and ‘Belfast.’ If you were to listen to my account of the week you would hear how my platoon was surrounded on three sides by enemy combatants wielding every type of weapon, short of a tank, and how those weapons brought out the strongest characteristics of the people around me. One of our machine gunners displayed exceptional courage, and an intense mental fortitude after being hit in the chin with shrapnel from an RPG. After realizing that he was still alive, he continued to fight with absolute selflessness. I can’t begin to imagine how the cowardly medic chooses to spin the events of the week. We had two Combat Medics with us on our mission, one, who is arguably the best medic in the Army, and another, who thought it would be best to hide away in a closed off room until the shooting stopped. The middle of a firefight is not the time to self-reflect and worry about what could possibly go wrong, other people are depending on you. You cannot think that your life is more valuable, or more special than the other people fighting with you, this way of thinking can lead to cowardice. This particular medic took himself too seriously, and as a result, he was too frightened to leave his room and go to the aid of his battle buddy who was lying in another part of the same building, bleeding from his face. 

The Afghan National Army Soldiers who were with us could explain with great detail how their leadership failed to tell them that they were going to be inserted into one of the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan for a week. They could also articulate the emotions that they felt when their Commander died in battle, and their First Sergeant abandoned them so he could ‘escort’ (he said) the Commander’s body back to base. If you ask one of the AH-64 Apache pilots who were providing air support to explain what happened in Chak, they could give you a more exact layout of where the enemy combatants were positioned.  Our high-ranking commanders could explain that the mission was largely a success, and also explain what the broader implications of the battle were. The average American citizen won’t be able to retell any of the complexities of what happened down in the valley; nothing more than gather that 2011 was just a fraction of the longest war in U.S. history. 

During President Barack Obama’s second term, the U.S. Army saw a lot of their Combat Outposts shut down completely, or get turned over to the charge of the local police and the Afghan National Army. The downsizing that was happening in Afghanistan meant that deployments to the country were becoming more and more infrequent. The types of missions that were being tasked to infantry units were also changing. There was more emphasis on pulling security on the larger operating bases that still remained, compared to the time when I first went there. The missions that we carried out required infantry units to spread their soldiers to far-away and uncharted sections of the beautiful mountains housed within Afghanistan. Through the luck (or un-luck) of the draw, America’s decreasing involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq left me to stay in the U.S. for the remainder of my enlistment (which extended from June 2009 to October 2015), aside from about a seven week stay in Kuwait in 2015. Having my life being meticulously planned by the Army for six years, and feeling like an infantryman without a job, led me to end my enlistment in October 2015 so I could pursue other aspects of life with a happy-go-lucky attitude. Utilizing the GI Bill I enrolled in college. 

After hearing the news that Donald Trump won the election, and after finishing a project at school, I headed for the subway to go home just after 3 a.m. I started to descend the stairs of the ‘F Train’ when a strange feeling washed over me. This feeling that engulfed my whole body was the same feeling you felt as a child when you got caught by your parents doing something that you weren’t supposed to do. There was this sense that sat heavy in the air, that everything was not going to be okay, and that it was my fault. The train ride back to Brooklyn was oddly busy, and everyone looked tense, they looked stressed, they looked nervous, and that was all my fault, too. The language Donald Trump used during his campaign intensified racial ideologies in the American people against people of color and Muslims in a way that made them out to be even more of an Other. When he won the election, the way he was othering people became normalized.  As a white person, I never felt a such a need to let everyone know that he does not speak for all white people. The racial tension was so high in the subway car, it was almost a tangible object you could cut with a knife. I felt guilty that I acted outside of democracy by not voting, and that I had to face my friends the next day and own up to this fact.      

In the days following the election I walked around and had the privilege of seeing multiple rallies, protests, and meetings, along with a myriad of safe spaces for people who felt like they needed to be consoled. These gatherings (as they happened in New York City) were a way to show support for one another while expressing resentment toward a common threat. After witnessing numerous student walkouts and protests, the guilty feeling that I had subsided, and was replaced with a cynicism directed toward my politically conscious peers. I was able to understand why the majority of my school was angry. After all, this was an emotional, and racially charged election. However, my cynicism stemmed from how I saw my peers funnel their anger. Many of my friends were very quick to alienate people that they viewed as ‘Trump supporters’, and focus their energy on building unity and solidarity with already like-minded people. Here is a body of progressive, well-educated, and socially aware citizens, I thought, who, instead of trying to bridge a gap and educate those with different political beliefs, were alienating Trump supporters by shutting down the possibility of any dialogue in the future. 

The conscious decision that I made not to vote was a mistake. What I already knew from my readings hit me as a realization, that for a democratic society to function, everyone needs to recognize their power within the system and actively participate. By not voting for a lesser of two evils, I was selfishly attempting to shape my world in such a way that I would be unaccountable if one of the candidates decides that America is going to deport every Muslim, or support indiscriminate drone strikes that will destroy an entire country. In reality I felt as if I was personally accountable for all of the hate crimes and discrimination that was running rampant through the city. The shame that I felt for not voting coupled with my complete disgust for the Left’s intolerance for Trump supporters led me to try and find a way to regain some sort of accountability, while attempting to open a dialogue between people with opposing political views.   

After carefully side stepping political debate at my girlfriend's house on Thanksgiving Day, my best friend Matt, with whom I was in the Army (we met on day one at The Alamo, in Chak), reached out to me about going to the Standing Rock Protest in Cannonball, North Dakota as a part of a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock (VSSR). The group’s plan was to gather a large number of military veterans to go to Standing Rock to help protect and serve the protesters while they tried to deny the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that was being built. VSSR was preparing for the main body of veterans to arrive the day before the Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to clear out the main camp of protesters. The secondary objective was to raise media and social awareness in the hopes of establishing additional long lasting support. This was the perfect opportunity for me to right-the-wrongs pertaining to my lack of involvement in the election.  

What I knew about Standing Rock before I saw the VSSR movement was very minimal. What I thought I knew was that there was a pipeline being constructed by DAPL near an Indian reservation. The protests taking place were in response to the possibility that the installation of the pipeline would have a negative environmental impact on the Natives’ land. I had read conflicting articles that also debated the chance that the pipeline was going to trespass on sacred land. I believe that religious freedom is an inherent right to every human being and that if the religious Natives in Standing Rock don’t want a pipeline to disturb their sacred land, they should be able to retain the right to decide whether or not DAPL can continue construction. Some articles I read stated that the pipeline was hundreds of miles away, some said that the pipeline cut right through the Native’s sacred land—I viewed DAPL as not being my fight. Given the conflicting narratives, the Natives alone should be sufficient in being the change that they want to see, my reasoning went. 

Browsing the internet a couple of days before Thanksgiving I saw unarmed peaceful protesters being shot with rubber bullets, sprayed with fire hoses, barraged with tear gas, and targeted with sound cannons by police and private security. This was my breaking point where I decided that I was going to adamantly oppose DAPL. While in Afghanistan if there were protesters in a mosque (or even outside of a mosque) angry about our presence in their valley, and had Soldiers decided to engage them with the exact same methods that the police used at Standing Rock, we would all be rotting away in Leavenworth for war crimes. To see police officers from around the country, who are supposed to be held accountable on the same moral scale as the military, use this level of violence on unarmed citizens was appalling. I can not imagine how bad my stay in Afghanistan would have been if I pepper sprayed every unarmed Afghan who didn’t want me blocking their road.

Matt could not have found had better timing when he extended the invitation to travel to Standing Rock with him—I still feel that it is unfortunate that I took this long to become active in the Standing Rock cause. Despite how late I was in joining the fight against DAPL, I do not regret that it was the election and political violence at Standing Rock that mobilized me to participate. I was able to put the situation at Standing Rock in a context that spoke directly to me. 

On December 1st I flew from LaGuardia to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to rendezvous with Matt and four others who would join in on our journey. Ever since meeting Matt, I have been plagued with his enthusiastic all-or-nothing attitude towards learning. Hailing from Waco, Texas, Matt now lives in Chicago with his wife and his four- year-old twins where he is a PhD student at Northwestern. Also accompanying us on our adventure were John Griswold and Tommy, two other Army veterans. John is a married father of two boys, a former Army Diver and a tenured Professor of English at McNeese State University in Louisiana.  Tommy was a member of the Army’s Military Police, and currently works in the meat-packing industry in southern Illinois. Also tagging along were two people whom I did not know from before, Adam Levinson and Charlotte Kaufman. Adam is a journalist attending the protest because he had a bid with Al Jazeera to write about the Veteran movement to Standing Rock, and Charlotte had the opportunity to document the protest as a documentary filmmaker. 

Everyone in our group was very intelligent, very witty, and very diverse politically, ranging from staunch liberal to right-leaning libertarian. Our diversity, when it came to politics, almost made our group look laughable. How could six people with such varying political views get along so well with each other? We had a common intent that revolved around helping the Natives in Standing Rock and we were able to understand the various political reasons that led us to where we were. “I suppose I'm a democratic socialist with leanings toward social democracy,” John explained when I asked where he fit on the political spectrum, “I believe in having a community that supports all individuals as much as possible, and which dictates reasonable justice within the limits of human capacity.” Charlotte expressed similar views and choose to identify herself as a Liberal. Tom was a right-leaning libertarian who was called to Standing Rock because of his beliefs in a limited government. The way that Tom explained his call to action was by saying, “I want to protect my right to protest peacefully.” He also wanted to discern for himself what was, or wasn’t, correct in the articles that he had read about Standing Rock.  Tom was (and still is) met with resistance from his family, and his small community when he decided to travel to Standing Rock. Matt does not sign on with any political ideology because of his distaste for how citizens and public figures use their inclusive ideologies to target like-minded people. He understands political ideologies as taking precedence in political conversations which are utilized in a way that inhibits original ideas formed by logic and reason. For myself, my political beliefs are always under constant review, but I would say that I am stuck somewhere in between John and Tom’s beliefs.  

I want a political structure that lets everyone mind their own business. There has been a continuing problem with how media outlets have portrayed the crisis in North Dakota which in part was what had inhibited me from supporting Standing Rock sooner. The intense media fluctuation of the event was definitely the root of our curiosity about trying to discern what was really happening in Standing Rock. There has not been continuous coverage from the larger media corporations despite the dynamic problems that residents in Standing Rock are met with every day. Fortunately for the interested public, a large number of Facebook pages have dedicated their time to providing accurate daily coverage of the protest camps. The ‘Live Feed’ feature on Facebook has proved to be an effective grassroots tool for spreading real-time accounts of protest actions. Regardless of what the spin on the articles were, I tried to read as many as I could before arriving in North Dakota. 

After a brutal sixteen-hour drive from Chicago, our convoy made it to Camp Oceti at around 10 p.m. on the 2nd of December. On the drive into the camp there were dozens of Native American flags with different tribal insignia flying to the sides of the main entrance road. This wasn’t a road per se, but a strip of land that had been driven on repeatedly over the last few months, which created a hard- packed dirt trail. Oceti, the large protest camp at Standing Rock, was pitch black, except for the ominous glow of a few large fires. The darkness that swallowed the camp made the experience much more memorable because this was the first time in months that I had seen the stars. Despite the lack of sunlight, experiencing the camp for the first time took my breath away. The camp was exactly as I imagined a refugee camp to look like. Inside were thousands of people (estimates on the number of people at the camp range from 8,000-12,000 with up to 4,000 of those people being Veterans). Hundreds (if not thousands) of tents, tipis, trucks, trailers, and RVs filled the low ground of the contested Native territory. As soon as I exited the car I was overwhelmed with the intense smell of sage, cedar, and tobacco, which, coupled with the distinct sound of generators humming, people drumming, and horses whinnying off in the distance caused a sensory and emotional overload.

The camp at Oceti, December 2016. Photo by Dylan Gaffney

My first job was to find a woman named Heather who was stepping up as the head of a smaller sub-camp called Sheep Camp. An old friend of mine and fellow infantryman named Cyrus had started Sheep Camp months prior to our arrival and promised to guide us around. 

Unfortunately, Cyrus was having travel delays coming back from his home state of Arizona where he was celebrating his mother’s birthday and protesting another pipeline. Since Cyrus was unable to greet us he asked Heather to guide us around. Heather met us with an enthusiastic “OH! You’re Cyrus’s friends!” accompanied by a generous offer for our group to sleep in her heated tipi. A truly selfless act. As this Lakota angel walked us around the treacherously dark camp, she could not stop thanking us for coming. Her kindness and gratitude was the most genuine heartfelt welcome I have ever experienced. 

Dylan Gaffney with Cyrus

As Heather was showing us around Oceti for the first time she answered all of our is-it-true-that questions. Heather also made a point to mention that, amidst the injustice that was plaguing the land and her people, the Standing Rock protests already had a positive outcome. As she described it, this was the first time in over 150 years that the Seven Sacred Council Fires had been united for a single cause. She described this as “a miracle in itself.” Tired from the drive, our up, down, left, right posse of political protesters went to bed after our tour so we could wake up early to get shot for justice.

Just after sunrise Tom and I woke up and stepped outside the tipi to smoke a cigarette. As we smoked we were able to easily spot the pipeline. Sure enough, half a mile away directly on top of sacred burial hills there was a pipeline being constructed. Despite our eagerness to stop DAPL that instant, Tom and I spent the morning setting up large sleep tents followed by collecting as many gas cans as possible to fill so that the people who had been there longer than us could refuel their generators. We spent the first half of the day working and the second half of the day trying to figure out where the police were gassing people. Apparently, with the impending influx of thousands of veterans, many of the police and security had backed off the road that was being blocked illegally, and started to show more tolerance toward the protesters. Since no actions were happening that day Tommy and I spent our time listening to as many stories as we could in order to gain a better sense of what had taken place since the start of the protest.

After surveying many Natives who had been at Oceti for months, we began to see the many complexities at work on and off Oceti. Both Oceti and the Standing Rock Reservation are organized under the governance of tribal politics. The social, political, and geographical hierarchies were very difficult to comprehend. There was the local government that was called the Standing Rock Tribal Council (SRTC) which dealt exclusively with affairs on the reservation. Oceti rests on what is considered to be ‘contested’ land because initially the land was ‘granted’ to the Sioux tribe in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty but since there is a river flowing through it, technically it falls under federal jurisdiction. The SRTC and the reservation police don’t have direct authority over the protest camp but remain highly influential because of the local support that the town is able to offer the people who live in Oceti. Then there are figureheads who live in the camp who act as representatives for the people of Oceti who serve as a type of public relations team. There are also tribal elders in communication with one another and with the Oceti representatives, in order to manage day-to-day tasks. Women and elders sit at the top of the social hierarchy on Oceti and rightfully are to be treated with the utmost respect.

While the political and social hierarchies seem to be clean cut on paper, the confusion that abounds there manifested itself at the level of dissemination of information to the lower levels. Without a single unified voice instructing people, there were many. All us lower-level protesters were confused as to which voice we should listen to. We found that there were some radical members of Oceti (part of a group called Red Warrior) who had an antagonistic position and who acted on their own accord. Comprising a very small percentage of the protesters, Red Warrior believed in using violence as a tool to stop DAPL. Apart from Red Warrior, the overwhelming majority strictly advocated peace and prayer. There were still others with no discernible ideology on positions as to how the situation should be handled.

In the mind of Red Warrior violence is justified because of the disrespect DAPL has shown toward their sacred land, accompanied by a history of oppression. They all agreed that the best way to stop DAPL was by throwing rocks during protests, charging barricades, and damaging DAPL work vehicles. To me the Red Warriors are reminiscent of the Weather Underground, the radical group of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The Weather Underground used violence to combat American imperialism and racism by bombing symbolic targets all around the country.

From what I was able to gather from different stories about the Red Warriors is that, through acts of violence, they were more efficient in getting their particular positions be known. However, the actions of Red Warrior oftentimes did not act in accordance with the general will of the larger Oceti population. This is because just as they see themselves as being outside of the system, they are also acting outside of the general will, and only acting according to their particular will. Despite Red Warrior’s ability to get their point across, they are not as efficient in stopping DAPL as the larger body of people who are working within the existing political structures, and who advocate peace and prayer. This small renegade band of Natives in Standing Rock had lost the respect of the tribal elders and also lost the elder’s support in legal matters.

While I was making note of these hierarchies and how poorly information travels I began to realize the importance of the individual body in the fight against DAPL. Outside of Standing Rock, it is hard to conceptualize what it means to be truly accountable in society. However, at Standing Rock there is a living example of Socrates’ expanded version of Athenian democracy. Under this premise every man, woman, and child are directly accountable for their actions because any action, positive or negative, has an immediate and direct impact on the general well-being of the population, Peter Euben tells us. Going back to Standing Rock, in order for one’s actions to affect the positive well-being of the citizens, one’s actions have to be done in such a way that puts the general will above one’s own. The exciting part about this experience was that I was in a fully functioning mode where this was happening. Not only was it reassuring to witness this model, but it was fascinating to see the positive affect that one single person can have on a group despite a less-than-available leadership. Concern for the general well-being grows exponentially with every act of kindness in Standing Rock.

Poor behavior, or behavior that was detrimental to Oceti’s well-being did not have the same exponential growth. When an individual acted against the general will, he or she, would be escorted off of the premises by their peers and shamed. When someone was shamed they were outside of Oceti’s political and social structure. This model of discipline, along with the fast-approaching winter, eventually caused Red Warrior to leave Oceti.

Everything that I noticed painted a very complex picture of what was happening in Standing Rock. I was trying to take everything I was learning in Oceti and make connections to what happens inside the modern American democracy in order to answer the ethical question, as I read it through Malcolm X: Is it more efficient to engage in the uphill struggle to change the state by using the democratic processes in place, or is it more efficient to enact change when you secure a position that is outside of democracy? More specifically, were groups like the Weather Underground more effective because they saw themselves as being outside of democracy, as both Malcolm X and Bill Ayers have posited the question?

During the evening of 3 December there was a meeting that was supposed to be just for the Veterans who were part of VSSR. The meeting was held at a gymnasium about twenty miles away from Oceti and was filled with Veterans of all generations and the Press. A lot of press. Wes Clark Jr. (head of VSSR), a tribal elder, a congresswoman, and several others gave speeches. While everyone was waiting for the meeting to start, a young Native Veteran walked to the front of the gaggle of people and yelled, “FALL IN!” Those words echoed like daggers in my ears. When someone yells ‘Fall in’ in the military it signals for everyone to get into formation and stand at the position of attention. This was something that I despised while I was in the military so when I heard these words I opted to go stand with the press, off to the side. 

In the beginning of the meeting several speakers made it very clear that peace and prayer was the top priority. We had been advised as much, that “there should be no direct action, just peace and prayer.” Intertwined was also the instruction to engage only in ‘nonviolent direct action’. Not once was anyone able to give me a clear answer as to what a direct action was after I was explicitly told that there was no direct action, only nonviolent direct action. When I asked what, exactly, nonviolent direct action was I was told, “peace and prayer.”

Feeling confused, and lacking clarity of action, I listened intently to the speakers. As the meeting progressed, some Native speakers started using phrases like, “we do not require any direct action right now.” Do they want us to be violent, what does that mean “right now?” Can someone please define direct action for me? When Wes Clark Jr. spoke, Matt and I got the sense that he was disingenuous, because of how he kept trying to make the Standing Rock protest all about the Veterans as if we were the cure-all; he even attempted to schedule a peaceful direct action based on the authority he gave his own voice. 

After the meeting, we voiced our concern to Heather about the confusing narratives that were being passed around regarding the definition of what an ‘action’ means. Heather agreed that the way in which the information that was being distributed was, at best, vague. I asked her whom I should talk to if I wanted to participate in some type of action (whether it be peaceful, direct or otherwise; I just wanted to feel useful). She advised that tomorrow I should go with her so she could introduce me to her dear friend, and Vice President of the American Indian Movement, Cuny Dog. Because of conflicts with his schedule I was unable to meet him. Instead, I ended up meeting a member of the Oceti Akecheta, named Wahmbli.

In the Lakota language Akecheta means fighter, but the word was repurposed on Oceti to describe the name of an Indigenous security force that stands on the frontline of protest actions with their backs turned toward the oppressive police force in order to shield protesters from onslaughts of rubber bullets. Wahmbli made a plan on the morning of December 4th to go down to the road block and try to play cards with the cops on duty in order to show the peaceful intent behind the protests. However, nothing ever became of this plan because Wahmbli had not received expressed consent from his elders. When he went to go ask his tribal elder directly, he was told to hold off until the other elders “got out of a meeting”. Slightly bothered by the fact that I hadn’t done anything besides set up tents, build buildings, and distribute gas, I decided I needed to talk to Heather and ask for advice. 

At this point in my trip I had realized that Heather knew everyone on camp and that everybody respected her greatly. By my logic, if she knows everyone, and everyone respects what she has to say, then she was the person that I needed to follow around and confide in. When I tracked down Heather I told her that the plan to deal cards to the repressive state apparatus got delayed until who-knows-when. I also explained the strange discrepancies that I noticed with tribal politics. I described how Clark seemed to not know how to lead a large group of people and I voiced my concern that I could not tell whether I should be tearing down walls or protecting praying people. This is when Heather turned my brain upside down and effectively changed my life. All she did was ask me, “Well, what do you want to do?” This was the key. This was the answer to all of my questions about Standing Rock, as well as the answer for how I would be able to remedy my post-election search for accountability. When Heather asked me that question the ethical war I was waging in my brain came to a head. My reply was, “I want to do whatever you guys (Natives) want me to do. I will tear down walls, I will take rubber bullets if that’s what you want me to do, or I will set up tents all day. It really doesn’t matter.” Heather smiled and explained that she was impressed with our whole group and how we made a large effort to understand what was happening in the camp before we just ran off and did our own thing. She continued to explain that you can’t expect to make a change without understanding your environment.

Heather. Photo by John Griswold, used with permission

I realized that I wanted to tear down walls, and be the most conniving peaceful protester for my own benefits and self-assurance. The realization was made that the change was not going to come from the front lines, and it definitely was not going to come from the tribal elders or Wes Clark Jr.; the change was going to come from positively influencing those to my left and right by taking a back seat to my selfishness. After all, that’s what Heather was doing. She was tackling other people’s problems as if they were hers and the reason she did so was not to make a name for herself, but because she wanted to see those around her flourish. If I was going to maximize my efficiency to supply support and aid, I needed to ‘pay it forward’. I needed to keep showing good, honest, and selfless acts of kindness to those around me in hopes of being a good influence for the general body. When Heather asked me what I wanted to do, I was able to better understand what it meant to live as a part of a democratic society. 

The larger Oceti Camp was slower to win what they identified as ‘victories,’ such as the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny DAPL’s permit to build the pipeline. This was announced mid-day on 4 December. By utilizing ‘peace and prayer’ to enact change the Natives are protecting their rights in the future, instead of being bothered to make a decision that could be seen as unethical. In order to accomplish this, individuals need to help each other in a way that puts their neighbor’s will ahead of their own. Having the privilege of the Standing Rock experience showed me how to mobilize change while remaining accountable inside existing political structures. Everyone inside the Oceti Camp selflessly worked together for a common goal, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. No matter how many varying political beliefs were present, everybody was met with open arms and a positive attitude about constructively and peacefully making a difference.

Facing the militarized police on the bridge at Oceti.

Once I left Standing Rock, I went back to school in New York to finish my finals for the semester with a new perspective on environmental issues, and issues relating to Indigenous sovereignty. I was continually greeted by friends, peers, and school faculty telling me, “congratulations on the easement”. I tried, and found it very difficult, to relay to those around me that, “No, DAPL is still constructing the pipeline despite their permit being pulled.” With the departure of the Veterans from Standing Rock, Standing Rock also departed from the concern of the public. Knowing that the people living in Oceti still needed support more than ever, John and I decided to spend part of January back in North Dakota in order to support Heather. 

While I was finishing up my semester at school John and I stayed in touch. We shared similar agitation toward the lack of concern that the general public was displaying toward the, still pertinent, protest against DAPL. We made plans to return to our friends in Standing Rock on our own accord during a time where they needed support the most. The harsh winter had a severe impact on the number of people at the camp—something completely understandable. What was not understandable was how the depleted numbers of the camp seemed to correlate to the amount of concern being displayed by the media, and people who thought of themselves as being ‘socially aware’. After all, DAPL is still working, and they are still wrong. 

Out of convenience John and I met again in Chicago where he rented a large SUV that would take us the rest of the way to Standing Rock. Each of us also brought a friend along for the trip. I brought Morgan, another undergraduate from The New School, and John brought Dustin who was a former student of his. On our way, Heather had texted me a small shopping list of things she needed, so we stopped in Minneapolis, at what we suspected might be the last WalMart before getting to Oceti. There we stocked up on weatherproof matches, small fire-starter logs, tortillas, cheese, and many cases of water. 

Despite the winter road conditions, we made it safely to Oceti before the sun came up on January 3rd. When we arrived, the temperature was just shy of -20 degrees Fahrenheit Just as we had done on the first night of our last trip, we stayed up for hours asking Heather about how the situation has changed since our last visit. She told us that the main concern for the whole camp, specifically the medics, was making sure that everyone was staying warm. The remaining residents were forced to consolidate their sleeping arrangements in order to ensure that everyone was staying warm at night, and to preserve camp resources, like firewood. 

After a few hours of sleep, we woke up and decided to take a walk across the Cannonball River, which was now frozen over. I remember during my first visit, if I wanted to take a walk from the tipi to the river I would have had to navigate through a sea of tents. Now I was able to walk right out of the hole in the tipi and bee-line straight to the river without having to worry about tripping over any tie-downs. Once we crossed the river, Heather walked us around to an area of the camp that was previously unexplored by us during our first visit. After a short walk, we arrived to what was referred to as Sacred Stone Camp. 

This camp was amazing. Sacred Stone rested on the high ground overlooking Oceti, the frozen Cannonball river, and the DAPL construction. Apparently Sacred Stone was where the first Sacred fire was made when the protest began, it wasn’t until later that a Sacred fire was made at Oceti. Contained within this camp was a very large schoolhouse that had just recently opened for the people in the camps. Aesthetically speaking, the schoolhouse didn’t look like something that you would expect to see at a modern protest camp near an Indian Reservation; the building looked like it fell right out of Little House on the Prairie. When we walked in, a class was just finishing, there were about ten to fifteen kids whose ages ranged from around six to thirteen years old, running around and playing inside the large single room school building. On the inside, there were two wood stoves, a small collection of toys, a few school books, and a weird bench. Upon further inspection, I saw that this weird bench wasn’t just a bench. It was a duct that was connected to one of the wood stoves allowing heat to radiate throughout the building instead of just around the immediate area surrounding the stove. The bench ran all along the length of the building and was very efficient in keeping the whole room heated. 

We met with the children’s teacher who explained to us the challenges that he was faced with. The teacher came from Oregon where he was working as a substitute teacher when he first heard about the DAPL construction. He moved out to Sacred Stone in September where he immediately jumped into providing children with lesson plans while their parents worked elsewhere in the camp. Apparently, work is being done to recognize the schooling that the children have completed there as a part of a homeschool organization. This way if the children later went on to a more traditional school they would be able to fall right back in with their corresponding grade. The rest of Sacred Stone had similar characteristics to Oceti: there was a kitchen, a place for food storage, composting toilets, solar panels, water points, a medic tent, and a plethora of sleeping tents. The main difference between Sacred Stone and Oceti seemed to be that Sacred Stone was more self- sustaining and was more organized. I wasn’t able to figure out if this was because Oceti had their resources drained in housing the bulk of the activists, or whether it was due to a better infrastructure from inception. Regardless, the difference was noticeable.

Everyone at Sacred Stone greeted us with the warmest welcomes, always asking if we were warm enough, if we were hungry, if we needed any supplies, and proudly asked if we had visited their shiny new school. Despite the physical fatigue from the intense cold, the morale at the camp was very high. Everyone spoke with a proud and accomplished tone when telling different stories about how they are able to endure such freezing conditions. The residents of Sacred Stone were the first people with whom we interacted on our new adventure aside from Heather, so it was refreshing to witness that the dedication and optimism hadn’t died away like it did with the rest of the country. 

The next day there was a Standing Rock Tribal Council (SRTC) meeting where the council discussed future plans for the protest camp, leaving the floor open for camp leaders to discuss any grievances that they might have. Recently there had been a rumor circulating around that the Chairman of the SRTC, David Archambault II, was taking donation money meant for the camp and using it toward debt accrued by the town of Cannonball. Whether this is true or not does not change the fact that now the residents of the protest camps are growing skeptical of the SRTC and feeling apprehensive about how much they can trust the council. At the meeting Archambault dispelled the rumors saying that they weren’t true. Archambault and Cannonball Chairman, Cody Two-Bears, went on to explain that Cannonball was suffering economically because of the town’s inability to sustain such a large number of people being in or around the town. 

Another point of contention was the fact that Camp Oceti rests in a bad floodplain. The bulk of the meeting was spent trying to convince the camp residents that they needed to leave Oceti and Sacred Stone due to the impending flood that would happen as the record-setting snowfall would start to melt. When Archambault told his audience that they needed to leave Oceti and Sacred Stone, what the proud and dedicated audience heard was, “You need to leave your home that you worked so hard to create and protect because I said so”. The reaction was understandable considering how hard everyone collectively worked on creating and sustaining the camps. During the meeting, it took sometime before people started getting on board with the idea. The argument that was used in support of the move was that when the spring starts the snow would melt sending large chunks of ice and high water through the floodplain dragging anything in its path down river, thus doing irreparable damage to the water. Slowly the SRTC audience was able to push proud emotions aside and arrive at the logical conclusion that they did in fact need to move. The reason this was such a highly-debated topic was because a move out of the floodplain would mean that the new camp would have to rest on Reservation land. Oceti and Sacred Stone would lose their tactical advantage and would willingly subject themselves to governance from the Reservation, a governance that was being trusted less and less every day. More importantly those who lived in the camps were fighting for Native sovereignty and in the process they were able to see what it was like for Natives to be able to say “NO” and assert themselves. To be strong-armed back into a corner by Tribal politicians who rarely (if ever) visited the camps themselves, seemed oddly akin to how the U.S. has handled Indigenous relations in the past. 

While future plans were being discussed between the SRTC and the camp leadership, it was clear that the two groups hadn’t had much cross-talk in the past, which I found to be a little odd, seeing how camp leadership was able to coordinate meetings and support from all around the country but the meeting only seemed to be granted out of convenience, when the SRTC needed to dispel rumors and tell everyone that they needed to leave. Regardless, the meeting dragged on for hours because as time went on more and more audience members felt the need to make additional comments on topics that had already been discussed ad nauseam. Normally in a situation such as this I would suspect that the additional comments being made were not much more than an attempt to sound important. There was some of that going on, but for the most part I saw that the people who were speaking were just excited that someone of importance was willing to help them work through these problems. Once the meeting was over John, Heather, and I went down the road to check out the supposed grave of the legendary Sitting Bull. Standing there felt oddly poetic. What would Sitting Bull have done in response to DAPL? How was he able to unify his people in the fight against oppressive military authorities? How would he think the situation in Standing Rock was being handled? These questions were too much to think about. Here is the final resting place of a hero who helped protect his people, now right next to his grave almost 130 years later his people are resisting a siege from the state and capital. 

Late that evening, as John and I were lying in our sleeping bags talking about how we felt about everything we learned at the SRTC meeting, Heather came rushing into the tipi. Over the sound of her radio squelching, Heather told us that they needed medics up on the road block by the bridge. She was going up there, and asked us, “You coming?” As Heather was readying her aid-bag our group rushed to put our cold weather gear back on. I ran out of the tipi to get the SUV started while everyone finished getting ready. As I sat in the driver’s seat, I saw an old red Chevy Suburban pull up to the tent in front of our tipi. Out of the tipi ten to fifteen Oglala boys rush for the Suburban. Most of them were able to dog pile into the truck, the others held onto the roof rack, with their feet jammed onto the running boards. All of them were yelling in a way that almost sounded like a celebration. As quickly as the truck arrived, it left, and as the Oglalas headed for the bridge you could hear the long drawn out yelling of “MNI WICONI! (Water is Life)” and “NO DAPL!”

The minute between when the Oglala boys sped off and when all of our group was ready to drive toward the bridge, my mind was racing thinking about what that could mean when Heather said that medics were needed on the Bridge. Were medics needed because someone was hurt on the bridge? Had the Morton County Sheriff's Department injured another person? Was this an emergency situation? My mind was put to rest when I started heading to the entrance of Oceti and Heather said that there was an “action” on the bridge and medics were being sent up to the bridge just as a contingency, in case anyone ended up getting hurt. Following John’s judgement, I parked the SUV close to the Oceti entrance, so everyone could walk the rest of the way to the bridge. John had the foresight to think about what would happen to the truck if we parked closer to the roadblock, if things got out of hand for some reason; he didn’t want to risk having the truck seized or damaged. 

On the walk from the truck to the road block, my adrenaline was pumping thinking about what was happening there. As we walked through the darkness we started to see the roadblock. There were cement jersey barriers and concertina wire that were set up in a way that was familiar to me. The roadblock was made in a fashion similar to the one that we (U.S. Army) would have created in Afghanistan to regulate the flow of traffic on or off a base. The barrier was backlit by those large lights that are wheeled around on a trailer that are often found on freeways when construction crews have to work at night. Around 30-50 protesters were at the barricade and a small group was working to take the concertina wire down from the barricade, a task I am all too familiar with. When I saw the concertina wire being cut I realized that the protesters were working harder than they had to in order to remove the wire. I offered assistance and started removing the wire from the bridge so I could try and save someone from getting tangled or sliced by the sharp burs on the wire. 

We, the protesters, had riot shields in order to protect ourselves in case the police decided it would be a good idea to start shooting us with rubber bullets. Once I had helped to clear the jersey barriers of the concertina wire I picked up a shield and stood at the top of a barrier to look down on the police who were there. Around ten officers stood directly in front of the barricade with their less-than-lethal shotguns (which have the capability of becoming lethal if they are fired within a close distance); the way that the officers held their guns borderline offended me. In the military, muzzle awareness (knowing where your barrel is pointed at all times) is beaten into your head for safety reasons. Three officers held their rifles so that the barrel of their gun was resting on their shoulder and the buttstock of the gun was cradled by their waist. I say this to say that, one of those officers was cradling his shotgun so low that the barrel was pointed right at his face and his buddy’s face, depending on how he moved or leaned. This was unacceptable! So, I understood, these were the unsafe, reckless cops who had been unleashing tear gas and barrages of rubber bullets. Everything made sense, they were improperly trained local cops who thought they could just get away with whatever they want because they were so far from anyone who cared about their actions. 

Myself and another vet who was standing on the front line, shields ready, started yelling at this incompetent officer who was a sneeze away from blowing his brains out. “HEY, YOU! Muzzle awareness! You got that barrel pointed right at you and your buddy’s face!” The officer ignored our request for him to point his shotgun away from his head, so we started shouting toward his buddy who was standing next to him. “HEY MAN! Police up your buddy! He’s about to blow your head off!” After this officer coolly ignored us, he slowly took a glance at his partner in a way that made it seem like he was just swaying to stay warm. Once he saw how his reckless counterpart was holding his fire arm, about thirty-seconds had passed, then he calmly whispered into his ear. Thirty more seconds passed and the cop slowly changed the positioning of his gun, walked away, and was replaced by another officer with more (but still debatable) competence. 

There was just enough light that let me see pairs of officers spread out down along the flanks of the wire barrier, two Humvees parked on the road with a few officers (or National Guard, it was difficult to tell) sat to stay warm, and a slew of other SUVs, work trucks, and paddy wagons off in the distance. There was a lot of noise coming from behind me. Other protesters shouted things like “No DAPL. Water is Life.” Others were drumming and singing songs in Lakota. Some were kneeling on the snow with their arms spread out, praying. Those to my left and right were trying to engage in small talk with the officers about sports, the news, movies, etc. The thought process behind this was to show the officers protecting DAPL that we (the water protectors) are not dissimilar from them. People on both sides of the barricade made a decision to protect something that they believe in, but at the end of the day there is still common ground to stand on. A man standing amidst the Natives yelled, “I am a Veteran from the U.S. Marine Corps, I was you. But now I know peace. No one knows peace like those that fought in war.” After hearing this, I just laughed internally. He was right. In Afghanistan I saw buildings leveled, people hurt, people dead. Not things I wish to see again. Which is why I initially got involved in the fight against DAPL. I saw tensions and conflict rising and I felt that I needed to go and stop these acts of violence before someone saw something they weren’t going to like. 

Then there are all of the Native Americans who have been victims of economic and physical violence for far too long. A sort of collective memory had been formed on our side of the road block. There are the Natives who have been the victims of oppression, and are tired of not being able to retain the right to say “no”. Then there are those who swore to protect the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic, who know precisely how bad situations can get in a country where people aren’t able to say “no” to actions that affect their daily lives. 

The night on the bridge was the coldest night of the entire trip. Temperatures dipped to minus 25F degrees, not including the wind chill factor. There came a point on the bridge where everyone (cops included) started to get too cold. My feet were freezing and I needed to take a walk to get circulation back to my toes. I headed back to our SUV to see if anyone else from our group went to warm up. On my way back to the truck other people on our side of the road block began to trickle back to the camp. The action slowly died away with no adverse action from the police, and when everyone from our group prepared for bed in the tipi, I started reflecting on the action. Why was there an action tonight of all nights? I had been here for a week in December with ten-thousand other people. The only answer I could come up with was that the people living in the camps were upset about the impending camp move, and wanted to demonstrate that they were still there, they still mattered, and they weren’t giving up. 

For the remainder of our trip out to Standing Rock, John, Morgan, Dustin, and I had the opportunity to take Heather to South Dakota, where she is from, so she could take some time and visit with her family. Our first stop in South Dakota was the church at Wounded Knee where we met up with the infamous Cuny Dog. There he showed us the grave plots, and Heather made a tobacco offering. At this point I didn’t know much about Wounded Knee, all I knew was that sometime in the 1800s (1890) a bunch of Indians were massacred for reasons I didn’t know. I wasn’t aware that in 1973 there was a protest there with the Oglalas and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The Oglalas and AIM were protesting against tribal corruption, and wanted to reopen treaty negotiations. Far more surprising was that Cuny Dog was there for the entirety of the protest, and shared his firsthand account of what happened. 

Cuny Dog has been Heather’s best friend for years, and was living in the protest camps at Standing Rock for a long time, but returned home for about a month so he could recuperate and get some rest. After linking up with Cuny Dog at Wounded Knee we sat down someplace where he told sporadic accounts of his life and his involvement with AIM in 1973. All of his stories, and all of his accounts were worded in such a way, that they all showed the reason as to why he stands with Standing Rock. His life of activism and of doing the right thing, had been created by and was in response to all the injustices that his people have endured as a result of the U.S. colonial expansion. Then there is Heather, who feels these same injustices, and has looked to Cuny Dog for guidance throughout her fight against DAPL. When a problem presents itself at Standing Rock, arriving at an ethical solution can be difficult. Fortunately, with such a close-knit community, personal experiences and emotions are freely discussed to make sure that everyone is working towards a future that everyone can be proud of. 

Heather later took us to the Pine Ridge Reservation where she grew up and where some of her family still lives. As we took a driving tour of Pine Ridge, Heather spoke very highly of her town and all of its recent improvements, the most recent one being the Senior living facility. I was told that the facility was so new that there were only a couple of full time residents. When we drove out of the town we stopped at a gas station to fill up on gas and snacks. When Heather was getting back into the truck she saw a homeless man curled up in a ball against a building. The first thing I noticed was that there was no way that what he was wearing was keeping him warm. Heather took him a handful of fry-bread and a space blanket to stay warm. As Heather was entering back into the SUV I saw at least three more homeless men in a similar situation. We didn’t have enough supplies to sustain all of them, and it nearly broke my heart when we had to drive away. Currently 97% of the population in Pine Ridge live below the federal poverty line. As a medic, Heather has been spending her time in Standing Rock to help protect the water for everybody. She is protecting the water for the people at Pine Ridge. The way she proudly talks about her town tells me that she is going to do everything in her power to make sure that her home is the best that it can be. 

All of the cultural backstory that I was receiving was such an eye-opening experience. The last stop of our trip before we went to take Heather back to Standing Rock was in Rapid City, South Dakota. There we went to a large store that could best be described as a Native department store. The shop sold jackets, ponchos, fine art, toys, rugs, hide, leather, cattle skulls, books, and everything in-between that was Indian related. After ogling a bison pelt for ten minutes or so, Morgan and I walked into the back where all the books were. My intent was to simply pick out ‘a’ book that could illustrate some of the cultural stories or proverbs that every Native seems to know. As I looked I realized that this was not going to be easy. I had the sense that every book in there was perfect for explaining the history of Native Americans, and for answering every single question that had ran through my mind during my two stays in the Dakotas. The choice was so hard I ended up entrusting Morgan to make the executive call on what book I should get. She chose three and they were perfect. However, having since read them, despite reading a more formal narrative of all of the oral histories that I heard, I feel like a great injustice was done to all of the other books on those shelves that were probably even more perfect.  

Our adventure to South Dakota came to an end and we drove back to Oceti, spent one more night, said our goodbyes, and left to go back to our seemingly unimportant lives. The heroes who still remain need outside help more than ever. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to continue progress on DAPL and the Keystone XL pipelines. The SRTC has told Oceti to move out of the low-ground by the river to avoid being swept away when all of the snow melts. Water protectors remain susceptible to a militarized police force which, on 1 February, raided the new camp being set up and 76 peaceful water protectors were arrested. 

Talking with Heather after the raid she says that it happened because the ceremony to light the sacred fire at the new camp was done improperly. There is a sacred fire at the Sacred Stone and Oceti camps that has great symbolic and spiritual meaning for the Natives at Standing Rock. According to Heather, the ceremony to light the sacred fire at the new camp was supposed to have three chanupa carriers (members carrying the sacred fire), but there were only two. None of the major medics showed up to the ceremony, and seven tipis were supposed to be set up around the fire, but instead there were six. Heather claims that camp leadership became too impatient and jumped the gun on lighting the sacred fire, instead of waiting for all of the necessary ceremonial requirements and a larger audience. She also believes that the ceremony should have been delayed until the fog rolled in, as was originally intended. Under the concealment of the fog, the ceremony could have taken place properly, thus keeping the tactical advantage away from the ones protecting DAPL.

Everyone needs to unite together, because right now not many people in the United States government are looking out for the best interest of our Native American fellow citizens. For proof of this one only needs to look at the head of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is run by a man who vocally supports DAPL, Senator John Hoeven. I worry that if DAPL is victorious in this fight, there will be an asterisk next to the date in the history books that reads “The day a billion-dollar corporation officially triumphs over inherent American Indigenous rights.” As we enter an era of extreme uncertainty, everyone in the US needs to decolonize their mind and recognize that the maximum effective range of their influence can extend well beyond what they imagine as long as everyone can remain accountable, stay educated, and work within the often grim confines of US political and legal structures.

 

(first published in CHRONOS magazine, 9 March 2017)

Photo: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #47, 9 March 2017

Dylan Gaffney is an undergraduate student in Anthropology and Sociology at The New School's Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York. From 2009-2015 he served as an Infantryman in the U.S. Army where he completed a year- long tour in Afghanistan (2010-2011). By the time he was Honorably Discharged from the Army he had been awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Expert Infantryman’s Badge, two Army Good Conduct Medals, and an Army Commendation Medal. This article was originally written as a term paper for the undergraduate seminar Urban Guerillas: The Anthropology of Political Resistance.

After hearing the news that Donald Trump won the election, and after finishing a project at school, I headed for the subway to go home just after 3 a.m. I started to descend the stairs of the ‘F Train’ when a strange feeling washed over me. This feeling that engulfed my whole body was the same feeling you felt as a child when you got caught by your parents doing something that you weren’t supposed to do. There was this sense that sat heavy in the air, that everything was not going to be okay, and that it was my fault. The train ride back to Brooklyn was oddly busy, and everyone looked tense, they looked stressed, they looked nervous, and that was all my fault, too.

In the days following the election I walked around and had the privilege of seeing multiple rallies, protests, and meetings, along with a myriad of safe spaces for people who felt like they needed to be consoled. These gatherings (as they happened in New York City) were a way to show support for one another while expressing resentment toward a common threat. After witnessing numerous student walkouts and protests, the guilty feeling that I had subsided, and was replaced with a cynicism directed toward my politically conscious peers.

What I knew about Standing Rock before I saw the VSSR movement was very minimal. What I thought I knew was that there was a pipeline being constructed by DAPL near an Indian reservation. The protests taking place were in response to the possibility that the installation of the pipeline would have a negative environmental impact on the Natives’ land. I had read conflicting articles that also debated the chance that the pipeline was going to trespass on sacred land. I believe that religious freedom is an inherent right to every human being and that if the religious Natives in Standing Rock don’t want a pipeline to disturb their sacred land, they should be able to retain the right to decide whether or not DAPL can continue construction.

I want a political structure that lets everyone mind their own business. There has been a continuing problem with how media outlets have portrayed the crisis in North Dakota which in part was what had inhibited me from supporting Standing Rock sooner. The intense media fluctuation of the event was definitely the root of our curiosity about trying to discern what was really happening in Standing Rock.

Once I left Standing Rock, I went back to school in New York to finish my finals for the semester with a new perspective on environmental issues, and issues relating to Indigenous sovereignty. I was continually greeted by friends, peers, and school faculty telling me, “congratulations on the easement”. I tried, and found it very difficult, to relay to those around me that, “No, DAPL is still constructing the pipeline despite their permit being pulled.” With the departure of the Veterans from Standing Rock, Standing Rock also departed from the concern of the public. Knowing that the people living in Oceti still needed support more than ever, John and I decided to spend part of January back in North Dakota in order to support Heather.

Everyone needs to unite together, because right now not many people in the United States government are looking out for the best interest of our Native American fellow citizens. For proof of this one only needs to look at the head of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is run by a man who vocally supports DAPL, Senator John Hoeven. I worry that if DAPL is victorious in this fight, there will be an asterisk next to the date in the history books that reads “The day a billion-dollar corporation officially triumphs over inherent American Indigenous rights.” As we enter an era of extreme uncertainty, everyone in the US needs to decolonize their mind and recognize that the maximum effective range of their influence can extend well beyond what they imagine as long as everyone can remain accountable, stay educated, and work within the often grim confines of US political and legal structures.

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