How to Stop a Black Snake
Article published on 6 January 2017
last modification on 8 October 2021

Near Cannon Ball, N.D. — Last Sunday, the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock in North Dakota was slick with icy, packed-down snow. The mud was glass. Veterans poured in, having traveled all night to support the people protecting their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I linked arms with Loretta Bad Heart Bull, and we teetered up to the central prayer circle with Art Zimiga, an Oglala Hunkpapa Vietnam veteran who had just been gifted a pair of crampons. The sun was still warm, the air scented with burning cedar.
The sudden announcement that an easement to cross the Missouri River had been denied by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, dealing the pipeline an apparent setback, sent roars of joy, waves of song, disbelief, joy again, all through the camp.

Dancers swirled, women gave high-pitched Lakota trills, people roared “Mni Wiconi,” water is life. Some wept, sank to their knees, waved wands of smoking sage. Loretta grabbed my arm and tugged me closer to the circle, into the crowd. She is a no-nonsense, funny, sharply dressed woman. Everybody let her through.

I crushed up next to Vermae Taylor, from Fort Peck, Mont., who had been back and forth to the camp since August. She told me that this moment was the happiest she’d been in all of her 75 years. Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder from Leech Lake, beamed and held my arm. She was there for her great-grandchildren.

This was supposed to be it, the end of months of desperation. In spite of the tribe’s strenuous objections, Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, had chosen a route that could threaten water that the tribe, as well as farmers and ranchers, depend on. As the pipeline neared, water protectors committed to peaceful action chained themselves to drilling equipment and tried to pray on a butte where Sitting Bull walked.

While the victory strengthens the tribe’s position, most people around me were aware that the struggle was not over. Energy Transfer Partners had called the denial of the easement a “political action” and said it was committed to finishing the pipeline. People were not breaking camp, but digging in.

My family has been taking turns at Standing Rock, and last weekend was mine, so I drove from Minneapolis. I have poor cold-weather-camping skills, and the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort was bursting, with people slumped asleep in lobby chairs. I felt lucky to be able to stay in Loretta’s home, snug on a windy hill, overlooking Barren Butte. Her house is a tidy haven, often filled with visitors. We got home late, collapsed. I drank glass after glass of water.

It was delicious water. That’s what this is all about, said Loretta. She was drying traditional chokecherry cakes in an electric food dryer. The day, with its huge range of emotions over the surprise decision, seemed endless. I had actually come to talk to the veterans, who were still arriving as we left. More than 2,000 had signed on and more were expected along with snow.

Like many Standing Rock Lakota, Loretta is from several generations of veterans. Her father, Joseph Grey Day, was awarded a medal as a code talker. The night before, I had been at the first veterans’ gathering at Sitting Bull tribal college. There, I met Duane Vermillion, a local Marine and Vietnam veteran who was unsurprised that so many veterans were arriving. “If a call is put out to ask for help, our friends will answer,” he said. Duane’s grandfather George Sleeps From Home was also a code talker, and Duane’s father served in Korea.

Native Americans have always maintained an outsize presence in the military, serving on a per-capita basis in higher numbers than any other ethnic group. American Indians fought in the Civil War and World War I before we even had citizenship. Many Native Americans volunteered to serve in World War II and Korea before they were included in the Voting Rights Act, and in Vietnam before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

That’s right. In a country founded on religious freedom, Native Americans were not granted the right to legally practice our own religions until 1978.
Since then, indigenous spirituality has become a powerful uniting force. Each tribal nation has its own rituals and observances, but we hold in common the conviction that our earth is a living mystery upon whose tolerance we depend.

In the Missouri Breaks, you feel that presence acutely. But the flat aqua expanse of Lake Oahe in view of the Oceti Sakowin camp is another story. The lake isn’t natural, and was forced on tribal people when the Army Corps flooded the fertile bottomlands of the Missouri River. Up north, the project displaced the Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara people. Down here, the Lakota. After so many other acts of dispossession, it was said that many elders died of broken hearts.

The Black Snake is what Lakota people call the Dakota Access Pipeline. It will extinguish the world. For a people who have endured the end of their way of life so many times, who can doubt the truth of their vision, which coincides with scientific truth about the relationship of fossil fuels to catastrophic climate change?
On Monday, I said goodbye to Loretta, who packed me an egg sandwich. I drove home chased by snow. Along I-94 there were the familiar signs, simple black-and-white admonitions, Be Nice, and Be Polite. It could have been the camp motto. So many young non-Native people have been drawn to this cause. I thought about the spindly girl with wild ringlets, smiling as she served me a plate of wontons and strawberries in the food tent. I worried. Did she have wool socks? A subzero sleeping bag? After a blizzard, there is usually deep cold.

Which was how things felt — a storm of emotion and then the glaring truth of our political reality, in which fossil fuel interests expect a presidential blessing.
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Still, someday, I hope we look back to Standing Rock as the place where we came to our senses. Where new coalitions formed. Where we became powerful together as we realized that we have to preserve land, water, the precious democracy that is our pride, the freedoms that make up our joy.

I hope we look back at the images — the blurred features behind the riot-gear-clad men looming over a praying woman, the costumes of intimidation, the armored Humvees confronting young people on horseback, and see how close we came to losing the republic. But we didn’t. We woke up. We understood that the people who had persevered through everything, including Wounded Knee, knew how easily the world could end. So they were fighting for the water of life, for everyone.

Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the author, most recently, of the novel “LaRose.”