OCETI SAKOWIN CAMP, NORTH DAKOTA — MyKennah Lott, a 19-year-old Arapaho from the Wind River Indian Reservation, looks like a normal teenager, complete with a ring piercing on her lower lip and a glint that hints at a bit of spunk. But prosecutors in Morton County allege in court documents that the slight young woman is in fact a riotous trespasser who committed two misdemeanors Oct. 10 at the Dakota Access Pipeline,.
On Columbus Day, celebrated by Lott as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the teenager engaged in “tumultuous and violent conduct,” that created a “grave danger of damage or injury,” prosecutors allege. For her alleged miscreant activities, she should face up to 60 days in jail and $3,000 in fines, the State of North Dakota contends.
Lott, who goes by the name Little Wind, gives a different account of her arrest. She had been placing prayer bundles of tobacco on DAPL pipes at the controversial construction site. She then escorted an elder, a “grandmother,” to a tipi set up nearby. With 15 others inside, she celebrated the unity of the condor and the eagle, a religious rite that seeks to preserve native land and culture. She was not “engaging in a riot,” as she has been charged, Little Wind said. “We were praying,” she said. She has pleaded not guilty and is free awaiting a trial.
The two conflicting views of the same event are emblematic of the standoff just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some 5,000 people were camped in a North Dakota blizzard last week in an ongoing fight to stop construction of the $3.7 billion Bakken crude oil pipeline. Builders — Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics — say they’ve met all regulatory requirements, that their pipeline will be safe, and that the most recent permitting delay by the Obama administration ignores law and curries favor “with a narrow and extreme political constituency.”
At camps just north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, resisting “water protectors” say the pipeline project threatens the lifeblood of nearby reservations. Corporate greed and federal acquiescence have run over tribal rights, health worries and environmental concerns, they say. Dakota Access Pipeline construction continues a pattern of broken treaties and abuse of native tribes that has lasted for hundreds of years, they argue. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe claims DAPL approval violates the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act.
Two Arapahoe and one Shoshone from Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation were ensconced at camp last week where they shared their reasons for taking up the fight. Little Wind, her brother Micah “Big Wind” Lott, and Josh Ute endured bitter cold and scarce supplies while participating in camp prayers and contributing services to a winter-battered community. None condoned violence. They will continue to fight DAPL, they hope the battle will unite and inspire their communities, and they want to share their experiences and new knowledge with other residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
At first, no support
Big Wind, 23, first became inspired to act when he saw a Facebook post in August about native youth running a 2,000-mile relay to Washington, D.C. to protest DAPL. “I just wanted to come to help [do] whatever I could do,” he said. He shared the post with his sister, Little Wind, saying, “I want to go there.”
The marathon youth run and other activities moved her, too. “It was a bunch of underdogs trying to rise to the top and awaken people,” she said. “They started asking for help. We knew we had to be here.”
About 90 tribes had become involved by August, Big Wind said, including historical allies of the Arapaho. But it was hard to find support in Wyoming. At first, “not even my mom supported us,” he said. People would ask, “are you crazy,” then add, “it has nothing to do with us.”
He met with the Northern Arapaho Business Council explaining the connection between the Missouri River, under which the pipeline was planned, and its headwaters near his home. “Our water was at risk,” Big Wind said. “The [Fort Laramie] treaty was at risk.” The council lent its support and gave the two some money.
The brother and sister have been at the Oceti Sakowin Camp since August, returning home to Riverton every now and then. Several weeks ago they set up winter quarters in a tipi, vowing to stay until police retreat. The Arapaho flag flies over their settlement where last week’s blizzard and single-digit temperatures pushed most operations indoors. The storm battered a cook shelter next to the tipi and ravaged some of the tents and other structures across the encampment.
When he joined the camp, Big Wind got an assignment with camp security. He’s among the people who staff an entrance, directing traffic and answering questions. “I like meeting people at the front gate,” he said, “that’s my thing. I like meeting newcomers, welcoming them.”
Little Wind also works security, but of a different kind. She’s a “defender of the people,” she said. “You would go do anything – take a bullet, go get water,” she said. A special responsibility is to take care of elders. That’s why she joined arms with the grandmother at the pipeline where she was arrested Oct. 10. “I’m going to have to protect her,” she thought when she saw the woman. Little Wind escorted her ward through a line of police to the tipi where they sat, prayed and sang.
A mile-long encampment
The Oceti Sakowin and nearby Rosebud and Sacred Stone camps stretch for a mile along the banks of the Cannonball River, next to the west shore of the Missouri’s Lake Oahe. Oceti Sakowin Camp, the largest, covers some 80 acres. It is a sprawling warren of tipis, wall tents, trailers, busses, RVs, campers, lean-tos, sheds, corrals, yurts, and a 30-foot high steel-framed white geodesic dome. Tribal flags line a quarter mile of the entrance road, which splits in myriad directions. Residents walk the snow-packed lanes dressed in all manner of winter garb — parkas with fur-lined hoods, balaclavas, boots, mukluks, mittens, coveralls and gauntlets.
Oceti Sakowin means Seven Council Fires, the name of the Sioux. Camp organizers say the assemblage is the first gathering of indigenous nations since just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A sacred fire marks the spiritual center of the camp where people pray and burn pinches of tobacco.
A shed shelters a PA system and announcer beside the fire. A stall and tarp windbreaks help protect several people who serve coffee all day. Nearby there are wall tents where activists can get legal advice and prepare in case they are arrested. Farther along Flag Row, there’s a medical community of Yurts. There’s a mess tent with a warming stove and three picnic tables inside, room to seat 18 people. Porta-potties dot the landscape, but not enough for the masses.
Ernie Whiteman, an Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation who now lives in Minnesota, last week made his home in the Rosebud Camp. He was well prepared, comfortable and welcoming, living in a “tarpee.” Constructed from manufactured poles carpentered together at their apex, his lodge was wrapped with two taught layers of fabric trapping four inches of air between. His wood-burning stove kept the tarpee warm on a bitter day. When he’s not at the camp, he teaches organic farming and healthy cooking.
A group of about 20 veterans were less secure in what they called “Horse Camp.” They made stew on an outdoor propane stove and bunked in one of three large, green wall tents, warmed somewhat by a wood-burning stove and propane heater.
“I couldn’t not come,” said Sandra Lewis, a Navy veteran. “I was just getting so ashamed of this government and what we’re doing to nature and people. Water is a right.”
Mike “Cherokee Sam” Cole, an Air Force veteran from Vancouver, opposes pumping oil across the country and wants to protect cultural sites. “They don’t think the Native Americans are important,” he said of pipeline builders.
The veterans didn’t have an easy time of it when last week’s blizzard struck. In the middle of the night, one of the big tents collapsed on 13 of them as they slept. The next day they were able to take part in a march to police barricades that keep protesters from the pipeline. After their demonstration, they had to shorten their camp stay and withdraw. It was too blustery, cold and dangerous and there weren’t adequate supplies and sanitation allowing them to stay.
Shoshone Marine will take lessons home
Josh Ute, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe whose family lives in Fort Washakie, visited the camp in a motorhome. But its thin walls didn’t guarantee protection from the weather. He had to scrounge for a propane heater one night.
Ute, 43, works a construction job in Great Falls, Montana. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 18, and has many family members who also were Marines. News of the confrontations between water protectors and police inspired him.
“When I saw the tear gas, the water cannons going, it triggered me,” he said. “I was born and raised knowing that water was sacred to life. I just had to do my part … to make a stand for the future.”
His future includes three daughters, a son and a grandson. Son “Tunny” Ute, a 5th grader, plays point guard for his Fort Washakie Eagles basketball team and Ute likes to show off a picture of him on court.
The fight in North Dakota should energize residents of the Wind River reservation,Ute says, where he sees fracking and other development hurting the weakest members of his community. It’s part of a world where he’s always been a second-class citizen, even as a Marine.
“Even though we had the same uniform, we were still segregated by the color of our skin,” Ute said. Racism, “it was everywhere.
“I’ve learned that our voices can only be heard if we stick together, if we stand together,” Ute said. “I’m going to go back to my people in Wyoming and share my experience with them.”
Prayers in the tipi
On Indigenous People’s Day, Little Wind sat in the tipi with 15 others and the grandmother she was protecting. The group prayed and sang for 45 minutes.
“The cops surrounded us,” she said. “They said ‘You are all under arrest.’” She locked arms with those around her. “Grandmother was sitting next to me,” she said.
Police came in the tipi. “Next thing I knew my hat’s thrown off my head,” Little Wind said. Police grabbed her. “They kept pulling harder, harder.” Finally, she said she heard a soft voice say “it’s OK to let go.”
“They drug me 3 feet out,” Little Wind said. “They flipped me on my stomach. I told them ‘you’re hurting me.’ They didn’t care. There was knee in my neck, one in my back. I was scared. I was having flashbacks,” that recalled a “previous traumatic event” that she didn’t want to describe.
“They put the zip ties on my arms,” Little Wind said. “I kept asking for the officer’s name. He wasn’t wearing a [name] badge.”
Police trucked her and others, including actress Shailene Woodley, to the Morton County Correctional Center in Mandan. “They made me strip completely naked,” for a search she said. “That was the first time I’ve been in trouble in my life.”
The jail was crowded, Little Wind said. She spent the night. It was cold. Some arrestees slept on the cell floor. Bond the next day was set at $250.
Little Wind said she went home for an MRI and doctors discovered a herniated disk in her back. “I’m a carpenter so that put me out of work,” she said. She said she’s filing a civil suit over her treatment.
Her brother Big Wind said DAPL remains a target, despite temporary tribal victories. “They have to cross the Missouri River somewhere,” he said. “That’s going to affect people’s water. We’re going to follow DAPL.”
Little Wind said the DAPL fight should inspire expanded action. “It started here,” she said, “it doesn’t end here. It’s not just about water. This is much bigger.”
Big Wind agreed, “There’s lots of issues on our reservation — environmentally, jurisdictionally,” he said. Open industrial wastewater pits dot the reservation, the siblings say, but nobody’s protesting that. A chemical plant is polluting the air and affecting people in Arapahoe, they said.
Among the issues that are galvanizing tribes in Wyoming is the government’s decision to remove Endangered Species Act protection from the Yellowstone-area grizzly bear. In an Oct. 18 letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Arapaho leaders complained of inadequate federal consultation with the tribes, one of the factors at Wind River that is in common with the DAPL fight. The leaders said that delisting and hunting would abrogate federal trust responsibility and be an “act of cultural genocide.” Guardians of Our Ancestral Legacy, which seeks to protect the grizzly as sacred, claims more than 100 tribes in its coalition.
Little Wind said the two activists need support from their reservation. Despite the harsh life in Oceti Sakowin Camp, she has found a calling. “I’d rather be here than anywhere in the world,” she said. “It might not be the best of conditions – it’s home.”