“Tomorrow, only fasting and praying to stop the pipeline!” declares Dorothy Sun Bear, the night before a national holiday that’s been celebrated with feasting since the Civil War. As she rises to leave the warmth of the Oglala Wounded Knee Dining Hall, half a mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation, 50 eyes turn to her and the bustling army tent falls silent.
“We don’t have nothing to be thankful for! They’re still stealing our land, they’re still digging up our ancestors!” Sun Bear spits 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 sheriff’s deputies four months ago. The woman 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 for 18 million people living downstream.
“I had to come here to defend her,” explains 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, swells to an estimated 10,000 people. “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?”
They aren’t taking just action to protect Native American interests, Thunderhawk adds, but also the millions of other Americans who live downstream on the Missouri and would be affected by an accident along the oil line.
Camp 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, pounding nails, hauling water and splitting wood. “Well, here we are. We’re all family now.”
Many people at the camp ignored the official government holiday completely. “There’s no vacations in camp,” says Everett Bowman, who is part Diné and part Paiute and calls the Owens Valley home. “We’re always working.”
The work may be far from over.
Over the weekend, the Army Corps of Engineers declared it would arrest all remaining protesters on Monday, Dec. 5 for “trespassing”—an announcement that only strengthened the resolve of those fighting the DAPL.
The corps has backed off those words, but the North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has since demanded the “mandatory evacuation” of the land, citing safety concerns as winter storms roll in, even though 13 construction crews are working six days a week to winterize their shelters and kitchens.
BeaVi McCovey has been fasting on this day for more than 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.”
When she was growing up, McCovey says her mother thought Thanksgiving was a day to feed folks who didn’t have money or a place to go, and a big crowd every year gathered at her house. But McCovey, inspired by her great-grandmother, fasted each Thanksgiving since she was 9 years old. “In my tradition, we fast as a way of getting closer to spirit and honoring our ancestors,” she explains. “I thought they would look down on what I was doing and regard my efforts and sacrifice in a good light.”
This year, though, 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, who participated with the American Indian Movement and occupations decades ago, pauses to reflect on the changes that have happened since.
“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, three quarters 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, Diné, Paiute and Puerto Rican descent.
On the holiday, she and almost 1,000 others marched to an ancient burial ground known as Turtle Island on a hilltop overlooking the Missouri River. Construction crews dug through it a few weeks ago to lay a section of pipeline. Riot cops currently guard the site.
“We really wanted to make an honorable prayer for the trauma and genocide our people have been through,” Stevens says. They sang and prayed, she says, for the next seven generations, that their descendents wouldn’t feel the same pain and shame that they have.
“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.”
Stevens, shaking her head, mentions that some celebrities offered a big dinner feast, but that the natives declined. “We don’t want their pity food,” she says. “We want them to stand with us. We want them to pray with us.”
Prayer is at the heart of the approach indigenous people and their non-indigenous supporters have taken at Standing Rock.
“We don’t call what we’re doing actions or protests. We call them prayers,” explains King. “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. Now that we’ve found our way, we’ll never stop fighting. This is just the beginning.”