When Dominique Aneekaneeka arrived at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest camp last month, she was struck by the site’s organization. She saw improvised roads lined with tents and teepees, bathrooms, a communal kitchen and large community fire pit. The tribe had even arranged trash pickup at the camp, which for months has attracted people from across the United States — from other Native Americans to would-be allies.
Aneekaneeka is one of a number of St. Louisans who have gone to North Dakota to try to block a planned $3.8 billion pipeline by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners that would pass underneath the Missouri River within a mile of the Standing Rock Indian Reservations. Like others, she has shared the knowledge she gained during protests in Ferguson, where she volunteered as a street medic.
The nursing student at the University of Missouri St. Louis felt compelled to visit Standing Rock, and has been there twice — once immediately after local authorities turned water cannons on the protesters in sub-zero temperatures. Each time, she marveled at the cooperative spirit that runs through the camp.
“The best way to describe it is being in awe, that it’s real, that it’s built from the ground up, that everything that’s there someone had to bring and either be set up or built,” Aneekaneeka said. “There’s people on horses trotting around. There’s little kids playing.”
In St. Louis, there have been protests downtown, water protection ceremonies, art builds, and more. St. Louisans like Aneekaneeka have united behind protestors for a variety of reasons, among them concern for the desecration of sacred Indigenous lands, a desire to hold the U.S. government accountable for treaty violations, and to help protect waterways from potential pollution.
“It was definitely a call that felt like a dutiful obligation to be up there,” Aneekaneeka said.
Pipeline protesters recently received good news when the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to allow drilling to continue under the Missouri River. The news came after an extended standoff between developers and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, their supporters from other tribes and others. Protesters began their encampment in April 2016, and have had several clashes with state and local authorities. A significant push by veterans to join the protest in North Dakota garnered significant national attention.
Aneekaneeka feels a kinship with the protesters and shares goals. Her indigenous family in Chile works to occupy land to prevent corporations from logging sacred forests. But she also sees connections between Standing Rock and the protests in Ferguson. Both, she said, involved people standing up to long histories of oppression.
“Having participated in and witnessed how powerful black resistance has been in St. Louis, being an ally in that, and playing a supportive role in that as best I could has really shown me how important it is to support movements as they’re happening,” she said.
Keeping abreast of developments at Standing Rock is important for St. Louisans like Kathy Dickerson, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Dickerson, a lifelong resident of St. Louis, has frequently advocated for Native American Rights, through “water walks” dedicated to protecting waterways. She recently turned her attention to Standing Rock, where her brother Michael Tongkeamha is among the protesters.
He left his home in Texas to live there, in frigid temperatures, because he felt he had a duty to protect sovereign sacred land.
“I’m a spiritual man and I believe in the connection of the water and the connection of what’s right,” Tongkeamha said. "I’m not just praying for me, I’m praying for you too. I’m praying for your water. I’m praying for your family’s water.”
Dickerson, her brother and Aneekaneeka say the heavy police response at Standing Rock — with tactics that include tear gas and rubber bullets — is similar to that employed during the Ferguson protests. They note that some protesters in North Dakota have relied on livestreaming to keep people informed.
“We have live video from the camps from the front lines that is showing what is happening,” Dickerson said.
Others point to free speech concerns raised by the law enforcement response in North Dakota. Efforts to curtail the Standing Rock protest are an extension of policies employed during the unrest in Ferguson, said Roy Gutterman, Director, Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University. He said the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, has implemented no-fly policies to reduce drone use at Standing Rock — just as it did during Ferguson protests.
“It was aimed at curtailing news gathering,” Gutterman said. “Reporters and journalists were using drone technology to get pictures, images, and video that were integral to telling the story and we saw the government attempting to restrain that.”
Dickerson is not surprised by such parallels. The struggles in Ferguson and Standing Rock may seem hyperlocal, she said, but like the effects of police brutality, water protection and pollution can affect the whole society.
“Hopefully we could stop this all over the United States,” she said. “Our generation now that is standing now with Standing Rock we have to figure this out. It’s something that everybody needs. It’s not just an American Indian issue.”
Dickerson also said the protest has brought much-needed attention to treaties between the U.S. government and sovereign Indian nations. They need to be enforced, she said, and sacred burial sites protected.
“We are our ancestors’ children and we have to keep this this that way,” she said. “This is what they would have wanted.”
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