Jessica Arkeketa’s plan is sketchy other than to be there, in the cold of North Dakota, and stand up for Standing Rock.
On Thursday night, Arkeketa and three fellow students and an alumnus of Haskell Indian Nations University packed four propane tanks and as much thick clothing as they could into a GMC pickup for a 12-hour drive. Destination: Cannon Ball, N.D., where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and thousands of their allies have at times clashed with police over construction of an oil pipeline.
“I’m there for the long haul,” said Arkeketa. “The more they try to stop us ... well, you can’t. That’s what it comes down to, I’m sorry.”
The long haul could present a problem as she is bringing no tent, the common shelter for demonstrators. Others riding up may be returning next week, leaving Arkeketa, 23, without a vehicle. But having been to Cannon Ball before, she knows so long as she helps with cooking, chopping wood and organizing supplies, the community will provide a place to sleep.
Earlier this week as winter closed in and activists multiplied, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered demonstrators to evacuate. The county sheriff pledged “passive” enforcement of that order, then said that police should not forcibly remove demonstrators. For now, they are still amassed — about 40 miles south of Bismarck — in a mostly peaceful showdown.
Next week, they may be joined by Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, a group of as many as 2,000 military veterans who have vowed to serve as “human shields” against the occasional rubber bullets, use of pepper spray and other alleged assaults by police.
Protesters — they call themselves “protectors” of water, land and human rights — have stood beside the Standing Rock Sioux since late summer to block routing the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline project beneath a tributary to the Missouri River on the tribe’s reservation. The 1,100-mile pipeline, when completed, would carry nearly a half-million barrels of crude oil a day across four states, raising fears that a rupture would pollute the Missouri and harm sacred lands.
For many Haskell students, especially women, the fight goes beyond what’s at stake with the pipeline project, which Twitter users know as #DAPL.
“We can’t keep taking and taking from Mother Earth. She’ll have nothing to give back for our future generations,” said senior Hanna White Bull, a native Hunkpapa Lakota (Standing Rock in English) who hails from the area where activists have flocked.
In American Indian studies professor Daniel Wildcat’s classes, Native American women, often referred to as the “backbone” of their communities, are increasingly making their voices heard on matters of social justice, human and animal rights, environmental protection, and corporate greed.
“I didn’t see it so much 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” Wildcat said. “But this generation is different.”
In Lawrence, Black Lives Matter activists joined Standing Rock supporters for a September sit-in at City Hall to compel local commissioners to draft a resolution expressing solidarity with Native Americans opposed to the pipeline.
The students’ actions are “expanding into a spiritual and existential statement about where we are as a planet,” Wildcat said.
A group of several Haskell women who’ve made the pilgrimage gathered Thursday to discuss why they go and what they bring. Some anticipate heading back after next week’s finals (which Arkeketa will complete online).
“I’ve grown up in Lawrence,” steeped as much in the modern western world as the indigenous one, said junior Cante England, a member of the Pawnee Nation who will be with Arkeketa and a male classmate in Cannon Ball over the weekend. “Going up to Standing Rock and seeing this holistic connection between the ecosystem and the people is enlightening. It invigorates.”
They pray together. They bring donated blankets and packs of diapers for the babies in the mix. Former Haskell student Shareena Baker, now at the University of Kansas, has spent days at the site in a pop-up trailer with her 2-year-old son.
“I feel safer there than I do here at home,” Baker said.
Still, tense moments have flared. Haskell student Rachael Falcon reached into her backpack to display what she has brought to Standing Rock: facemasks to protect the mouth and nose from mace. Heavy-duty ear protectors for when authorities play through loudspeakers a piercing noise to disperse crowds. Milk of Magnesia in the eyes can ease the sting of tear gas.
Reports out of Cannon Ball conflict as to whether disturbances are provoked by police or by the protesters.
Supporters of the pipeline project stress not only the jobs it creates but how the country’s quest for energy independence is furthered by the crude from the oil-rich Bakken Formation in the upper plains. Some argue pipelines provide a safer way of moving oil than rail lines do.
Authorities this week threatened to impose hefty fines to keep camp suppliers from delivering shipments of food, building materials and portable bathrooms. Many retailers in the area, citing what they claim to be unsafe conditions in the camp, refuse to sell to the activists.
The Haskell brigades won’t be intimidated or silenced — even should they lose this fight, said senior Andi Weber, 23: “I see this as a pivotal event in my lifetime. We’re done as a people letting our rights get violated.”
Classmate Chloe Gunville agreed: “There’ll be more Standing Rocks.”