I Found the Spirit of Standing Rock in Communities Across the Nation
A four-month road trip showed me how many of us are already building a better America by working together.
I Found the Spirit of Standing Rock in Communities Across the Nation
To reach and support those activists who locked themselves to pipeline equipment, water protectors walk a path carved out by the pipeline on Standing Rock Sioux sacred ancestral grounds. Photo by Rob Wilson.
By Sarah van Gelder / yesmagazine.org

The cedar canoes started out proudly from Bismarck, North Dakota, under threatening skies. The Northwest tribes had come a long way. Members of the Tlingit Nation had hauled their painted canoe more than 2,000 miles from Juneau, Alaska. Tribes from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana also came, crossing the Rockies, some driving through the night to answer the call from the Standing Rock Sioux.

There were rumors of thunder and lightning storms as the paddlers gathered on the banks of the Missouri River, but these travelers were accustomed to harsh weather—many had paddled in the open Pacific and navigated inland waters with currents strong enough to cause massive standing waves and whirlpools.

Conditions in North Dakota were different, though. No one could remember ever seeing Northwest-carved cedar canoes on the waters of the Missouri River.

With prayers and songs, the paddlers poured water collected from home into the river. Then, after some last photographs on the shore, they glanced skeptically at the one tiny aluminum support boat and launched into the current. The canoes and accompanying kayaks were on their way down the Missouri River to the encampments of self-described water protectors at Standing Rock.

Over the months that encampments had grown up along the Cannonball River at Standing Rock, Native people have entered the camps on foot, in caravans of cars and trucks, and on horseback. They have come from as far away as Ecuador and Norway, and from as close as the neighboring Cheyenne River Reservation. Many brought their own stories of battles with resource companies—stories of wealth taken, and of polluted water, air, and soil left behind. So when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe called for help stopping the Dakota Access pipeline, the story had a familiar ring.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had fast-tracked approval for the pipeline, which was to carry 450,000 barrels per day of pressurized fracked oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois, where it would link to another pipeline that would carry it to the Gulf of Mexico. The project, deemed too risky to build upstream from the water supply of the mostly White city of Bismarck, North Dakota, was rerouted to cross the Missouri River just a few miles upstream from the tribe’s reservation. In spite of a visit by President Obama, the Standing Rock tribe had been mostly alone in its fight to stop a project it sees as a threat to their existence. That is, until dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of Native and non-Native people joined in. Toward fall they endured several rounds of mass arrests during violent confrontations with a militarized police force.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Wanda Johnson of the Burns, Oregon, Paiute tribe said when I asked her why she’d answered the call to join the Standing Rock Sioux in opposing the pipeline.

“Without water, what will the people do? What will the farmers do? What will the animals do?” Johnson said. “Somebody has to stand up and say this is enough!”

A Bigger, Changing Story

The fate of Standing Rock matters not only to those who stand to lose access to clean water on the reservation and in cities and towns downstream. It also represents a powerful challenge to a global system that takes the land and resources of those less powerful, leaving behind poverty, pollution, displacement, and, in many cases, the annihilation of a people. Standing Rock is an unfolding story, very much in progress, of what it might mean to put people first, along with a stable climate and a livable world for future generations. It offers a glimpse of how we might live together, while also protecting other forms of life.

We founded YES! Magazine 20 years ago to tell stories like this about people fighting for their communities, health, liberation, loved ones, and for Mother Earth—stories about people who believe that the world can be a better place and that they can help make it so.

A delegation from the Lummi tribe at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Administrative Center. Since this past summer, hundreds of tribes from all over the world have come to Standing Rock as a show of solidarity. Photo by Desiree Kane.

When we started in 1996, we believed that the much-celebrated prosperity of that decade was illusory. Many believed climate change was a distant threat—it wasn’t. A rising tide of economic growth was supposed to lift all boats and alleviate poverty and inequality—it didn’t. Racism wasn’t discussed in most public arenas, especially those controlled by White people who believed the issue could be safely ignored—it couldn’t be. The signs were there to be seen. We were an unjust society on an unsustainable path. Today, the urgent need for change and the societal anxiety have only increased, creating fertile ground for the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump. But as the lock hold of the status quo loosens, generative change also becomes more possible, and we can see that positive alternatives were arising from the creativity and fresh leadership emerging everywhere, especially at the grassroots.

When we started YES!, we set out to report on what was, in fact, emerging. Hate and despair can bring out more of the same, but so can positive change, solidarity, innovations of all sorts—if the news gets out. So we talked to internationally renowned visionaries, and to people who were growing food in empty city lots. We reported on change-makers in the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit and in crunchy Northern California. We researched the U.S. prison system and the alternatives, examined the meaning of real health and how we get it, and we looked for the best solutions to the climate crisis. We talked to people protecting their watersheds from corporations, and to those who were starting worker cooperatives and local food systems. As of this, our 80th issue, we’ve covered a lot of leading-edge change. And here are a few things we found:

The changes are holistic. People’s lives are not segmented into issues or sectors, and neither are the movements they lead. So now we see movements for climate justice that also explore new economic solutions; or Black Lives Matter, which promotes the leadership of women and LGBTQ people, for example. We are whole people, so why wouldn’t we work for whole-systems change? And why wouldn’t we want to work together?

The stories that guide our lives are shifting. Our culture has put money, consumerism, and profit first, discounting the value of authentic relationships and the natural world. But increasingly, people are reassessing what matters most, and considering their responsibilities to one another and to future generations. The rise of indigenous leadership is influencing many as they rethink what’s important.

We are physical, embodied creatures who can’t thrive in a poisoned environment. We are the water, and air, and the Earth, and even the microbes that live in our guts and in the soil. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes.

We can learn and create things wholly new, and we can build on the learning of past eras to change things in the next.

We have the capacity for empathy and for deep understanding, and a yearning for connection. That may be why so much joy is unleashed when people break through divides and recognize their common humanity.

And we are capable of making choices. Perhaps that’s the lesson of this era of climate brinkmanship, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter. We can choose not to destroy each other and we can choose not to destroy this fragile speck of life floating across the universe.

It comes back to what Caro Gonzales, who was camped at Standing Rock, told me: “We’re fighting for ourselves, and we’re fighting for our Mother Earth, and that’s one and the same.”

The Power of Community

Last year, I took a four-month road trip around the country to see for myself what sorts of changes were emerging. I visited urban metropolises like Detroit, Cincinnati, Newark, Dallas, and Chicago; Native American reservations in Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico; small towns and cities in Wisconsin, North Carolina, New York, and Utah. As the nasty race for the White House was just beginning to heat up on the national stage, I met people working to transform the racist legacies of their communities, building locally rooted economies that offer meaningful work while restoring the environment and creating liberating ways of life.

Sioux water protectors, many on horseback, at a Dakota Access construction site. Photo by Rob Wilson.

And everywhere I went, I found that the most profound change was happening at the community level. (The book I wrote about this journey, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, tells stories from my trip and explores how this transformation is happening.)

Evolutionary change, starting in communities, is our only option. Top-down transformation is almost always horrific (think Stalinist Russia). Only when power is widely distributed, and only when people work together to create the world they want to live in—only then can transformation be deep and holistic while also being liberating, compassionate, and inclusive.

When the scale gets too large, complexities and nuances are dumbed down into simple ideologies. We fall into the trap of scapegoating groups of people, whether they’re immigrants, Muslims, or “deplorable” Trump supporters. And concentrated power always leads to atrocities. But when we spend time with each other, learning about one another and the complex realities of individual lives, we keep the power widely distributed, and we have a much better chance of creating positive change. Community scale doesn’t make it inevitable that we will do the right thing. But it does make it possible. And it empowers ordinary people to be leaders.

In the city of Detroit, where poverty and water shutoffs make everyday life a challenge for thousands, I met Halima Cassell, a single mom and a community activist, formerly homeless, who was born and has lived most of her life in Detroit. I asked her what sort of world she was working to create, and her words still reverberate. “I’m living it,” she said after a pause. “I’m overjoyed and in gratitude at least part of every day.”

But Can We Win?

Do communities and all their important and brave efforts have a chance in the David-and-Goliath struggle against the giant corporations and Wall Street banks, the Super PACs and lobbyists, the PR agencies, and the government officials who are too often influenced by the big money? Can the Standing Rock Sioux prevail against Energy Transfer Partners and the mega-banks pushing the Dakota Access pipeline?

Since the passage of NAFTA and other trade deals, global corporations have grown bigger and more emboldened, and many are even bigger after crashing the global economy and getting bailed out in 2008. They have as much, or more, influence in government. The policies and practices that grow out of this partnership of giant transnational corporations and governments are known around the world as neoliberalism. Both of the major U.S. political parties adhere to its principles and the practices of extraction, climate-destroying pipelines, tax concessions and subsidies for the 1 percent, the undermining of worker rights, and the shredding of the safety net. These are the forces that assure big profits at the expense of the well-being of We the People and We the Earth. Drinkable water, whether in Flint or at Standing Rock, is sacrificed in this paradigm, as is climate stability, democracy, and any real reduction in inequality.

But the laws and subsidies that concentrate the world’s wealth and power in the hands of a few, and that make neoliberalism such a powerful force, are made by people. Likewise the belief systems and stories that justify the triple evils that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of: racism, poverty, and militarism. Since these stories and policies are human-made, we have it within our power to tell new stories and to create different institutions. In our communities, we are doing this work, acting together to put people and Mother Earth first.

There is much about what’s happening at Standing Rock that is extraordinary—the young people, the determination to protect the water, the willingness to stand up to attack dogs and gun-wielding police, the prayer and fierce love that is at the center of the work. But the thing that makes me believe they might succeed is the solidarity. Hundreds of tribes and thousands of individuals have stepped up. Some are camping along the Cannonball River, others sitting in at the banks that are funding the pipeline, or raising funds to support the encampments as they prepare for a cold winter. That solidarity energizes people and strengthens their resolve, and likely accounts for the Obama administration’s temporary, and now voluntary, work stoppage order. As I write, the outcome is uncertain. Still, maybe it’s solidarity, based in communities that are deeply rooted to place, that gives us the best shot.

“Water Is Life”

Out on the Missouri River, the rain came, as predicted. The Northwest paddlers are accustomed to rain storms, though, and the canoes, kayaks, and the lone support boat continued down the river, dodging sand bars and logs, briefly taking shelter on the banks during an intense thunder and lightning storm.

Pacific Northwest tribes arrive at Standing Rock by canoe in the Cannonball tributary of the Missouri River. YES! Photo by Sarah van Gelder. 

The afternoon after setting out from Bismarck, ocean-going cedar canoes, accompanied by smaller dug-out canoes and kayaks, paddled up the Cannonball River to cheers and chants from those waiting. Young girls in the canoes wearing traditional regalia waved at the crowd on the shore. The paddlers unfurled a banner reading, “Paddle to Standing Rock” and “Rezpect our Water,” fists and paddles held high, chants echoing across the camp on both sides of the Cannonball: “Water is Life, Water is Life!”

“It put a lump in my throat to see all these people gather,” B.J. Kidder told me. Kidder, a Hunkpapa elder and fisherman, lives at Standing Rock. “It means so much to me. I’m really honored to see all the people.”

The solidarity at Standing Rock is key to local power going big. The forces that would extract the last barrel of oil, frack the last rock formation, or put at risk the water supply of millions are powerful forces. And only together can communities overcome that power and create the conditions for the regeneration of life. Only together can they weather the damage already done, and support one another in preventing yet more destruction.

King said we have a choice: chaos or community. People everywhere are voting with their hands and their feet, choosing community. Like at Standing Rock, they are protecting their water, their soil and air, building power, and supporting each other. We all have indigenous roots. We all can create ways of life that are rooted in ethical reciprocity, showing up for each other and for the planet. And when the forces of exploitation and extraction get too strong, we can put out the call, and take a stand together, with fierceness and love.


Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for for 50 Solutions, the Winter issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is co-founder and editor at large of YES! Her new book, “The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America,” is available now from YES! Read her blog and more about her road trip and book here and follow her on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

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I Found the Spirit of Standing Rock in Communities Across the Nation