Report From Standing Rock

by Aaron Martin, December 28, 2016

I have lived in Boonville since 2009, but I grew up in North Dakota. I recently returned from a month long stay there. My time was split between visits with family and work at the Oceti Sakowin water protector encampment, the focal point of the resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I wrote a previous piece that accounted for some basic camp experiences and concluded just after the well known Backwater Bridge protest which drew national attention to law enforcement’s brutal tactics against peaceful demonstrators. After that event, resistance shifted from local engagements to a broad national media discussion that witnessed the arrival of thousands of military veteran supporters and culminated with the Army Corp of Engineers Dec 4th denial of an easement for ETP to drill under the Missouri River. Meanwhile, the protector camp focused on maintaining safety through two blizzards that brought extreme wind and snow as temperatures dropped below -15°F.

At daily coordination meetings, I heard estimates of camp population near 12,000 at its peak on Dec 4th. They dropped to less than one thousand before I left on Dec 13th. Maintenance of such a large population was clearly difficult for even the best laid preparations. Winterization and sanitation infrastructure was put to the test during the first sub-zero blizzard from Dec 5th to Dec 7th.

The onset of severe weather began mid-day Dec 5th. Weather conditions compelled all individuals to assess their abilities to remain from a purely physical perspective. Thousands of people prudently chose to leave, but it is a testament to the camp’s organization that so many thousands were able to stay. Most roads, including the major interstate corridors through ND, were closed due to icy, windy, and low visibility conditions. A vigilant medical team worked continuously to keep campers warm and healthy. Winterization preparations included enough extra resources to safely house those who overestimated their capabilities and required assistance after it was too late to depart.

The medical team recruited additional volunteers for accountability ‘search and rescue’ efforts intended to protect campers from hypothermia. Search teams made rounds through the camp to locate anyone in high-risk situations, especially those sleeping in personal vehicles and tents. Hypothermia can onset slowly without the individual being aware of the signs, which include confusion, fatigue, lack of concern, and drowsiness. Many were treated for varying stages of hypothermia, while others were escorted to warmer accommodations.

The overall community was expected to support accountability efforts through check-ins with their immediate neighbors. Small groups with additional space were requested to offer extra sleeping room to others. Anyone camping alone was encouraged to seek out communal sleeping spaces.

The ‘Mendo Stands with Standing Rock ‘group has maintained a winterized tipi for a steady flow of short-term, local supporters since Sept. During blizzard times, the Mendocino tipi provided additional sleeping space for people from the medical warming ward.

Winterization infrastructure relied on a communal approach to maximize the efficiency of insulation, heating, and communication. Large canvas tents, tipis, yurts and domes had insulated floors made of 2x6 lumber stuffed with straw and covered with plywood. Some were given additional straw bale walls to provide further insulation and wind break. Heating was accomplished primarily with wood stoves, and augmented with some propane heat. Meeting spaces, mess halls, and other logistical spaces were converted to warm sleeping areas after nightfall. All work was completed with volunteer labor.

Sanitation became a dire situation as camp population spiked just before severe weather. Sanitation consisted of groups of porta-potties distributed throughout camp that were pumped on a daily basis. The severe weather stopped the regular pumping schedule. Soon after, the septic company completely removed the johns as a composting toilet system was being developed.

The organization, Give Love(givelove.org), in partnership with the Protectors Alliance(protectorsalliance.org), was hired by the Standing Rock Sioux to develop and implement a long term composting toilet system for all camps. Their contract included the development of 77 composting toilets. This project was just being implemented the day before I left, but I was able to attend a training that described how the overall system would be facilitated.

Toilet stalls were constructed in large winterized military tents. Each toilet consisted of a 5 gallon bucket lined with a biodegradable bag. Sawdust was used as a cover material. Attendants were trained to maintain and empty toilets and to train users unfamiliar with the no-water sawdust covering process. All bags were allowed to freeze after removal and prior to being transported to a location where all waste will be composted in the spring. Plans included distribution of individual toilets throughout camp to minimize distances that people would have to walk under cold and icy conditions.

This process is a clean, no-water method for human waste disposal. I know from years of personal experience that it is a very effective system. Its basic principals can be learned through many sources including Givelove’s homepage.

This compost model represents a valuable opportunity for rural California, especially Mendocino County, where it can simultaneously reduce water dependency while protecting ground water quality through reduced septic leaching.

At camp I witnessed a well-organized cooperative effort that was successful at sustaining a common goal under the most difficult circumstances. There was a consistent message to work cooperatively based on the 7 Sioux values of prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, and wisdom. This intention was explicit at all work projects, trainings, and meetings that I participated in.

First nation’s cultures represent a natural fit for leadership rolls regarding civil and environmental justice issues in the U.S. Please support this roll through active education regarding the continued oppression of indigenous people. Help to break this centuries-old cycle by seeking out and supporting indigenous struggles locally and nationally. Local support for the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline is being coordinated by the ‘Mendo Stands with Standing Rock’ group. They can be contacted through Facebook and other social media through searches of that name.

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