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Most Schools Stifle Indigenous Youth. Standing Rock Offered a Different Vision.

In all corners of camp, thousands of ordinary people became committed protectors, emboldened with collective confidence.

The sun rises over Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, near Standing Rock on November 25, 2016.

Part of the Series

In early August 2016, tribal nations throughout North America passed resolutions in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their stance to protect the waters of the Mni Sose, Missouri River, against threats from the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. This, after Standing Rock Sioux Tribal (SRST) Chairman David Archambault II put out an official call to tribal nations for support. The Standing Rock Sioux youth runners and founder of the Sacred Stone Camp, LaDonna Bravebull Allard, put out calls of their own via social media, also for allied support. Their messages to Indian Country and beyond went viral, reaching the masses worldwide. Within days, in early August, caravans of cars and delegations from throughout Turtle Island made their way to the Sacred Stone Camp and to the newly erected Red Warrior and Oceti Sakowin Camps just across the Cannonball River.

During my first visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp in mid-­August with a young relative, the grass was still high and a small number of camps stretched across the plain. Upon our arrival to camp late one night, we were greeted by security and then assisted by a volunteer who helped us set up our tent in the rain. The next morning, we woke up to sights and sounds of happiness and community. People were so eager to help one another, to contribute supplies, and even just to offer a warm smile. Together, that morning, approximately two hundred of us walked to the Cannonball River for a water ceremony. We prayed and cheered together, and the energy was palpable. In that moment, there was no sign of despair or sadness, only purpose and cooperation —­ something of our ancestors’ time.

After spending the weekend at the resistance camps, I returned home. Back at my residence on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, a five-­hour drive from camp, I felt lonely and sad. As I walked back and forth in my box, in my two-­bedroom duplex, I felt the utter separation from the sense of community and hope that was overflowing at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. I immediately began to recognize the stark contrast between the energy of the Western world we are consumed by in our daily lives versus the energy of an Indigenous world of true communal living, which was manifesting rapidly back in camp.

During my second visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp the following weekend, I took my son and three teenaged nephews along. We left on a Friday afternoon right after they all got out of school. The boys were excited and anxious, especially after completing their second week back in school, where the growing movement in Standing Rock was being discussed in many of their classes.

“Auntie, what do you have to do to be an arrestable?” asked one of my nephews on our five-­hour drive to Standing Rock, already imagining offering himself up for the cause. This young man was, by nature, very quiet and, in many respects, an introvert. As a high school senior, he was not involved in extracurricular activities in school, and he was generally a C student, content with doing just enough to get by.

My youngest nephew, age thirteen, an A student and frequent recipient of Student of the Month awards, was bursting with energy. A budding digital storyteller, he eagerly anticipated making and producing a video of the resistance camp using apps on his iPod.

Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement
Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, 2019.

We arrived at the resistance camps late at night and set up our tent in the dark. The next morning, the boys sprang from bed with eyes wide open. In the daylight, I quickly noticed that camp had grown exponentially in just one week. Not long after breakfast at the main kitchen, the boys set about delivering supplies to the camps, which were now thickly spread across the plain. They jumped on the back of a truck with other young men, most of them complete strangers, dropping off cases of water, sleeping bags, and miscellaneous camp gear throughout Oceti Sakowin in the hot August sun.

They joined hundreds of others from camp on foot to the original front line during a prayer walk, walking nearly three miles in total, the most walking that at least one of them had done in quite a long time. They war whooped and held up their fists. They joked and smiled, and late into the night they sat around the fire, feeling good.

When it came time to leave camp on Sunday evening and head back home, the boys unanimously asked to stay just one more night. “Maybe I can just be homeschooled and stay in camp,” said my thirteen-­year-­old, Student of the Month nephew. He called his mom and made the case for staying a little bit longer. To no avail: we ended up going home anyway, earlier than he wanted, earlier than they all wanted. All of them were undeniably imprinted with an experience that would stay with them forever. They were drawn in, much like the countless others who answered the call to support Standing Rock, and they savored every moment, standing for something —­ in fact, many things —­ that simply made them feel whole.

Self and Community Actualization

In the world of psychology and education, academics are schooled in Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Motivation, which outlines the most basic needs of human beings required to reach a state of motivation and self-­actualization, or one’s own personal and greatest potential in life. As an educator of Native youth for six years on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, I regularly considered Maslow’s theory, also known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, recognizing the many obstacles in place for Native American students who often struggled to reach a state of motivation, as their most basic needs were just not being met.

The first and most basic need of human beings, according to Maslow, is our need for food, water, warmth, and rest —­ our physiological needs. Then we must fulfill our needs of security and safety. If those most basic needs are met, then we can begin to focus more directly on our psychological needs —­ our need for love and belonging —­ and our esteem needs, which derive from feeling a sense of accomplishment. Once all of our needs are met, we are free, in a sense, equipped to set about the process of self-­actualization, where we achieve our full potential in any given moment. But without any of those most basic physiological and psychological needs being met, human beings cannot even begin to focus on anything else but those absent needs, which, in turn, inhibits their ability to self-­actualize.

As a secondary education social studies teacher, I was tasked with teaching Native American students the basics of the social sciences. I taught courses in geography, social studies, psychology, sociology, American Indian history, and Tribal Government. Many students often showed up to class tired, unprepared, without their books or even a pencil to write with. Some were incredibly unmotivated and/or emotionally disconnected, going through the motions of compulsory education, unable to receive the full benefits of the opportunities that lay before them.

Many Native American students drop out of school, and in higher proportion than any other demographic in America, as they are too often lacking institutional support, direction, and inspiration from the schools that serve them. Native youth also suffer tragically from mental health disparities, some of them going into substance abuse treatment in their teenage years, others cutting and even taking their own lives.

As a teacher of American Indian history and Tribal Government, in these courses with culturally relevant content where the material regularly reflected Indigenous experiences, tribal communities, and all of the goodness, resolve, and intelligence of Indigenous people, students were noticeably more motivated to learn. In those classes, students were inspired, at the very least, to lift their heads from the desk and pay attention. They participated in class discussions, asked important questions, and wanted to know more. They were invested and present. They learned and they hungered for more —­ even the kids otherwise perceived as defiant. In those two culturally relevant courses, the students’ esteem needs and their needs of love and belonging were being met. Their existence, as Indigenous young women and men, was being validated and affirmed, simply by virtue of the content studied. I also loved my students dearly and worked hard to deliver material in a way that communicated my love and concern for them.

Still, as a teacher back then, I wasn’t able to change the fact that many students came to school late, often due to family and personal issues, or they missed school altogether as a result of a whole range of tragedies, from the most serious matters of family death to the lack of family stability and support. I had no control over their home life or the vast majority of their most basic physiological or psychological needs, yet I was supposed to teach them and, somehow, communicate content to their clouded and confused, yet fertile and impressionable, young minds. I had hoped so deeply that they would ultimately begin to think and imagine their own magnificent thoughts and soon speak powerfully from a place of self-­awareness, having learned their history as Indigenous people. I wanted them to become motivated, and then create a good life for themselves and their communities through the opportunities of a Western education. This was so much easier said than done.

Compared to the standard classrooms of contemporary American education, the camps at Standing Rock produced an environment substantially and holistically more supportive for Native youth. During my regular visits to Standing Rock, which became weekly, and in stretches of three to eight days at a time while working as a journalist and correspondent for Indian Country Media Network, I began noticing many of my former students sprinkled throughout various volunteer stations in camp. One young man, a recent graduate and a student who was suspended numerous times from school, was staying up late into the night at Oceti Sakowin, working the security gate. Before long, he took to riding horse bareback and was often seen trailing along with the Spirit Riders, a group of young men and women on horseback, as they patrolled in and around the outskirts of camp and near pipeline construction sites. He had a newfound purpose and a community that met his most basic physiological and psychological needs in ways that school, or life on the reservation, did not quite accomplish.

At Oceti Sakowin, for so many youth and adults alike, virtually every one of their most basic needs was being met and, consequently, individuals were motivated, prompting them to offer up their best skills and talents for the good of the community. This was a community that each individual relied on, for food, shelter, safety, love, and belonging, and, conversely, the community relied on them too. Each individual was valuable and necessary, and they knew it. And while there were, in fact, variations and sometimes sharp divisions in tactics and ideologies in camp throughout the duration of the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the underlying goal was the same: protect the water, protect the land, and protect the future of tribal nations.

That common goal and tremendous communal support motivated many camp-­goers and Water Protectors to push beyond their limits and expand their skill sets by stepping out of their comfort zones and onto a well-­lit path of self-­actualization. Thousands were growing, healing, and becoming, constantly. Relatives who battled depression beamed with energy in camp, and youth who were otherwise withdrawn suddenly operated with an obvious sense of purpose. There was truly a job and a place for everyone. You simply had to show up and then give it your best.

Children, youth, and adults learned phrases and songs in the Lakota and Dakota language. Some participated in their first ceremonies, while others learned to ride horse, bareback, with fearlessness. Many women, as first-­time seamstresses, learned how to sew ribbon skirts. Kitchens overflowed with expert cooks, and novice cooks who shadowed them and soon became skilled in the kitchen too. Carpenters came and created new carpenters, and structures began emerging all throughout camp. Organizers mobilized new organizers, many of whom refined their oratory and communication skills along the way. Both seasoned artists and courageous new artists contributed their artwork in “Action Art” stations throughout camp. Nonviolent direct action trainings, offered regularly, transmuted the energy, anger, and anxiousness of the disenfranchised into focus and commitment. Elders came with knowledge and history, and thousands showed up to listen and learn. All the while, truckloads of donations poured into camp, creating mountains of wood, food, medicines, clothing, camp gear, and miscellaneous personal items.

In the camps and on the front lines, individuals became a necessary part of the whole, as they each became tightly woven into a reciprocal relationship with community that would sustain them through even the harshest conditions. As frontline Water Protectors organized dynamic frontline actions, the atmosphere grew increasingly more dangerous, and still they pushed on. Dog attacks, mace, freezing water in the black of night, blizzards, and hundreds of arrests were not enough to deter the many who came to protect the water, the land, and the health and well-­being of future generations. New tactics constantly emerged to stop construction of the pipeline, keeping the Morton County Sherriff’s Department and Dakota Access security on their toes. Actualization was constant.

In all corners of camp, thousands of ordinary people became committed protectors, emboldened with collective confidence. Together, they found their voice, if not amplified it, deepening their commitments to protecting the land, waters, and their own communities. Individuals of all ages actualized —­ and, in fact, spontaneously in many synergistic moments. With thousands of actualizing individuals spread throughout camp and on the front lines, the entire community inevitably actualized, too. What began as a small camp of fewer than a dozen at Sacred Stone in April 2016 blossomed to nearly twenty thousand at the height of camp occupation, which expanded into Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, and Rosebud Camps.

During that time, roads were well worn into the grass, culture-­based schools for children were established by volunteer teachers, kitchens sprang up, structures for living and gathering were built, legal teams organized, and medic tents with massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, and even acupuncturists took care of the health and well-­being of Water Protectors. There were supply areas and enough clothing donations to clothe everyone for several seasons over. Sweat lodges were erected all throughout camp, and ceremonies took place daily. Solar panels and small wind turbines produced energy, while composting toilets eventually replaced port-­a-­potties in early winter. Security stations remained in various places throughout camp, and what became known as media hill served as a hub for communication.

In virtually just weeks, an entire city of thousands was born out of the hopes, cooperation, and imaginations of healthy and motivated individuals yearning for something more in this world, while aiming, ultimately, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Moments of community actualization sometimes ebbed, to a degree, but at the same time continuously flowed, as the community makeup transformed and expanded day by day.

Yet from the earliest and most uplifting phases of camp life, there were logistical and ideological challenges. New arrivals poured into camp daily, while many others left to return to their jobs or to their families. Some stayed for the weekend, and others for stretches of a few weeks or even months at a time. Leadership was fluid, horizontal, and varied from camp to camp, while the SRST government continued to engage with the federal government in their usual government-­to-­government relationship outside of camp.

With national attention mounting, and camp population rapidly expanding, it wasn’t long before talk of infiltrators and agitators alerted Water Protectors to the lurking threat of internal sabotage. And even amid the fear of infiltrators, a greater threat to the movement, and beloved camp life, was looming.