Peaceful, native-led Water Protectors have won an important victory. But the fight is not over

Illustration by Charlo Frade

Illustration by Charlo Frade

Black Snake at Standing Rock

by Judy Wicks

A 1,000-year-old Lakota prophecy tells of a Black Snake that would rise from the deep and move across the land, bringing destruction and great sorrow. The Sioux believe that the Black Snake has arrived in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the most powerful economic and political force in the world: the fossil fuel industry. 

I traveled with a group to Standing Rock for a weeklong stay at the native-owned casino to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the Water Protectors. Their camp had swelled to more than 10,000 peaceful native and non-native people praying to stop the completion of a gas pipeline that would burrow under sacred sites and the Missouri River. As soon as we settled in, we met people who were still suffering from a police attack a few days before our arrival. 

Trapped between squads of police, the unarmed protectors had been blasted with water cannons for six hours in freezing temperatures, doused with tear gas and pepper spray, and shot with rubber bullets and exploding percussion grenades. Several hundred were hospitalized for hypothermia and injuries. In earlier confrontations, we heard of nonviolent Water Protectors who were protecting sacred sites, some at prayer, when they were beaten with batons, attacked by dogs that were encouraged to be aggressive; protesters were arrested, strip searched and locked for days in dog kennels. 

Rubber projectiles the size of golf balls had lacerated heads, broken bones and knocked people unconscious, including an elder. The few daring reporters who covered the attack were also arrested and charged with starting a riot.

As other supporters were doing, we offered our rooms for hot showers. A young Lakota man—covered in the residue of tear gas sprayed on him three days before—still suffered from a deep cough. Another had a broken hand. After her shower, a native woman who worked at camp security fell asleep with exhaustion on one of our beds. 

During my week at Standing Rock, I witnessed a surreal, epic drama of two contrasting worldviews: one of horror and one of hope. The Black Snake, driven by greed and fear, uses violence to dominate people and nature, and measures success by short-term profits and the accumulation of material wealth. This extractive economy is fed by rampant consumerism and our own addiction to oil and gas. It is a world where corporations violate Mother Earth every day by drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal, poisoning of water, soil and air, and the destruction of forests, marshes and the habitats of wildlife. 

In contrast, the encampment at Standing Rock offers us a world we can choose to build together, one that is nonviolent, cooperative and loving, that honors women, the old and the young, and respects all species in the web of life. It is a world where a restorative economy is being built that will produce the basic needs of all people, while protecting and restoring natural systems. It is a world of awe, wonder and joy that honors our common Mother. 

Despite the continuation of the genocidal history of abuse and betrayal, the native people of Standing Rock have offered love to all—even the oppressors. 

It is not only the future of their own children that the Protectors are defending, they explain, but the children of the pipe layers and policemen, as well. Kind words and water are offered to the police officers whenever possible. After the vicious attacks, an elder formed a forgiveness procession to the sheriff’s office carrying a banner and a prayer bundle with blessings for the police officers and their families. When the sheriff posted a notice in the newspaper requesting donations for things the officers needed, a group of indigenous youth delivered all the supplies listed, including milk, energy bars, batteries and hand warmers. 

Standing Rock calls us to join the struggle to defeat the Black Snake and inspires us to act with courage to protect what we love in our own communities and to support indigenous people around the globe who stand on the front lines in defense of their places. As the prophecy further warns, if the Earth’s people do not unite to defeat the Black Snake, the world will end. As we near catastrophic climate change, will we as individuals and collectively as a nation choose life over money? Love over fear? This story is not yet over, but the conclusion is near. What role will each of us play in its outcome?

Judy Wicks is a national leader in the movement for sustainable communities and economy.