[The Wild Hunt welcomes Nathan Hall back as today’s guest journalist. He makes his home in South Florida where he works for a local media company and lives with his wife and soon-to-be first child. He grew up without any real religious background but always felt connected with the spirits of the land. Because of this connection he has always felt a strong kinship with environmental causes and the primacy of nature over humanity’s exploitation of it. Nathan has followed many paths, including ceremonial magick, Norse and Druidic traditions. Recently, he has come into alignment with the Temple of Witchcraft tradition where he is a student in the Mystery School. You can find more of his writing at The Arrival and the Reunion.]
CANNONBALL, N.D. — In a remote, northern part of the country, a battle over water and indigenous rights is brewing. Earlier this year, a pipeline was set to be put in place just north of the city of Bismarck, North Dakota. Residents of the city had legitimate fears of what that could mean for their water supply and protested the pipeline, after which it was relocated south of the city, and just north of the water intake of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s land.
That move has many questioning why this move was seen as an acceptable alternative and what the environmental impact will be.
“I feel that my Paganism is directly linked to a call to activism, eco-activism and anti-racism specifically. I think both of those are really tied up into this protest,” said Colleen Cook, a witch in the Reclaiming tradition, after returning from a five day stay at a protest camp set up near Standing Rock Sioux land.
Sacred Stone Camp, one of several camps in the area [Courtesy Casey McCarthy]
Like many others, Cook felt called to the camps to be an ally and to stand witness to what is occurring.
“I thought about my role as a Pagan in the space I was occupying while I was there and it really felt most appropriate to follow the leadership of the indigenous leadership there,” Cook said.
Called the Dakota Access pipeline, or DAPL for short, it is a project of Energy Transfer Partners. Many are already familiar with the story due to very well-publicized pictures published across national media of indigenous protesters being arrested or riding horses in front of lines of police. From the beginning, there have been claims that construction by Dakota Access has been happening illegally, and many of the people in the protest camp believe that to be the case. Standing Rock leaders have filed an injunction to halt further development of the area.
Linda Black Elk lives in Standing Rock where she has children who are enrolled members of the Standing Rock Sioux. She’s been regularly attending the protests since the beginning. She said, “When I first got wind of what was going to happen, I contacted some friends who are pretty well-known pipeline fighters around here. Then a lady named Ladonna Bravebull gave her land for the [Sacred Stone] camp. That was back in April.”
Since that time, the protest camps, of which there are several, have been steadily growing. But it wasn’t until late July and early August when confrontations with Dakota Access and state police began to be publicized on social media, that people started pouring into the area. Eventually one camp became two, occupying both sides of the Missouri River. While estimates vary, some have claimed that the camps have swelled to between 1000-2000 people at times.
And this fight has resounded throughout many communities, bringing in allies from many other tribes and uniting the seven Lakota tribes who last fought together at the Battle of Little Bighorn, defeating General Custer. Environmental activists have also been drawn to the cause, as well as many from the Pagan community.
Casey McCarthy, the Folk Liaison for Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF)’s Mountain Ancestors Grove in Boulder, Colorado, took a convoy of three cars filled with supplies to the Standing Rock protesters at the Sacred Stone Camp.
“We got several donations from local Pagan folk and members of our community, both monetary and material,” he said.
Truckload of supplies going to Sacred Stone Camp [Courtesy Casey McCarthy]
They collected bottled water, camping gear, and other items specifically requested by camp organizers. McCarthy feels that there’s a deeper reason that this issue has found resonance within the Pagan community. He said, “As a magickal-believing people, the timing of this is quite incredible. Almost as if nature itself is reaching out and saying, hey, you guys purport yourselves to be supporters of nature, let’s do this.”
McCarthy added, “In terms of our role as stewards of nature worship, I think that for things like (the pipeline protest), the Pagan community could rally and do incredible things.”
Those actions may need to include some of the work that is less glamorous but more long-lasting, according to Payu Harris, McCarthy’s traveling companion in the caravan.
“Protests are effective and useful, especially in this case for raising awareness across the globe,” said Harris, an activist and member of the Northern Cheyenne, who founded Mazacoin, a bitcoin-like alternative for indigenous people. He said that, in spite of this, the legislative route is where long-term success will be won. That is in the works.
“The energy industry has way more lobbying power than we do. We need a lobbying effort at the DC level to start talking about our issues … we have to change it at that point in order to have any sustainable results.”
Black Elk, who is an ecologist and teaches ethnobotany at Sitting Bull College, said that the environmental and cultural impact of allowing any pipeline through the area, whether it crosses the river or not, could be disastrous. Already, the completed construction has had an impact.
“I’ve done surveys of those of those areas, even before there was any pipeline to be put in, that’s an area that I would go and I would look at plants. We have echinacea, traditional berries, licorice root, different kinds of sage. There’s like a hundred plant species that we still use and harvest that already have been completely decimated in that area,” Black Elk said.
During a project like Dakota Pipeline, one of the first tasks is called an environmental impact statement. This statement is a survey of the region that would be affected by the incoming pipeline, including the cataloging of native plant and animal species, culturally significant areas, as well as noting how the construction will change the environment.
Black Elk said the impact statement was not done by the Army Corps, but by a company hired by Dakota Access. This practice is not that uncommon. However Black Elk added, “This statement was so bad that it didn’t even mention that there’s an endangered species of butterfly there. Sacred sites? Not even mentioned. Culturally important plants? Not even mentioned. I’ve never seen one done so badly.”
Protesters at Sacred Stone Camp [Courtesy Casey McCarthy]
Sustainability of the protest is another issue that the Standing Rock camps organizers are pondering. Winter comes early on the northern prairie, and they are looking for ways to not simply survive the winter, but to do it with as little impact on the environment as possible.
“We have teepees, which are of course made for this area, but we’d like a better way than to keep using firewood,” Black Elk explained. One thing she said that they would really like to have is cob stoves, which burn corn cobs and are clean and efficient.
“They’re looking for lots of information about solar, infrastructure, composting toilets, outdoor showers. If there are people that have that knowledge or resources, they’re building a community from the ground up,” added Colleen Cook.
There are also many children in the camps who are in need of school supplies and indigenous educators to come to the area to teach them. Cook mentioned that she was already thinking about returning to the camps from her home in Minneapolis, with her car filled with the necessities for a new school year.
More than anything, the biggest resource that everyone kept bringing up was more people. Kevin Decker is a Pagan and activist from Kansas City, Missouri who met Lakota youth as they participated in a 500-mile run to the field office of the Army Corps of engineers in Omaha, Nebraska from Cannonball, North Dakota to deliver petitions against Dakota Access. Decker was part of the Up to Us Caravan that protested at the Democratic National Convention at the time. He was so inspired by the children’s message that he decided to join the camp. Decker was also among the first arrested when police were trying to enforce an expanding blockade.
He said the camps really need “people that have the ability to come in and not take things personally and plug in in ways that are beneficial.”
Respect for the indigenous leadership is key, he noted, saying it was more important to fill roles that are service-oriented, as well as being of service and observing what’s happening.
Cook agreed with that sentiment, and said, “I think allies are needed to make more space for the work of indigenous people (who are) getting to connect together. I spent most of my time working in the kitchen. The main cook there, named Tink, I felt like my main mission was (to) relieve some stress from Tink. I think that is the call, for allies to come in and help relieve some of this burden.”
Linda Black Elk invited anyone in sympathy with the cause to come to the camps.
“It doesn’t matter what spirituality you practice, it doesn’t matter what culture or race, everyone is welcome because this really is about all of us. As we come to the end of the fossil fuel age, they get more and more desperate to take the last bit of blood they can from our mother. We need that unity and we need people here with us,” she said.
[Courtesy Casey McCarthy]
There was also an expressed yearning for people in the Pagan community to more publicly embrace their identity. Cook brought up the role that Paganism plays in this and other movements. “Black Lives Matter to me is a place where I really believe the presence of Witches, if ever there was a moment… I’d like for the world to know that Witches are showing up for this stuff, I’d like there to be ways for us to say we’re Witches or Pagans and we’re here because I think that’s a really important message.”
In fact, bridging gaps, plugging into numerous community efforts, and understanding different perspectives may be an inherently Pagan quality, according to Casey McCarthy. Pondering the multiple sources of divinity in his own polytheistic practice, he said, “That is so valuable in trying to create a world in which we can all love each other. We need to work together with other groups to make this world a more lovely and compassionate place.”
As we noted on Monday, groups like Solar Cross have been sending supplies and donations to the camps. Others have joined them. If you or your group are looking for other ways to help, they suggest visiting the Standing Rock Sioux’s website to send a letter to your representative. These sites also provide information about how you can make a donation.
We will update this story as it unfolds. The federal judge is due to rule on the case Sept. 9.