SPIRIT CAMP, South Dakota — On a slight hill in the middle of fallow corn fields sits a circle of tipis, the only view for miles in any direction. This is the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Spirit Camp, a statement of opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and a site for people to come pray that the project be rejected. The camp is hosted by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and sits on tribal land nestled right up against the proposed pipeline route.
Almost every morning campers greet the sun with songs of prayer, and each night they hold an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony as the sun sets. They hope their prayers are enough to stave off the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which would jeopardize their community and its water supply. In the next few weeks Obama is expected to make a final decision about the project, and many hold out hope that he will reject it. But if the plan is approved, the organizers of the camp say they intend to stay and stop the construction themselves.
Leota Iron Cloud describes herself as a “behind the scenes person”, and she seems to hold the place together, refilling the water jugs, sweeping corn husks from the kitchen, preparing food. She says she has always been concerned about her community and has wanted to be involved, but has been kept away from activism by the violence she sees on TV. A Lakota grandmother, she was brought up in the Episcopal Church but now practices traditional Lakota ways; when she found out about the Spirit Camp she hitchhiked out to contribute her prayers to the struggle against the Keystone Pipeline.
“As soon as I heard about this camp I felt like I had to go there, Iron Cloud said. “I don’t have a voice in DC or nothing but at least I can go there and pray. And prayers do help and so I’m here to make a difference for my people, the farmers, everybody.”
Many others have been drawn in by the spiritual focus of this action. Every day visitors from the reservations come to donate supplies, bring hot meals, help cook. Others come from Canada, from other states, all curious about the pipeline and the effect it will have on this community. The first day I arrived I was greeted by a documentary crew, also from California.
On my first night at the camp, I was sitting in the kitchen tent talking to Gary Dorr, a Nez Perce organizer, and I asked him if he had been an activist before the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. He looked at me and said “I am an Indian. An Indian is an activist every day”.
This weekend a handful of other campers joined us at the Spirit Camp, and on Saturday night we shared dinner together in the kitchen tent. Over hamburgers the campers shared stories about their lives, about alcoholism and the gang culture that plagues their communities. They worry that if the pipeline goes through these problems will be exacerbated by the “man camps” that inevitably spring up alongside fossil fuel projects.
One of the camp coordinators, Paula Antoine, reflects on some of the racism she has encountered in nearby communities. Once, while participating in a Sundance ceremony, a truck drove by and fired on the ensemble. She had to pull her kids to the ground and lay on top of them to keep them safe. Shortly after that the rocks used to heat their sweat lodge were taken and arranged in a large swastika in an adjacent field.
Paula tells me that for the past year she has had nightmares of being attacked at this camp, and whenever she sees a car drive up, I watch her body tense and her eyes fixate on it until she sees its driver is friendly. The tipis are now encircled by hay bales, in part to block the fierce South Dakota wind, and in part to shield the camp from bullets.
I started to understand what Gary meant. When my family sits down to a meal, we talk about our vacations, the books we’re reading, our grades. If the discussion turns to politics it is almost always a topic very tangential to our immediate lives. For the Indians gathered around the table in the kitchen tent, day to day life is a battle against oppression, one stacked against them thanks to a long history of genocide and displacement that remains in the back of everyone’s mind.
An Indian is an activist every day because she has to fight oppression every day, whether she chooses to or not.
The Keystone XL pipeline is just one more attack on a population that is always on the defensive. When I ask why people are camping here, almost everyone gives me the same answer. They are here because the water they and their children drink is imperiled by the pipeline plan. Because they have watched tribes up north in Canada disintegrate and First Nations people die of cancer from the water pollution. For the people I am staying with, water is life. As crude bitumen flows over the Missouri river and the Oglala aquifer, their existence is being threatened, yet again and on just another front.
When I ask Iron Cloud what she would tell people across the country to do to stop the pipeline, her answer is simple. “Pray,” she says. “There are a lot of things people can do but like me, I don’t have no resources or nothing. The best I can do is pray, and just be here.”