December 2, 2016
SACRED STONE CAMP, NORTH DAKOTA, U.S. — The scent of burning sage fills a large military tent here at what has become the base camp for people who oppose construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a major oil pipeline that is slated to slice through land that is significant to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous nations.
People pass a silver tray, filled with the smoldering sage, around the room. They use their hands to pull the smoke toward their bodies. This ritual of cleansing and prayer is necessary before discussion begins, says Janice Bad Moccasin, a facilitator for this gathering.
“I’m not here to work miracles today,” she says. “But I’m here to tell Mother Earth there’s a profound healing taking place. And the wind will carry this medicine.”
Bad Moccasin, of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, came to the Sacred Stone Camp to offer therapy fused with indigenous medicine and healing practices. A few days before this gathering, a relative called Bad Moccasin came to tell her that some people at the camp were suffering from trauma and needed help.
Bad Moccasin, who came to Sacred Stone with two of her colleagues, says the gathering she led in early November was the first trauma-related care offered there since the camp formed in April. Pipeline protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” can get medical care and attend support groups, but they haven’t had access to trauma treatment, she says.
“We are in a war zone,” says James Gordon, a psychiatrist with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., which works extensively in conflict zones and has programs providing mental health care to American Indian communities. “People are risking their minds, bodies. You’re not here to fix anyone. But these are skills to navigate living in camp, in the hope that you will share them, and spread them.”
Gordon, who works closely with Bad Moccasin, led sessions at Sacred Stone Camp in November that were geared toward helping people heal from recent confrontations with police.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, if completed, will stretch 1,172 miles through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and will burrow beneath the Missouri River. Leaders and members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe worry that the pipeline could contaminate their drinking water, and also say the construction disrupts the land on which they’ve lived since time immemorial. The area is home to numerous sacred sites, including burial grounds, they say, and the pipeline construction will disrupt many of them.
Since the camp formed in April, protesters from all over the world, including many from other indigenous nations, have joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to oppose the pipeline. Law enforcement officials have beefed up their presence to keep the protesters away from the construction zone, and clashes between the two groups have turned violent.
One late-October confrontation resulted in more than 140 arrests, after protesters were forcibly removed. In November, the scene grew violent as law enforcement used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, despite below-freezing temperatures. At least one protester was severely injured by an explosive device and was in danger of losing her arm.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which plays a key role in approving the pipeline’s construction, ordered that the Sacred Stone Camp evacuate for the protection of the protesters, and North Dakota officials echoed that evacuation order in late November.
Bad Moccasin believes modern-day confrontations between U.S. law enforcement and American Indians can generate historic trauma. For American Indians, traumas that occurred in generations past can cause suffering even today, she says.
That grief never leaves a family, she says.
That is especially the case for the tribes of the Midwest region, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is based, says Jacqueline Gray, a therapist and associate director of indigenous programs at the Center for Rural Health/Pathology at the University of North Dakota.
As recently as the 1970s, indigenous people saw armed conflict between law enforcement and American Indian activists who seized control of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and took residents hostage. This is a persistent mental and emotional stress for American Indian families and can emphasize previous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or begin a cycle of trauma that, if left untreated, could fully develop into a mental disorder, Gray says.
But Joseph P. Gone, an American Indian psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, hesitates to characterize the scene at Sacred Stone Camp as historic trauma.
“You actually undermine the resolve, the agency, the self-determination and choice that people make to fight oppression, and instead frame it as if it’s a disability,” he says. “I, for one, would not want the native people who are making this heroic stance out of Standing Rock to be described by anyone as being sick, ill, injured, wounded or damaged by virtue of the fact that they’re trying to fight passionately on something they believe strongly.”
One protester, Angie Spencer, was the 118th person to be arrested on Oct. 27. An officer wrote the number on her arm with a marker, along with the words “trespass,” she says.
Spencer, 34, works as a trauma counselor in Seattle. She says she protested that day because she felt she could appeal to the law enforcement officials not to hurt anyone, to serve and protect the people and to be “on the right side of history.”
“‘As a trauma counselor, I can tell you that this is why you’re having a hard time sleeping, this is why you’re having aches in your body, and you’re having anxiety, depression, and you’re confused about the way you feel,’” Spencer says she remembers telling one officer. “‘Don’t do this trauma to yourself.’”
A handful responded to her, she says. Many of them said they had no choice; they had to make a living.
Spencer acknowledges she was a few feet over the private property line where the pipeline work is ongoing. She and 31 other women were held in what she described as an 8-by-20-foot “cage” for about five hours, she says. Before it filled, she says, she lay down to use her body to measure.
In the days following the arrests, several other protesters were quoted referring to these holding places as cages and dog kennels, and said police committed several human rights violations. Amnesty International, in a press release Oct. 28, said it was sending a human rights delegation out of concern over tactics used by law enforcement during protests.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department released a statement Oct. 29 saying that the enclosures in which protesters were held on Oct. 27 were “temporary holding cells” made of chain-link fence, are used only when police make mass arrests, have a maximum capacity of 42 people and are approved by the state’s Department of Corrections.
“I really feel the collective pain here, and the pain of the land as well. It’s palpable,” she says. “Watching these beautiful people that I’ve gotten to know over the last three weeks come back and almost just have a dissociative glaze over their eyes, there’s a lot of trauma here right now, and this is psychological warfare.”
Spencer says she stumbled upon Bad Moccasin’s self-care sessions. The techniques Spencer used there and afterward ─ dancing and meditation, among others ─ allowed her to shake off the sounds of the rubber bullets and yelling, she says.
Some other women haven’t experienced that relief, Spencer says. Some women who were arrested haven’t left their tents, she says. They’re even afraid to expose themselves in a self-care session.
Bad Moccasin says she plans to return to the camp to provide more sessions and stay through early December.
“I hear the commitment from people. I hear it from every part of their fiber,” she says. “This is going to be the stand of all times. This is the historical stand. I believe in prayer right along with them.”