Dispatch From Standing Rock: Election Night, and the Morning After


This is the second of three accounts over the next week from Kelly McDonald, who is traveling with a group of fellow New Yorkers to join the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first dispatch detailed their journey; this one covers Election Night and the day after.

At 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, long before daylight, all of the estimated 5,000 people in Oceti Sakowin Camp are rousted by an man yelling into the mic around the fire — a place that serves as both a town square and a hallowed space of worship.

“Get up!” he cries, in both English and Lakota. “This is not vacation! We’re here for a reason—to fight the black snake!” After a brief pause, his voice cuts again through the icy fog, this time with an admonishment for dawdling. “Wake up! There’s usually snow on the ground at this time of year!”

After only a little while here, I’ve learned that Lakota leaders have a remarkable capacity to serve up spicy hot burns alongside wisdom. Propelled by the admonishment, which was also a reminder that climate change has already changed this landscape, I bundle up and head to Facebook Hill in the rising light.

The hill is a small but steep incline near the entrance of Oceti Sakowin. It’s called Facebook Hill, because it’s the only place in the camp where most smartphone users can find enough bars of LTE service to check the news or send a message. While most places in the camp are shared and community-minded, Facebook Hill is one of the only spots where people gather together but separately.

As I scroll through my own social media feed of shocked city dwellers, I think back to the night before, when I sat by the fire at Sheep Camp, populated by Navajos from Arizona; we mulled over possible outcomes, feeling thankful for once that the camp has so little cellphone service. Here on Facebook Hill, phone in hand, reality sets in and I turn to my neighbor to ask how she’s feeling. Her name is Jerilyn Dawn; she’s from Tsaile, Arizona. “Yeeya,” she says. “That means ‘scared’ in Navajo. I don’t wanna know.”

Just 24 hours earlier, many of the protesters I talked to struggled to see why any vote other than their presence in this camp would benefit their future. “I’d rather rearrange my sock drawer than vote in this election,” joked Michael Allen, an organizer from Houston, Texas.

Many of the camp residents who did want to vote discovered Tuesday that it was nearly impossible to do so. North Dakota has a thirty-day residency rule, but some people claimed that consistent Facebook check-ins at Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone, or even just Standing Rock Reservation would suffice. It turned out that this could not substitute for a North Dakota ID.

With poor to no internet access throughout the rest of camp, news of Trump’s victory the next day trickles down from Facebook Hill slowly. “I had to let four people know,” says Jacob Smith, a Crown Heights activist who’d joined me on the bus ride here. “A lot of people probably went to sleep not knowing the results. It was brutal.”

It turns out to be an unseasonably warm day, and despite the news, work continues as usual. Hammers and handsaws reverberate through camp as carpenters build permanent winter structures. The medic tent is abuzz with nurses, midwives, and alternative healers sorting through salves, tinctures, and allopathic solutions. Children ending their school day at a camp-led Lakota language and cultural immersion school slalom down a dusty path on Facebook Hill until dinner.

As the sky darkens, the northernmost hillside that has been crested with military Humvees and construction equipment since Monday is lit up by a roaring fire at its base. Word around camp is that the contents of the fire came from North Camp — the land being defended under the name of the 1851 treaty, which police bulldozed on October 29 after arresting most of its residents. According to Lakota tradition, when belongings are taken away and given back (police dumped many of the confiscated items, some of which were ceremonial, on the side of the highway), they are unwanted — and unwanted belongings are to be burned.

Despite the election results, the atmosphere in camp is still celebratory. Cries of “mni wichoni” (water is life) reverberate across great distances, and roadside fireworks light up the sky. It’s Logan’s third birthday today, so after a makeshift party with a Rice Krispy Treat “cake”, he and his cousin Jaray practice drum songs on a plastic bucket. War whoops ring out through camp like wolf howls, and Logan surprises us all when he throws back his head and and emits his first little war cry. While we play, Lakota singers assemble nearby at the fire circle mic. “Ooh, I know that song,” Jaray says as the drumming begins. “That’s a war song.” The kids play along on the bucket until the icy fog once again settles into the riverbank valley.