This story is from Tony Sorci, a member of the Navajo nation, about his time spent as a protester at the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, as told to Upworthy. It has been edited for content and clarity.
Every morning at 10 o’clock, I walk into the water and say my prayers.
Some people jump into the water, wash their faces, and come right out. It’s cold. But I spend a lot of time in the water because that’s how I was raised — to say my prayers in the water no matter how cold it got in North Dakota.
How long will I be able to get in that water and pray, when it’s still safe?
I heard about Standing Rock at a tribal conference in Washington state last summer. I figured going there was my duty to my grandmother.
I’m half-Navajo and half-Italian-American, from Big Mountain Reservation, originally Black Mesa, in Arizona. My grandmother was Roberta Blackgoat, the renowned relocation resister — she never signed anything, never left the land. I’ve been living with her as my hero for a long time.
Native Americans usually follow their mother’s side, so over the years I’ve become more traditional in that way. There’s a direct correlation between how we treat our mother and what our children are doing to themselves.
For me, it’s really sad that we’ve gotten to this point.
Our grandmas are out there praying for clean water, and the government is mistreating them.
There’s a psychological war going on in Standing Rock: Just across the water, a couple hundred yards away, there are DAPLs (the term water protectors use for the private security and heavy machinery crews hired by the pipeline company) armed to the gills with itchy fingers waiting for some action.
But this isn’t a game. It shouldn’t be fun. What are they protecting? Who are they protecting? Who are they serving?
The DAPLs are obviously put in a predicament because they do have to feed their families. Obviously, if they’re going to disobey orders, they’re not going to be getting paid.
For a lot of people, money is the driving force when it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So our goal, as protesters, is to hit their wallets with peaceful and nonviolent direct action. With each action, DAPLs will be forced to respond — which costs them money.
The organizers of the protest gather in the mornings at the the Big Camp and divide tasks, figuring out what will be the most beneficial. Many of us drink coffee around the fire in the morning with our gas masks already on, ready to go.
We aim to enact around 10 actions a day. Some people might go up to Bismarck, some stay at camp, some might protest on the bridge. My job has been canoeing on the water, trying to get the attention of the DAPLs and spreading them out a little. Then there are more covert ops, like gathering intel about where the police snipers are, or about the pipeline workers who try to disguise themselves as water protectors.
When I know they have nonlethal weapons, I’m not afraid.
I’m a big guy, and things don’t hurt me like they hurt other people.
I grew up playing lacrosse, and the closest thing to hand-to-hand combat is getting hit in the chest with a lacrosse ball at 100 mph. So I know they’re gonna ding me up a little bit, but I’m here to protect the people. While I protest, I wear turquoise. I’m Navajo and we’re supposed to wear our best jewelry when we travel.
Spiritually, I’m where I need to be: saying my prayers in the water, being loving and caring, and not letting fear creep in. Because if I do that, what about the other people who are anxious? Who are they going to look up to?
It’s not all organized, though. There are some young kids and gung-ho guys who wanna prove themselves as protesters and show how brave they are.
Not everyone sees as clearly as others. But that’s what we’re trying to get to.
One day, a white guy walked up to the communications tent all ready to go with two hoodies on and a big puffy jacket. He couldn’t even put his backpack on; it was hanging down to his butt, and I just had to laugh. Is he using more resources than he brought here?
Another day, we were at the base of a sacred burial mound — they call it Turtle Mountain there. There’s DAPLs on one side, and water protectors on the other, and then one white guy just ran into the cold water screaming: “Come on! Everybody follow me! I’ll lead you!” And no one followed him. We were all like: “No! It’s cold! Stay over there!” So he went over there and shook the DAPLs’ hands, and they didn’t even arrest him. Then he just … stayed on the other side.
Looking back, it was kinda funny. Protesting is kind of funny.
There are so many different walks of life on Earth, though.
A lot of non-Natives are really solid dudes who provide skills and are an asset to have in camp. Two kids from Seattle were staying with my camp, for example, and one was a leather worker. He actually made me a new medicine pouch, which was huge for me and a powerful thing for him to walk away from. He wasn’t a pro at his skills, but he was an asset. He was there for a reason, and taking things from this in a positive manner.
I know that when he goes back to Seattle, he’s just going to want to come back here to Standing Rock.
There’s a joke around camp that the longer you’ve been here, the harder it is to tell who’s who.
When you first arrive, you can tell who’s from which nation. But after a while, people start adapting, exchanging, and engaging with all the other cultures. It’s really cool and powerful.
I got really close with some descendants from Hawaii who were here. One night they sang a prayer for us at our camp, a chant, and it really gave me goosebumps. When you’re out in the water there, you have to use different intonations and rhythms for sound to travel, so I’d never heard something like that. I was infatuated.
I learned a lot from those new experiences in and of themselves. Stuff like this can snowball and have a positive effect for the camp, and for all of us.
One thing we’re all doing is inviting people to camp every day.
There’s always something to do, whether it’s chopping wood, emptying the garbage to bring to the deposit place, keeping the camp clean, setting up or breaking down someone’s tent or campsite, or even getting water. Now that the water’s starting to freeze, it’s always a battle trying to get it warm.
Every morning I cook for as many people as I can. Cast-iron skillets, two of ’em, packed with potatoes, eggs, onions, and spinach — just mass amounts of food for people. You’re also cooking for all the new people that come to camp, so usually there’s a stew on, some sort of corn, so that people can grab a bowl if they need to throughout the day.
A lot of people think they’re going to lose weight by going to camp. But Indians love their food — especially fried bread. And there are a lot of fried bread makers here.
When we leave, we smudge with sage. It cleanses the air and the people. It’s purifying.
Right before a big fire hose attack, we were gearing up to leave for Bismarck that night. I didn’t know what else was going down — a lot of direct actions kind of remain silent from one another — so I was by the car saging myself, like usual. We were waiting for my friend to leave, and they said, “Go ahead, and we’ll leave in five or 10 minutes.”
So we hit the road and figured they would follow.
On my way out, we started seeing cop cars driving toward the camp. We turned around to try to go back and see what was going on, but it was blocked. It was hard to drive away from that. I wasn’t able to drag anyone away or shield anybody or protect anybody that day. The timing of that really affected me.
Our fight is looking up right now. But we want to be a spark, to make this a tipping point for other pipelines to be stopped.
The story doesn’t stop in North Dakota.
I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I can’t see the future. But it’s a very historic time that we’re living in. We’re getting this new civil rights movement with Native Americans, after we’ve been saddling it for so long. A new, strong network is being built. Connections are being made and new family is being found all the time.
Big Camp is basically a communication center, and a spiritual one, that we all carry with us. Now it’s going to spiderweb out from there.
How fast will this ripple effect grow? I don’t know. Only time will tell. But I’m trying to do everything in my power to expedite the situation.