‘People Here Don’t Want to Sleep.... They Don’t Want to Miss out on Anything’

The author travels to Standing Rock to give a firsthand account of the hope surrounding the protests to stop the Dakota Access pipeline.
Craig from the Navajo Nation, one of the most dedicated kitchen coordinators, shows donations from all over the country. (Photo: Emma Robbins/DIGDEEP)
Oct 8, 2016· 14 MIN READ
Emma Robbins is a native artist, activist, and environmentalist originally from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She works as American Projects Director for digdeep.org, providing families on the reservation with clean, running water.

Ya’at’eeh, everyone!

Last month, I joined the other “water protectors” in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline is being built. The pipeline threatens many ancient sites that are sacred to the Sioux who live there. The pipeline also threatens the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for 18 million Americans in four states downstream. Protest camps at Standing Rock have been called the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in world history, but it’s not just about solidarity; it’s about defending the right of every American to safe, clean drinking water.

I work for DIGDEEP, an L.A.–based organization that helps U.S. communities—many of them Native—get clean, running water. Most people don’t know that millions of Americans still don’t have clean water or basic plumbing at home.

I came to Standing Rock to represent DIGDEEP and to show our support to tribal leaders but also to learn more about the situation firsthand. I wanted to share the experience with people who can’t visit...people like you! In the end, this was more than just a work trip. I grew up on the Navajo Reservation, where for decades, energy companies were allowed to mine uranium, repeatedly contaminating our drinking water. The whole time, we were assured their work was “safe.”

We need to step up and defend marginalized communities who struggle to get enough clean water to survive. I am so excited to share this journey with you and to introduce you to the real people defending our right to clean water in Standing Rock. For more about my journey, read below or click to a specific date.

SEPT. 14 | SEPT. 15 | SEPT. 16 | SEPT. 20 | UPDATE


Since my departure, those at Standing Rock continue their work with peaceful direct action. On Sept. 28, twenty-one water protectors were arrested as they attempted to peacefully leave a Dakota Access pipeline construction site while going to visit the sites and offer prayers. They were met by a large group of police with guns and armored vehicles.

Winter is coming. In addition to the extremely hard work of winterizing the camp, Oceti Sakowin is required to move by Jan. 1, 2017. They will be at the new camp, several miles away from the current location, until at least March 2017, which is when the pipeline construction permit ends. These two huge tasks require a lot of work, especially as the leaders are moving away from disposable items such as Styrofoam and plastic to serve the camp food. The camp has ordered several army-grade tents with heaters, which will be used as kitchens, storage, and a place for the elders to eat and rest.

Support from all over the world continues to pour in. Indigenous leaders from many countries and many states head to Standing Rock to show their love and support. The movement grows larger and stronger every day as more and more people arrive and as more people become aware of what is going on in North Dakota.

SEPT. 20, 2016

It’s been a full day since I’ve been back in Los Angeles from Standing Rock. It took me a little longer to write this as I spent my last few hours at camp—as opposed to in the casino with Wi-Fi—because I slept for 14 hours straight immediately after returning.

While at Oceti Sakowin, I realized that I slept on average about 4.5 hours a night. I don’t usually sleep much, but even for me that’s not really enough. While we were walking back to our tents one night, a friend explained it perfectly as we passed by a large group of people still playing drums, dancing, and singing loudly at 2 a.m. She said, “People here don’t want to go to sleep because of how excited they are. They don’t want to miss out on anything at all, and they don’t want it to end.” I felt exactly that.

My last day at camp was very busy. I ran into two people I met a few months ago at a political event in Wisconsin while walking to eat. I saw my cousin and nephew, who are both living in North Dakota, at the Apache Crown Dances in the common area and met someone who I’d seen several times at events in Chicago, with whom I had a friend in common, while waiting to shower at a nearby RV campsite. (A lot of times non-Natives will ask me if I know so-and-so because that person is Native American, and I’ll scoff, saying, “Yeah, sure,” because we all know each other despite that we’re from different nations and live far, far away from each other. I’ve sort of realized that this might actually be true. Ha!)

In the morning, I drove around Fort Yates, a town not far from the camp, to see if I could find the meeting place of the Standing Rock government and the U.N., but much to my dismay, I couldn’t find anything. (Like I said, it’s hard to get info while at Oceti Sakowin. I will continue to ask friends and do research.) Later in the afternoon, I drove to Bismarck once again to swing by a Staples where I had the messages of support sent in the thousands to TakePart printed. I rushed these back to camp and distributed them to several people. They were overjoyed, and many said that as soon as they got cell phone service they were going to look at all of the messages online. It made them happy to see that there are people who are standing in solidarity, although far away from North Dakota.

In the evening, before gathering at the big fire with many others from the camp while walking with friends around Oceti Sakowin, I saw that on top of Facebook Hill—one of the only places with cell service—a radio station had been set up, called Standing Rock’s Spirit Resistance Radio.

As someone who lived in Chicago for many years, I was extremely happy to see that someone there was sending supplies and love to Standing Rock. The person who sent this box is unknown, but his or her love and support was felt many, many miles away. (Photo: Emma Robbins/DIGDEEP)

Govinda Dalton of Earth Cycles set this up several weeks ago. There are 17 shows so far, interviews of several people living in the camp. Topics range from the government boarding schools that many Natives were forced to attend to talking about legal defense for those detained while defending clean water. I also learned more about the home school that was set up several weeks ago for kids ranging from seven to 18. This school focuses around traditional indigenous culture and languages. Students also learn about leadership and peaceful protesting.

Right before heading to the airport, I stood on the hill looking out at all the tents and tepees huddled together around campfires and cooking food in groups. I drank in what I saw: a whole new city unfolding, one larger than my hometown—history. I thought of everyone I’d met and those who are fighting hard here and from afar to make sure that this $3.8 billion oil pipeline does not go through and does not poison us and our Earth and destroy the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux. When I close my eyes before going to bed, I think of this, and not only about my time spent there but what the future brings. I want (need) to go back there to celebrate that we, both nonnatives and Natives alike, came together and built something beautiful and stopped this evil.

Sleep has been a big theme in my thoughts and writing for today. Perhaps because sleep is obviously and directly related to dreams, and all of this feels like a dream. I am still in awe at the huge amount of people at Standing Rock, thinking of all those who I met there, ranging from the Menominee who brought a huge truckful of wood as a donation from Wisconsin, Navajos and Pueblos who hitchhiked across the country just to help in the camp’s kitchen, Lakotas who quit their jobs to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters, Oaxacans who flew in from Mexico to show their love and support, and those who showed up to set up the radio station and school for the camp. Like the states that the Missouri River touches, which will inevitably be poisoned if the DAPL is put in, we are all connected. For those from the reservation, our personal experiences with poverty back home and historically being betrayed time and time again by the U.S. government are not the only similarities we share. We all, from the rez or not, share the love for the environment, for our culture, for our people and for our Earth. We are all resilient, and we are all going to continue the fight. Although not physically there, I will continue to do what I can by donating, educating, and sending love from afar. We all need to.

Mni Wiconi. To ei ’iina ate.

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SEPT. 16, 2016

Ya’at’eeh, everyone!

Today is my third full day in Standing Rock, and yet it feels like it’s been three weeks. Last night, after returning from the casino to camp (I hitched a ride back to Oceti Sakowin with a fellow Navajo and his girlfriend), I got a little emotional. I’m not ashamed to say that I stood in the bumpy, muddy road lined with the now 300-plus flags, looked out at the huge camp, and cried a little. Not bawling or anything, I wasn’t sad, but happy, overwhelmed, and truly realizing for the first time how important this community, this movement, and this fight is, and how we’re all in it together. All of us.

Most of my day was spent with three new Ojibwe friends: Nancy, Justin, and David. They are all from the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa from Lac du Flambeau and were kind enough to give me a ride to Bismarck. I met one of them while sipping coffee and eating toast at the main fire. He overheard me looking for a ride and offered to take me.

While waiting to pick up my rental car there, we went to Walmart and bought things like warm wool socks (my feet have been wet from the rain!), a machete for firewood, rain boots, and dog water bowls, swapping rez stories from theirs in Wisconsin and mine in Arizona. They told me how to say a few words in Ojibwe and laughed at how nasal-y Navajo is. Eventually they dropped me off at the airport to get my little Chevy car, and I spoke briefly with the front desk attendant, who said, “I assume you’re going to Standing Rock, judging from your email address” (digdeepWATER.org). I said yes, that I was already there, and showed him pictures. He smiled and said, “I’m glad you’re all doing that.”

This is a shot of only a small portion of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, taken while walking to the site where construction was halted on the Dakota Access pipeline several miles away with other protectors. (Photo: Emma Robbins/DIGDEEP)

I talked the most with Nancy, the youngest of the group and someone I now consider to be a very close friend. She and her fiancé drove up with her cousin from Wisconsin a few days ago. She told me how scared she was when she had to tell her mom and grandparents that she was coming to Standing Rock. She said that she is the baby of the family and thought they would get upset and not want her to go, but that it was the complete opposite: They were so proud and supportive and happy that she was going. They told her, “Stay humble, observe, don’t holler out profanities, peacefully protest.” She said that she’s glad they told her this and how important it is that we all act this way. She then showed me her favorite picture from her time here so far, a photo of a sign that reads “We Are Unarmed” hung in front of the camp. She said it was important that everyone see this.

On the way back to camp, we were redirected to take a longer, out-of-the-way route as the National Guard closed down Highway 1806. (I wasn’t too upset, as I got to drive by fields of sunflowers and saw a few signs pointing to the Lewis and Clark Trail.) As I was driving back in my separate car, my three new pals called to warn me of this and waited for me to make sure I knew how to get back to the camp safely. We eventually made it back and took a hike to Sacred Stone, another camp across the Missouri River. From across the river I could see our camp sprawling over the land and hugging the water and again felt emotional. It is awe-inspiring to see such a huge camp and how this is turning into a small town. Two people got engaged yesterday and were meant to be married tonight. There is a small school (that I have yet to find) that teaches children about the environment and importance of water, as well as different things from the different cultures present. We joke about how there will be DAPL babies and talk a lot about the winter and how it’s coming.

Tomorrow is my last day here, and I plan on going around camp trying to get more information on exactly what is going on legally and with construction. It’s hard to get straight information, as we all (magically) don’t have service or internet at camp, which is where we hear about these things. The U.N. is coming soon, and I want to get solid info on that before I leave too. Everyone is excited and dying to be here when they do show up. We’re all happy that we’re being heard.

I’m sad to go, but I don’t want to focus on that right now. I want to think about something Nancy said: “We’re standing in history. Whether the pipeline goes in or not, people are going to be talking about this a hundred years from now. Our kids and our grandkids are going to be proud. They’re going to say that we fought for them. How awesome is it that we’re all here together, in unity?” I will be forever grateful for being able to be a small part of this.

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SEPT. 15, 2016

Today it rained most of the morning and into the early part of the afternoon. Rain is always good, but today it was even better, as it gave everyone a reason to stay inside their tents or under the communal tarps and rest. The rain died down around 4 p.m., and immediately everyone came out to convene and exchange scraps of information about what was going on, who was detained, how much bail they needed to come up with, and how the camp was going to double in size once the weekend started. Despite the rain, many more people started to drive in today.

As of now, there are three camps: Red Warrior; Sacred Stone; and Oceti Sakowin (which roughly translates to “family” or “unity”), the largest and where I am staying. Oceti Sakowin as of today has approximately 4,000 people, but there will be more than twice that once the weekend rolls around. Near the entrance of the camp there is a communal area where we go to eat, sit by the fire, listen to announcements, and take part in prayers, and it’s where the EMTs are parked. Also there are the piles of donated clothes and miscellaneous items, and within this area is a tent with an erase board where people can write messages, requesting and/or offering rides to different places across the country, and an area for legal help. Apart from this communal area there are little individual campsites made up of families of all ages, friends and acquaintances who traveled here together, and people who met here.

Donated supplies pile up. (Photo: Emma Robbins/DIGDEEP)

During this morning’s announcement, it was said that there were now more than 300 flags lining the entrance to the camp. They’re mounted on huge, tall PVC-and-wood poles and are put up every time someone from that particular Nation arrives. In the smaller campsites there are also flags flying and different poster boards with messages of support and the importance of water.

I’ve been camping next to and spending a lot of time with a group of Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In that group is also a Cheyenne man from Lame Deer, Montana. We spend a lot of time comparing our different cultures and talking about the things we have in common. We sat around all night last night and talked about what we all do for eclipses (there is a lunar one tomorrow! Navajos don’t eat, sleep, or drink at all during the entire eclipse) and the conditions on all of our reservations. The majority of the group has been here for the past six weeks. Most of them have quit their jobs and haven’t seen their families back home for a long time, and plan on being here for however long it takes. Two of the people that I’ve gotten close to are boyfriend and girlfriend and met at the camp.

Not everyone here is Native. I’ve also been hanging out with a Korean American friend from L.A. who has been here for almost two weeks. He drove from California and is documenting everything going on. It’s really great to see the solidarity and support from everyone.

Still no sign of any government officials, but we know that there’s the possibility of them coming. Today the North Dakota governor declared a state of emergency. We’re not sure why, as everything here is totally peaceful. I have not seen any violence or aggression whatsoever. During our meetings we are constantly told that we need to act in a peaceful manner and that we need to do what’s best for everyone, not for one individual. One important thing that is constantly, constantly, constantly repeated is that we are not protesters here; we are protectors. Can’t be stressed enough.

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SEPT. 14, 2016

I left L.A. at noon yesterday and got to the camp 10 hours later. It was a long trip but a good one. My flight from Dallas–Fort Worth to Bismarck was phenomenal. Not the actual flight—that was OK—but because there were at least five out of 50 passengers who were flying specifically to stand with Standing Rock, and we were all from different Nations.

This is the first time in history that this many indigenous peoples have come together, not only from the USA, but the entire world. I’ve never met such an array of different Natives from so many diverse places. There are so many of us, and yet we all seem to have these small connections that tie us together. I meet people from the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota who have family members in my hometown of Tuba City, on the Navajo Reservation. It’s amazing and truly one of the most impactful parts of this journey so far.

A sign that reads ‘Oil spills. Oil kills. Water is life’ is displayed along the road on the way to the campsite. (Photo: Emma Robbins/DIGDEEP)

There is a very long road that leads into the camp and extends on to the main highway that is lined with hundreds of flags from all these different tribes. They’re flying high and flapping in the strong wind. I don’t recognize about 99 percent of them but am slowly learning, and what’s even better is meeting the people from these Nations. (When I see the familiar sand-colored Navajo Nation flag—my flag—my heart beats a little faster and I raise my head a little higher.)

Today was very eventful, although I doubt that there ever is really any day that isn’t. We marched to the site where construction first began and where the sacred grounds of the Sioux were first destroyed by construction. There was a small barbed fence separating us and the highway from the ripped-up land, and we leaned over and made an offering of tobacco and said prayers to the ancestors and Earth.

This morning I ran into a fellow Navajo—who was born in my hometown!—and he asked for my help in organizing all the donated food. There are piles of canned goods and mountains and mountains of flour, sugar, noodles—any and everything you need to make a meal—that keep on coming in! My job was to organize these into different boxes, which helps the cooks make meals much, much faster. It seems like a small thing, but I quickly learned that these logistical things are what make a big difference. Being here, I’ve realized that the things that will continue to help these protectors, not protesters, move forward are these types of things. I know that food storage is a major concern. I was told that one of the items that the groups need the most now are pods, or safe places to store all the food and supplies.

So far I haven’t personally run into any problems with the police or construction workers, but I have heard that one of the camp leaders from a separate camp was detained for “trespassing” when he went to go visit the same site I described above. My other encounters have been when the National Guard stopped my friend and me while we were driving on the highway, entering the camp and with a federal police officer who just walked by in the casino that I’m typing from. (Wi-Fi here! Service is patchy and almost nonexistent.) The other weird thing I’ll mention is that when I was marching to the site, there was a drone flying above us. I don’t know what kind it was, but it appeared to have a camera attached.

Everyone is gearing up to be here for a long time. A harsh winter is coming, and everyone is preparing. They’re weatherproofing everything to stay warm but also preparing themselves in case they do need to stay a long time. I haven’t heard any talk about leaving. I feel like things are going strong here, and I’ve heard that every day more and more people come. Some show up only on the weekends, when they’re off of work, but people are still pouring in, ready to keep protecting this land and this water.

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