Life in the Liberated Zone

A Day in the Life at Standing Rock


“Calling all Water Protectors! Arise and come to the river! Rise up and defend the water!”

The voice over the loudspeaker cuts through the chill darkness surrounding the tents and tepees. I stuff my cold feet, in double socks, into my boots and stumble out of my tent to visit the Spiffy Biff fifty yards away from the group of tents and vehicles where I’ve been camping.

In the North Dakota October predawn, Oceti Sakowin appears to be sleeping, but soon I begin to hear the soft sounds of tents unzipping and footwear scuffing the dried grass and mud as people shuffle across the unlit encampment to the Sacred Fire, the camp’s heart.

As I approach I hear someone with the microphone announcing the plan for the morning. There will be a water ceremony by the river, the male voice explains, followed by an action at the Dakota Access pipeline construction site. The pipeline construction is now approaching Highway 1806 and soon will be threatening the Missouri River.

I catch snippets of conversation about what gear to carry–wallet? water bottle? kerchief for tear gas protection?

Hands deep in my pockets and wishing I’d put on my winter jacket, I approach the crowd around the Spirit Fire and and stand listening to several Native leaders give a few details about what will happen. Following the sunrise water ceremony at the river, people will walk along the road to where the bulldozers have slashed a trench across the rolling fields and hills I drove through a few days ago to get here. Despite the thousands of Native Water Protectors and allies camped at Standing Rock, North Dakota, seeking to oppose them, Energy Transfer Partners, the company, is pressing on with building the pipeline, the dangerous Black Snake, towards the river. The Water Protectors are preparing another action today in the fight, already months long, to keep that from happening.

Around me people confer quietly, sip coffee, then go back to their own camps or move off down to the river for the ceremony. Over the loudspeaker, calls for participation in the action, in English and Native languages, alternate with prayers and chanting.

I am reminded of war movie scenes: early morning bugle calls, warriors emerging from tents, pulling on their boots by the light of campfires. Lining up and moving off toward battle with a sense of anticipation tinged with fear.

“This is the day we’ve been waiting for!”

This statement is repeated continually, echoing over the many acres of the sprawling encampment. “This is the most important day. We must stop the Black Snake before it destroys more of our sacred lands and reaches the road and the River.”

Of course, each day is important. Some begin with pre-dawn mobilization like this one. Many others start with people simply doing what’s needed to keep the community going: making fires, lighting wood stoves, pouring water and oats into giant pots. Gathering around, walking and driving back and forth, stopping to talk, taking messages, carrying supplies.

Standing Rock

As the sky lightens, people converge near the north entrance to the camp. I stand back and watch hundreds moving under the rows of tribal flags that line the main road through the encampment, colors brightening in the dawn. The people begin to climb the rise to the road for the walk to the pipeline site.

The Water Protectors participating in this action march together up to the road–elders, youngsters, men and women wearing ceremonial dress and a jumble of colorful jackets, carrying banners and signs. Warriors without weapons.

Along with several other designated drivers, I get in my car to give rides to elders and any others who need a lift the mile or so up the road to the pipeline site. Behind the walkers, we drivers form a slow caravan.

In front of me, near the back of the several hundred walkers, I observe an elder woman wearing a red jacket over her long dress, carrying a clay jug of water; beside her walks an even older woman cradling a large sage smudge.

sunrise mobilization

We arrive and park on the verge as sky goes mauve, then pink, as the sun rises.

Once at the place, we can see the barbed wire the pipeline workers have put up, on which the Lakota and their Native allies have tied colorful prayer flags like multi-colored bandages to heal, at least symbolically, the bulldozing of the grave sites of their ancestors.

The Water Protectors line up along the offending barrier.


Standing Rock - on the ridge

A woman asks each of us to hold out our palms. She places pinches of tobacco leaf upon them and we close our hands to keep it from blowing away in the chilly autumn breeze.

During the Water Ceremony we each pour out a few drops of the Missouri River on the ground, and sprinkle our tobacco in an offering to Mother Earth.

Then, along with the others, I crouch to duck under the barbed wire, which someone has pushed apart.

At the sound of raised voices, I stop and turn to listen, along with everyone else. Two people have begun to argue intensely about whether it is okay to cross the barrier with the prayer flags to get to the pipeline work area. “That will mean walking on the sacred ground,” says a woman who has halted the movement of people. She is one of the people who led the water ceremony. I stand back, feeling very uncomfortable that I may have already committed desecration. Everyone else stops as well.

“But we have to get to the company work site in order to stand against the advance of the Black Snake,” argues a man dressed in a fringed leather jacket and cowboy boots, his long black hair bound with a feather. He gestures toward the barbed wire fence and the open trench of churned earth behind it. “The desecration has already happened.”

I listen in bemusement, like many others, as the discussion goes on, some speaking in favor of going forward, others joining the first speaker against stepping into this sacred area.

Finally, although I can’t really see how it happens, people seem to make a decision, including me. The importance of opposing the pipeline is paramount. We begin to breach the barb wire, helping one another to not tread on the prayer ribbons tied to the fence as we cross over. The woman who spoke against this, along with a fair crowd of others, remains on the ridge by the road, looking on impassively.

With a group of over a hundred I walk some way along the ugly ditch that the company Energy Transfer Partners has gouged to hold the pipeline. But when I learn that the machines and pipeline workers are a mile or more farther along the trench, I decide to turn back, as my main focus here is on how the encampment sustains the movement in support of actions like today’s, on how it functions as rearguard. Plus, I feel I might be needed as a driver.

Back at the road I join some others, mostly elders, who have remained keeping watch. Then I drive a couple of the elders back to the camp.


Oceti Sakowin appears just as usual when we get back: hundreds of people, mostly Native but with many non-Natives from all over the US and the world making food, chopping wood, tending fires, building shelters, painting and silk-screening banners, teaching children, communicating with media and supporters, tending the sick, holding meetings.

Just with any day, on this day most people spend their time doing something that needs doing. This is the general guideline for solidarity: Go where you can do most good, respond when someone asks for a hand. Check with Native elders and folks with experience before you take an initiative–it might already be underway; it might not be the best approach; be humble, not individualistic.

It’s past noon by the time I get back from the pipeline, so I go to get some lunch at one the camp’s favorite food tents, and receive from Grandma Diane, Paiute of California, cook and matriarch of Diane’s Kitchen, the hug she offers all who partake of her delicious and abundant fare—a hug perhaps even warmer this day than most. With a confident smile she tells me, “Our part is to be here making sure the folks get their meal when they get back from the front line.”

Somebody at Diane’s Kitchen says help is needed at the school, so after eating I go there and spend some time taking donated supplies to the school tent. For a while I help with the children. We don’t talk about the action that is happening down the road. They color with crayons inside the tent, out of the wind, and play cheerfully enough, yet I think several of the older ones have a sense of big things happening.

I suppose the media people get information from the front line earlier than everyone else, but with spotty cellphone service and most in camp focused on the immense amount of daily work it takes to keep life going there, it is a couple of hours before I learn what happened at the action.

Those that reached the bulldozers were surrounded by militarized police, gassed and arrested. Others ran into the fields and escaped, but many were chased down and captured. A total of a hundred forty were arrested, we’re told.

Late that night I am at the Spirit Fire when word is received that the sheriff of Mandan, ND, in a show of vindictiveness, is planning to release some of the prisoners in a couple of hours, stranding them in the middle of this chilly night with no way to get back. They put out a call for folks with cars to go pick them up.

I head out with some others and bring a few weary, disheveled Water Protectors back to Oceti Sakowin after waiting for them outside the bleak municipal building for an hour or so.


Grandma Diane
Grandma Diane

The confrontations and repression at Standing Rock get quite a lot of media coverage. What is much less covered is the amazing level of “mundane” activity that goes on this day, and every other day, to keeping this vital community going.

Sustaining an encampment of several thousand people with no running water or sanitation (other than the Spiffy Biffs) or electricity other than that produced by small, portable solar generators, is an immense amount of work. But it is exciting, fulfilling work, and fascinating, as well as satisfying, because I can feel and see how it all helps sustain the community and the movement.

During the entire time I am at Standing Rock I eat, sleep, use supplies, receive healthcare and witness countless goods and services being performed for individuals and for the community. People participate in meetings and Water Protector actions, but they also build and make things, cook, organize food and clothing donations, protect the space, and a great variety of other necessary work.

Funds collected by the tribes rent the toilets and generators, and pay for other necessaries–although the mountains of donations are immense. But within the daily life of the camps at Standing Rock money has no role, and I obtain all I need merely by asking or showing up. It is understood that everyone works and stands in solidarity with the by being part of the community.

There are many more stories to tell about this incredible community that was created by, and in turn has sustained and magnified, the movement to protect the water and the land of the Sioux Nation–and by extension all of us–against the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access pipeline. The community was, imperfect, evolving—and incredibly worthy of recovering its stories and understanding its importance, to learn from the experience and those that have followed from it.

I believe we can learn a great deal about protecting and sustaining activist movements, activist culture and the activist community from a deeper and more precise understanding of liberated zones such as those created at Standing Rock.

If you were a participant at Standing Rock, or at any anti-pipeline occupation—or, indeed, any place that you believe meets the criteria of a liberated zone–and you’d like to be interviewed and/or share written stories of your experience and reflections on this experience, please get in touch! And/or use our SOOP (Stories of our People) story collector survey.

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