In the fall of 2016, thousands of protesters rallied in opposition to the building of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline through tribal lands in North Dakota. Headwaters Relief responded to a national call for support, delivering medical supplies as well as blankets and warm clothes to help winterize the camp.
Volunteers found the occupation to be distinctly different from the previous relief work they had experienced with Headwaters. Instead of an incident command center or other overriding authority directing volunteers and activities, the Standing Rock occupation was more organic, gathering momentum daily as new groups arrived. People were there for different reasons – many came to participate in the spontaneous support to the tribes, while others provided behind-the-scenes support, such as preparing food or providing medical care.
While the majority of protests were peaceful, there were situations that resulted in injurious or distressful encounters with police. One of the volunteers said that protestors were arrested almost daily and that there were reported incidents of people being dropped off at random, distant towns.
The volunteers also found similarities with disaster relief work. One of the volunteers, Luke, observed, “It was interesting to see social workers and counselors on-site to help people with the trauma of what they were experiencing. The things I would take away in relation to relief work is a willingness to work and be present, listening to people and learning about their perspectives and concerns.”
Luke was impressed with the diversity of people – college students, Vietnam vets and indigenous people from all over the world who joined the Sioux tribes. “I felt that it was important to be on what I believed to be the right side of history,” said Luke. Standing Rock was not just a protest but an occupation, making a stronger, more enduring imprint on the American consciousness. Luke said, “It was particularly important as the country was about to hold an election — it brought public attention to people of color and how this nation has historically treated the American indigenous people.”