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When a group of students arrived at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota on Oct. 2 to support the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, (DAPL) they didn’t know what to expect.
“We were outsiders there, we were guests,” Ethan Fuirst ’17 said. “We lived in tents at this camp that probably had a few hundred, mostly indigenous, people. The allies — the non-indigenous people — mostly had a vagabond identity. Very few had lives in full swing that they had left behind.”
The DAPL is a proposed oil pipeline that would run from North Dakota, across the Midwest and into Illinois. Current plans would see the pipeline cross through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, disrupting sacred sites. The pipeline would also cross the Missouri River, increasing the possibility for pollution of the river, a source of water for many in the area.
The trip was organized by Indigenous Nations at Kenyon (INK) president Emma Schurink ’17 and Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) leader Matt Meyers ’17, and represented the culmination of several fundraisers and stand-ins staged by INK and ECO. In total, the groups raised $2,000 for the Sacred Stone Camp protesters. The group — made up of Schurink, Meyers, Fuirst, Zak Young ’17, Mari Colucci ’19 and Emily Barton ’20 — stayed at the Sacred Stone Camp from Oct. 2 to Oct. 7.
Schurink’s personal experiences working on a reservation in South Dakota are what drove her to organize the trip.
“I spent the last two summers — the last two and a half months of two summers — [on the Cheyenne River] at a reservation working with children, and so indigenous rights is a big thing that I advocate for,” Schurink said. “I really want people to understand how invisible [indigenous peoples] are and how they’re treated and taken advantage of.”
The group made themselves useful in the camp by assisting with the day-to-day chores associated with feeding and outfitting hundreds of activists, including preparing meals and transferring supplies to winterized tents. “We got to hand-deliver a check and see how the supplies they bought with our donations were being put to use,” Schurink said.
Outside the camp, the group participated in projects intended to halt pipeline construction or raise awareness of the issue — all while facing police roadblocks preventing them from accessing the site. Protesters concentrated their rallies around these blockades, which the Sacred Stone Camp website says are illegal.
“It would become two dozen police officers with batons and guns standing up against a hundred natives dancing and praying, face-to-face, in middle-of-nowhere North Dakota,” Fuirst said.
One direct action project brought the group to Bismarck, N.D. for a debate between North Dakota’s three candidates for governor, at which protesters expressed their frustration with candidates shying away from the issue of the pipeline.
The group was careful in characterizing their role in the protests and in the Sacred Stone community.
“A lot of people praise us for giving up a week of our time for going up there,” Meyers said, “but it’s like nothing in comparison to what the [allies] at the camp are giving up to protect what they think is most sacred.”
For everyone in the group, their experience at Sacred Stone Camp highlighted the interconnectedness of the pipeline debate and the multitude of issues student can become involved in.
“It’s about indigenous rights, which then becomes about human rights,” Colucci said. “It’s about fossil fuels, which becomes about the environment and climate change; it’s about money in politics; it’s about corporations having too much control; it’s about police brutality.”
Colucci added, “From any perspective, everyone has a stake in [stopping] the pipeline.”
Photo credit to Emma Schurink ’17