Standing Rock Protesters React to Life Under Trump

"America deserves Trump," says one protester fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. "America is Trump."

Police spray unarmed protesters with a powerful water hose in freezing temperatures. Credit: Avery Leigh White

Back in September, many of the protesters at the Standing Rock camp cared little who won the presidential election. "Whoever wins, we're still going to have to live with these fuckers," Chas Jewett told Rolling Stone, gesturing to the Dakota prairie, which would soon go in a landslide for Trump.

Indian country, by contrast, broke hard for Bernie Sanders, and Jewett's sedan, like many of the vehicles parked in the camp, sported Bernie stickers. Many Native Americans at the camp had cast their first primary votes for Sanders, who took a strong position against the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which is intended to move oil from the shale fields of North Dakota to Illinois. Protesters – though they prefer the term "protectors" – fear the consequences of a spill where the pipeline crosses under the Missouri River. There's also a larger political question: The pipeline crosses through territory ceded to the Great Sioux Nation by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the Sioux say they weren't properly consulted for construction on their land.

When Hillary Clinton got the nomination, the protesters had largely lost interest in the election. (Clinton's campaign released a tepid statement in late October reminding both sides to "respect demonstrators' rights to protest peacefully, and workers' rights to do their jobs safely.") Jewett, a Lakota from Cheyenne River and a longtime progressive organizer, had fallen into a deep depression after Sanders lost. She had dealt her entire life with both the casual racism of Dakota ranchers and the paternalism of federal Indian policy, having grown up on a ranch watching white neighbors get easy credit while her father had to go, hat in hand, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs every time he needed a loan for equipment. Things weren't much better now. In 2015, a federal court found that South Dakota's child welfare services department had been taking Native children from their families and tribes and placing them in white homes, in violation of federal law. And there were smaller indignities: Earlier this year, in Rapid City, where Jewett lives, white men threw beer on some Native teens who were on a class trip to a hockey game, demanding they go back to the reservation; local headlines asked if the Native kids had stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at the game. (They had.) "For once," Jewett said of Sanders' run, "we'd had an actual alternative – someone who wasn't just, frack shit, bomb shit." It was September, and no one thought yet that Trump could actually win. But "America deserves Trump," she said, poking the fire with black satisfaction. "America is Trump."

Trump's victory came the week after a protester advance against the Dakota Access site – a poorly planned gamble that had provoked a crushing police response, with hundreds of officers in riot gear and armored vehicles firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd and arresting more than 100. The clash had brought more visibility to the protesters' cause, but at the cost of injuries and the loss of a strategically important camp blocking the pipeline. Cops forced activists so far from the construction site that people were suggesting approaching via rafts over the frigid river. Last week, things reached an even higher pitch as a police bottled protesters on a bridge while battering them in sub-freezing temperatures with water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas and concussion grenades – one of which seems to have "blown away" much of the left arm of a young New York protester, Sophia Wilansky, according to her father. She was taken to the hospital along with 26 others; 300 protesters in total were reported injured by camp medics.

Few in camp think it likely that Trump, who put expanding shale gas and approving pipelines like the Keystone XL in his top-ten priorities for the start of his presidency, is going to de-escalate things. "People are pretty darn scared," says Ken Abrahamson after Trump’s win. Abrahamson is an Iraq War veteran from Colorado who had come to Standing Rock to support a Lakota former squadmate. "People are just waiting for the National Guard to come in and start pegging us with rubber bullets." He notes a new sense of urgency around camp – the feeling that all hope now rests on convincing Obama to kill the Dakota Access before he leaves office. "A lot of people are thinking if we don't win by January, we're screwed."

Ever since the Keystone XL protests, the Midwestern land rights and climate movements have relied on influencing Obama personally through letter-writing campaigns, spectacle-heavy demonstrations and old-fashioned lobbying. This had been effective: For instance, it was the State Department's decision to pull the Keystone XL permit. At Standing Rock, it was an 11th-hour executive action by the Obama administration that temporarily stopped construction, although skirmishes continue. The Morton County Sheriff's Department has made over 400 arrests so far.

Obama's reliance on executive actions makes the movement's gains fragile. Trump has in the past gotten into nasty tiffs with Northeastern tribes over casino projects, describing them basically as you might expect. "With Clinton, it had seemed like we would have to do what we did during the Democratic primary," says Tara Houska, an Ojibwe woman who served as Bernie Sanders' Native American advisor. "We buckle down, work hard, push her, force her position to be one that aligns with the people. But now, it's a very different ballgame. Now we're going to mobilize to save what's already in place" – like the EPA and federal wildlands protections – "and keep things from moving backwards."

At the active standoff beside Standing Rock, the question of Trump's character has taken on a certain immediacy. Leland Dick, an enormous man from the Burns Paiute of Oregon who had been involved in last winter's battle against Amon Bundy and his followers at the Malheur wildlife refuge, says he thinks the cops will start using real bullets soon. Lou Grassrope, a lifelong grassroots activist and head of a contingent of the Lower Brule Sioux, says that under Trump, "We can see that what we're facing here is National Guard and police officers that have have fallen back into the same pathway of cowboy and Indian wars.

“We're having to face that it might result in all of our deaths, going forward," he says.

Still, he remains committed to the experiment at Standing Rock. In the face of outside forces and the larger political winds sweeping the U.S., Grassrope and others are struggling to build a new form of Indian government at Standing Rock, in which the traditional leadership of the Oceti Sakowin, the seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation, operates as a sovereign state in a way not seen in over a century. This plays out on the ground in numerous small ways: The same week as the election, the council voted – on recommendation from the women's council – to banish from the camp a young man accused of attempted rape. The women paraded him around the camp calling out what trash he was, then cut off his braids and threw him out of camp.

Meanwhile, volunteers and donations continue to pour into camp. In the aftermath of the elections, there were reportedly as many as 12,000 people in the protest camps, making it one of the largest settlements in Lakota country, a sprawling town with free clinics, schools and communal dining halls, as well as roving herbalists, acupuncturists and masseuses. Even in its darker moments, the camp has a powerful network of support, including donations and attention from the rest of the country; after Sophia Wilansky's arm was blown open, a GoFundMe set up by her family to pay for her medical care raised $120,000 in seven hours. Even with the violence on the perimeter, in an area of staggering poverty and crime, the Oceti Sakowin camp remains an island of prosperity and safety. "We have no hunger here," says Myron Dewey, a Paiute and Shoshone blogger who filmed a bison stampede last month that got passed widely around the internet. "There's no one homeless. We have free health care, free mental health care. You want to see where America is great again? Come here."