The story many American school children learn about the origins of Thanksgiving is, of course, a lie. And when the history books are full of lies, our entire nation is at risk. But something has happened this year that may change how Americans view the holiday: The movement for indigenous sovereignty, clean water and human rights at Standing Rock is smashing the myth of Thanksgiving and fighting to protect not only our water, but the very soul of this nation.
Each day that North Dakota police blast "water protectors" with water cannons, rubber bullets and concussion grenades as the protesters seek to save the Missouri River from potential contamination is a day American democracy is failing. It's as if the last 500 years of history on this continent are playing out in front of us again, today. Many in the mainstream media are ignoring the story while the police and government ignore the very laws they're sworn to uphold.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to snake its way through this land – which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe contends it still owns, per the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 – and under the Missouri River, the only water source for the tribe and for 17 million people downstream.
The night before Thanksgiving, I arrive at Oceti Sakowin, the main camp just south of Bismarck, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. The camp is named after the seven council fires of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people; the fire in the center of the camp burns perpetually.
Mekasi Horinek, a member of the Ponca Nation from Oklahoma, and Floris Whitebull, a native of Standing Rock and a distant relative of Sitting Bull, are hosting me and a crew of activists, musicians and journalists who have arrived to winterize yurts, tiny houses, trailers, bunk houses and other structures to get ready for the harsh North Dakota winter.
In hushed tones after midnight, Horinek relates the events of a few days prior. North Dakota police attacked water protectors seeking to re-open ND 1806, the crucial main artery that connects Standing Rock to Bismark, which had ben blockaded by burned out trucks and cars set on fire by police weeks earlier. After towing the vehicles out of the middle of the road, police opened fire with rubber bullets and water cannons in 20-degree weather. "Everyone who was here either has PTSD or was injured," he says, noting that some 300 people were injured, "including several cardiac arrests, severe injuries from rubber bullets, including a detached retina. And that girl, Sophia Wilanksy, who got hit by a grenade."
"The rest of us are now awake to the risks here. Every day is a day you could lose your life. But I will be on the front lines no matter what," he says.
Bright and early on Thanksgiving Day, hundreds of water protectors assemble on the bank of the Cannonball River, the north shore of which is across from Turtle Island, a burial grounds for the ancestors of the Standing Rock Tribe. It's a sacred place to the tribe, and it's unclear why the police insist on occupying the top of the ridge, which is akin to trampling through a graveyard with heavy equipment, armored vehicles and instruments of war. There's a line of them about a hundred men long, and they look like they're armed for battle in Fallujah rather than on the scene of a peaceful Thanksgiving protest. They have rifles, grenade launchers, noise cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullet shotguns with the Orwellian inscription "LESS LETHAL" emblazoned on the stock.
On the shore, protectors are franticly hammering a long ladder-like structure covered in styrofoam, plywood and rope: They're building a makeshift footbridge to cross the icy river to the burial grounds to pray. It didn't seem like the bridge could possible hold people, but sure enough, as more than 500 people gather on the banks, brave water protectors mount the bridge and charge it into the water, ferrying hundreds across to the bottom of Turtle Island for a peaceful ceremony.
Staring up at the police who are spraying water down at them, they pray, sing, dance and burn sage, knowing that at any minute the police could erupt into violence.
Indeed, human-rights groups like Amnesty International have raised serious concerns about the actions of the Morton County Police Department. There have been reports of law enforcement not wearing their name tags so they cannot be identified, and medics at the camp have spoken out to warn that the use of water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures is potentially lethal and could cause hypothermia. In my time at Standing Rock, I have witnessed many incidents of police officers pepper spraying and shooting rubber bullets at unarmed protectors, journalists and medics without provocation of any sort.
From the top of the ridge, the police shout down via megaphone: "We do not want to have a confrontation with you today. If you build this bridge, it will be seen as an act of aggression. We do not want to have a confrontation with you today." The officer at the top of the hill seems to be suggesting, Don't you know what day it is? We can't have a fight with Native Americans on Thanksgiving. Think of all the bad press we would get.
For these Native American protectors, this holiday is not a celebration; it is a day of mourning. They simply want to honor their ancestors' graves. "Thanksgiving is actually a massacre. For our Native American brothers and sisters to be here ... and to show no fear, unarmed, makes their ancestors proud, and it re-writes history," says Malia Hullaman, a Native protector from Hawaii, on the bank of the river.
"We are beyond the tipping point for indigenous people," says Floris Whitebull. "Our communities have the highest cancer rates; our people have been the ones that endure. We are tired of having our rights constantly taken away every year, every day, every month. Since 1492, being trampled. We are being dehumanized so that they can justify treating us the way they do … because it makes it easier if we are not actual human beings with souls."
A band of drummers and singers wail away on the banks as protectors talk to the police. Please leave our ancient burial grounds. Please stop trampling on the graves of our ancestors. You wouldn't like that if we didn't it to you. Please leave, they say. Sometimes they shout, Don't you know what you're doing? Go home to your wives and families. It's time for dinner. Other water protectors yell, Brothers and sisters, don't engage the police! Don't be reactive. When you are reactive, you step out of prayer and go into anger. Have love in your heart. Don't let them incite you. Pray here and do what we came here to do.
This is not some kind of suicide mission – the point is not to bum-rush a line of cops that would certainly arrest, beat, maim and perhaps even kill the protectors. The point is to own a deep sense of power, strength and connectedness, and celebrate and pray. The sense of peace is palpable. It's the sense that something new is being created.