|Rachel Ellison, AJ Seifert, and Gina Shenenfeld on their way to Standing Rock, North Dakota. Courtesy Rachel Ellison.|
Fort Thomas brother and sister, AJ Seifert and Rachel Ellison, and their friend, Gina Shenefeld, made their way to the Native American camp on November 16. This is their story of what they witnessed.
Rachel Ellison first visited South Dakota in the spring of 2015 to work with an organization called Okiciyapi Tipi [and] to participate in volunteer projects on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The experience changed my life. We stayed for 2-weeks in a volunteer house and our main project was to repair houses on the reservation.… I had no idea about the conditions on the reservations. They live in extreme poverty and teenage suicide is among the highest in the nation. It was like visiting a third-world country and it was shocking.
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So when the news broke, Rachel said that I decided to go Standing Rock after realizing that I didn’t have a good reason not to go. I had tossed around the idea of just doing a donation drive and sending them via mail, but I ended up getting so many donations that it made much more sense for me to rent a car, and fit as much in as possible…. I woke up one morning, looked at my husband and said, ‘I’m going to Standing Rock. They need our help.’ Luckily, he is always super supportive and replied with, ‘Alright, what do we need to do to make it happen?’ My husband couldn’t get off work to go, so the next day, I called AJ and asked him to go with me. Gina also went with us.
AJ agrees. Rachel was the one who made the decision. She sent me a text 2 weeks before we went and told me that she was going. Personally, I knew that I couldn't let her go without me…. I felt that I couldn't just sit by while innocent people were getting hurt anymore. Even if it was only to drop off supplies, we wanted to help. We weren't completely aware of what we were getting ourselves into at the time, but when we arrived, what we saw, changed us. It changed me.
Rachel described the camp as extremely organized. There is a medical tent, mess hall, kitchens, volunteer tent, media tent, community fire area, etc. There is security at the front gate and they make sure to go over the rules. There are absolutely no weapons, drugs, or alcohol allowed in camp.
AJ describes their first entrance into the first camp. We were met by a woman with her face covered with a scarf due to the high winds. We explained that we were there to camp and drop off supplies and hopefully take pictures of what was going on so we could show everyone back at home. The woman explained that the Sacred Stone camp was a camp of prayer and ceremony. Pictures and videos weren't allowed due to the ceremony. The camp was a sacred area for them that they were building structures on in order to survive the winter there. They had a few tents and teepees set up to keep warm from the cold and wind, but were working on living arrangements that were much more permanent. We ended up deciding that it would be better for us to then go to the Oceti Sakowin camp, which was just north of Sacred Stone.
There was a midwifery, medical tents, an elementary school, a mental health facility, and so much more. It was an entire town of people who were in a constant mode of prayer and ceremony. It was one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced. Just seeing how people, of all races and backgrounds, come together for a singular cause gives me hope. They stressed non-violence and peace everywhere in the camp, and everyone helped out each other, not because they had to, but because they could.
|The camp at Standing Rock. Courtesy of Rachel Ellison|
AJ picks up the narrative. The Oceti Sakowin camp was where majority of the water protectors were staying. When we pulled up to the entrance of Oceti, the road was lined with flags from all different [Native] nations. Nations standing in solidarity with the people of the Lakota and Sioux. As we pulled up we were greeted by a native man who told us that we were free to camp wherever we liked. We drove around the outside edge of the camp until we found a spot that seem appropriate. We parked and as we got out of the vehicle to set up our tent, we were met with incredibly high winds and subfreezing temperatures. Despite this we managed to set up camp and cook a small meal over a camp stove before the sun went down.
We used the firewood that we had packed to start a fire for us to stay warm through the night, but as the sun began to set we noticed flood lights on the horizon just across from us. Right across the Cannon Ball River, the Army Corp. of Engineers, and DAPL, had flood lights set on the camp to illuminate it at night. We heard that this was to keep the water protectors awake at night and to keep them tired. We also heard stories of DAPL setting of sirens in the middle of the night to keep the protectors awake as well. After taking a couple pictures of the lights we noticed blue and red lights flashing from within the camp. We assumed that it was the Morton County Police Department, so we quickly put out our fire and went towards the flashing lights. As we went through the camp at night, you could see kids playing and running around with head lamps on, people in lines at the mess halls that they had set up, and people quietly talking and laughing by fires. The lights were from an ambulance that was at the medical tent, and we never actually found out why they were called there, but based off of the weather, it probably had something to do with the cold. We took in the scenes for a minute before returning to camp and sleep through the night.
|Courtesy Rachel Ellison.|
AJ recounts that the water protectors were about to go on a march up to the Backwater Bridge, where the military had the public road blocked. On our way to the bridge, the group spelled out, "Free Red Fawn," with their bodies in the part of the Cannon Ball River had receded for the winter. Rachel, Gina, and I, ended up spelling part of the "e" in free. The group took pictures with aerial drones that they had. As we were sitting in the dirt, posing for the picture that they wanted to take, I noticed as a military plane kept circling overhead. It just kept circling, over and over, as if watching what the group of protectors was doing. Every now and then we would see a helicopter circle the camp a couple times as well. It really made me feel anxious, to know that the police and military was watching our every move.
So, Rachel and I, went on to the bridge. I figured, I had gone this far already and I had to keep pushing. I wanted to be a part of what was going on. The ceremony on the bridge was one of prayer and peace. As the women marched to the front to the barricade, the only thing that you could hear was the sound of a couple drums being played to the sound of our marching. When the drums stopped, all of the women in the front sat down and began to pray. Everything remained silent for 20 minutes.
As everyone was praying, I could see behind the barricade, as multiple police trucks began pulling up. There were military trucks with LRAD speakers on top of them, and police and military standing near their vehicles. Tensions, surprisingly, stayed very low. Right before the moment of silence was about to end, everyone who stayed back on the other side of the bridge, was linked, arm in arm, and marching towards the other protectors. I didn't know it at the time, but Gina was actually with the group marching forward, and even held a banner within the crowd. It was amazing to see even the people who didn't want to get arrested march forward, without fear, because they had each other.
Eventually the military on the other side of the barricade announced that they had held up their end of the "deal" and let the protectors have their ceremony, and then asked them to evacuate the bridge. Everyone marched back to camp, to the sound of a drum and prayer. At the very end, I remember one man exclaiming that they needed to do more, that being peaceful wasn't working, but the people in the crowd calmed him down, and told him that violence wouldn't solve anything. The entire ceremony was about peace and prayer.
The water protectors were attempting to move a burnt out vehicle that was blocking the bridge, saying that blocking the public road was preventing emergency vehicles from getting to the camp. The police later said, that they responded with hoses and non-lethal ammunition because the safety of the officers and protectors was at risk due to the bridge being unstable. One officer, in a press conference later the next day, even said that they would be willing to use any means necessary to maintain peace.
During the hours long confrontation with police and military, hundreds of people were injured, dozens hospitalized, and a woman even had to get her arm amputated because a concussion grenade destroyed her arm beyond repair. The news isn't reporting this, and what they do report is only what Morton County Sheriff department puts out. They claimed that the water protectors started dozens of fires, yet video evidence even shows that a police projectile started a fire and the water protectors rushed to put it out. They claimed that water protectors were becoming violent, but videos show them screaming that they are unarmed, getting hosed while holding up peace signs, standing without fear. One officer even fired a rubber bullet at a water protector’s head, the second he turned around. This is a war zone, yet no one knows that it's happening.
After we got home, I remember showing a couple of my friends pictures that I had taken when I got a text from Rachel telling me to check Facebook. When i checked …I saw a live stream of the Backwater Bridge, exactly where we were standing 24 hour prior, and the police had began using a military truck to hose down the water protectors in sub freezing temperatures. Rubber bullets, mace, concussion grenades, and LRAD systems were used to try to disperse the water protectors from the bridge.
AJ Seifert says that I met and lived with these people, and I can tell you first hand, that they are peaceful, they are prayerful, and they are their to protect the environment. Morton County Sheriff Dept. is using militarized police in order to attack American citizens, all in the name of oil and greed. …A massive human rights violation is being committed on American soil and the only thing that I have the power to do, is to show people what I experienced.
Rachel Ellison says, Do I consider myself a protestor? Yes, although I hate the negative connotation that is attached to the word. I consider myself an advocate for human rights. At the end of my life I want to look back and know that I have made a difference in someone’s life. I think if we all took more time to not only listen to the oppressed, but also take the steps necessary to create real change, then this world would be a much better place.
|A sign that captures the purpose of the act of protection. Courtesy Rachel Ellison.|