“The day before [protestors were hit with water cannons], we’d been talking about how it’d been escalating, and how someone was going to die—I mean if you get hit in the eye with a rubber bullet you can die,” said Will Kindler, M.A., musician and activist, on watching the injured at Standing Rock as others lined up to take their places at the front. “Or someone who’s older can have a heart attack with all this going on, and we were thinking are these people going to come back, come back whole people.”
In order to join protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Kindler, a 29-year-old from Mass., visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on the North and South Dakota lines from November 13th to the 21st of 2016.
Kindler read up before he left, and noticed one the biggest things the Sioux mentioned was to be self-sustaining, so he decided to take his truck rather than a bus, posted on Facebook that he had one extra seat, and an old friend, Arianna Meehan of Dublin, N.H., responded. It took them three days of travel. Then in
Bismarck, after passing propaganda signs that warned of the dangers of being a radical, Kindler, who bears a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan, in both his appearance and the sound of his records, realized it would be an extra hour before they would arrive as the oil company had blocked the nearest bridge into Standing Rock.
“They didn’t want people to come through it and help—they wanted to make it more difficult for people to get into the camps—there was really no other reason for them to do it,” Kindler said. “That factored in later on, big time.”
Kindler, who’s been a good friend of mine ever since we worked at a nursing home together years ago, grabbed a stick and started drawing a map on the dirt floor of the teepee we were in (which he’d set up recently on his parent’s property in West Wilton, N.H.), as flakes of ash rose into the air and settled around us from the small fire in its center.
“When you see all the pictures with the flags, that’s Oceti,” he said, etching a few triangular-shapes by a line representing the Cannon Ball River. Tiny half moons denoted the bridge spanning the small offshoot topped with burned-out trucks wrapped in barbed wire to prevent passage. It’s the spot where Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company in charge of installing the 1,172-mile pipeline that is to filter crude oil from North Dakota down into Illinois, has huge white towers that shine light on the three reservation camps day and night—Rosebud, Sacred Stone, and Oceti Sakowin, or “Oceti.” Kindler said it bred an atmosphere of constant daylight intended to make the residents there as uncomfortable as possible.
“Oceti was huge,” he said. “When you were in Oceti it didn’t feel like you were quite there because you were in the thick of it—you can’t really see, all you can see is people right on top of you.”
Within the camps, Oceti was referred to as “front-line” because it was the nearest to the oil company’s side, where all the “actions,” or pushes took place. Some of the Sioux told Kindler it wasn’t actually their land, but old treaty land. He attributed their exact knowledge of these lines to many years spent following treaties.
It was sundown when Kindler and Meehan initially arrived at the reservation—having read up how drugs, alcohol, and weapons are prohibited (although they carried none), he’d gotten up early that morning and rushed, certain they’d want to search his truck in daylight, but they were simply asked at the entrance and taken on their word. Then, mainly out of necessity, as the sky was growing dark, they settled in the first camp they entered—Rosebud, where people were much more spread out than in Oceti. Kindler said being there was “like having a view of N.Y., but from the other side of the river—you can see everything.”
They set up camp by a Lakota named Blackcloud and, quickly disregarding how exhausted they were as all the excitement of arrival hit, sat up and talked with Blackcloud by the fire a little later than they should have. Kindler said, the 4:30 a.m. wake-up call the next morning—something he hadn’t exactly expected—was rough, and continued to be rough for the next several days.
Days were long out in the cold. Kindler said he spent the hours assisting others in setting up their camps. All camps combined—225 different tribes represented— contained at least 200-300 teepees in all different states of use. “You could tell that some people had been living pretty authentically for a while,” he said, “and they [those teepees] were all black at the top, and some people had money and went out and bought a new one, and then didn’t know how to put it up.”
But there weren’t just teepees, the camps were speckled with vehicles of every kind, tents, and even one “yurt village” with 25-30 yurts, nomadic, rounded structures. The only spot you could get any service of any kind, Kindler said as he pointed to the top left corner of his map in the sand, they called “Facebook Hill.” He was unsure if it had always been like that, or if the oil company had somehow blocked off reception on purpose, which was the rumor.
At night, Kindler and Meehan went to the “Sacred Fire”—something he had imagined as gigantic after all he’d read, but it was actually average-sized, and there ritual singing, drumming, and dancing took place. Two buffalo sculls sat near the fire, along with a poll topped in eagle feathers, and as not everyone could fit around the fire, women, children, and particularly natives, got preference to sit closer, which Kindler felt was completely understandable.
He noticed the one small amp and microphone they used for singing, as well as wake-up calls and daily announcements, and they were the type a teenager might buy for their first instrument—the “cheapest, and really, really shitty.” Being a musician with plenty of his own equipment at home, Kindler regretted not knowing because he could have brought something. Although the amp’s sound traveled through the camp during the day, he said you couldn’t really make out exactly what they were saying.
You saw reservation police once in a while, but you never saw any state or local police, Kindler said, and nothing in the camp was enforced. Still, as there were no drugs/alcohol, or partying in the camps, everyone went to bed early at night.
Then throughout the day, you could participate in “actions.” If you wanted to take part in one, you had to attend action-training meetings then sign up at a legal tent, where lawyers worked to release those who’d been arrested, pro-bono. Kindler and Meehan wondered whether they should participate in one of these actions to deliver supplies to the front, so they attended a couple of the meetings.
“We tried to go—we debated the whole time because things were kind of escalating and people were getting arrested every day over there at the bridge, where the actions were going on,” he said, joking that as much as he loves getting arrested, being 1800 miles from home without money for bail meant they weren’t exactly pushing to go.
Also, they didn’t know who was leading the actions, as the trainings were a bit disorganized. “I think that’s one thing that people don’t really know about Standing Rock,” Kindler said. “I think people think that it was an organized push for this and everyone’s doing this—it was so disorganized, so disorganized.” He thinks this led to people not being in the right place at the right time, and the wrong people taking charge.
“There was a lot of angry white people yelling [during the meetings] to the extent that sometimes an older native person would be talking, and then a twenty-something-year-old white guy would be like shut up, and that was really like ok, we’re not here to listen to you,” Kindler said.
There was basically no system. It seemed like they hadn’t expected as many people to show up as there were. And the people there had never come together in those numbers because of something like this. There were many false alarms and poorly directed efforts at certain things, Kindler said, which made people like him not want to participate in some things that actually ended up being good things.
“Everyone had the impression that it was a big happy family up there and that wasn’t true at all,” he said. “Many people there hated each other. There was a lot of distrust within the tribe and a lot of dispute over how to achieve this goal.” A few times, Kindler and Meehan returned to camp to find an ambulance and it was always because two people were fighting.
When anyone was hurt there, which was mostly people just beating each other up, the ambulance had to drive an extra hour around the bridge blocked off by the oil company in order to reach them. Kindler didn’t know how the company got away with this as Cannonball, the town below Standing Rock, was small and didn’t have an ambulance of their own (only one policeman), so if a house had caught fire there, although they weren’t involved in the protests it would have burned down before the ambulance arrived.
About halfway into Kindler’s stay, he sent a letter back home to a friend that was later published in Silence Dogood Gazette on November 22nd, one day after the water cannon incident. He wrote: The people here are sure of two things: that the police on the other side of the northern hills are fully prepared to murder, and that the Lakota settling in for winter here are prepared to die. There is the sense that this is the beginning of a never-ending push for equality for the people here.
When I asked what was most memorable about his trip, at first Kindler joked that it was the cold. “There were many different things. For one, we were there the night where they hit people with big water cannons, that was one of the most intense nights,” Kindler said, but another one stood out more.
And that was their sixth night at Rosebud.
After several days of rising at 4:30 a.m., and laboring to set up camps: digging fire-pits, putting up tents for those who’d never done it before, that day had been especially rough, especially long, Kindler said, and after having never fully recovered from the trip out there, he was more than ready for a full night’s sleep when he settled in that evening. I’m going to go to bed early and fuck-up wake up call, he told himself—I’m going to bury myself and miss it.
But once he’d closed his eyes, it seemed like no time had passed when he woke to a knock on his truck window. “Fuck off,” he told them, and had almost fallen back asleep when the sounds of yelling and cars speeding by suggested something might actually be wrong here.
Kindler poked his head out to someone yelling, “We have to get them now! We have to go!” So he crawled out and looked up. The whole horizon was full of gigantic flames burning all the way from the river to a hill on the edge of the camps. “The flames were taller than these trees,” he told me, pointing to a row of large pines along the border of his family’s property.
“What the fucks going on?” he asked the nearest person.
“They’re burning one of the camps,” they said.
The night before Kindler and Meehan had just been over to Oceti for the first time—the camp that was now on fire—and they’d seen a bunch of younger native people by the river. And he’d noticed how unbearably bright it was there underneath the light towers only a quarter mile away. “It was like full daylight all the time for these people,” he said, “and they were especially young, especially angry, especially combative in some ways, so they would do things like shoot rockets at the towers.” The previous day someone had driven through the camps with a gun, so he wouldn’t have put it past them to just attack the other side.
Then someone said, “There are people burning over there! There are people on fire and if we don’t help them out they’re all going to die!” Still half asleep, Kindler thought there’s no fire department so it’s up to us to save that camp.
He shoved everything from the back of his truck, where he’d been sleeping—including his ID’s, onto the ground then tore off across the field. He didn’t have his glasses, so was struggling to focus and figure out what was going on while the truck hit one miserable pothole after the next.
When Kindler and Meehan reached the front, they were told some kids had been shooting bottle rockets at the towers and one had landed in the grass—though the fire still burned, by then the flames had died down a bit.
“You would think walky-talkies or something to communicate would make a lot of sense,” Kindler said, as they’d just ended up standing in the field, flagging people down who were speeding across to help, to tell them, “There’s no emergency right now,” until the fire finally burned itself out.
Before it was over it scorched 400 acres but, luckily, only one lodge ended up catching fire, and no one was hurt as it just barely graced the frontline by the river, which was positioned between the camps and fire. That’s all that saved the camps—fire trucks didn’t arrive until it began to threaten the oil company’s side, and then that section was put out.
“It was so intense that I couldn’t sleep when we got back because I was worried people were burned and I had no training in this: I had that heightened sense of what I was going to do,” Kindler said.
The next morning—both filthy and dying for a real cup of coffee, and lacking the supplies and cash to make it through the 24th—Kindler and Meehan decided to leave the day after to avoid spending Thanksgiving on the road. And as they wanted to experience some things they hadn’t yet, they relocated to Oceti to spend their final night in the thick of it.
“I think there were a lot of people who were probably rightfully pretty paranoid about it. But we were interested in being in a nest of people,” he said—“A lot of people weren’t because it meant protection, and we probably should have thought about that.”
The day everyone would hear about later on in the news had started off really good for Kindler and Meehan. They set up camp by a big beautiful tree with a ready-made fire-pit. It was pretty much as far out as they could be, right by frontline, where guards traveled back and forth in their vehicles with guns, so they realized if there ever was a raid they would be the first to get hit.
It was really nice out—about twenty-five degrees, a lot better than it had been earlier that week–so they walked around camp during the day, handing out any remaining supplies they hadn’t used, and wouldn’t need, then attended a ceremony by the river. Throughout the week, Kindler had seen a lot of people in mixed clothing, but many there were in ceremonial dress.
“If we had been there earlier in the year,” he told me, “we probably would have seen more traditional clothing, but as it was so cold people were in the best modern coat you could find.”
The sunset that night was beautiful. They gathered around the fire and talked about their experience. Shortly, they spotted the headlights of a line of cars traveling up and over the hill. This had happened other nights—sometimes they brought people back from the front under the cover of darkness, so Kindler and Meehan didn’t think much of it.
Then they heard the bangs of what sounded to be gunshots. There was yelling and then the bridge lit up in a huge glow. It appeared to be a fire so they debated what to do—knowing they had to get up early the next morning with a long drive ahead, and assuming it another false alarm, they decided someone else would check, maybe get back to them if it were a real emergency. Even when this “big jock-type guy” in a truck drove up, and said, “Everybody’s going up over the bridge! They’re attacking! They’re attacking us,” Kindler didn’t fully believe it—partially because this same guy, who camped next to them, was always getting riled up about stuff. So they watched and waited.
But soon it became more and more intense and they realized this wasn’t a false alarm. They were considering what to do when a guy drove up and asked if anyone had any medical training. Kindler said they didn’t but asked what they could do to help. “Well, they’re hitting us with water,” the man said.
By then it was 15 degrees out, so Kindler and Meehan kicked their fire over and headed to the medical tent to donate the majority of the supplies they’d saved for the night.
“These people were covered in ice in their hair and clothing, and they were going through piles of clothing to try and find things that would fit people,” Kindler said of the those who’d just returned from the front, “and there was this 13 year-old girl who had been shot in the face, on purpose—almost lost her eye, a couple of older people had had heart attacks so they were bringing them away. And this other girl—they had these concussion grenades, and they would be loud if one was dropped near you, and your ears might be sore—deterrents, big bang, but it landed on her arm and exploded, and it was just bone.”
It was mostly over by then. Helicopters and planes were flying overhead, and some people were saying they’re dropping things on us, but Kindler didn’t know if that was true. There were so many people there, he said, along with a whole line waiting to go over the hill and replace those who were coming back—it was like they were waiting to go into battle. Kindler and Meehan felt compelled to join the line because this was something important, but they had no supplies or money to bail themselves out so didn’t have much of a choice. They wished them luck and shook their hands.
What sparked the whole event was actually the fire the night before. Kindler said, “… People in camp [had] started talking about if that fire had been in camp, people would have died, so we have to move those vehicles on the bridge because we need to have fire trucks here if that happens.”
The protestors were attempting to push the burned out vehicles off the bridge and when police began hitting them with water, others jumped over and joined them.
They’d been expecting a raid ever since the night before. Now Kindler and Meehan were sure something was going to happen and they were in the camp closest to the front. As they were leaving the next morning anyway, they debated packing up and leaving right there but were too tired. “I went to sleep knowing I was going to wake up to cops kicking in my window, and me going to jail,” Kindler said, “and somehow nothing happened, and when we woke up camp was a little more empty. I think some people got scared and left.”
After everything, they felt weird leaving and thought people would assume they were running. But they didn’t have enough supplies to stay, so after dropping what little they had left at the medical tent, Kindler gave his last $60 to a Lakota man asking for 25 cents for fuel and then they climbed into the truck and headed out onto the road.
“To this day,” he said, “knowing what happened, it’s tough to know how to feel about it. I think we both feel a little bit guilty about not having rushed out there to find out what was going on. But we didn’t know—do you rush out to every false alarm? If we hadn’t had to leave the next day, would we have? I don’t know.”
Kindler knows a vet from Wilton who went out with a group of veterans the week after he and Meehan returned home, and was there when Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault asked protestors to abandon the camps due to weather, which by then was growing increasingly harsh and he feared people would get hurt. But this led to some conflict between Archambault and activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard who’d set up the first camp on site, Sacred Stone, on land her family owns along the river. Because of this Kindler believes Sacred Stone is the only camp that still has people in it as everyone’s been cleared out of Rosebud and Oceti. The attitude of many of the Sioux seems to be that even though the DAPL is presently nearing completion, that doesn’t mean oil has to flow through it. It’s now a battle for the courts.
“Conditions were only going to get worse—we had 10,000 people there and it did nothing [to halt the oil company],” Kindler said. “The camps we were in, I’m pretty sure are burned out wastelands [today], Army Corps of Engineers didn’t want any more trouble.”
When I asked Kindler what spurred his trip to Standing Rock, he said some of it had to do with how political things were with the election. “There were so many things going on,” he said, “and everyone was talking about this and that, and I realized that I had talked about fifty different things that I had then not gone and done anything about.”
He wasn’t sure why but of all the things he’d chimed in on, Standing Rock wasn’t one. Although Kindler had followed it online, he hadn’t said anything about it, so he told himself, If there’s one thing that I’m actually going to go do, it might as well be this one thing I haven’t wasted my words on.
He smiled and raised his hands, motioning towards the teepee we sat inside, which he joked that he set up one day after watching Dances With Wolves a few too many times. “I think this [being in the teepee] had a little to do with it. I’d been doing this since May, and I decided to go in October, and I said how can I build a lodge and hang out… then when real people need help, not do anything about it?” Kindler had seen a bunch of people posting on Facebook that they were at Standing Rock (at the time protestors had been asking people to check in to confuse the opposition on the exact number of people present). He noticed the response was really positive. No matter what political affiliations people had, they seemed to be overwhelming supportive of this.
“I viewed it as a sort of unifying thing,” Kindler said. “If I couldn’t be a part of that then why talk about it, or what else could I do? I had some money saved to get me out there. People with families were doing this—I’m a single guy, thought I should do it too.”