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Psychological Warfare at Standing Rock Reservation, Oceti Sakowin Camp

Water Is Life
Facebook Hill (All photos courtesy John Sheldon)

An airplane, flying low overhead, circling the camp. It comes at any time, dusk, midday, 3 in the morning. It stays up there for a half hour, or one hour, or four. Why? There are rumors that it is spraying chemicals, blocking cell phone service, doing surveillance. Sometimes it is joined by a yellow helicopter, which I am told belongs to DAPL, the pipeline company.

Up on a hill above Turtle Island, an armored vehicle sits among the police cars. It crouches there, among police, some with rifles.

At night, Kleig lights beam white light from the hill into the camp. Now, razor wire has been installed up there, and downslope, on the ancestral burial grounds of a people that were here long before we were. Imagine razor wire snaking through Arlington Cemetery.

We are talking about a law enforcement that has used dogs, mace, pepper spray, sound cannon, water cannon in freezing temps, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and golf ball sized “bean bag” ordinance. We know that they are equipped, and ready to use these weapons.

The result of all this, as I stand in the camp, is psychological. It is very hard to not be afraid.

What will they do? How far will they go? It dawns on me that this is exactly what they want. They want us to be afraid. The pipeline, christened “The Black Snake” by the tribes, has its agenda.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors set up a tent

I have never been to any occupied territories, never felt the cold fish eye of being watched by an army, a force that is suspicious of everything I do. It is deeply unsettling. And this is happening in America.

I stopped trusting the military command during the Vietnam War. But, even as I hated what they were doing to the Vietnamese, the US military’s guns and bombs were pointed outward, at enemies, real and imagined. Here, at this camp full of peaceful people praying over the water and their ancestral lands, I experience what it feels like when those weapons are pointed inward, at our own citizens.

These citizens, I am convinced, are the best we have right now. They are deep in prayer for the water, our water, our earth, our environment. There are prayer circles from before dawn to well into the night. There is no central authority here, no hierarchy. There is no Martin Luther King figure to lead them. It is democracy, true democracy, where every single person is important. I saw a man feed a boy in a wheelchair, I saw kitchens, humming with activity, as volunteers prepared meals for hundreds of people. On the edge of chaos, there was never a discouraging word. I saw building crews working together with no bosses, no foremen. Instead of being a recipe for disaster, the work got done.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors unload supplies

On Thursday, Thanksgiving, as I sat up on the hill they call “Facebook Hill,” where you can get service, I heard an announcement: “All women and children must go immediately to the Dome.”

The Dome is one of the larger structures, a geodesic building where large groups can meet. A woman, running up the hill, was yelling. “Everybody — women and children and elderly to the Dome, men to the South Gate — they are going to raid the camp!” I walked toward the Dome, and saw a procession of hundreds of women and children. One woman was saying to her daughter, “It’s alright honey, you’re with momma, and things will be all right.”

Walking back up the hill, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tan armored vehicle on the opposite hill. Would it start moving? What would they do? I became afraid.

The raid never happened. Later we learned that a voice had sounded an alarm on the network of walkie talkies the camp uses for security: SHOTS FIRED, SHOTS FIRED, THEY ARE COMING IN! This seemed to confirm the rumor that the militarized police were going to change from rubber bullets to live rounds.

Do you see the pattern? It is psychological warfare. I, a white person from the East Coast, have never been subjected to this. Sure, a helicopter was flying around my neighborhood this last fall, looking for pot plants. I thought that was intimidating. This is a new reality. The fear in the pit of my stomach became a cannon ball, as I contemplated what a raid on this camp would look like. Thousands of people, with no weapons, against hundreds of heavily armed storm troopers. The raid didn’t happen, except in my imagination. So, in a sense, my mind was occupied by the dark side — split, confused, and afraid.

Water Is Life
John Sheldon at Standing Rock

I am never going to be the same. Focusing on the light, the love in that camp, the willingness of the people to be there in the first place, and their steadfast adherence to the principles of peace and inclusion, I find solace. Still, the question stands out in bold relief: how can I help my friends?

In this camp called Oceti Sakowin, the place of “water is life,” under the surveillance of a police state that is perfectly willing to use violence or the threat of violence against peaceful people, there is no mention of giving in.

May we find ways to support and encourage the light that is streaming into the world, while bearing witness to the shadow that aims to keep us in fear. We all drink the same water. Aho.


John Sheldon (johnsheldon.com) is a guitarist and songwriter. He wrote “The Same Water” in support of the Standing Rock phenomenon and felt compelled to be part of the movement in person.