Standing Rock visitor
Mason Needham is an arborist from Reno. In November, he made a 10-day trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where protesters have been camped since August in opposition to the 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which they fear will pollute the Missouri River and threaten native burial grounds.
What inspired you to go to Standing Rock?
What inspired me to go was a real curiosity about what I had seen on the internet, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting the whole story. I was actually pretty sure I wasn’t getting the whole story, but I didn’t know which direction the spin was towards.
What did you witness that helped to inform your perspective?
What I immediately noticed was banners and signs from the outside, from literally nations all over the world, and they were saying, “We support the people of Standing Rock,” … people from, like, the Amazon Basin. … As well as large banners that say “We are unarmed” surrounding the entire camp. So to see the media spin it with a neutral stance, saying things like, “The protest became violent today” … Well, violence is happening, and it’s not coming from the side of the indigenous people. Their main objective is they’re a peaceful camp of prayer and ceremony, and they adhere very strictly to that, and to the outsiders, either adhere to that or you’re not welcome.
Did you see any violence yourself?
I did. It was the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
We were at a demonstration. … On our way to this government building, we were to walk over a train track, and there was probably 30 to 50 SWAT-gear-clad officers that stopped us at the train tracks. … And so we kind of formed a lineup in front of them and surrounded the elders and the people praying and singing, playing the hand drum, sort of to protect them, with non-indigenous people around the outside. After about 30 minutes of praying they were continuously telling us to disperse. We began backing up, and they began pushing forward, and as soon as there was movement between those two lines, they began just grabbing people.
What else did you do there?
Most of the time helping out in the camp, doing things like helping people build structures or winterize their living situations. I split a lot of wood. There was a lot of wood being dropped off. We had three double semi-trailers of wood come in and drop off wood from New York. … I brought a bunch of files to sharpen chainsaws, and pretty much would go around and offer to sharpen people’s tools and split wood. That kind of thing is really needed there. … There were eight very large kitchens. Food was being dropped off all over the place by the truckload.
Tell me more about the camp.
The camp is a very inclusive community. The only sound I heard the entire time I was there was traditional native singing and drumming … and their prayer, starting from sunrise to well past sundown. Every fire is sacred. You don’t throw your paper plate or anything like that into the fire. It’s a very sacred space.
Was it easy enough to figure out once you got there what the rules were and how you were expected to help?
Not really. … I thought I knew, but I had no idea. There is a newcomer orientation class that they give. It’s about three hours long.