Julia Carrie Wong in Cannon Ball, North Dakota/Thursday 8 December 2016 06.00 EST
Frank Archambault says he at last found something to be proud of: ‘Back home, it’s drugs, alcohol, no jobs. It’s hopeless.’ Photograph: Sara Lafleur-Vetter
Frank Archambault’s tent sits on top of a small hill in the middle of Oceti Sakowin, the largest encampment at Standing Rock. It is easy to spot him on the small rise, wearing a long black coat, feathered hat, and yellow, red, white and black ribbons on his arm that mark him as a member of Iktčé Wičháša Oyáte – A Common Men’s Society.
Archambault founded Iktčé Wičháša Oyáte shortly after he arrived, with his five children and grandchild, at the “water protector” encampments in August. He saw that there was work around the camp that wasn’t getting done, and he saw that there were men around camp not doing work. Now the group helps run security and coordinates work crews.
It’s a big change from Archambault’s previous life in Little Eagle, South Dakota, a community of about 300 people within the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A recovering meth addict, Archambault describes the existence he left behind, before he joined the movement fighting the Dakota Access pipeline: “Sad.”
“Back home, it’s drugs, alcohol, no jobs. People don’t really know how to survive. It’s hopeless,” he said. “All we have left is the river.”
Many of the Native American activists, also known as water protectors, who have gathered on the windswept plains of North Dakota to defeat a multibillion-dollar pipeline, come from reservations ravaged by poverty, substance abuse, and a legacy of historical traumas that reach well into the present.
“This is like an awakening,” Archambault said as he surveyed the camp from his spot on the hill. “Something I’ve been struggling with my whole life is doing something to be proud of.”
‘You can’t leave’
Before Lauren Howland travelled to Standing Rock, she was back home at the Jicarrilla Apache Nation reservation in Dulce, New Mexico, taking a break from the University of New Mexico to help her family through some hard times.
“I was a bad kid,” she said of her life before Standing Rock. “I was always drinking, always with my hoodrat friends doing hoodrat stuff, just being a typical Native American, giving into the stereotype that we’re all drunks and druggies and we just get our checks and get drugs.”
“It’s not hard to be that way when it’s all you see,” she added.
Howland, who is San Carlos Apache and Navajo, calls herself a “recovering alcoholic”. When we spoke, in early November, she was 31 days sober.
“Back on the rez, there’s nothing really to do. All there is do is drink and kill yourself,” she said. “I’m only 21 and I’m an alcoholic. I know 13-year-old alcoholics, 11-year-old alcoholics. I started drinking when I was, like, seven.”
Surveys by the National Institute of Health conducted in 1991-1992 and 2001-2002 showed that Native Americans were almost twice as likely as other racial and ethnic groups in the United States to be alcohol dependent. However, a more recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona, looking at the period from 2009-2013, found no elevated rate of alcoholism in Native American populations.
And among young adults, Native Americans are more than twice as likely to take their own lives than other racial groups, according to a 2015 study by the US Centers for Disease Control.
For the Cheyenne River Sioux, the crisis is even more acute. Between 2002 and 2003, the tribe suffered 17 youth suicides, according to multiple news reports.
In 2005, Julie Garreau, the executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that there were between three and seven attempted suicides on the reservation every week.
Before getting involved in the Standing Rock movement, Jasilea Charger, 20, was working at a Taco John’s and living on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, in her hometown of Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
On the reservation, she said, she felt “stuck”. She lost friends and family to the suicide epidemic. Her father died before she was born, and her mother has “lost her way”.
“She taught me what not to do by doing it,” Charger said of her mother. “It’s a gift on its own because it taught me forgiveness.”
“It’s kind of hard living there, but then again you can’t leave,” she said, while cooking slices of spam over a fire pit on a sunny day. “I don’t want to leave home because I feel like I’m running from the problem.”
‘A family gathering’
Hunter Shortbear always wanted to serve in the military. He wanted to join the marines, but a March 2010 beating left him with a fractured skull and just one eye.
At Standing Rock, he has become a “warrior”.
Shortbear’s black eye patch, barrel chest, and proud carriage set him apart in a crowd. He speaks deliberately and eats voraciously. He describes the tasks he has been assigned on the security team by his “superior officer” as “an honor and a privilege”.
As a child, the 29-year-old Oglala Hunkpapa Lakota was adopted by a white family and grew up one of the only Native Americans in Carrington, North Dakota. But at Standing Rock, he has reconnected with his roots.
“I consider it a family gathering,” he said. “The Shortbear family is here.”
The way of life at the camp – communal kitchens, work crews chopping firewood and building shelters, medics and healers providing care, councils coming together to make decisions, and everyone keeping an eye out for each other – has been a revelation for Shortbear.
He compared it to a mural of a historic Sioux tribe living in tipis on the wall of the casino restaurant where we were eating.
“It’s all coming back,” he said. “I don’t want to lose this.”
In every moment, Standing Rock is suffused with indigenous ceremony and prayer, from the women who walk down to the water at sunrise to the singers who gather at the sacred fire.
At home, Howland said, tribal elders would tell young people to “get back to prayer and get away from drugs and alcohol” but it never made sense to her.
“It wasn’t until I came here that I realized it’s a powerful thing to learn your traditions and ways,” she said. “We do everything in prayer. This morning I woke up in prayer. You wake up and you smudge and you pray. At home, I would wake up and open a bottle and drink.”
‘Take this fire’
On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was denying an easement for the Dakota Access pipeline to cross the Missouri river. It’s a victory for the movement, though many don’t trust the government or the company not to figure out another way.
With the temperatures dropping, a blizzard raging through North Dakota, and the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux asking people to leave, the camps are at a crossroads.
Xhopakelxhit was an activist before she arrived at camp. A member of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish, and Cree nations from the Village of Maaqtusiis in Sovereign Ahousaht Territory, Canada, she grew up reading Mao with her father.
As a member of the Red Warrior Camp, a group within Oceti Sakowin responsible for many of the direct actions against the pipeline, like chaining themselves to machinery, Xhopakelxhit carries a certain amount of mystique. “The joke around Red Warrior Camp is we eat rubber bullets for breakfast,” she said while receiving a large tattoo on her chest.
The challenge now, Xhopakelxhit says, is ensuring that everyone stays in the fight.
“One-hundred percent of indigenous people who leave here have a battle at home they weren’t taking care of. So maybe they can go home and fight.”
Howland agreed: “Imagine if we go back to our different reservations and start implementing tradition and prayer. Think about how much change we can make.”
“When I go home, I’m not going to be the same,” said Charger. “People back in our community deserve to know what it feels like to stand strong and pick each other up.”