Now that the cold has set in and the Army Corps has temporarily denied the easement to continue pipeline construction, many protesters at Standing Rock have headed home. On Dec. 9, as the crowds dissipated and some lingered to winterize the camp, photographer Andrew Cullen asked what people had learned during their time there. Many said they experienced transformation, and spoke with hope about taking action on other social justice and environmental justice issues. Here's what they're thinking:
31, Spokane, Washington
Member of the Spokane Tribe
“Growing up on the reservation I’m taught a lot of things: ‘This is the way we do things and this is the way it is,’ but I was never really taught why. Coming here, I was able to learn a lot from the people and the stories. When you’re living life, it’s so fast paced, and I guess we don’t take time to tell the stories behind the things we’re taught. So I was able to learn a lot about my culture and the reasons why we do things. Here, they strongly believe women are sacred, and they were taught the story behind it — that we came from a woman. It’s a beautiful story. There was a curious little girl, who fell from outer space onto a turtle’s back. The woman came first, and the man came from the woman, and that’s why women are sacred. I have girls, so I definitely need to pass that down to them. There’s a lot of men that we need to reteach, reteach the right way.
"I have a lot of stories (to bring back home). It’s funny because we call it going back to the ‘real world’ but it’s such a fake world. Being away has helped me learn what’s important and to slow down and not be like that. Being a parent it’s just ‘get dinner done.’ But here you put a lot of love and time in your cooking. (At home) my kids would want to help, and I’d say, ‘No, I just want to get this done.’
"Another thing I’m learning here is that this is only the beginning. It’s a step. As long as we all stay united, we can make that change and stand up for ourselves. Back home we have the same issue going on, but we’ve never stood up to them because we don’t think ... that everybody could come together like this. But now that we’ve done it here, I feel like we can do it everywhere.”
17, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
“(Before) I came up here, I had kind of an attitude, where I didn’t want to do anything. I was lazy all the time. But ever since I came up here, I’ve been busy the whole time. Being up here, I have a lot of responsibilities, and when I go back home I have a lot of responsibilities I need to get to: Go back to school, help around the house. I just live with my dad. It’s me, my dad and my little sister. It’s kind of tough, but we’re getting through it. When I go back home, I’ll be more mature and responsible.
"About a year ago I started getting more spiritual. I believe in something more powerful now. This coming summer I’m going to be Sun Dancing. I’m really excited. We pray a lot. A couple nights ago we had a chanupa ceremony in our tent. We were all there, all my brothers were there and we had a couple chanupas there with us. Then we all prayed in a circle. We smoked the chanupas, and we prayed before we smoked, so whenever you smoke that chanupa, that smoke carries on your prayers to Tunkachala, and the next morning because Tunkachala answered our prayers. We were low on wood and some people came over with a truckload of wood, and then right after that some people came by with donations of food. It pretty much answered our prayers and we were all happy. (I witnessed) the power of prayers.”
52, Oregon and Idaho
“I’ve been experiencing apathy for a while. (Standing Rock) has changed the way I think about our government treating its own citizens and finally realizing that they are using tactics that they were using when people were run off their land to begin with. I thought it was a non-issue, but there’s so many pipelines going through their land, and up until recently they had no say in it, no power, and up until recently they had no voice.
"I’ve developed more of a resolve to be more active in our community. That’s what I’m coming away with. I’m just going to try to be more aware of what’s going on in the world, and let my voice be known.”
46, Oahu, Hawaii
Member of the Kanaka Maoli tribe
“It has allowed me to develop and enhance my skills (as an activist/organizer/trainer), taking it to another level that I can take back home. The training, the analysis, my understanding of what’s important during a direct action of this level, with this kind of high-level aggression. It’s given me an experience of what’s important and how to keep people safe, and strategies and tactics and messaging. This whole camp has taught me about how to hold space in a large way, what anywhere from two to 10,000 people can do, and what the limitations of that are. Like when the vets rolled in, their estimates were 10,000 to 12,000 people, and that was too much. It wasn’t safe, and then the storm rolled in.
"I learned about increased organizing on that level. I learned about strategy and tactics against big power, law enforcement and corporations. I learned about community and taking care of one another. This whole experience has been, I wouldn’t even say learning, I would say transformative.
"As a Hawaiian we’re always facing issues. I’m going to take it (what I learned) back for the same issues: water struggles, water rights, burial protection, sacred sites.”
25, Eagle Butte, South Dakota
Member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
“I overcame looking at different races differently. Growing up, we were only allowed to look at it certain ways, because of the history and our grandparents’ grudges. Being here it taught me that we’re all human, we are. We all have feelings. That color doesn’t matter.
"The way my grandpa would tell me, he would say, ‘(The police) are blind, they don’t have a heart.’ But there’s a lot of people that are here for the right reason. We’re all here to do one thing. That’s when we start to open our heart up to other people, to letting them in, to let our barriers down, and we start to trust again where we weren’t able to do.
"And here, everyone’s so welcoming, they show you that love and that compassion. We’re all here for one reason, and it’s a big impact on us. I have two kids, and my kids get to see from the real world and from camp, that it is different, that we’re all here together as one, that we don’t have to fight against each other. And my daughter realized that. She said, ‘Mom, I love it here at camp. Over here it’s welcoming.’ It makes a big impact on us.”
33, Seattle, Washington
“The one thing I wasn’t expecting to get from all this was a spiritual awakening. I prayed a lot. I got back in touch with my spiritual roots.
"It happened in Seattle at a rally that one of my friends put on. She asked me to give a speech in support of Standing Rock. After I gave the speech, they came in with their drums. I knelt down to give some space for the drums, and after they began chanting and singing, I just felt something in my heart, and I began to pray. I hadn’t prayed in a long time. I felt compelled to come out here after that.
"I have continued to pray when I’ve gone home.
"When you look at African-Americans and you look at our ancestors and our history of being slaves and not having rights and being mistreated … This hits close to home, because this is happening to the Natives. That definitely resonates with me a great deal, being a black women, to stand up with my Native American brothers and sisters. It didn’t really click (before). People talk about how they don’t really see color and somehow I started to believe that myself … Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population, and time and time again they’ve been mistreated and their culture has not been honored in a place where they’re the original landowners. I definitely feel it close to home.”
“Community building and activism is apparently huge on my personal agenda, and I never really knew that. It wasn’t until Standing Rock that something was ignited in me to come help, and I think that I have realized from coming here that I am an activist, and I would have never known that.
"I see people formulating solutions instead of just complaining about problems. The other day in a meeting … someone brought up the danger of children sledding. … He was like ‘Can we put up some barriers on the roads? I’m a little concerned about the roads.’ And the meeting leader said, ‘All right, you’re the leader of the roads department. Take charge on that.’ ”
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