Background image of woman in red jack with long braid stands on a highway taking a picture of a wall of militarized police


A view from Standing Rock

Ecotrust designer Heldáy de la Cruz traveled to Standing Rock with a carload of friends and supplies to volunteer his time.

There is a Lakota prophecy that I read and heard several times during my stay at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Told in a few different ways, it goes something like this:

The Zuzeca sape, a large and dangerous black snake, will quietly grow and take over the land. It will bring destruction and devastation,  negatively affecting everything around it, threatening the earth and all living things. All tribes must come together in order to defeat the black snake. If they do not succeed, this could mean the end of everything.

The black snake is here.

Among other places, it has come in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,172-mile long pipeline that stretches from North Dakota to Illinois. The DAPL project has touched on environmental, treaty and human rights violations, and the overarching topic of decolonization. And the Standing Rock Reservation, adjacent to the project, became a place for thousands to gather and peacefully protest its construction.

I arrived at Standing Rock on Thanksgiving day with four friends — Ann, Adam, Flynne, and Sei. Together, we drove 22 hours through four states. As we got closer to camp, we began to see hundreds and hundreds of tents, tipis, tarps, and banners. The entire Oceti Sakowin camp was a bustling, colorful world surrounded by quiet landscapes that stretched for miles. At the entrance of the camp, we were greeted by a Native American woman who asked if we were returning or if it was our first time. We let her know we would only be there for a few days, and she pointed us to the north side of camp. I thanked her and with a smile on her face she said, “Welcome home.”

Her warm welcome hit me hard amidst feelings of anxious energy to finally be entering the very real warzone I’ve been reading about for months. What did she mean? I thought of my home in the Pacific Northwest, of my unknown homeland of Mexico that I left at age two, and now the home I would share for the next few days with the Water Protectors.

During our full first day, hundreds gathered at orientation to better understand how the camp functions. The orientation began with a powerful opening prayer that solidified for me the historic moment we were sharing. People wiped tears as we listened to stories of events that took place just a few days prior “…a young woman, Sophia, might lose her arm from a grenade,” the speaker emotionally informed us. The previous Sunday, police and security that were protecting the DAPL reacted to Water Protectors protesting peacefully on the bridge by spraying them with mace, blasting them with cold water in freezing temperatures, and shooting them with rubber bullets. Footage of the event has since been widely circulated.

We continued with the orientation, and were asked to agree to the following four points if we were going to join the Water Protectors of Standing Rock. All of this information coming to us from the elders through facilitators:

This is an indigenous-centered movement.

The camp is focused on the experience of the indigenous people that have allowed us to stay on their sacred land. If you are a non-native, hold your questions, listen, learn, and be ready to help.

Build a new legacy.

This is not a new fight. Native Americans have been stolen from, displaced, and disregarded again and again for more than 500 years. The fight continues. We can create a new legacy of indigenous mobilization, a movement towards cultivating awareness and celebration of historical and present-day indigenous perseverance and ceremony.

Be of use.

Be conscious of the way you carry yourselves around camp, and remember that you are considered a guest of the Lakota/Nakota/Dakota people. In this space however, “guests” are not entitled to resources, and are there to support the hosts. This is an opportunity to learn what it means to be an ally without expecting praise or anything in return.

Bring it home.

Your work is not done. Reflect on your time at Standing Rock, and research the land you live on. Who was it stolen from? How can you bring this activism back home and decolonize yourself and your community? Think about your intentions versus your impact.

I noticed this idea of “home” being brought up again, and I thought about what that meant for me. My community in Portland, my partner, my house, and my work at Ecotrust.

Ecotrust and I were both born in 1991, and as I catch up on 25 years of the amazing work this organization has done, I grow continually impressed and proud to be a part of it. Aside from our work in the regional food system, fisheries, and forestry, we have a long history of setting intentional relationships and working to honor the people that were here first. Stretching from California to Alaska, Ecotrust and Ecotrust Forest Management have worked to repatriate land and resources to several tribes. Though there is a long list of amazing projects and stories from our history – from the Kitlope to coastal watersheds in Oregon and Washington — there is always more work to be done here at home in the Pacific Northwest and Ecotrust knows that well.

I’ve never fully considered myself an activist, or a very active environmentalist. However, after this year’s election, it became very clear to me that I can no longer afford to watch injustices unfold from the comfortable, privileged sidelines we all stand in sometimes. My friends and I brought good intentions to the Oceti Sakowin camp, and left with an experience that I can say changed my life, and that I will continue to process for a long time.

As Ecotrust’s Graphic Designer, I get to illustrate and visualize information. So it was very exciting for me to finally find the Art Tent on my last day at Standing Rock. I spent hours painting banners and connecting with other creative folks who had come from Portland, Seattle, and Olympia. Bringing the experience home became clear to me: to continue these conversations on environmentalism, change, history, and decolonization not just verbally, but creatively too.

The work is not over, the black snake is still here.

With good intentions, respect, and an open mind, we can help stop DAPL and similar projects, even if we are doing it from home. Even now, back in the Pacific Northwest, I still stand with Standing Rock.