We’ve all heard tales of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a three-day feast among Native Americans and pilgrims, celebrating the latter’s first harvest in the New World. This year, some locals spent the holiday at Standing Rock Reservation, supporting the indigenous people in North and South Dakota who have come together to protest a pipeline set to slice through their sacred ground —and witnessed what they describe as violent arrests.
“It’s rich in symbolism that we’re going over Thanksgiving,” said Charlottesville resident Nic McCarthy, before he left for Standing Rock on November 22. “That day is supposed to be about remembering the first time [indigenous people] helped us.”
McCarthy’s return to C’ville was delayed, pending an arraignment from an incident at Kirkwood Mall in Bismarck, North Dakota, in which he was arrested and detained, according to Brittany Caine-Conley, another local who set out for Standing Rock and watched the encounter unfold.
She describes the mall scene on Black Friday, in which she and McCarthy were part of an attempted prayer circle. Upon their arrival, she says at least 30 fully-armed officers were waiting for them.
“As soon as we got in the circle, we were told to leave,” she says. “Police immediately started ripping people out of the circle and arresting them, throwing them to the ground.”
Approximately 33 people, including McCarthy, were arrested. She says she watched as five police officers attacked one man who was Native American.
“The police were incredibly violent,” Caine-Conley says. “Nobody was resisting arrest. Nobody was protesting. We were standing in a circle and attempting to pray.”
Those camping at Standing Rock Reservation to protest the $3.7 billion North Dakota Access Pipeline have so far been sprayed with cold water, tear gassed and pelted with rubber bullets.
“To say the least, [indigenous people] have had the rough end of history,” McCarthy said. “This is ignorant on my part, but I sort of assumed that was over for them. I thought that generally we would do better by now. But I think that’s clearly not the case when you look at some of the things that we’ve learned about how this pipeline was decided to go through Standing Rock Reservation.”
Originally planned to traverse through Bismarck, the pipeline was rerouted through the reservation when people in Bismarck protested.
About a dozen people from Charlottesville joined McCarthy’s caravan. They raised more than $2,000 and took donations, including canned goods, camping equipment, matches, toiletries, coats, wool blankets and socks to the reservation, 23 hours away.
Caine-Conley went with a group from Chicago, which raised more than $6,000 to help winterize the reservation’s camps.
“It’s already pretty cold up there and it’s only going to be colder,” she says, adding that she experienced 20-degree weather during her stay.
In the Oceti Sakowin camp where she stayed, Caine-Conley says the people leading the movement stressed that it was not a protest camp, but a prayer camp.
“I think the movement that has been afoot there for a while now is one that has been longstanding for indigenous folks who have largely been marginalized and are living in ways that we can’t even imagine as Americans,” she says. “And now we’re seeing the effects of big oil companies attempting to push these people out of their homes and literally poison their livelihood and their water source.”
She said she was sad to leave those fighting to protect Standing Rock, but says she hopes to return one day and continue to help the people there.
“Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” Caine-Conley says, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.