A Thanksgiving spent in Standing Rock

Kevin Smith

Photo Editor


Over Thanksgiving break, The Penn photo editor Kevin Smith  took a trip to Standing Rock, the Sioux reservation in North Dakota where thousands are protesting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Waking up within the Oceti Sakowin Camp of North Dakota on  Thanksgiving was a surreal experience for me.

Normally, the most stressful
aspect of the holiday is the guilt over the sheer amount of food I have eaten and finding a good place to nap away from my relatives.

As soon as the swift, cold North Dakota air woke me up from my slumber within my rental car, I
was reminded that today was going to be the first Thanksgiving I have ever spent away from my family.

To avoid my overdramatic fear of instant frostbite, I got dressed four layers deep within my sleeping bag and set off to capture the day’s festivities.

Prior to this, I had only been within the camp for a day, and I was still unaware of the regularly scheduled meetings. So when I saw a crowd of people walking toward the water, I grabbed my camera and followed.

Upon reaching the water, I realized I had stumbled upon a ceremonious morning prayer conducted by the elders of Standing Rock.

The prayer was led by a group of about five Sioux elders surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of people silently appreciating something they couldn’t understand.

After the ceremony ended, I proceeded to follow the crowd into the center of camp.

On this walk, I witnessed organizational activities that instructed the many activists as to where the day’s protests were going to take place and how to stay out of harm’s way.

During these meetings, the movement’s peaceful foundation was stated and restated to make sure that all participants knew not to engage with the police or
act aggressively.

It was shortly after this meeting that I met another photographer who guided me to Turtle Hill, which was the site of the main protests that day.

Turtle Hill was a rather long hike from camp – with every step further away from my rental car, I became increasingly nervous.

Due to videos I had seen of the violent standoffs that happened here just a few days before my arrival, I was uncomfortably aware that I could be walking right into a tumultuous confrontation. Upon reaching Turtle Hill, we met several activists in cars who asked to see our media passes before greeting us. At this point, one of the cars left to run people to the bathroom, and now I was just one of three people at the site.

Out of nowhere, about 30 silhouettes of police officers emerged from atop Turtle Hill, and two speedboats filled with SWAT team members entered the scene.

Time froze for a few seconds, and all I could think about was how I was going to tell my mom I got arrested.

The police entourage sought to arrest the activist driving one of the cars, repeatedly stating they had warrants for his arrest and demanding he exit the vehicle peacefully.

At this point, local law enforcement noticed that the activists had started to construct a makeshift wooden bridge to cross the water barrier that separated the Oceti Sakowin camp from Turtle Hill.

Police immediately attempted to haul the bridge away with their speedboats, but the car driver quickly repositioned his vehicle so that the front tire rested on top the wooded bridge itself. The police responded by attempting to destroy the bridge, but soon retreated when hundreds of Oceti Sakowin activists started pouring into the area.

In no time, activists had finished the bridge and people began to cross the waters to the base of Turtle Hill. This did not thrill the police, who were still on top of the hill observing the proceedings. The police initially demanded the protestors to leave the area or be arrested; however, their rigidness wavered throughout the standoff. In the middle of the crowd, a violent confrontation seemed imminent, but I hoped nothing would push the situation over the edge. I stayed at Turtle Hill taking pictures and recording video until about 2 p.m. before heading back to the Oceti Sakowin camp.

This Thanksgiving was one that I will never forget and, since I avoided getting arrested, shot or teargassed, it is one that I will never regret, either. 

While the true meaning and significance of this gathering of Native Americans conjoined spiritual ceremonies and simple intent to protect the environment, being at Standing Rock allowed me to see through the haze into the true essence of this movement.

I saw deeply troubled men with solemn eyes, hoping that somehow their voice could save the history and land they held so dear.

I saw tearful Sioux elders recount stories they were told as children of government forces annexing Native American land and killing their ancestors that tried to fight for it.

I saw love in the hearts of the Native Americans that stood at Standing Rock, but I also sensed a growing fear that their efforts here would do nothing to stop humanity from destroying itself.