Reporter's notebook: Standing Rock is not the new Woodstock

Stephanie Cram describes tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous campers at Standing Rock, N.D.

Stephanie Cram describes tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous campers at the pipeline protest

Flags from Indigenous communities around the world line the entrance of the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Thousands of protesters are camped out near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, N.D., just south of where the Dakota Access pipeline is under construction and slated to cross the Missouri River.

For the most part the camp is peaceful, but when you get that many people camping in one location, there's bound to be tension.

There are two main camps at Standing Rock. Oceti Sakowin, the main camp, is located north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land. The second camp, called Sacred Stone, is east of the main camp on reservation land.

On the surface, the camps appear to run smoothly, but both are still working through conflicting ideas of how they should be organized and run. 

With a small group of radio and video producers from CBC's Unreserved, I went to Standing Rock and saw first-hand some of the tensions in the camps. 

To get the full experience of Standing Rock, we set up our tents for two nights, immersing ourselves in daily life at Oceti Sakowin.

Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp at Standing Rock, has many non-Indigenous people working to make sure Indigenous protocols are followed. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Restrictions on journalists

Despite the camp being open to anyone who wants to attend, there are strict restrictions placed on journalists, outlining what they can and can't cover.

When we arrived to the camp late in the evening, we were told to register at the media tent first thing the next morning.

The following day, our small team was brought into a media tent and given the rundown.

Some of the rules were self-explanatory, and followed common Indigenous ceremonial protocols, such as not being allowed to record any ceremonies or prayers. As a group of Indigenous journalists, we were already well aware of this.

The long list of rules were read to us by a non-Indigenous man — which we quickly learned would be a recurring theme in our time at Standing Rock.

Protocol upheld by non-Indigenous campers

Our small team of radio and video producers found that the mere sight of our equipment would trigger others to approach us with stern warnings about what we shouldn't record. More often than not, the person warning us was not Indigenous.

One afternoon I walked into a tent with another producer, and within seconds we were reprimanded by a non-Indigenous man. Our cameras were not rolling, but even after bringing this to his attention, he repeated, "You can't record in here."

At one point I was confronted by a non-Indigenous man who accused me of breaking the Indigenous protocols of the camp.

He told me I was disrespecting the only sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin because I didn't ask permission to walk near it.

In fact, there were several sacred fires at Oceti Sakowin, all burning since the camp was first created. I tried to explain this to him, but he spoke over me and said, "As an adult, you should know better."

To clarify, I was walking nowhere near his sacred fire and was never reprimanded for walking near any of the other sacred fires at the camp.

The encounter was aggressive, patronizing and upsetting, because as an Indigenous journalist I take following Indigenous ceremonial protocols very seriously.

Not Woodstock or Burning Man

A more subtle tension along racial lines appears when you begin to ask people why they came to Standing Rock.

The first night at the camp, there was live music at the main sacred fire, ranging from hip hop to Aboriginal music from Australia.

We are a prayer camp … not a social camp.- Josh Dini  

This bothered one young man, who took to the microphone to say that the celebratory feel of the evening went against the original intentions of the camp. He said rather than having loud music playing, the camp should promote peaceful prayer and Indigenous ceremony.

He was not alone in his opinion — other Indigenous people we talked to felt the same way.

They're concerned that non-Indigenous people came to Standing Rock for a good time rather than to protect the Missouri River.

"I do believe [some people] are here for like Woodstock, or a Burning Man-type thing," said Josh Dini, who works as security for Oceti Sakowin.

"We are a prayer camp … not a social camp, where you come to meet people and have a festival."

Ensuring camp is Indigenous-run

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard owns the property where the Sacred Stone is located. Her camp is significantly smaller than Oceti Sakowin, but she still has a hard time making sure it's run by Indigenous people.

She recalls a funny encounter she had with camp security, after being away for a few days.

"I went to speak to the UN, and when I was gone, a whole group of people came in and they looked around and said, 'Who's in charge?' And so they appointed themselves in charge," said Brave Bull Allard.

She was told that people at the camp assigned themselves to roles and committees, because "that's how [their] culture does it."

It was at that moment that Brave Bull Allard decided rules needed to be created that would place Indigenous people in charge.

The original intentions of the Standing Rock movement were always guided by Indigenous prophecy, culture and ceremony, she said, and that's how she structured her camp.

The Sacred Stone camp is east of the much larger main camp, Oceti Sakowin. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)