Michael Keoni DeFranco
Founder of @GetLua, secure messaging for the healthcare industry. Passionate about #greentech and perpetuating Native Hawaiian culture. E Komo Mai.
Bury My Heart at Standing Rock
I was on site at Standing Rock, North Dakota from Saturday, November 19th through Tuesday, November 22th. I traveled to camp with my sister, cousin and a friend. We stayed with friends in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Iroquois, at Oceti Sakowin Camp. I was drawn to spend time at camp due to the support the First Nations have given to the Kanaka Maoli people, the Hawaiians, in our efforts against the development of Mauna Kea as well as the Department of Interior’s recommendation to list Native Hawaiians as a Native American tribe. The root cause in our efforts against this classification lay evident in the incidents that occurred on Sunday, November 20th. The First Nations of this country have not been given the respect they deserve and their human rights have been constantly betrayed over the course of the last few 100 years. What I witnessed on the evening of the 20th will never leave me.
The camp has around 8,000 strong at this point and people are constantly entering and leaving to lend support when they can. It was incredibly inspiring to watch men, women and children leave everything behind at home to spend a day, a week, a month. Some have been on site since April and many are committed to staying until the end. The camp is mixed with both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from all over the world. The camps are strictly prayer camps; alcohol, weapons and violence are strictly prohibited. Car are checked as they enter the camp and security patrols the grounds to ensure the safety of all camping there. I never once felt concerned for my safety, the safety of my family or the others in our camp site. Strangers crossing through our site quickly became friends as they warmed up near the fire. At one point, 5 frozen turkeys, 5 pounds of beef, 3 jugs of water and 3 propane tanks were dropped off by a group heading out of camp that we did not know. We took what we needed and donated the rest to other camps. That’s how life is out at Standing Rock, you watch over others as much as you watch over yourself. You are always well fed, warm and treated like family. There is a feeling of unity and strength between friends, family members and strangers. You can see the unified love and honor in everyone’s eyes as they pass you by. Hugs and laughter fill the air.
At approximately 6pm, our camp was saying goodbye to friends that were on their way back home. We all shared a hug, said a prayer and right as we finished packing them up we felt a ripple through the camp site… The sun was setting and groups on trucks and on horseback were flying through camp, “We need warriors at the front lines, calling all warriors. This is why you are here”. The fight or flight instinct disappeared as we looked each other in the eyes and knew we had to drop everything and head out. Heading out with my younger sister made me uneasy but the look in her eyes told she was ready for this, there was not a hint of fear in her eyes. We headed out and soon a pickup drove up and asked if we needed a ride. We all hopped in and headed out. By the time we made it out of camp and towards the bridge, it was dark. We couldn’t see the front line until we turned the corner and then my jaw dropped. It was a warzone. DAPL has bright lights pointed towards camp all over the northern side to keep you up at night but the amount of lights pointed down towards the bridge was startling, like a movie set. I saw tear gas canisters shooting everywhere, flash bangs going off, concussion grenades and the non-stop water cannons. It was hard to process what was happening as we jumped off the truck and headed towards the barricade on the bridge. As we walked, we heard stories. At this point, this is what I understand. Either DAPL employees or unsanctioned members of the Standing Rock camp attempted to remove two vehicles that have been blocking the bridge for the past few weeks. These burned down vehicles have been blocking emergency vehicles and all traffic from entering the camp on the Northern end for weeks. Some say DAPL burned them, others say the protesters did as they retreated from another assault a few weeks ago. Either way, as a semi-truck hooked up to these vehicles in an attempt to remove them, tear gas canisters were shot at them. Security called out to camp to come support and everyone rushed out. When I got to the front line I was confused. DAPL and the police were fully barricaded on the other side, as they have been some weeks. They had barbed wire and cement blockades across the street, they had armored trucks and police vehicles behind these blockages and behind all of that were police officers in full military riot gear. They were in no danger at all.
The first thing I experienced were the water cannons. A police officer sprayed a water cannon for the entire time we were there, non-stop for hours and hours. They sprayed everyone in sight, back and forth methodically. They targeted anyone in their way and only paused when they ran out of water to replace the hose. The feeling at the front line was jovial, water was harmless right? It wasn’t until hours later and temperature dropped below freezing that the hypothermia began to settle in. When I think back, the premeditated action of freezing unarmed civilians with water for hours is sickening. They knew what they were doing and they knew they could get away with it later on. When I turned at one point, my sister’s hair had turned to icicles and I had to find a blanket to stop her from shivering and take her home. Next came the tear gas canisters, flash bangs and concussion grenades. These were lobbed into the crowd on the bridge nonstop at times, indiscriminately. Their intention was to severely injure us. These were followed by rubber bullets. I watched at times as the police would shoot a tear gas canister, wait for a civilian to pick it up in an attempt to throw it away from others and then spray rubber bullets at that individual. They targeted women and aimed for the head and the legs. I witnessed this. Once a civilian went to the ground, following a direct shot, the police would wait until someone came to their rescue in an attempt to shield them and pull them to the back. The police at that point would aim and shoot all those who helped with more bullets. Many times these people were medics with red crossed clearly visible on their front, backs and arms. I saw the police officers, hiding behind their barrier, actually high-fiving as they took down men, women and elders.
Next came the fire. I saw the police aiming tear gas canisters as well as flares into the surrounding grasslands which would start ground fires when they landed. We could see the hilltops covered with snipers and you could see men run down the hill and start more fires, at one point we saw one individual start 4 fires in a row. In the media, fires have now been blamed on the civilians and the water cannons have been explained as a response to put the fires out. There was no way a civilian could make it up that hill to set a fire if they were not part of the security force, given their presence on the hills that night. It was used as a tactic to the media the next day to explain their actions. Again, the premeditation of this is sickening. The water cannons were going for hours before the fires started and it was always the civilians that ran to put the fires out. This was a deliberate attempt to discredit the civilian accounts. Much later into the night, past midnight, civilians did set two small fires on the south ends of the bridge, completely away from the police and barricades, in an attempt to warm up others suffering from hypothermia. These did not cause any threat to the police in anyway. There was no way to misinterpret what was going on there. I also want to mention the LRAD Sound Cannons which were also being used against us at times. These were completely unnecessary and could have caused permanent hearing damage.
I have to repeat that the police were never in harm’s way. They were behind multiple levels of barricade as well as fully dressed in riot/ military style outfits and hiding behind armored vehicles. They faced off with unarmed civilians dressed in plain clothes, soaking wet, with their hands in the air. There were some bad apples in the crowd, I do want to share a transparent account. Every now and then I did witness a civilian lob a full water bottle over the barricade. That was the extent of it. Each time that happened, the crowd would erupt with anger against that individual. Most of them could be contained, one could not be who continued to throw water bottles. Some suggested he was planted into the camp as has been uncovered many times these last few months. Individuals infiltrate the camp, try to bring violence during peaceful actions and are removed. That being said, a few water bottles lobbed over a barricade does not excuse the direct violence taken by the Morton County Sheriff’s department, DAPL private security and whoever else was hidden behind that barricade.
I was lucky to make it out with little more than soaked clothing and tear gas in my eyes. Flash bangs went off all around me and rubber bullets shot over my head all night. There is one moment I will never forgot: an elderly Sioux women holding a water drum at the edge of the bridge with tears in her eyes singing payers as the tear gas canisters flew over her head. At first I was worried about her and rushed over but I looked into her eyes and I realized she needed to be there. This was her homeland, her backyard. If it was going to be taken from her, they needed to go through her first so she could be at peace with herself. I watched as canister after canister shot over she and the bullets whizzed by. She seemed to have an invisible force field around here. She was there to show them that they may be taking her land but they would never take her spirit. I will keep that image with me for the rest of life.
My heart goes out to the Sioux people and everyone at Standing Rock. They are a good and proud people. Their territory has shrunk for years and year and they’ve been moved back and forth across their land for decades. When you hear the elders speak, first it was gold that the settlers wanted, then it was the lumber, then other minerals, now the oil. They understand the importance of becoming “energy independent” but at what cost and when will this end? We have all the technology necessary to move in the direction of clean energy and away from fossil fuels. They don’t believe this will ever stop, the Sioux just want to exist on their land. They just want to have a place to raise their children, grow their crops, ride their horses and bathe in their water. They are afraid they will have nothing left for their grandchildren and their unborn children. When that does happen they want to make sure they can say they tried. They stood against an invading force and they did not back down. You hear many of the elders expecting to die out there, they ask you to tell their families of their bravery.
It broke my heart and those pieces will always be at Standing Rock.