While driving up to what she thought was a Native American camp, Western student Amelia McDowell realized she had instead reached a point of concentrated police and military presence at the Standing Rock reservation.
McDowell remembers seeing the horizon lit up with floodlights as military and police watched for protesters on a hillside.
“It was a very intimidating image,” McDowell said.
McDowell traveled to North Dakota for three days with friends, arriving on Nov. 8, after a 36-hour drive to participate and learn from the ongoing protests against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. She decided to make the trip after gaining inspiration by fellow classmates who are regular activists.
The North Dakota Access Pipeline would run for 1,170 miles and carry 470,000 barrels of oil per day, according to The New York Times.
Those protesting against the pipeline continue to do so because of the pollution threat facing the tribe’s water source, according to the BBC. The pipeline also threatens to cause environmental damage, and affects an area of land that has major cultural and historical significance to the tribe.
Currently, the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline has been brought to a halt while the Army Corps of Engineers continues discussing the pipeline with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, according to CNN.
While there, McDowell helped in whatever ways she could — from washing dishes to unloading several hundred tipi poles from a truck.
McDowell decided to join her friends on their trip to North Dakota because the issue is close to her heart and revolves around what she wants to do with her life.
“There’s horrible human rights and environmental justice abuses happening everywhere,” McDowell said. “I just saw that this circumstance is where everything is colliding. The native indigenous peoples of this land have been taking abuse from white settlers since the beginning of America.”
“There’s horrible human rights and environmental justice abuses happening everywhere.”
Knowing that a number of people wish they were able to travel to Standing Rock but are unable to, McDowell hoped to take in as much of the experience as she could so she would be able to share it with someone if the opportunity arose.
One of her biggest takeaways was the sense of inclusion she felt.
McDowell remembers starting to make her first meal there with friends when someone came up and invited them to eat with the other camps.
At a later time, a chef at the camps made ribs for them to take to the police, but due to ongoing actions by protesters, McDowell remembers the police being significantly more on edge. McDowell said she heard those who traveled to Standing Rock earlier were more successful in delivering food, and were received warmly.
“I heard they were able to deliver some of the food and my friend actually got a hug from a police officer which was really cool to hear,” McDowell said. “That was an interesting situation to actually see the police presence and to see the way that they act.”
On her last day at the camps, McDowell attended a ceremony where a woman named Ladonna, who owns of the land where the camps are, talked about the yurts that are being built for tribe members.
A yurt is a house-like structure that has Mongolian roots. The yurts are made possible by a family in Mongolia who offered the tribe a discount in order to get them better protection in the winter, McDowell said.
“Ladonna actually created leases for the yurts,” McDowell said. “So the people and families living in them actually have an address and can receive ballots and vote and receive mail.”
Following the ceremony, McDowell and her friends attended a vigil hosted by the International Indigenous Youth Council in response to a conflict that recently occurred on the river bank between protesters and police. The conflict occurred after a peaceful act by people in the river were responded to with violence by the police on site, McDowell said.
This is not the first experience with activism McDowell has had, but she said it was her most intense experience. Her first experience was with Students for Renewable Energy, when they call for divestment last year.
McDowell said a big part of why she chooses to actively participate in protests and events like these comes from the empathy she feels for situations around her.
“We’re at somewhat of a tipping point in history. I don’t know that any other generations have faced so much risk and so much crisis,” McDowell said. “ I look around me and I see so many people not worried about the same things that I’m worried about, and that makes me worry even more.”
Through the experience, McDowell said she gained an understanding about her presence in the camps and the positive effects it could have there. Prior to her trip, she was unsure if her presence would show support and solidarity, or if it would make the situation worse.
“What Standing Rock embodies is far more than the Dakota Access Pipeline,” McDowell said. “There’s pipelines going in everywhere, and there are also human rights violations that are happening everywhere.”