During her time at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) Opposition camps in North Dakota, Laura Luna met a Lakota man who had been there for months. He called her out in the middle of a cold winter night to talk with him.
She said his boots were soaked from the snow. All he wanted was a dry pair of socks, but he was also struggling with an internal conflict. He was putting his life on the line to protect the Earth and its resources, she said, but the drill site was still operating.
“What he needed was just someone to see him,” Luna said. “Somebody to realize what he’s doing is important, and that’s all I did.”
Luna is a learning disability and mental health specialist at Cal State Fullerton. At Standing Rock, Luna lived and worked out of a teepee. Along with several other volunteers with backgrounds in mental health, Luna said she provided 24/7 care out of the emotional wellness teepee for the “water protectors” in the camps just outside of the DAPL drill site.
“It’s not in the typical way that we think about counseling,” Luna said. “It’s really an emergency kind of crisis situation that we’re in over there.”
Luna said the Medic + Healer Council has been vital in providing various forms of medical assistance, including emergency medical services, mental health services and even a midwife yurt across the campsites.
“For me as a psychologist, there’s a lot of trauma that’s happened to the people that are there,” Luna said. “The support from the medic team is really important.”
Lisa Grayshield, Ph.D., counseling educator at New Mexico State University, was one of the volunteers in the emotional wellness center at the Oceti Sakowin camp. She arrived just before Thanksgiving and said she saw the movement grow from a solely indigenous group to a diverse and multicultural gathering of people.
“Fighting the black snake is prophecy,” Grayshield said. “They (the Lakota people) invited the world to show up and shared their prophecy with the world … and the world showed up.”
As a member of the Washoe Tribe in Nevada, Grayshield said she, like many other Native Americans, grew up an activist. Although she stood with Standing Rock in prayer at the onset of the movement, she didn’t feel the call to physically join until her daughter did.
“I wasn’t feeling the calling to go initially, just to stand in prayer but not necessarily to get into my car and use the gas and oil that it would take to go up and protest the pipeline,” Grayshield said. “It wasn’t making a lot of sense to me.”
During the week of Thanksgiving, some protesters who took part in direct actions reportedly were met with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. While Luna was there during a lull in direct actions, she said that it was important to have mental specialists on the ground at all times because symptoms of trauma don’t always show up immediately.
“People go on these direct actions and things like that happen. And while they might not feel bad right away, a couple days later, that’s when all the trauma symptoms start happening,” Luna said.
When the “water protectors” weren’t dealing with militarized police along the border between the camps and the drill site, they faced extremely cold weather, small quarters and separation from loved ones. These hardships led to the culmination of stress within the camp, Luna said.
Originally, Grayshield wanted to stay in the camps for two weeks but ended up staying for seven weeks.
“I had no idea why I ended up staying that long,” Grayshield said. “One of the biggest reasons is that my feet were on the ground and I was experiencing a movement.”
Nanoor Shahin, behavior analyst at California Psychcare, said that as a part of the Emotional Wellness Center, she helped reduce stress and find peaceful resolutions to interpersonal conflicts.
“I was expecting that even before getting there, because it’s kind of a stressful situation in general,” Shahin said.
Luna said that for the most part, the “water protectors” occupying Standing Rock were peaceful. They didn’t have weapons or battle gear while she was there, but they faced militarized police, buzzing helicopters, drones and lights around their campsites that made nighttime just as bright as day. For many, the most powerful resistance to their hardships came in the form of prayer.
“The traditional values of Lakota people are all about prayer,” Luna said. “For me, that’s really what has given this movement so much connection and collaboration and the strength that comes with that.”
Every day from 10 a.m. to noon, people packed into one of the structures to be a part of prayer circles.
“The power of prayer was awesome,” Shahin said. “I honestly never experienced that before in my life.”
It was during a prayer circle that Luna met Brooke Smiley, a dance teacher at UCSB.
While Smiley wasn’t part of the Emotional Wellness Center, she said she helped with day-to-day chores including insulating teepees, chopping and delivering wood and cooking. But Smiley said she was also able to contribute her art to the cause by being a part of ceremonial drum circles and sweats and holding her own dances on the frozen Missouri River.
“I came to dance and I came to be a part of and contribute my prayers to the water there and all the people there,” Smiley said.
Smiley comes from a mixed heritage that she has only recently started to reconnect with. Her grandfather was part of the Osage tribe and her grandmother was a homesteader in South Dakota. Though she hadn’t been fully immersed in the native community for most of her life, she recalls being taken to a powwow by her father when she was younger.
“I just remember watching the feet,” Smiley said. “I was so young and low to the ground, all I could watch was the feet on the earth.”
Part of the reason why DAPL has been so devastating for the people of Standing Rock is because it’s an area that has faced numerous challenges and struggles for generations, Grayshield said.
“It’s about indigenous people standing up for our rights,” Grayshield said. “Our right to clean water, clean air, to our traditional homeland and to be able to live in a way that is honorable.”
What people are fighting for in Standing Rock encompasses a wider issue about sustainability, Luna said. When she was there, she realized that much of the movement was younger people and that the problems being faced today will become their responsibility in the future.
“I want to encourage people to get involved and to organize and to stand up for what you believe in, and this is the time to do it,” Luna said.
Standing Rock provides a chance for people to reflect on their own lives and how they live affects the environment, Grayshield said.
“What’s happening at Standing Rock now, I’d say it represents one of the healthiest movements that’s happening across the country, and that is to take a stand for our environment; for Mother Earth,” Grayshield said.