On Sunday, Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they denied an easement that would allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. This happened the same day a group from Orange County left the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation after spending over six days working and staying at the camp.
Fort Yates, North Dakota, where the reservation is located, is over 1,676 miles, and 24 hours by car away from Hillsborough.
For local community member Francisco Plaza, the distance was a small feat when he made the decision to seize the opportunity when a team from Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain in Orange County – a group dedicated to “healing the human-Earth relationship” and creating food and energy in local and sustainable ways – called for people with his passion and set of skills to join a massive protest that was taking place at Standing Rock regarding the impending construction of the controversial pipeline.
On Nov. 29, the group of 17 people arrived at Standing Rock, the same time a blizzard arrived as well. They stayed at the Rosebud camp, located on reservation land across the river from the main camp, Oceti Sakowin. The team stayed about six days, with five people erecting a shelter, and the others jumping in where they could help – cooking and serving meals, sorting supplies and donations, and even cleaning portajohns.
Helping from Hillsborough
Plaza’s trip was not his first act of helping and advocating for both the indigenous people of the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock and the preservation of the environment.
He was deeply moved after watching one of the first violent interactions between the security for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protesters at Standing Rock, broadcast by the host and executive producer of the syndicated news program Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman.
The Sept. 3 video depicted canine attacks, fights, and pepper spray discharged onto protesters. Goodman was originally charged with criminal trespassing on Sept. 8, after filming and publishing the video – charges which were eventually dismissed.
“The footage was really disturbing,” Plaza said. “It really affected me, in this way of feeling like I needed to do something about it.
“It takes people standing up and getting abused, and that getting published for people to wake up. To feel it, you know, beyond conceptually for it to really hit home,” he continued. “The original video really affected me and I didn’t expect it to. It’s like I clicked on something and I watched something, and suddenly I was, crying, you know, like, ‘my God this is horrible.’”
Plaza went to get involved in Raleigh, but thought, “I live in Hillsborough, there should be something in Hillsborough.”
So he made the events at Standing Rock personal, bringing them downtown with a small demonstration in front of the Old Courthouse in an attempt to educate people and bring awareness to the community, along with organizing a supply drive.
Plaza commented on the community’s response, saying, “The supply drive was really surprising, in that it felt like people came out of the woodwork to do something, people were looking for a way to participate.”
Visting Standing Rock
While being active with the Standing Rock issue in town, Plaza’s wife received an email from the Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain, in which they were looking for builders, and carpenters, to help build shelters at Standing Rock.
A self-employed carpenter, Plaza signed on and helped build a platform and erect a “Yome,” something he described as hybrid of a geodesic dome and a yurt, designed by an Asheville-based company called Red Sky Shelters.
Despite bitterly cold temperatures and a lack of electricity, they finished building the yome, and were very happy to give it to the recipients.
The team ended up formally gifting the yome to Rachelle Figueroa of the Morning Star Foundation, who also represented an informal group known as the grandmother council.
This council were neighbors of the Eco-Institute at the camp, staying in a teepee with a “makeshift space” for their council, but they needed something more formal and winterized.
This place was given as a place for them to gather, as an “acknowledgment to their wisdom and how their wisdom is really needed in the encampment as a guiding force,” Plaza said.
“The main call from the tribe was the be there in a prayerful way – that was heavily stressed by all the elders – this is about prayer, this is not about inciting confrontation with these people,” Plaza said.
Between the events on Nov. 20 where police sprayed pipeline protesters with teargas and a water cannon in freezing temperatures, to the some 2,000 U.S. veterans who joined demonstrations, arriving on Dec. 4, there were no officially planned actions.
“While I was there, I felt overwhelmed by how people can come together with a common cause and take care of each other and take care of something that’s bigger than they are – like, something really big,” Plaza said. “[Overwhelmed with] how you can peacefully stand up to power and make a difference, and I felt like really, I got in a deeper way what It means to be a native american in this modern time, and how it’s not that different now than it was 100-200 years ago – they’re still getting railroaded and they are so underrepresented.”
Plaza acknowledged that his story does not necessarily portray the suffering and extensive events the Sioux Tribe is going through. Bringing this story home and sharing it with the community is one step to educate people, something Plaza feels is most important and a way to get involved with a problem that could seem far away, though he pointed out that the Standing Rock story is not the only current event where indigenous communities are threatened by a pipeline, citing the protests in November against the pipeline to be placed from West Virginia to North Carolina.
For now, the tribe celebrates a victory with the Dec. 4 decision to deny the proposal to allow the pipeline, but the fight is not over, Plaza said. He plans to stay involved and continue to advocate for the people of Standing Rock, for clean water, and protecting the environment.