Five IU freshmen returned Sunday from protesting the planned pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. They donated supplies collected the week before fall break and volunteered at the camp surrounding the protests.
Natalia Kuzbiel, Maggie Gates, Arianne Kelley, Dylan Williams and Rachel Doehla drove to North Dakota and camped out this past weekend.
Though the students did not get to be on the front lines of the protest, they worked as volunteers during the three days they were at the camp. This included doing chores such as cooking food for other volunteers in the camp, serving food, washing dishes and setting up military tents.
They collected seven full garbage bags of clothes and two cardboard boxes of food, which they added to a collective donation tent on the reservation.
The group interacted with American-Indian people from several different tribes, including the Navajo, Cherokee and Lakota peoples. They attended a powwow and went to prayers around a sacred fire that had been burning for seven consecutive years.
“It was a very good insight into their culture,” Kuzbiel said. “We learned how sacred their clothing is, their symbols are.”
Though they did not get to experience direct action or join those who were engaged in protest, volunteering on the reservation provided a sense of community and oneness.
“When there’s direct action throughout the week, there’s not as much focus on community building,” Williams said.
The camp was made up of 4,000 to 5,000 people, according to the students’ estimates. One volunteer had flown in from California, and two had come from France. Another man had quit his job in order to devote his full attention to the cause.
“Everybody was so welcoming,” Doehla said. “I didn’t want to leave because I felt I was needed.”
Although Williams said the camp itself was disorganized since it was staffed by constantly changing volunteers, they believed the sense of being needed and of making a difference made the trip worth it.
“We expected a sense of community, but I’ve never experienced such a sense of community,” Kuzbiel said. “Everybody played a role, everybody felt important and felt like they were aiding the cause.”
The students took photos and videos during their stay and conducted interviews with particularly integral volunteers to be made into a video that will eventually be shown at Collins Living-Learning Center and the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center.
Though some volunteers planned to stay through the winter until March 31, when the pipeline’s permit expires, the students had to return to classes at the end of fall break. But the experience, they said, was incredible, and they would strongly consider returning over spring break.
The students’ experience with a community coming together to fight for their homes inspired them, and they urged anyone else considering getting involved with activism to find something they are passionate about and make a difference.
“You get up and go,” Doehla said. “It actually is that simple.”
No one should be dissuaded from finding their cause, Kuzbiel added.
“There’s things like this happening all over the country,” she said. “Everyone can help in some way, shape or form.”