For Water Protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, both in the camps and on the front lines, the atmosphere is not unlike that of a combat zone.
In addition to rubber bullets, pepper spray and aggressive arrest tactics from police, protectors are constantly on edge from the stress of continuous surveillance and the threat that agent provocateurs may be living among them. The sound of helicopters and planes buzzing overhead gives pause to prayer and conversation as people anxiously gaze toward the sky. Heavily armed police line the hills surrounding the camps, watching Water Protectors with binoculars. Even the most mundane tasks of camp life feel dangerous here.
During actions actively opposing the pipeline, the atmosphere is far worse. Some were pepper-sprayed and beaten with batons even as they prayed.
“I was singing a prayer song when they starting hitting us with batons,” said Dan Namakin, a youth advocate from Nespelem, Washington, who was wearing a headdress and traditional regalia when he was attacked. “The sound of wooden batons striking our people was sickening. I had my eagle staff in one hand and a rattle in my other hand as they forcibly removed us. They pulled me behind the police line and zip tied my wrists, then took us to a processing area and put us in vans with no ventilation. We could see the horrific things they were doing to our people, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Some people are showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, PTSD occurs when someone has experienced so much stress in a situation that they find themselves “stuck” in that moment even when the danger has passed. The nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance, keeping people from moving on from the stressful event.
“The young people especially seem unable to de-stress after experiencing police violence,” noted Melanie Stoneman of the Sicangu Lakota tribe. Stoneman and her family have been living and volunteering at the Oceti Sakowin camp for several months.
In addition, some people at the camps may have pre-existing mental health problems associated with the impact of historical trauma, noted Elicia Good Soldier, Co-Coordinator of the Tiospaye Sakowin Youth Healing Camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Many combat veterans who served in the military have expressed shock at the level of force and militarized weaponry being used against unarmed civilians.
“It’s like a war zone out there,” said human rights attorney Joe Heath, a veteran with 45 years of civil rights experience who also represents the Onondaga Nation. “This can’t happen again. We have to wake people up in this country to what is happening. You have mass troops of mostly white guys armed with adrenalin, guns, pepper spray, concussion grenades, militarized weapons—like Star Wars—and it’s bound to go bad. There is no respect for the rights of these unarmed, peaceful citizens.”
According to researchers, high rates of addiction, suicide, mental illness, sexual violence and other ills among Native peoples are influenced by historical trauma.
Michelle M. Sotero of the University of Nevada offers a threefold description of historical trauma. In the initial phase, the dominant culture perpetrates mass trauma on a population in the form of colonialism, slavery, war or genocide. In the second phase the affected population shows physical and psychological symptoms in response to the trauma. In the final phase, the initial population passes these responses to trauma to subsequent generations, who in turn display similar symptoms.
“I think many of our relatives [at the Water Protector camps] are experiencing those historical traumas, unexpectedly, on top of the traumas they are experiencing firsthand. We need to be there to help them process that,” Good Soldier said.
Fortunately Good Soldier and mental health professionals from Indian country are coming together to help the protectors create a way to respond to those in need of mental health services.
Earlier this month Oglala Sioux tribal Chairman John Yellow Bird Steele asked mental health professionals from the Pine Ridge Reservation to organize an emergency deployment to travel to the water protector camps to offer assistance, according to Pauletta Red Willow, director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Emergency Youth Shelter.
Several mental health care professionals from the Pine Ridge Reservation are on hand, including Ethleen Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, longtime Lakota tribal mental health program specialist and traditional healer; Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, suicide prevention and outreach coordinator for the Sweet Grass Project and the BEAR Program, a dance and skit group for youth, and Eileen Janis, also of the Sweet Grass Project. They are working with Margaret Gates, tribal health care director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Monique Runnells, director of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s Wellness Program, to bring Mental Health First Aid training and other resources to the water protector camps.
Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour course that gives people the skills to help others who are developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Created in Australia in 2001 by a nurse, the training is listed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.
The mental health care professionals are also working closely with volunteers at the camps such as Michael Knudsen, a non-Native public health master’s student who has been working with camp medics for several months.
“We’ve had some people with chronic mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” said Knudsen.
Medics have been reluctant to call for help from emergency medical services from Morton County because the ambulances will only come to the camps with police escorts.
“The presence of police only seems to add to trauma for those in acute mental health distress,” Knudsen said.
Metro-Area Ambulance Service, the company that serves Morton and Burleigh Counties did not respond to ICTMN’s request for an interview.
Standing Rock tribal emergency services has been stationed at the camp. “But they are spread super thin and don’t have training in mental health first aid,” Knudsen added.
Janis has visited the camps several times. She has observed signs of domestic violence, suicide ideation and alcohol withdrawal among some of the people there.
“People at the camps are working together, everybody has a role like we did a long time ago in our traditional culture,” she said. “But right now they are bringing in their past traumas too.”
Pain from past trauma adds the to anger and frustration with police and the pipeline.
“We don’t want what we have on the reservation in these camps. We want the people to have focus have prayer and be peaceful,” Janis said. “The biggest thing we are doing is teaching them to believe in our prayer and helping them to let past trauma go.”
“Volunteers at the medic tent have already started offering mental health care. They have a tipi for this purpose,” said Runnells of the Standing Rock tribe’s Wellness Program. “We want to work alongside them and help them get organized and figure out protocols for helping people We hope to set up a calendar of times when mental health care professionals can be on hand for the water protectors.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to go to the camps and share our knowledge with the people and help them learn how to teach their minds to be fine, “ Janis said.
Tribes wishing to offer support from their mental health services should contact Monique Runnels at firstname.lastname@example.org