Thanksgiving at Standing Rock

Stephen Lezak considers the holiday season all about coming together in light of the protests at Standing Rock

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Across a lonely bridge in rural North Dakota spirals a length of gleaming razor wire. On one side, dozens of police officers stand in riot gear, accompanied by armored personnel carriers, towering lights, and water cannons. On the other end is a disorganized swath of unarmed protesters who, since last summer, have gathered to peacefully oppose the development of an oil pipeline that would connect North Dakota to the rest of the nation’s energy infrastructure.

On Sunday night, mounting tension erupted into chaos. A small provocation by protestors—an attempt to move a burnt-out vehicle which blocked the bridge—unleashed a massive response by police. Videos and photographs show water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.

The images are striking. Set against a jet-black night, clouds of tear gas and cascading water jets rise high above protesters waist-deep in wheat. Helmeted police in black uniforms hold bats or cans of pepper spray while large rifles hang between their hips. A tribal elder in traditional dress chants as he stares down police through the sights of their own weapons. Were it not for the Dakota blackness in the background, this could easily be Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul. Were it not for the color photography, the firework flashes of tear gas launchers, and the Operation Iraqi Freedom vehicles, it could be Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Were it not for the wheat and the American Indians, it could be Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

On Thursday, November 24, the overwhelming majority of Americans will gather with their families to celebrate Thanksgiving. For the unfamiliar, American Thanksgiving is one of the most important holidays in the United States, alongside Christmas and Independence Day. Its origins trace back to murky accounts of early 17th Century colonists sharing a harvest feast with indigenous Americans. But the “Thanksgiving Story” is rarely given much attention—the focus of the evening is gratitude and family. It’s the kind of celebration for which people open their doors to those who might otherwise be alone.

This Thursday promises to be a surreal experience at Standing Rock. A holiday which embraces warmth and friendship will intrude upon a snowy landscape dotted with canvas teepees and military vehicles still sporting their Middle Eastern camouflage colors. The scene on the bridge may resemble the Christmas Truce of 1914, an eerie testament to the military nature of this miniature ground offensive. Or it may fall quiet as police stay home for the day. Whatever happens, the last four-hundred years of “Indian policy” will be on everyone’s minds. The best-case scenario I can imagine is this: for just a moment the razor wire is moved aside, police take off their helmets and lay down their weapons, and both sides come together, at least to share an evening meal. And who knows? Perhaps, when the law enforcement officers get out of bed the next morning, going to work in the same way they did on Wednesday suddenly won’t feel so appetizing.