Thanksgiving at Dakota Access pipeline protest: 'It's a beautiful day to protect the water'

It was still dark on Thanksgiving morning as the pickup truck with mounted speakers rode slowly through the dirt lanes of the Oceti Sakowin camp. 

“Wake up, water protectors!” boomed an amplified voice as the truck moved past tents, teepees, and the occasional flickering campfire. “It’s a beautiful day to protect the water.”   

Hundreds of opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline were just finishing the morning prayer at the Sacred Fire in the center of the camp. Now they trudged through snow flurries toward the staging area for another day of confronting North Dakota officials over the $3.8-billion pipeline.

“Today we all made sacrifices to be here,” organizer Vic Camp called out through a bullhorn as the group of Native Americans and their supporters began gathering at the southern edge of the camp for a ride north toward Bismarck. 

“We left loved ones at home. We left children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandchildren at home. We could all be at home, watching football, eating turkey,” Camp said to laughter. “For some reason the Creator brought us here to protect the water. To be the voice for the water. You’re the voice for the sacred river.”

Moments later, a caravan of dozens of SUVs and pickup trucks pulled slowly out of the camp, heading north.

In some ways Thanksgiving Day was just like any other day in the eight-month battle over the 1,172-mile pipeline. The protesters, who prefer to be called “water protectors,” believe the Missouri River could be contaminated if the pipeline is completed and upwards of 570,000 barrels of oil begin to flow.

They have repeatedly clashed with a militarized force of North Dakota police and members of the National Guard, who have regularly deployed pepper spray, rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons, arresting more than 500 people since August.

Yet this was anything but a typical Thanksgiving for the three Navajo young people riding north in a black Jeep up a sleet-covered state highway. 

“I could be spending Thanksgiving with my family up here,” said Armand Begay, who described himself as “half Navajo, half Mexican.” His Lakota uncle operates a buffalo ranch in South Dakota. “But I felt this was more important to me.” 

Begay, who grew up in Laguna Beach, said “I spent probably every Thanksgiving before this eating turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, with my family in a warm home.” 

But this year, his attitude has grown more political.

Officials in North Dakota “are really, really trying to get that pipeline across the river,” said Begay, riding shotgun and looking at the long line of cars moving north. “And since then they've been treading on our land. Since Sitting Bull. Since Wounded Knee. Since Custer died at Little Big Horn.” He said it made him think of what it must have been like to be at the camp 160 years ago. “Being there in the winter,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of being a true Indian.”

On his Facebook page, Begay said, he wrote that this year, “I'm going to Standing Rock. I'll be with my indigenous family and that's what I really feel like what I should be doing.”

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