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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 8th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 40 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 17, Issue 40

The locals who stood at Standing Rock: Three Central Coast residents reflect on their week protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline


Hundreds of people stood on a bridge, praying.

They did so in the wake of violence: The previous night, on that very bridge, demonstrators tried to dismantle a police barricade. Law enforcement officers responded with rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, armored trucks, and fire hoses—in below-freezing temperatures.

The number of demonstrators at Standing Rock Indian Reservation fluctuated from day to day, but during Thanksgiving week an estimated 10,000 people camped there to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

And yet, the following morning—on Monday, Nov. 21—the demonstrators returned to the bridge to pray.

Guadalupe resident Jorge Manly-Gil stood among them. He had just that morning arrived at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, after 2 1/2 days of driving with fellow Central Coast residents David Omondi and Lida Sparer. 

They were three of about 10,000 people who gathered at Standing Rock that week to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was slated to run a half-mile from the reservation, which would have put the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land and water resources at risk, according to an environmental impact statement by the U.S. Department of Interior. 

The demonstrators, who call themselves “water protectors,” began gathering at Standing Rock in protest of the pipeline project in April. The following months brought several instances of violence between demonstrators and security officers, some involving pepper spray, attack dogs, and water cannons.

When passing through security into the reservation on Nov. 21, Manly-Gil learned that the demonstrators needed more people on their front lines. He immediately left the vehicle and joined his fellow “water protectors” at the scene.

“It was beautiful,” Manly-Gil told the Sun. “I did not experience firsthand what had gone down on Sunday night, and some of the people who were there on Monday morning had. But they were out there, and it was all about prayer.”

Some prayed by themselves. Others did so in circles. Manly-Gil said the whole day was peaceful, serving as a reminder to the police that despite the previous evening’s confrontation, the protectors were there to pray.

“We’re not here to start a fight,” Manly-Gil said. “We’re not here to get arrested. We’re here to pray. It was sort of like a reset. Things got out of hand on Sunday night, so we need to reset and we need to remember what we’re here about.”

Since then, the Sioux and their water protectors have celebrated a victory: On Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers announced that it had denied the final easement required for the pipeline, and its construction near Standing Rock was halted.

But in the heat of the protests, Manly-Gil felt a personal responsibility to join the movement and support the rights of native people. His own ancestors were indigenous to his home country of Mexico, though Manly-Gil wasn’t raised to celebrate his native heritage.

“In Mexico, to call someone an Indian is like calling them a nigger,” he said. “It’s the same point of shame in that country. The government portrays itself as very proud of its indigenous roots, but as long as it’s kept safely in the past.”

Manly-Gil calls himself a “border child,” having spent his childhood growing up on alternating sides of the U.S.-Mexico border with “both realities, both languages, both cultures.” He began to identify more strongly with his native heritage in early adulthood, and when the Standing Rock demonstrations began, he said he “had to go.”

“Just hearing and seeing native people take a stand, especially the young people,” Manly-Gil said. “I had to be a part of that, to support that, to help move that forward.”

And he did so from the front lines. In addition to his actions on the bridge, Manly-Gil went out with a caravan of vehicles into Standing Rock’s neighboring city of Bismarck, where he said local news outlets had provided only limited reporting of the nearby protests.

“The locals have a very distorted perspective of what’s really happening and who the protectors are,” Manly-Gil said. So on Wednesday morning, dozens of packed vehicles drove into the city, stopping at banks and federal buildings.

Police began stopping the vehicles for what Manly-Gil called “bogus reasons,” like not turning on a blinker to switch lanes.

“But it wasn’t just a routine traffic stop,” he said. “It was an officer in complete riot gear, for a traffic stop, and then plus five or six other officers surrounding the vehicle in riot gear, plus accompanying police vehicles.”

The front-line activities offered only one way to volunteer at Standing Rock. While Manly-Gil directly participated in the demonstrations, his co-travellers Omondi and Sparer hung back at the encampment, working in the kitchens and providing what Omondi called a “supportive presence.”

Omondi grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where he has indigenous roots. He is currently working on a project in Kenya to provide water to people affected by climate change and severe drought there. On last year’s anniversary of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Omondi protested at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where he was arrested for trespassing before spending two months in prison at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

He went back to the base for this year’s anniversary of the bombing and was arrested again, for which reason he “kind of got stuck” on the Central Coast instead of returning home to Kenya.

Omondi’s native heritage and water-related social work drew him to the Standing Rock movement, which has adopted the slogan, “Water is life.”

“The drawing card being the protection of water, that resonates very strongly with me, because water is life, and that’s what I’m working on,” he told the Sun. “Beyond that is again to place the stories and the history of native populations here and around the world at the center, and to elevate that story, to bring awareness to that story, and to be in solidarity with the healing that is taking place.”

That “indigenous-centered” mindset is the first of four cornerstones of the Standing Rock protests, taught to new demonstrators in orientation, Omondi said. The others include, “Be of use,” “Build a new legacy,” and “Bring that home.”

“It’s all about prayer,” Omondi said. “This is not about protesting, necessarily, or violence, or seeking recognition. We’re here to build a new legacy, almost like a civil rights movement, a long overdue civil rights movement for native populations.

“Once you leave,” he continued, “you’re taking that experience back to wherever it is that you came from, to educate, to raise awareness, and to continue to pray and be in solidarity.”

Manly-Gil, Omondi, and Sparer continued their work at Standing Rock through Thanksgiving Day, which they all acknowledged as a day of mourning for native people. Sparer, a resident of Arroyo Grande, said there were no wishes of “happy Thanksgiving” at the encampment that day, or much acknowledgment of the holiday at all.

“For some people, it just passed like a normal day,” she told the Sun. “Everybody took it differently. I think it’s a hard thing to take in, if you were raised with Thanksgiving as a celebration, if you were raised with the story of what Thanksgiving is, to understand and open yourself to the catastrophe of what that day represents to the people who were here before us.”

The day after Thanksgiving, Manly-Gil, Omondi, and Sparer packed up and returned to the Central Coast. Manly-Gil said the return from Standing Rock to his usual daily life in Guadalupe was “jarring.”

“Over there, I didn’t eat much, and I was fine,” Manly-Gil said. “I wasn’t really thinking about that. I wasn’t really focused on time. Yeah, the weather was cold, but for the most part you’re just focused on other things, things of more value. You’re just more aware, just more alive.” 

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at

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