What I Found in Standing Rock

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Near the edge of the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota, about 50 yards from a tributary of the Missouri River, there’s a basketball hoop. It’s one of those worn-out outdoor hoops that leans forward a little bit, almost as if the wind had bent it.

In September, I drove from my home state of Wisconsin to the Standing Rock reservation, land of the Hunkpapa Sioux. I got in after dark so I didn’t see the layout of the whole camp until the sun rose the next morning. When I unzipped my tent, I saw a valley full of Native people — thousands of people camping out in tents, RVs and teepees — from over 300 tribes. There were license plates from almost every state.

They’d come to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground oil pipeline being constructed less than a half mile from the reservation. The tribe says the pipeline will plow through ancient burial grounds and could poison the reservation’s water supply, as well as the water supply of millions of people downriver.

In the morning air I smelled burning sage, the plant used during Native American spiritual ceremonies. A woman walked by with a shirt that read THIS IS OUR LAND, and a couple of kids on horses trotted past. Someone was giving directions to a communal kitchen and generators were humming nearby. I saw some flags flying upside down, the signal for distress. I could hear Sioux singers and the unmistakable thumping of drums. It sounded like a battle cry.

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I left my tent and started to walk around. At the center of camp, makeshift ceremonial grounds had been built, which reminded me of the Ho-Chunk powwows in Wisconsin that my mom used to take my brother, Miles, and me to when we were growing up. But neither my brother nor I remember very much from those trips. In those days we didn’t have any Native American neighbors. We were city kids. Our lives were basketball.

Up above the valley where the Standing Rock camp sits, cars were speeding by on Route 1806, the state highway that leads north toward Bismarck. The pipeline was originally supposed to run through the city, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rerouted it, in part because of concerns that it might endanger the local water supply.

Just a few miles up the highway, a group of bulldozers were sitting on a hillside, waiting.

Soon, those bulldozers — protected by armed guards — would start tearing up the land to make way for the pipeline.

As I walked around and took in my new surroundings, I went past the “donations” area, where people were sorting winter jackets and other clothes, and past a tent with a sign that read LEGAL HELP. In the distance, a helicopter flew by. Native leaders told me that the Dakota Access company was surveilling the camp.

And then there it was. That familiar bouncing sound, echoing off the dirt.

Someone was playing ball.

Bronson Koenig joins members of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Bismarck, North Dakota on September 17, 2016.(Photo by Alexandra Hootnick/The Players' Tribune)

It was a trip I’d been meaning to make ever since thousands of indigenous people — water and land protectors — from all across the world had first convened at Standing Rock last spring. I knew that September was going to be my last opportunity to join the protests before basketball season, and my senior year at Wisconsin, began.

I didn’t know many people at the camp, but something was compelling me to go. My brother, Miles, our good friend Clint Parks and I made the drive from Madison in 14 hours, with the flag of our Ho-Chunk tribe flying from our trailer. Even though there were over 300 tribes represented in the camp — some from as far away as Florida, Alaska and even South America — I immediately felt a connection. It was hard to describe. Way out there on the prairie, far from home, I felt a sense of comfort.

I’d come to join the protest, and also to give a free clinic for the local kids. As a college basketball player, I felt that it was the best way I could show my support for the protests. One of the greatest things about the game is that wherever you go, you can ball. On reservations, there’s almost always a game of “rez ball” happening.

My eyes kept wandering to the horizon — to the hills just a mile north where the bulldozers were.

There was supposed to be only one clinic, indoors at nearby Standing Rock High. But around 10 a.m. as I was walking around the camp, a woman holding her son’s hand stopped me. She asked if I could give a smaller clinic for kids who couldn’t make it later that day.

I was surprised to find a group of 50 or so kids waiting for me at the outdoor hoop, ready to play.

Some wore their hair in long ponytails, in the traditional Native American style. Some were wearing new LeBrons, while others showed up in beat-up old shoes. One kid was wearing a Julius Randle Lakers jersey.

I told stories about my Final Four runs with the Badgers. I got asked a lot about the buzzer beater I had hit in the Sweet Sixteen last spring.

“How can I make it to D-I?” a 10-year-old kid asked.

I’ve played basketball my whole life, and a lot of pickup ball. I thought I’d seen every type of basketball court, but this dirt court was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

In basketball, you strive to anticipate what’s going to happen next. Running through drills out there on the dirt and the prairie grass, my eyes kept wandering to the horizon — to the hills just a mile north where the bulldozers were. I’d never played basketball surrounded by police and blockades.

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I’d never played basketball surrounded by police and blockades.

Bronson Koenig

At the indoor clinic at Standing Rock High, I was overwhelmed by the turnout. The gym was over capacity. It was so full that we had to use the gym’s side hoops, as well as the main court, to make the most of every inch of space.

The clinic went great, but the thing I remember most happened at the Q and A afterwards. The first few questions were predictable — favorite NBA player, favorite food, that kind of thing. Then a kid, maybe 13 years old, raised his hand and asked me, “Did you have any Native American role models growing up?”

The question really stopped me in my tracks.

Looking out at the sea of kids — all their eyes on me — I thought about the terrible statistics that you see in the news about life on reservations. The drug abuse, the depression, the malnutrition, the suicide rates that are tragically high, above national averages.

I felt my voice crack. I knew in my heart that I needed to say something, even if it wasn’t what sounded “good.”

No, I didn’t grow up with any Native American role models, I said.

It’s not that they didn’t exist, but just that they weren’t on my radar. They weren’t celebrated in popular culture.

It was a moment that moved me more than I expected. I hadn’t come to Standing Rock to be a “role model.” But I had come to help. I knew that if I could be someone who even one kid from Standing Rock looked up to, I’d be prouder of that than of anything I had ever done — or might ever do — on the basketball court.

Looking out at the kids, I was proud that they were seeing someone succeeding who looked a little like they did.

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I’m one of about 60 Native American students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a school with more than 30,000 undergrads, and one of only about 40 Native American Division I men’s college basketball players in the country. I’m not too surprised that almost no one at school knew much about the Ho-Chunk tribe. My whole life, I’ve had friends and classmates ask me the most basic questions about my heritage. Did I wear feathers? Do my parents run a casino? One high school classmate even admitted that he didn’t think Indian reservations still existed. Before I got to college, I had rarely ever heard a mention of Native American history in school — all I remember from 11th grade is some reading about Native American agriculture and a couple of paragraphs in a history book on the Trail of Tears, the forced march on which all those people died in the winter of 1838.

Three years ago, on one of my first days in Madison, a man stopped me in the hall on the way to class. He introduced himself as Don Stanley, a professor of media and digital marketing. Students here know Professor Stanley as a huge Badgers sports fan, but on the day we met he started off by asking me about the Ho-Chunk wellness center in Baraboo, a town an hour east of my hometown of La Crosse. He had volunteered there for a few years … did I know of it? Of course I did. In fact, I had played a few basketball tournaments there when I was growing up.

Then he took me by surprise again when he told me that he was member of the Oneida Nation, a tribe from New York, and that he now lives on land that used to be Ho-Chunk land.

My knowledge of Ho-Chunk history had some gaps.

Professor Stanley told me that in the 1800s, the Ho-Chunk were forcibly relocated from Wisconsin several times by the U.S. government. Years later, a small number of Ho-Chunks resettled in the state but many spread around the country.

I often felt like a minority within a minority. Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands.

Professor Stanley and I became friends, and we’ve since had many conversations about Native American history. At Madison, I have sought out as many classes as I could that had to do with Native American issues. I was always curious about my culture, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I really started to do my own research.

When I read up on Wounded Knee, the 10-week Native American occupation of Lakota Sioux land in 1973, Professor Stanley told me a story of an elderly Sioux man he’d met when he was my age. The man was a Vietnam veteran who returned from fighting for the U.S. government, only to find out that that same government was laying siege to his reservation. Another example of this nation’s hostile treatment of its original people.

One day last year, our strength-training coach, Erik Helland, who was the trainer for the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan years, told us a story. During a playoff game, Phil Jackson had used Native American imagery to hype up the team. He brought MJ and Scottie and the rest of the team together and had them hold hands. Then Jackson invoked the spirit of the Dog Soldiers, the legendary but little known Cheyenne fighters who were the most feared warriors of their time. The Dog Soldiers were known for their bravery in battle: They would stake out particular piece of land and defend it to the death. After Phil Jackson’s speech, as Erik tells it, Michael and Scottie and the team were more fired up than he’d ever seen them.

Over time, I opened up to Professor Stanley about my struggle to understand my own identity. Being a light-skinned Native American, with a white father and a mother who is Ho-Chunk, I told him how I often felt like a minority within a minority. Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands. I’m still struggling with that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I went to Standing Rock.

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After two days in North Dakota, it was time to get back for the start of classes.

Driving back to Wisconsin, I remember thinking about Wounded Knee and the Dog Soldiers, and about the long history of my people.

That night on the road, I wondered what the future would bring for the Standing Rock Sioux. Would the presidential election in November help or hurt Native Americans? Would the oil company continue to ignore the warnings of climate scientists? Would banks continue to fund the pipeline against the wishes of Native people?

Would the government that had confined Sioux warriors like Sitting Bull and his descendants to reservations have a change of heart and protect the water resources of Native Americans?


Now it’s December, too cold for kids to play on the outdoor hoop. There’s a foot of snow covering the Standing Rock camp, and the North Dakota governor is calling for the eviction of the protesters. Many Natives fear that critical supplies for survival, like firewood and food, will be blocked. This has the potential to be a traumatic replay of so much of our history.

I’m seeing reports that police have used high-pressure water cannons on protesters — men, women and children. In the subfreezing North Dakota winter, that’s a potentially deadly combination.

As we head toward the middle of our season, I can’t help but think about the cruel irony that water is being used as a weapon against Native Americans who are trying to protect their own water supply.

I’m a senior in college, so for me it feels like everything is about looking forward: next March, the NCAA Tournament, another dream. Then graduation and the NBA draft in the spring. After that, maybe the sky’s the limit.

As I move ahead, I’m going to remember those who came before me. I’ll be thinking of the famous words of Chief Sitting Bull, who died on Standing Rock more than a century ago, not far from the camp I visited. He said, “If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it, he will find it.”

Today, the target may be Standing Rock. But Native people aren’t the only ones who are affected by threats to the environment. Clean water is a precious resource. It belongs to all of us, whatever our heritage. We must all protect it.

Will you stand with Standing Rock?

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that the residents of Bismarck had voted to reroute the pipeline because of water safety concerns. It was actually the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that made the decision, albeit for the same reasons.

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