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Building a Straw Bale School at Standing Rock

 “…so there are many more possibilities as to what sort of housing to create.  Currently, many different sorts of alternative sustainable housing designs are being considered, such as straw bale, cob, subterranean houses, earth bag structures, pallet designs and other well insulated and affordable structures”

By Miguel Elliott

It’s been nearly a week now since my return from Standing Rock and much from my experience there has been swirling around that needs to be processed.  When the story first broke out in the summer about the Native Americans at the Standing Rock Reservation protesting against the pipeline that was imposing on their sacred land, I felt a deep frustration towards the corporations that seemed to have complete disregard for honoring the rights and traditions of the Indigenous nations.  It mattered little to them that the Sacred Burial mounds were being plowed, that their waters were being threatened by the pipeline being drilled under their lake or that they were illegally dishonoring a treaty which gave the Dakota Sioux tribe the rights to their land.

Hearing that the ‘Water Protectors’ were intending on staying through the extremely harsh winter to continue their efforts to stop the pipeline, I felt a profound urge to offer my skills as a natural builder to drive from California to North Dakota to help to construct structures that could withstand the winter. A couple friends of mine had travelled to Standing Rock as well and returned with stories of the desperate call to action to build cheap, durable, well insulated structures quickly.  They told me that the sort of structures that I specialize in, namely, straw bale, adobe, and building with pallets, insulated with straw and covered in Earth, would be a very valuable asset to the efforts there.  It seemed like what was happening at Standing Rock was the most important cause of our current time, and so I packed up my bags with winter and building gear, and made the journey, pulling my mobile adobe, cob oven on a trailer behind my truck.

I learned before coming, that there were three main camps at Standing Rock.  There was the main camp, or Oceti Sakewin, which was where most of the nearly 350 Native American tribes from all over the country were staying. At its peak, there were probably 4000 people staying at the main camp. Then there was the Rosebud camp, which was on the opposite side of the Cannonball River which had about 300 people staying.  The Sacred Stone Camp was on private land and was a bit more removed from the front lines, so was under less threat of police raids.  It was the smallest of the three camps with about 150 people, which made it much more of a communal village.

I arrived at the Sacred Stone Camp a couple days after the incident where the police sprayed the water cannons in sub-freezing conditions for hours and shot rubber bullets at the water protectors, so the feeling at the camp was still pretty emotionally strained. The first thing I did upon arriving was set up my mobile wood fired oven by the main kitchen, and lit a fire inside.  Within an hour there was a small crowd cramming around the oven to get their share of the heat generated.  I made some pizza dough, asked for help chopping veggies, and we were soon making pizzas to compliment the main meal.  “Wood-fired Pizzas at Standing Rock?!” people who had been suffering from the cold and borderline hypothermia exclaimed in disbelief.  The pizzas were instantly a huge hit at the camp and the first night there, I made some great connections with people. It was even discussed that perhaps we bring the oven to the front lines and offer pizzas to the police, as a “Peace through Pizza” offering, which seemed like a great idea to me, but it never materialized, partly because the roads were covered in snow, and the trailer couldn’t make it through.

The following morning, I made my way over to the straw bale school project, that had been started two weeks earlier by a group of natural builders who had met each other at a natural building colloquium in Santa Barbara, and agreed to come out to help build structures to weatherize the camp.  A pile of a few hundred straw bales had been delivered to the middle of the camp and nobody knew how to build with straw bales.  The six builders had just worked on a straw bale structure at the colloquium, so they quickly put their new found skills to use.  In just two weeks, the foundation was set, all the bales were up, and the roof was built.  I was given the task of coordinating the earthen plaster of the straw bales and to help build the rocket mass heater stove.  This involved digging through the snow to get to the Earth, and then mixing it with water and chopped straw, which was then applied to the walls.  Within a week, all the walls had been plastered through the help of many volunteers from all over the country often done to a background of drumming and chanting. With the rocket stove in action and the well-insulated walls, the straw bale school became the warmest building in camp, so it was used to sleep about 10 people at night for a couple weeks.

The school is part of a vision that the owner of the property, La Donna, who is Dakota Sioux, to create a permanent eco village on the land.  La Donna was part of the original group who started gathering around the Sacred Fire in April of 2016 to discuss ways of stopping the pipeline. Since then, she has instructed that the Sacred Fire stay constantly lit and always open for prayer offerings of tobacco and sage.  She requested that the school be built for the 10 children currently staying in camp with their families, and to attract future families with children to the camp.  The intention is to base the curriculum on the 7 spiritual values of the Lakota which are 1. Praying: Finding Spirituality by communicating with your higher power. 2) Respect for self, higher power, family, community and all life, 3) Caring and compassion. 4) Honesty and Truth 5) Generosity and Caring. 6) Humility 7) Wisdom.  It is hoped that Native children from the Reservation will attend the school as well.  The school began its classes on Jan 2 which was exciting to witness.  The exterior of the school will need to be completed when the weather warms up, at which workshops will likely take place to plaster and seal the school.

With the winter in full effect, we were advised by La Donna to making a point of knowing who are neighbors were and to take care of each other.  Most people were living in either a teepee, a yurt, or a large tent with insulated walls.  All the spaces had wood burning stoves which needed to be stocked with wood.  I met a lot of people in the camp by chopping wood, putting it on a sled, and delivering it to the residents of the camp, especially to the ones who were not able to chop their own wood. This simple act was greatly appreciated, and soon others began offering the same service which felt good to see that my actions were inspiring others to do the same.

Since my main focus of being at Standing Rock was on building the school, I didn’t participate in too many direct actions on the front lines.  The only action I attended was a silent march to the bridge where the police attacked the water protectors the week before.  It was a silent march, led by the women and natives with the men walking behind acting in solidarity. The Natives performed a simple water ceremony by the shore of the water, and we all just stood in silence and prayer in the company of the police for a good hour, just existing in peace together.  This was a change from the usual rally cries of “No DAPL” and “Wni Wachoni” Water is Life!”  The elders strongly encouraged the actions to all be peaceful, based in prayer.  Prayer was a constant occurrence at the camp. Often early in the morning at dawn, a Native would sing a chant and offer a prayer over the loudspeaker for everyone in all three camps to hear.  There were morning prayers around the Sacred Fire, before meals, before and after meetings and before direct actions. Sage was a constant scent throughout the camps.

What excites me about the Sacred Stone Camp is the potential to serve as a model for a completely self-reliant, sustainable eco village.  Most people came to Standing Rock in opposition to the oil industry as there are many other safe, clean options available for energy, rather than burning fossil fuels. With the vision of creating permanent village demonstrating as many alternatives available to fossil fuels, it could inspire the nation and the world to consider these other means of producing electricity such as solar & wind power, geothermal, biogas, and a myriad of other technologies available. Already, leaders in the Permaculture movement are suggesting offering courses there lead by the Natives. Since Standing Rock is a reservation, building codes that normally apply don’t exist, so there are many more possibilities as to what sort of housing to create.  Currently, many different sorts of alternative sustainable housing designs are being considered, such as straw bale, cob, subterranean houses, earth bag structures, pallet designs and other well insulated and affordable structures.  With the amount of attention on Standing Rock now, what happens there in the theme of sustainability could ripple out to other parts of the world.  Having an eco-village formed right across from the DAPL Pipeline that is demonstrating all the alternative forms of energy rather than oil would be an excellent way of practicing what we preach. Sure, it wouldn’t be convenient, and would take a considerable amount of effort to set up these alternative systems, but with the amount of support Standing Rock is getting from all over from people who are wanting to donate to the cause, it could be possible.  If we were growing our own food, using recycled materials for building, generating our own electricity, being proactive with our health, we would not be as dependent on driving our cars and using petroleum. Currently, it is a bit hypocritical to be protesting oil, when we are using gas for driving, heating, cooking & electricity, but with a concerted resolve to demonstrate that an alternative way is possible, even in the blistering cold, it could be the tipping point we need to usher in a new era of sustainability.


Even if we are not able to prevent the Black Snake from illegally crossing the lake, and continuing along the Native American sovereign land,  we can appreciate the opportunities it has presented, such as uniting the Native American tribes together in a way never experienced before, mobilizing huge numbers of vets to take action and having the 7th Calvary asking the natives for forgiveness for the massacre committed at Standing Rock, and bringing so many like people of all ages, races  and religions together to fight for justice. The experience I had at Standing Rock was unique in that I was there primarily to build a school, which was incredibly satisfying, so the overall impression I was left with was one of hope, possibilities, and inspiration.


Bio: Miguel Elliott is a native of Sonoma County, California where he runs a natural building service/business called Living Earth Structures. He leads workshops, offers building projects in schools, and is working to change regulations surrounding building codes.  As the grandson of Howard Frazier, he has always been deeply inspired and interested in the efforts of PEP. He had the opportunity to be part of the Volga Peace Cruise in 1984 with PEP.

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