Composting on the Front Lines of Standing Rock
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Steffan Thimmes at the compost operation. 

 Like many people, I watched the Standing Rock protests gain momentum on Facebook over the summer of 2016, as thousands of Indigenous activists tried to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native treaty lands. I was flying home from East Africa on Halloween when Robbie Romero, an Indigenous activist, texted me. There were 125 porta-potties being used in the protest camp, and hundreds of people were arriving each day. He wanted to know if we could build compost toilets that could function throughout the North Dakota winter. The portable toilets were going to freeze solid. They were desperate.

The time-frame, weather, and militarized conditions at Standing Rock seemed like an impossible challenge — Indigenous people were being shot with rubber bullets and water cannons. Jet-lagged, our team travelled to Standing Rock a few days later to see what we could do. We had no idea what to expect.

Nothing could prepare us for the scene at Oceti Sakowin camp. Native children were riding horses, elders were saying prayers around the sacred fire, and families were busy winterizing their dwellings and painted Teepees. Thousands of environmental activists had set up camps in the mix of it all. We were welcomed with wild mint tea, fry bread, and buffalo stew, and over the next few days brainstormed with the Tribe’s EPA and other activists who offered to help with crowdfunding and construction. I called home to tell my husband and daughter that I was staying a while. We were going to have to race against the weather. 

We mapped out a plan to build one hundred compost toilets inside of five retrofitted U.S. Army tents, outfitted with interior stalls, lighting, and wood burning stoves for round-the-clock heating. The toilets, based on Joseph Jenkins’ humanure system, would consist of a 5–gallon container lined with BioBags® and an outer trash bag because we couldn’t manage any black water in the freezing conditions. The Tribe gave us land on the reservation to build out a compost site just a few miles away, and we planned to transport the bags of frozen toilet material every few days.  Our team of 15 volunteers set up a construction site in the middle of the camp. We brought in a truck load of fine sawdust from out of state to use as cover material, and scouted the local ranches for spoiled hay and silage to use as feedstock. 

It was very cold but not yet unbearable, until the first blizzard hit two days before Thanksgiving. Within hours, thousands of people were forced to take shelter at the Tribe’s casino as temperatures dropped to -45°F and high winds pelted the camp in a complete whiteout. Everything froze solid — all of the water, food and supplies at our basecamp were encased in ice, even our Ford trucks. Our Quonset hut blew away leaving our tools, construction supplies, and bags of sawdust under several feet of snow.                    

                                                                                                    Alisa with Allyson Two Bears

Working 16 hour days we managed to launch the toilet operation through the chaotic weather — however we didn’t have time to build out the compost site due to a series of events and obstacles that came our way. 

Two forty-foot shipping containers were turned into a deep freeze to store the bags of poop while we waited for warmer weather to compost. In March 2017, after four months at Standing Rock, we composted over 4,000 bags of toilet material after after a brief warm spell. The project was the largest community-led compost project ever attempted. Despite surveillance helicopters, police checkpoints, blizzards and infiltrators trying to sabotage us, we kept working.

Knowing how to compost has led to some amazing adventures, but nothing has come close to the experience at Standing Rock. 

 Alisa Keesey is a USCC member and the program director of GiveLove, a skills training organization working to promote composting and ecological sanitation in high-need and water-scarce countries. Alisa holds an M. Sci. degree from UC Davis in International Agricultural Development, and a M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz. She received the USCC’s H. Clark Gregory Award in 2018 for outstanding grassroots efforts to promote composting in her development work

Alisa receiving the H. Clark Gregory Award with her nominator, Joe Jenkins.


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