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Standing Rock Was “A Life-Changing Experience”

Joe "Tomahawk" Tate with a U.S. flag at the Oceti Sakowin camp north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Photo submitted by Tate and taken by Denae Shanidiin.

2016 was going as planned for 37-year-old mixed martial arts fighter Joe “Tomahawk” Tate.

Tate had competed in more than 30 tournaments across Arizona and beyond before September. He spent hours in the gym each week working on his jiu-jitsu training. It was his routine for the past few years. His blossoming MMA career was his focus.

Then it wasn’t.

On his terms, Tate’s life changed.

In September, he packed up his car and drove the 25 hours from his home in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to North Dakota to stand with Standing Rock. He left his job of four years at the Early Childhood Education Center in Salt River and his grueling training regimen to help the hundreds of Water Protectors who were trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built on traditional Lakota land, just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

“After praying, looking at my family here and my commitments here within the Community, my training and my fighting career, I realized this was the No. 1 top priority to go up there and see what exactly was happening and how I truly can make a difference there,” Tate said.

Joe "Tomahawk" Tate gives a shirt he made to a friend. Photo submitted by Tate and taken by Jeff Ferguson.
Tate, a Gila River Indian Community member, spent almost two weeks at the Oceti Sakowin camp, among the Water Protectors. Tate, a religious man, also took his Bible. He became friends with Indigenous people from across the country and the world. “It was beautiful, every morning, every sunrise,” he said.

When he left to drive back to Arizona, Tate didn’t think he would be visiting North Dakota again, at least not for a while. But he went back to the sacred camps—twice—not long after.

Water Protectors

When photos and videos of Water Protectors being harmed by DAPL security and local law enforcement went viral online, Tate dropped everything again and went back to help. Tate, a former police officer at the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and on the Navajo Nation, spent about 30 days at the camp over September, October and November, mostly volunteering as camp security by making sure Water Protectors were safe. He went back to find planes flying over the camp, additional law enforcement nearby, and tensions that had risen higher.

Tate said most days were full of peace and prayer, but a few days were restless, including a situation at what is known as Turtle Island, sacred land near the camps and the DAPL construction site, but owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One November morning, some Water Protectors went to Turtle Island to pray and were met with resentment by dozens of law-enforcement officers dressed in riot gear. Reports say law enforcement fired rounds of mace into the crowd. Tate was there, at the shore with a Bible in his hand, pleading with law enforcement to not harm the Water Protectors and to do their job right.

On other days, Tate patrolled the frontlines area on the bridge that was shut down by law enforcement near the camp, where many Water Protectors would go to let their voices be heard.

“I’m not saying the cops were way out of line, but sometimes their approach was not right,” Tate said.

Joe "Tomahawk" Tate at the frontlines of the closed bridge, Bible in hand, talking to law enforcement. Photo submitted by Tate and taken by Standing Rock Rising - RedHawk. Joe "Tomahawk" Tate gives a shirt he made to a friend. Photo submitted by Tate and taken by Jeff Ferguson.


Many know Tate as “Tomahawk,” or the man with the Mohawk hairstyle. He earned his nickname for his MMA skills. He’s known for his quick hits and chops, like a tomahawk, Tate said.

In December, Tate started his MMA training again with hopes of competing in 2017. When not training, he’s consulting tribal communities about relationships with non-tribal officials on issues related to No DAPL, such as the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway controversy and possible border wall being built on or next to Tohono O’odham land.

The number of people at the No DAPL camps decreased after the Army Corps of Engineers denied the final easement to drill below the Missouri River in early December and as the hundreds remaining dig in for the Great Plains winter, which at times can be unforgiving. In late December, temperatures in that part of the country were well below zero, but Water Protectors remain, waiting, ready to see what happens next once President-elect Donald Trump, a DAPL supporter, is sworn in later this month.

Tate keeps in touch with people at the camps and is ready to go back to Standing Rock if asked to help.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Tate said. “It was amazing to be part of that.”