(My Standing Rock posts are a diary of two trips James and I took to Standing Rock as, with the backing of our church, we protested the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first four posts come from around Labor Day, 2016. The remaining posts come from around Thanksgiving, 2016.)
I have a new t-shirt that has photos of Sitting Bull, Low Dog and other Native American chiefs, while above them, a caption says, Homeland Security. On our trip home, I wore it into a Burger King just south of the Standing Rock reservation, and the cashier gave me free onion rings. I wore it in a hotel elevator in Sioux Falls, and a wind-blown, white man scowled at me all the way down to the lobby. As with so many things in the news, the Dakota Access pipeline will become a polarizing issue—in large part because Big Oil is rich enough to hire mercenary reporters as readily as they can hire mercenary security guards. This is my last dispatch about the Standing Rock protest, and I feel I should end on a high note. And yet I would not be honest with you, if I said I didn’t return to Iowa sadder than I was before I left.
But the fact is that I’m also more at peace. Contrary to what most media will tell you, that was the prevailing mood at the Standing Rock camps. Families swam in the Cannon Ball River. Aging hippies in floppy hats sorted through the bins of vegetables. Somebody left dog biscuits around part of the camp, as some sort of Easter egg hunt for the wandering plethora of lap dogs. At morning, we had breakfast with the rest of the Sacred Stone camp. We gave thanks for the food, to the water, and the sky. James and I sat on stumps around a fire pit, eating skillet eggs covered in that black iron powder, and smiling at the fact that the kitchen was using our church’s donated hand-sanitizer. At the casino down the road, the staff looked the other way as campers washed in the bathrooms and soaked up the wifi. We loitered in their leather chairs, contributing news to one another’s conversations, crowding around a stranger’s iPhone footage. We sat in silence when we heard about the dog attacks. Behind us, the slots dinged. A Native American clapped me on the shoulder as she left. She said, “Thanks for being here.”
At the main camp—the one with the flags and the thousands of folks—a man slow-rapped on the powwow’s stage, urging the crowd to chant, “I resist.” A group of men beat drums in a circle, and a little girl in cowboy boots did that famous heel-kicking tribal dance. Then she got shy, then she found a friend, and she started up again. On the outskirts of camp, we found trampled barbed wire, and a white pony with black-paint handprints on her rump. Far behind, the powwow gave the mic to a tribe from Hawaii, and the whole crowd shouted “Aloha!”
Soon, along the roadside, came the sound of singing. A line of pick-up trucks pushed into the camp, after, allegedly, resisting a police presence along the riverbank. A teenage boy waved a yellow survey flag. The road-siders beat their drums. They sang in complex whoops. A woman approached, selling the t-shirt of the chiefs that I wore in the hotel elevator. We shook hands. We talked about the protest, and of everyone who’d joined. “You feel it in your heart,” she said. “You feel it.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, when you fight for something like this.” Here was the second time this weekend we spoke to a person who’d begun to weep.
The woman hugged us, and bid us well. We walked along until came upon a canvas teepee that was covered in multi-color signatures from members of all the tribes: Cree, Shoshone, Apache, Crow. All of them, from the ground to fifteen feet high. We craned our necks and read. From behind us blew a breeze of sage and smoke. The pipeline struggle is important for us white folks, but it is a turning point for the nations. No gathering of 180 tribes has occurred since Little Big Horn. The fight has gathered tribes from the Mayan to the Inuit. It has enlisted the Pawnee and the Sioux—age-old enemies, who now camp, flag by flag.
I stepped back, and asked the teepee keeper if it would be all right if I took a picture. She nodded. She laughed. “Sign it!” she said. “Please sign away!” So I did. I signed for my people, in purple, near the bottom. I passed a young girl, tall on her horse, tall in her pride. And I hoped, along with both her and those thousands gathered, that in this moment, we would all become the voice of the earth, saying no to its own destruction.