(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.)
(Parts of this post appeared in the University of Iowa Alumni Magazine.)
When we arrived at Standing Rock, the first thing I saw was a brown-and-gray-knit scarf that someone had stretched along a bench, like some kind of boa constrictor. This was at the Prairie Knights casino, which is the only restaurant, hotel and wifi hotspot within miles of the protest camps. It is a Moss-Isley type of neutral zone. Campers, journalists, and police huddle around the bistro’s overcooked turkey legs, which have been prepared by Lakota cooks, whose brethren, at the camps, will tell you how much they detest Thanksgiving. This, per my previous post, is where I think I saw James Cromwell, as he wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and talked to a small table of Lakota. Up at the camps, at roughly the same time, Jane Fonda was serving a dubious holiday’s meal to a thousand protestors. On Sunday night, Bonnie Raitt would perform a private concert. Every one of us, adroitly or not, had come to raise awareness of an event that has, through reasons both astonishing and shameful, received little media attention besides the quotes from the very people who have sought to arrest the journalist who cover it.
In our hotel room, James and I dressed for the camps. He’s more or less a polar bear, so he just wore jeans and a down coat. I had procured a navy-blue Carhartt, thermal jumpsuit, with zippers up the sides and a corduroy collar. I called these things my Marios. They were short enough that James had to help me in and out of them—and if he got distracted in the process, I was left with them pinning my arms behind my back. They were, however, supremely warm—and the camps promised to be supremely cold.
At the hotel, you could already discern who belonged to the camps by how they smelled of woodsmoke. As we drove to the settlement, the first thing we saw was the haze hanging over it, as a vision from some nineteenth-century woodcut. A line of cars stretched from the entrance, a quarter mile beyond the sheriff’s lonely Road Closed blinker. We were not the only people to decide that Thanksgiving break was an appropriate time to “help the Indians.” That seems so embarrassing now—a sentiment whose first whiff we caught when the gatekeeper was relieved that we weren’t actually staying at the camps. Weekend warriors—such as we are—eat up food and take space, while staying just long enough to figure out how to help. Then we go home, where in the best case, we build awareness. While in the worst case, apparently, we treat all of this as either a party weekend, or a line to put on our resumes.
Since James and I were last here on Labor Day, the camps have started to deliver a hard NO to all that. What was once a collective in August has now become a three-camp organization. Now each new visitor has to report to an orientation at 9 AM. Signs prohibiting alcohol, drugs, and weapons appear with almost as much frequency as the Water is Life slogan. Camp security roams the grounds, looking for everything from unsanctioned camp fires (whose leftover holes have injured horses) to illicit photography (whose background images been subpoenaed, incredibly, by the state prosecutors who aren’t beyond calling a peace pipe a pipe bomb). The protestors’ arrests are real, even if the charges–such as attempted murder–are disturbingly absurd. Homeland security may have a covert presence in the camps. Undercover police almost certainly do. Camp educators talk of the possibility that these “authorities” have software that is able to turn on the microphone of even a turned-off phone, much like the virus that the DOD created to spy on militants across the world. Whether or not that’s the case, the camp endures the near-constant drone of overhead surveillance aircraft. And if nothing else, this shows that even though the “authorities” have tried for months to find probable cause to raid the protest camps, they have clearly discovered none.
The only time the aircraft have stopped flying overhead was on October 30, two hours before a suspicious brush fire appeared just north of the main camp. According to Democracy Now! the protestors called 911—but EMS never arrived. Whether or not the “authorities” are behind the arson, it certainly highlights the fact that there exists a group that wishes the protestors violent harm. They are the ones who have brought the dogs, the bean-bag rounds, the tear gas, and rubber bullets, the freezing water, and the concussion grenades that mangled a young-woman’s arm. They brought in a second hose truck, on Thanksgiving Day, and they lately increased the muster of the North Dakota National Guard. Throughout camp hang signs for PTSD prayer groups; trauma counseling centers; medical services ranging from acupuncture, to reiki, to western medicine volunteered by many, including a doctor from the University of Chicago. The camp offers non-violent protest training every afternoon. Near the camp center, somebody has displayed this sign:
1) At direct action, insert earplugs directly into the ear canal. Duct tape the opening. Be mindful that sonic weapons aim to disrupt rational thought.
2) Plastic-base goggles will trap tear gas. Use only the silicon kind.
3) Do not wear contacts to direct actions. Tear gas and pepper spray adhere to the lenses. This may cause them, when removed, to pull off your cornea.
As we read this sign, James and I squinted into the wind. We had discussed, both at home and in the car, my desire to cover a direct action. I’d agonized, with everyone from family to clergy, about my call to be a human-rights witness, in light of the fact that, in the process, I could do irrevocable harm to my family, by irrevocably harming myself. For the past twenty-four hours, I’d decided that I would attend an action anyway, that if I didn’t spend my life standing up for others, I’d sacrifice a major reason to live at all. This resolution had been exciting, at first. I’d felt only slightly afraid when I’d made sure that, in case the police strip-searched me, I was wearing good underwear (Harry Potter—Gryffindor). But later, my resolve was deeply shaken when I learned that, upon hearing my decision, a member of my family had shut themselves in the bathroom and wept. Today, as we headed to the camps, I discovered that when you accept the notion of doing something like this, you don’t eat much. In fact, your whole body becomes afraid. And in the meantime, you become afraid for your body, as if it were some kind of loyal animal that you were sending into danger. You wonder what part of it will sustain violation, and you wonder, on top of all that, if you will suffer in vain—or worse yet, whether you’ll cause others to suffer too.
We squinted at the sign. Then we moved on. We delivered spray paint to the veterans’ tent, where they were decorating 2×3-foot press-board shields for protestors to use agains the water cannons. We made our way through the teepees, campers, surplus army tents, and tarpees (which are exactly what they sound like). We found the orientation tent, which was a military-mess-hall-looking thing that had condensation dripping from the ceiling. There were hay bales and smudgy windows. There was standing-room only. I perched on a stack of bales, and my head pushed into the top of the tent. There was very little light here. The speakers—two non-Natives—spoke into a LED flashlight, like something out of WeeBelong Camp. They welcomed us. They admired our energy. Then they began to talk of colonialism.
They started by saying that, to our hosts, Thanksgiving is a horrible holiday, that it has become a great insult to their hospitality. They said that colonialism involves the appropriation of resources, be that a resource that’s protected by a treaty, or threatened with an oil pipe, or eaten by those who want to play Indian for a week. They said that treating this camp as a music festival is colonialism; that deciding for oneself how to help, instead of asking how to help, is colonialism; that throwing elders a flurry of questions, while giving nothing in return, is colonialism. The desire to know everything is a desire to control. That is colonialism. The seemingly good-hearted notion of One Human Tribe is an attempt at erasure, where diversity itself is the key to survival. That stance—that unconscious homogenization—is colonialism too.
We sat in the dark, young whiteys, from what I could see—nearly all of us. The guy next to me had smelly dreadlocks. The teachers said that at camp, all women would wear skirts—that the skirt symbolizes the teepee, and that the teepee symbolizes the home. They told us that women on their moon could not approach either the kitchens or the sacred fires—that menstruation is powerful, and that at the camp, it is not good to mix medicine. They told us that if we were here for only a short time, that direct action was most likely not for us. I raised my hand at that. Still in my adrenaline and impertinence, I asked them to elaborate. They looked at me. If we were experienced in the matter, they said, that was grounds for exception. But new people would do more good back at camp. Resistance to warfare took training. A bad decision could cost the whole movement. “And if everyone left for the front lines,” they said, “there would be nothing left to defend.”
The speaker and her LED left me in the darkness. I leaned against James. Really, I sagged. He leaned back, and the air seemed to loosen. Maybe I should have been embarrassed by my question, but for the most part, I was suddenly ravenous. I was suddenly glad for the dimness. I pushed my head higher into the tent ceiling. In my preparations, such as they were, my friends and I had all decided I’d ask God what I should do, when direct action offered itself. In fact, I’d spent a lot of time asking. And let me tell you: God apparently spoke through a Lakota-educated, New-York-City Filipina. I sniffed. James grasped my hand. Later I would watch two direct-action veterans find each other, and hug as brothers. I don’t regret my release from joining them. Just a taste of their terror is enough for me to marvel at their resolve, their clear vision, and their self-control. Those things, I believe, do not come quickly. And that may be the true reason why none but the long-term protestors should approach the front lines at Standing Rock.
After the orientation, we wandered for a while. “Don’t be surprised,” the speakers had told us, “if even the best thing you offer is either redirected or refused.” We weren’t surprised as much as we were left without a second plan. We wondered if we should wash dishes.
In the meantime, we grabbed a wrap-around skirt from the car. Before we’d left Iowa, we’d learned to bring one just in case. This skirt was primary-colored and huge. We had to wrap it like a sari. I don’t have many dresses; in fact, few things can get me to wear them. This and my wedding come to mind. And the way I looked, on this occasion, did nothing to further entice me. There I was, in my Marios and a tricolor sari. And, because it was indeed cold, I also put on a purple, Elmer Fudd hat, whose flaps half crowded my horn-rimmed glasses. You will not see a picture of this outfit.
We walked. People began to stare. I held James’s hand. After a while, I began to wonder when following a custom becomes so ridiculous that it flaunts that custom. I dispensed with the hat. My hair blew. Some of the looks subsided, but not that many. And it was finally James who noticed that the Marios were essentially a utility suit—an outfit, for instance, that could belong to an oil worker. I halted by a fire that had socks drying on a nearby stump. There was nothing I could do. I prepared to joke to everyone that I’d jumped a DAPLer, and taken his clothes.
We had donations to unload, so after discerning where to go, we drove our minivan, at 5 mph, around tent lines and potholes, fire pits and horses, a golden retriever with orange-dyed fetlocks. We passed a sign-post that bristled with wooden direction arrows that pointed to probably fifty cities of origin. From one of the arms, somebody had dangled a pair of cowboy boots. We passed a plywood shack that had a single window where two white candles burned in a coffee can. We found the Unitarian-Universalists’ all-faiths church yurt, complete with a sign-up sheet and a wooden door.
Beside the church yurt was a supply depot that stretched for a quarter-acre. Three women looked on. We unloaded our cargo—our Carhartts, our lamp oil, our emergency blankets, and our food. A ten-year old ran to the woodcutters, with one of our axes. I approached the headwoman with an envelope, from our church, that held funds for a cord of firewood. The camps are crying for firewood. It’s the main way they heat themselves. The emerald ash borer makes it impossible for us to take firewood across state lines, so this check was the best thing we could give. The orientation speakers had said there was a place to drop off money such as this. Both James and I remembered that—but the supply lady looked blank. We’d need an elder, she said, somebody trustworthy to take our money. James and I shoved our hands in our pockets. The lady found a middle-aged, pock-marked man. He was not an elder, but he knew them. He beckoned we follow, while he led us beneath a bluff where a sculpture of a scout looked upon the camp. We passed a man standing, grave, in an eagle headdress. We avoided a compost heap. We came to the sound of drums. At the outset, they seemed to follow a basic, 1-2 pattern. But as we approached, the beat disclosed undercurrents that were far more complex. We could feel this now, inside our chests. Soon there was singing and the slightly sickening smell of sweetgrass. We came to a circle, where men—war veterans—stood in the center, while a line of campers shook their hands. A group of men sat at the head of a circle, under an awning. One of them had a microphone. Our leader stopped us, and we waited.
The drums continued. We became sheepish. The man who brought us began to look around. He flagged down a friend, who said that an elder was over by his Honda Civic. We would go to find him. But after a trek, we found that his Civic had nothing but a baseball cap on the dash. The man who brought us gave us a half smile. “Would it be better,” I said, “if we just sent you the funds online?” He puckered his mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said, “for taking your time.” I handed him a notebook, and he gave us the Oceti Sakowin donation address. He thanked us. He shook our hands. He left us to stand in the trampled grass.
We listened to the singing. After a while, an elder started to recite what we realized were news bulletins. They had the cadence of somebody who’d listened to A Prairie Home Companion. “Christopher Douglass. Please find your mother at the medical tent. She’s knows you’re old enough to go off by yourself, but she still is your mother, and she’s worried.” “A relative from the Cree nation is offering haircuts tomorrow, from 9 to 3. Come to the welcome tent if you’re feeling scruffy.” I watched a pheasant lift from a nearby field. I talked to a woman who was looking for the donation center.
James waited for us to finish, and put a hand on my shoulder. There was an appeal, he said, from the microphone. The camp asked for people to give up their hotel rooms, so some elders could sleep away from the cold.
I blinked. We didn’t bring our camping gear. Hotels were booked for miles. If we gave up our room, we would have to go home, half a day early. James looked at me. He puffed his cheeks. My sari blew against my Marios. I shoved my hand in my pocket, and felt my super-strength protest earplugs. It took James another five minutes to convince me that this was the right thing to do. I’m the actor and the talker in our outfit. In matters like this, James is the one who thinks.
We drove out of camp, past the banners from Alaska and Brazil, past the sign that said, “Obama, you can still help!” We crossed the Cannon Ball River, whose partial icing lay on the water as a slick. A palomino horse browsed on a burial hill.
At the hotel, we met with a tribal leader. He had square glasses, a silver braid, and a Vietnam Veterans hat. James waited next to him, until he noticed us. James made the offer, and the leader widened his eyes. He shook James’s hand. Behind him, a young Lakota said, “Nice.” The leader said he wasn’t sure if he needed us, that it would be helpful if we could maybe wait and see. So the two of us sat in leather chairs, while we ate a candy bar. On the wall above us was a framed blanket made of pheasant pelts.
After an hour, an ancient man appeared with a slightly-less ancient man who helped the first man sit on a walker. The sitting man had a WWII hat, a raised, chin and a tightly-drawn mouth. The tribal leader approached James, shook his hand, and shook it again. “We’re all right,” he said. “You can keep your room. But we do thank you.” The aged man started pushing buttons on his clam-shell phone. The leader left without a second glance.
We went upstairs for dinner and a shower. We were exhausted and somehow filthy, but we were also satisfied that, at last, we had done something effective. Looking back, it all seems at once so obvious and so hard to see. The best thing we could do at Standing Rock was to make space for those who have spent over 500 years simply asking us to yield to them that very thing.
(Originally posted November 28, 2016)