I am just back from the Standing Rock protest in south central North Dakota. It was a pivotal time in the ongoing history of this poignant struggle. During the week of December 2-10, three important things happened:
- thousands of military veterans arrived prepared to stand between police and water protectors;
- the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for further drilling, effectively halting the project until further study can be completed;
- and North Dakota dished out a blizzard with extreme sub-zero temperatures.
It is my intention to write several more blogs about this trip. I start here with a narrative of how was it to be “on the ground.” I went to be of help to the Standing Rock Sioux in their valiant, courageous, peaceful struggle to keep a pipeline carrying crude oil from crossing their sacred land, going under the Missouri River, and potentially destroying the water supply for 18 million people. As if to underscore the concern about a possible leak, just days ago a pipeline 150 miles from Standing Rock spilled over 170,000 gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Little Missouri River: http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/12/13/pipeline-150-miles-standing-rock-spills-over-170000-gallons-crude?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=email_this&utm_source=email
My dear friend, Anne Hayden, and I made the 1300-mile journey to the snowy, well-established camp by train and then rental car and arrived on Sunday December 4, 2016, the same day many veterans were streaming into the Oceti Sakowin camp. It was mid-afternoon on a sunny, 36 degrees F. (2 degrees C.) day that still felt like late fall.
We had just put up our tents when a long line of people began joining hands on the outer perimeter of camp. It took quite a while to organize thousands of us, but once we joined hands horseback riders and walkers came along behind us announcing that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the permit of the pipeline company to drill under the Missouri River. (To understand the importance of this and read a clear background story, click here: http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/12/04/dakota-access-pipeline-permit-denied) Cheers reverberated along the banks of the frozen Cannonball River and off the hillsides lined with ever-watchful police officers.
All Sunday, well past 8:00 p.m., cars poured into the camp as veterans from every corner of the United States arrived. Fireworks exploded in the dark, clear night.
Monday morning, December 5, was “media day.” There was to be a march of veterans north to the barricade on state highway 1806—the most direct road to Bismarck and emergency services. For the first time TV trucks and major news media were present in significant numbers. Our little campsite was set up next to that of a photographer from U.S. News and World Report who was thrilled that his editors had finally approved his coming. Anne and I rose early, walked along the outer perimeter of camp visiting with newly arrived veterans at the campfires outside their army style tents, and enjoyed the relative quiet of a cold North Dakota morning. We listened to announcements on the loud speaker at the sacred fire at camp’s entrance and watched veterans begin to line up on the road to make their statement of protection.
And then the snow and wind started. By noon a wet, driving snow made it difficult to see or move around. The blizzard quickly canceled all other plans and became the main event.
It was hard to know exactly what was happening, but we knew the main kitchen could surely use help so we showed up and chopped garlic for 2 hours while the storm raged outside the unheated cook tent. We do not know exactly what happened with the march by the veterans, but post this iconic web photo from that march.
A Mexican-style dinner was served in the main kitchen tent. There was a wood stove in the corner and 30-50 people crammed around wooden picnic tables—all of us dressed in winter boots, snow pants, heavy jackets, and stocking caps. I had a poignant conversation with a young native man just returning to Oceti Sakowin from a 2-week hiatus. He’d been attacked with water guns at freezing temperatures. “I knew I had to get rid of my anger or I would be no good to my people,” he said. “So, I went home and disengaged from everything.” This level of dedication to maintaining nonviolence was powerfully evident in the native people I met.
Monday evening before retiring into our respective 4-season backpacking tents, we knew it was important to warm up so we headed over to the Interfaith yurt for a conversation around a propane heater with a newfound friend. The wind was so intense (reported at about 60 km/hour) that several times during the night I felt my feet tucked into my two sleeping bags and bivy sack lift up as the wind sought passage underneath the tent. Overnight temperatures dropped to 0 degrees F. (-18 degrees C.).
I rose in the dark at 5:00 a.m. Tuesday morning with the inevitable need to visit the outhouse. It took nearly 30 minutes to don all my layers and exit the tent. It was a bit frightening to realize we were in near whiteout conditions. I could see the outhouse 50 feet away and headed there with my headlamp. Once back outside the porta-potty, I could make out the light of the geodesic main meeting dome and headed there on the icy-snow packed road. After some searching, I found the main kitchen near the dome and presented my services to a rather frantic cook. For the next 90 minutes I cracked over 400 nearly frozen eggs into a huge bowl. As more helpers showed up, I left to find relief for my cold fingers.
Back in the dome and reunited with Anne, I quickly became aware that many, many people were struggling with hypothermia and cold. At least a hundred folks were sitting on camp chairs wrapped in sleeping bags or huddled around the small wood stove in the corner of the 20-foot high dome. We offered our skills to the medics as experienced wilderness guides and were invited to join the all-camp search to make sure no one was trapped in a car or tent without a warm place to be.
After 2 hours of searching and finding one vet who had slipped on the ice and needed medical attention, we returned to our tents to get snow off them and accepted the invitation from a neighbor to sit in his bus around a space heater. We boiled water to reconstitute our dried soup. Then it was back to the mess tent where we washed dishes with melted snow water for 90 minutes. Unbeknownst to us the “outer” civilized world was struggling as much as we were. Interstate 94 had been closed; Bismarck’s hotel rooms were all sold out; stranded motorists were being housed in churches and schools.
With news of another blizzard arriving in 2-3 days and the obvious stress on the community due to the extreme weather conditions and a lack of incoming supplies, Anne and I decided to break camp and head to Bismarck on Wednesday morning. Tuesday night temperatures dropped below zero degrees F. and winds continued to howl out of the north. It took 3 of us to take our tents down: our “bus” friend, Paul, held our tents to keep them from flying away as the two of us pried stakes from frozen ground with the aid of a shovel and the claws of a hammer.
What did I learn?
- People are incredibly kind in emergencies. The vets had to transform their protest energy into emergency response—creating warm spaces for people, transporting them to Bismarck, searching the camp. Nearly everyone who walked by me during the blizzard asked if I was warm enough.
- In any large gathering it is difficult to discern what is happening around you. Our experience was surely different than other people’s. For example, we did not even know that Tribal Chair David Archambault had called for the evacuation and closure of camp until we read it in the Bismarck Tribune two days later!
- Our “job” was primarily to help white people in the storm. It was also our privilege to have some remarkable conversations with our native brothers and sisters. In future blogs I will reference some of these. What struck me most about these conversations was the depth of genuine humility I experienced.
- None of us can go it alone. The Standing Rock Sioux opened their cause. People from many walks of life were inspired and came to help. That response complicated things AND ultimately numbers mattered so the pipeline has been at least temporarily halted.
- Ceremony matters. The Standing Rock Sioux kept their sacred fire burning night and day for months, even during the storm. Dancers and drummers came out despite the blizzard. Gatherings began and ended with prayer. I have so much to learn about the depth of true prayer.
I am incredibly grateful to Anne Hayden for our impeccable journey. We carefully delivered all the gifts people sent with us, you know who you are. Please note the current announcement on the Oceti Sakowin website “We are not accepting new arrivals due to severe weather conditions! Please do not travel here at this time.”
Next blogs on my pilgrimage to Standing Rock: Conversations as a form of social activism, Do not lose touch with nature, Ceremony matters, and A political update.