Conversation Matters

Originally posted on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016 by Ann Linnea

It was a privilege to have the resources and skills to go to Standing Rock (Dec. 2-10, 2016). I was able to be there at a moment when the David vs. Goliath battle between a small tribe of Native Americans against a huge corporate entity tipped in favor of the underdog. The seemingly intangible powers of prayer and nonviolence manifested in a tangible order from the U.S. government to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline from drilling under the Missouri River.

This almost miraculous moment was instantly made complex by the arrival of a North Dakota blizzard that put the encampment in survival mode and initiated yet another transition in this heroic story. I captured some of that story in my first blog about this journey:

What I want to capture here is the soul of my journey beyond the considerable physical stamina that it took to be there. I practiced profound attention to my surroundings and was deeply changed by some of the conversations I was able to have.

Train ride as a time of ceremony and conversation

A twenty-six hour journey by coach on Amtrak gave me a lot of time to slowly let go of the busyness of preparation for the journey—packing 6 duffels with my own winter camping gear and gifts for the people of Standing Rock, finishing email communications, and saying goodbye to friends and family. Moving at the pace of train travel slowed me way down. I am attached to my sense of sacred ceremony when I move slowly.

Anne Hayden organizing our luggage in the Everett, WA train station

Anne Hayden organizing our luggage in the Everett, WA train station

Sitting in the dome car as the train emerged from the darkness of night into the beauty of Glacier National Park, my traveling friend, Anne Hayden, and I noticed a Native American man sitting a short distance away. “Where are you headed?” we asked.

“Standing Rock,” he said. Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet nation, was headed home to Browning, Montana, to join two van loads of Blackfeet veterans on their way to Standing Rock. In the hour we journeyed together we learned that one of his great passions is taking teenagers from his tribe out to hunt buffalo in the traditional, ceremonial way. He also spoke at length about a recently released documentary on the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area located between Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and The Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “This is our Standing Rock,” explained Craig. “We have been working to protect these sacred and ceremonial grounds from oil and gas drilling for nearly 30 years.” Craig is featured in the film and has worked hard as part of a coalition of his people, hunters, anglers, and conservationists to get this secured.

He told us that as a veteran he was journeying to Standing Rock because he was appalled at how people were being treated. “You don’t spray people with water in subfreezing temperatures and shoot them with rubber bullets.”

This conversation offered me deeper insight into why at least some of the veterans were traveling to Standing Rock.

 All Camp Ceremony and conversations

Twenty-four hours later we two were pitching our tents on the snow-covered ground of the Oceti Sakowin camp along the shores of the Cannonball River in south central North Dakota. Our first experience of formal ceremony at the camp occurred when thousands of people began joining hands around the perimeter of camp to receive the news that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the permit of the pipeline company to drill under the Missouri River. We have no idea how the impossibly large task of pulling us all into this ceremony got started, but it was profoundly moving to be joined together as we heard from the “runners” and horseback riders who carried the news.

Celebratory circle around camp on Dec. 4 after Army Corps announcement, photo by Christian Hansen for

Celebratory circle around camp on Dec. 4 after Army Corps announcement, photo by Christian Hansen for

For hours into the night fireworks exploded, drums and singing reverberated, and a seemingly endless caravan of cars streamed into the camp.

The next morning, Monday, December 5, was a time for us to rise early from our tents and wander along the perimeter of camp on a quiet, gray winter morning. We stopped at numerous campfires to talk with veterans who were drinking coffee and chatting outside their newly set up tents. We met men and women from Georgia and New Mexico and Alabama and even Hawaii. We thanked each of them for coming and relished the ceremony of casual conversation that can be so sweet between strangers gathered for a common purpose.

 Two surprise conversations

Coming in the spirit of being present to whatever happened, I had two surprise conversations on Monday that were particularly meaningful to me.

Monday was media day and one of the announcements I heard on the loud speaker was that Billy Mills was here for interviews. I could scarcely believe my ears. Billy Mills is a longtime hero of mine. My father and I loved to watch the Olympics together. In the summer 1964 Tokyo Olympics we watched Billy Mills pull off “one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all times” (Wikipedia). Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and orphaned at the age of 12, Mills had gone on to college and joined the U.S. Marines. In the 10,000 meter run that year he sprinted from behind to win, beating his previous best time by 50 seconds. I still remember my dad standing up in front of the television yelling, “Go Mills! Go!” When I noticed Billy Mills standing alone for a moment by the sacred fire at the entrance to camp, I wandered up and introduced myself as a longtime fan. He is 11 years older than I, a man of straight stature and quiet demeanor. With all of the humility of a truly great human being he reached out and shook my hand and bowed. In the quiet ceremony of my soul, Dad and I shared a few tears in that moment.

Olympian Billy Mills, Dec. 5, at camp, photo by New York Daily News

Olympian Billy Mills, Dec. 5, at camp, photo by New York Daily News

About 9 a.m. it began to snow lightly. By 9:30 a.m. the wind kicked up and it began to snow in earnest—a wet, driving flakes that quickly plastered our coats and hats.

With the fierceness of the storm bearing down on us, we wandered over to check the condition of our tents. We brushed a good inch of wet snow off the tents and met our neighbor—a man named Paul camping in a converted school bus with heat. “Stop by any time,” he said in the spirit we found everywhere at camp. His invitation would prove very important to our well-being.

Veterans lining up to march on Dec. 5 as the blizzard hit, photo by Christian Hansen for

Veterans lining up to march on Dec. 5 as the blizzard hit, photo by Christian Hansen for

“Indoor spaces” in camp were those protected from driving wind and snow and ranged from our small, unheated tents to teepees, yurts, and army style tents with wood stoves.

Anne and I spent our day helping in the kitchen mess tent and talking with folks about road conditions as the storm intensified. At supper time we crowded into the main mess tent (one of seven) with 30-50 people around wooden picnic tables with maybe a dozen folks gathered around the wood stove in the corner. The serving line of big kettles and volunteer servers was along one wall. All of us remained dressed in winter boots, snow pants, heavy jackets, and stocking caps while we ate. I sat next to a quiet, young native man. Introducing myself, I asked how he was doing. Something in the directness of my presence and interest must have created a container for genuine conversation. He proceeded to tell me at great length how he had just returned from two weeks of absence. He said his friends asked him when he would come back. “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.” He told me he still had bruises from the rubber bullets. He said he would never give up.

You remind me of my son,” I said. “He was a warrior like you. He passed away serving his people as a paramedic.”

 “I am sorry,” he said. We let there be a long, comfortable silence between us. We both finished eating and bowed to wish one another well.

 Quiet ceremony in my tent

By the time I crawled into my tent Monday night, temperatures had plummeted to zero degrees F. and the howling winds made the tent flap in an almost deafening way. It is hard to do ceremony when you are in survival mode. There needs to be a methodical carefulness to routine to insure survival: put the toe warmer packets into your down booties, keep most of your layers on in the sleeping bag, carefully zip both sleeping bags. But first, take a minute to remember why you are here.

Each night I took the photo of our grandchildren, Jaden and Sasha, out of my journal and kissed their little faces and then carefully tucked them back into the journal before crawling into the cocoon of my bivy sack and sleeping bags.


Our grandchildren: Sasha and Jaden

Our grandchildren: Sasha and Jaden

Aftermath of the blizzard

All day Tuesday was triage from the blizzard, which was also raging in the larger world around us. Unbeknownst to most of us in camp, Interstate 94 running east and west across the state was shut down and every hotel/motel room in Bismarck was full. The whole state was in a kind of shared emergency.

The two conversations I most remember from this day were the ongoing one with my friend, Anne. “Where do you think we can be helpful? How are you doing? Do you need anything?

In survival physical conditions it is essential to tell the absolute truth. Anne and I were able to serve as members of an all-camp medic search and part of the kitchen’s dishwashing detail. When we were exhausted and cold at day’s end, we decided to knock on the converted school bus next to our tents.

We asked if we could heat up some water for dried soup. He was genuinely delighted for our company. Here in the comfort of a 6 x 10 foot space we could boil water, warm our toes by a portable heater, and have a conversation beyond just a few sentences.

We learned that his partner had joined a group of folks two days earlier traveling 30 miles to Ft. Yates to help sort donations. He was planning to go pick her up tomorrow, but like us was concerned about road conditions. We all three realized that we needed to leave tomorrow so as not to put any more burden on the camp’s food, water, and heat supplies.

Small, converted school bus like the one that offered us shelter, Pinterest photo

Small, converted school bus like the one that offered us shelter, Pinterest photo

We agreed to help one another in the morning—he would jump our car if it did not start. We had a tube of sand if he had trouble getting up the hill out of camp. We had an excellent ice scraper for his frosted windows. He would help hold our tents while we took them down in the wind.

Strangers in emergency situations make important, life saving covenants. This, too, is a model of a deeply sacred conversation.

 Bismarck Conversations

Wednesday we made our way over icy, drifting roads to Bismarck and ended up in the Radisson Hotel, which by now had some rooms available. Unbeknownst to us, we had landed in a place that was very supportive of water protectors from Standing Rock.

At breakfast we wandered down to the lobby restaurant and were soon in a conversation with the manager who let us know that one of the front desk people that morning was Kendrick Eagle, the young Standing Rock Sioux man who directly pleaded with President Obama to make good on his promise in 2014 to help his people. His plea went viral and many agree it was a significant influence on President Obama’s decision to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the DAPL permit request to drill under the Missouri River.

Kendrick is a humble young man. He is barely 23 years old and is working this desk job to raise his four younger brothers in the city of Bismarck where they can get a good education. He did not talk about himself. He simply nodded when we thanked him for putting that plea forward.

Kendrick Eagle, White House photo

Kendrick Eagle, White House photo

“Thank you for coming to be one of the water protectors,” he said. “It means a lot to my people.”

Sometimes there is an intuitive recognition between people that extends the hand of respect and connection. The conversation need not be long. The energetic connection speaks more than words.



Like many, I was drawn to the Standing Rock Sioux cause because of their steadfast belief in prayer and ceremony and their commitment to non-violence. My life is changed by my time in North Dakota. I now claim myself to be an “activist granny.” And one of my skills is using conversation as a way to build bridges between people.

The adventuring, activist granny, photo by Anne Hayden

The adventuring, activist granny, photo by Anne Hayden




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