MEL Magazine: Interlude at Standing Rock

Dawn at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

The article I wrote for MEL Magazine about my time at the #NoDAPL protest camp in North Dakota was published yesterday. It’s a combination of a meditation on the camp between clashes with militarized police, and an informative article that gives information on the delicate and volatile situation just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation over the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. (I won’t go into all the details here; read the article and check out the links therein for more background information if you’re not familiar with the situation.)

It’s not a super-explosive account of police brutality, mostly because we happened to be in the camp during a sort of quiet down time between brutal incidents. I had been wanting to go out to the camp for a few months, but kept finding myself making excuses: I was too busy, I couldn’t afford it, yadda yadda.

When the pipeline company bulldozed a sacred burial site in early September, then sicced attack dogs on peaceful water protectors a few days later, I wanted to go. Then when the Obama administration asked the company to halt construction, I breathed a sigh of relief, but then, in early October, it became apparent that they had continued construction in the area when dozens of arrests were made on Indigenous Peoples Day. I tried to convince a few publications to send me there to get a story, but nobody was interested.

Finally, when I read about the 140+ people arrested when police from seven different states stormed a peaceful camp, dragging prayerful people out of teepees and a sweat lodge, pepper-spraying and macing and shooting water protectors with rubber bullets and bean bags, beating them with batons, and throwing them into dog kennels at the local jail, I felt my stomach drop out from under me. I knew I had to go out there to show my support, if nothing else. I had to see for myself what was happening in my own country, and what was being ignored by major media and presidential candidates and even the president alike.

A signpost at the camp erected by dozens of campers from all over the world.

I was finally able to sell the idea of an on-the-ground story to MEL Magazine (whom I absolutely adore). So my amazing partner Jayel Draco and I set out for North Dakota the next day, after wrapping up a few loose ends at home. It’s a good thirteen-hour drive, across almost all of the state of Montana, through parts of South and North Dakota.

We arrived on October 30 toward evening, got our press passes, and checked out the sprawling camp as night fell. Teepees, tents, yurts, campers, vehicles, and horses were spread out along both shores of a small nearby waterway just south of the Cannon Ball River, which empties into the Missouri River nearby. Traditional songs were being sung in the center of camp at the sacred fire, where people congregate around the clock.

I’ve been dedicated to Native American causes for a long time, maybe my whole life. When I lived on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota for a year after college, I used to dream about camping out under the stars, surrounded by teepees and the sounds of drums. I was finally living that dream, but I wished so much that it could be happening without the duress of the current situation. That our country could for once in its long, brutal history stand up and do right by the people it has been killing, tricking, lying to, criminalizing, and ignoring for five hundred years.

The camp goes to sleep.

I woke up before dawn on Halloween to hear cries of “Mni wiconi!” (“Water is life!”) echoing around camp, with the drone of a propeller plane circling overhead, watching for any activity in the camp and making it difficult for the water protectors to sleep. We set about talking to anyone who would speak to us about their experiences and thoughts after the horrible events of the past Thursday.

Many were kind and open, but just as many were reserved to the point of paranoia. We heard from many that moles had been caught in camp and that much of the violence–including the lighting of several vehicles on fire and throwing rocks at police on the bridge leading up to the construction site on the 27th–had been incited by unfamiliar faces who may have been hired by the pipeline company to stir things up. Some of those moles, we were told, had posed as press. And plenty of media coverage of events, we were also told, was simply wrong. Reports that a native woman had brandished a rifle at the last clash with police, for instance, were incorrect; she’d been holding a prayer staff.

Furthermore, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that many of the native people at camp, both those from the Standing Rock reservation and elsewhere, were hesitant to speak to us. In my experience, many people who have grown up on remote reservations surrounded primarily by white communities of ranchers, have experienced silencing, shaming, and outright racism from outsiders their whole lives. Given the life experiences they’ve gone through, they have very little reason to trust someone like me with their words or ideas or time.

War zone or edge of a peaceful protest camp?


Between two burned-out trucks, you can see one of the militarized police vehicles standing on the other side of the bridge.

But certainly not everyone we spoke to had the same feelings. We met dozens of amazing people who had come to the camp from their homes on the reservation, to people from around the world who had heeded the call of the Standing Rock Sioux to stand up to Big Oil and make it clear that the people of the world don’t want more pipelines; they want clean water, unpolluted land, and renewable energy. They want respect paid to the indigenous peoples of the earth who have for so long been silenced and ignored and neglected, but who have banded together in an unprecedented way over the #NoDAPL movement.

Hundreds of sovereign indigenous nations have shown their support for Standing Rock in recent months, making the camp the largest gathering of Native Americans since the Battle of the Greasy Grass (aka The Battle of Little Bighorn) in 1876. Shows of support have poured into camp, and been shown via donations and online support, from as far away as Mongolia and New Zealand and Peru. The power of these alliances must be taken seriously: Together, indigenous people have a stronger voice than ever before. And their allies continue to pour in from every corner of the globe. While we were at the camp, we met people of uncountable backgrounds, all of whom believed that by uniting in a spirit of prayer and nonviolence, history could be made and the idea of respecting the earth could be spread.

It was truly a beautiful experience. We helped to unload sleeping bags donated to camp; we donated fire wood and feminine hygiene supplies and money; we spoke with artists and activists and elders and youth and witches and over-eager white kids who hadn’t quite figured out how to be respectful of cultural differences but who were trying to learn. We saw hundreds of people who had never met sitting next to each other in kitchen tents where they were fed without any expectation of payment. We watched the children of the camp in costume trick-or-treating, and one young man who was helping to empty garbage cans around camp dressed as Frankenstein. We watched a coalition of people from all walks of life come together to butcher the bodies of two buffalo that were brought into camp, and we joined in the effort. We bowed our heads in prayer when the elders came to bless the animals who had given the camp could eat.

And all the while, helicopters and planes circled overhead, surveilling us. SUVs full of police or private security, armed with machine guns, watched us from the hills.

One view of the camp from near the bridge

The experience was surreal and beautiful and terrifying. And nothing that I can write about it will convey the combination of hope and dread I feel when I think about it. I’ve never been so hopeful for humans as I am when I think about what’s happening at Standing Rock. As one woman told me, the camp shows her “what we could be” as humans.

But at the same time, I look at the fact that this presidential election is being duked out between two candidates who don’t seem to give two shits between them about the desperate situation in which humanity has placed itself: drowning in its own short-sightedness and greed. All the liberalism or conservatism won’t do us one damn bit of good when the oceans rise. And those piles of money that the 1% has collected won’t save them when they have no clean water left to drink.

I should have written about all of this sooner, but I think I have been trying to protect myself from the fear building inside of me. Will Standing Rock get swept under the rug after election day, in favor of the next hot topic in the 24-hour news cycle? Is the pipeline going to go in over the injured and bleeding bodies of the water protectors? Will we ever learn the lessons that the water protectors are putting their lives on the line every day to teach us? Or will we get our shit together as a species and start to turn this ship around?

Whatever your stance on politics, take a few minutes to read this article. Read the stories of the people at camp. See the photos. Donate to the camp with your time or your money or your presence. Think about this. The future of the Misssouri River is tied in to the future of the Mississippi and the entire eastern watershed of the United States. And more than that, it’s tied into our ability as humans to stand up for our earth. It’s bigger than any election, and it’s happening RIGHT. NOW.

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