What I saw at Standing Rock

The wind whipped up and over the concrete bridge, the arctic winds carrying the honking geese flying south above us. A rain drop hit my face. And then another. The anticipated winter storm was on its way. I linked arms with the woman standing next to me, giving her a squeeze, and she squeezed back. We looked each other in the eye and gave a nod, an understanding of solidarity.  Hundreds of women stood stoic on the bridge, arms linked above the Missouri River, in a face-off with armored vehicles and guards in riot gear behind the wall of barbed wire. We stepped closer, and closer still. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. The elders had started the single drum, signifying prayer. The guards stepped forward. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Shouting began. And then a single person in the front gave the sign for silence: arms lifted high, left palm covering the back of the right hand. We all followed suit, raising one hand and then the other, high above our heads. Whatever happens, don’t speak a word. “Everyone sit down! Sit!” the elders’ representative yelled from the front. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Only the sound of the drum echoed down the river.

The Dakota and Lakota people on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have been actively protecting their right to the land and water on their reservation for over one hundred years. Most recently, they have been camped at Standing Rock since this past spring in an attempt to block the crude oil Dakota Access Pipeline from cutting through their land and threatening their water source and sacred sites. Water protectors, or protestors as they are known to the media, of all nationalities and ethnicities have gathered together since April in the thriving makeshift communities on the Missouri River border.

We had arrived to camp the day before at 2am, after a twelve hour drive from Montana. Seven adults and four kids hauled out a moving truck, a trailer, and $6,000 worth of donations and supplies to support the water protectors. We slept in tents in the frigid cold wind and woke up the next day to unload our donations. With the generous community of Bozeman and others in Montana, we brought building supplies for permanent structures, wood for the fires, blankets and sleeping bags, propane, water, food, and medical supplies. We were greeted at the security gate by a young native woman with long black braids, glasses, and a clipboard. “Welcome to this beautiful, sacred land. We are a matriarchal society, so your duty,” she pointed to the two guys in car the next to me, “is to that woman,” she pointed to me. “When she is not around, your duty is to the camp. Thank you for coming to support the water protectors!” We drove down Flag Road, a dirt road lined with the flags representing every tribe present. We saw signs leading the way to Donation Tent, Medic Tent, Mess Hall, Main Kitchen, and schedules of marches, classes, trainings, and prayers.

The organization of the camp was astounding, but not what I was used to seeing. Aside from the native elders, no one was “in charge.” No one was ordering people around or noticeably organizing the thousands of people. Instead, things seemed to unfold organically. “Where do we put the wood?” Just drive around and see who needs it. “Where do we camp?” Wherever you find a spot. “Who’s planning the building?” I don’t know, people just figure it out. There was no frustration or anger, no resentment or aggression. People came together with intentionality, peacefulness, and respect, and everything fell into place.

After dropping off supplies we wanted to stay busy. A few from the group headed to the media tent for passes to take photos of the weekend. I walked over to the Sacred Fire for a cup of coffee and to get my bearings. The fire keeper, (whose title I learned later,) would say a prayer before each log was placed on the sacred fire. Wooden benches surrounded three quarters of the fire, allowing people to enter on one side, stop and pray, wash themselves with the smoke, and walk out the other side. I stood back and watched as a group of women sang songs in Spanish, as two native men tended to the fires boiling water for tea and coffee, as children ran in and out of adults. I ran into Nakai, a young woman who had traveled here with us in another vehicle. She is a Native American but says, “I prefer not to define myself by one single culture.” She came up to me with a smile and said, “I am marching.” “You’re what?” “I’m marching. Up there,” she pointed over the hill, “to the bridge. I’m protesting.” She told me it was going to be a silent prayer march, led only by women. They were calling on all women who were arrestable and able-bodied to come to the front lines. My stomach tightened and my knees began to shake. I hadn’t wanted to march. In fact, I had told this to my parents, to my husband, to myself – Don’t worry, I will not participate in direct action. Not only did I not feel I understood my place as a white woman in a protest, I was truly afraid. People were being sprayed with water in freezing temperatures, pepper sprayed, tear-gassed, and beaten. I wasn’t ready for that. But now, for the first time in my life, I was personally being called to fight, as a young woman who has nothing to lose if arrested. This was my time.

Nakai and a few other women readied me for the march. They found a skirt for me to wear over my pants out of respect, and they gave me the safety protocol on what to do if confrontation happens, if you are hurt, if media is needed. They told me to keep my chin up, be strong, and be in prayer. Images of the past month’s brutality towards these native people kept sliding through my mind. I was scared. But I kept reminding myself of a very important comfort: I am white. I felt guilty and shameful for having the thought, but it was the reality. That thought finalized the decision for me. I am white and am safer than those of color here. I must march.

As is tradition, the march was led by the elder women who would be praying, followed by the women, with any men wanting to march at the back. Hundreds and hundreds of people marched through camp to the Seven Council Fire for the first prayer. One by one more and more people fell into the march as we gathered. From the fire we snaked through the brush, under and over sticks and bushes, around the hill, and up to the bridge. My teeth began to chatter as we exposed ourself to the wind, and also as I saw the armored vehicles and guards dressed in riot gear. My first thought, and one that still gnaws at me, was, Who are they protecting?

So there we sat, after hearing shouting, and being yelled at for everyone to “get down!” We watched as negotiators approached the guards and spoke for about ten minutes. After awhile we heard the drum begin again and saw the elders gather. They were beginning their prayer. After another twenty minutes of sitting on the cold bridge, the icy wind cutting any exposed skin, something new was happening. Four native men were helping the elder women over the bridge and down the embankment. The guards were not moving. The elders had been given permission to go to the other side of the river and perform a traditional prayer at the water. I watched from my place on the bridge as these women threw offerings out onto the frozen river and drummed at the water’s edge. They climbed back up the bank, up and over the bridge, and it was over. We turned around and silently walked back to camp.

In that moment I gained a better understanding of the fight and struggle here at Standing Rock. This was a fight for water rights and protection of sacred burial sites, but it was so much more. As a white American, my understanding of land is defined by pride and ownership. But to these people land is identity. The Native Americans come from the earth, are raised by the earth, pray to the earth, and then become the earth. When they are stripped from their land, as they have been over and over again in this country, they don’t just lose a boundary or a right. Loss of land is loss of identity. The tribes at Standing Rock are not just fighting for land and water; they are fighting for the very essence of who they are as people.

We woke the next day to extreme North Dakota winter conditions. Sub zero wind chill, four inches of snow, foot-high drifts, and collapsed tents. I ran over to the kitchen where I helped cook breakfast, and spirits were high. Stay positive, stay peaceful, and stay hopeful. After a warm breakfast and saying goodbye and thank you to the head chef, Winona, we headed home. Although I was bitterly cold, I felt torn as we left. I wanted to stay and help, stay and pray and fight with these people.

But in all reality, this struggle is so much bigger than my two days at camp or the supplies we donated. It’s so much bigger than my one hour on the bridge. It’s so much bigger than I will probably ever be able to understand in my lifetime, due to the privileges I have been granted and the society and culture in which I have grown up. But after seeing first-hand what’s going on at Standing Rock, I realize that we can all help. While the importance and significance may not ever fully be realized by many of us, we have a voice and a duty to support our “relatives,” as they say – our brothers and sisters. Speak up, speak loudly, and find your own connection to our sacred earth.

// Mni Wiconi! Water is life! \\

  • Educate yourself about the main camp, Oceti, and make a donation: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/
  • Share this post! Let people know the camp is peaceful and nonviolent. The only violence is being committed by the US military against its own people. Start spreading the truth!
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