In the words of the Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Jon Eagle, Sr., “The last time the seven bands of the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota nation stood together was at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Battle of the Little Big Horn), June 25, 1876. So, this is historic that they answered that call.”
While standing at the Sacred Stone Campground, I have so many emotions. Today, when we gather inter-tribally, it’s for a prize purse at a powwow, for Pan-Indian things like Walking Tacos and Talking Circles. But, this is something completely different. This goes beyond the realm of comprehension to those familiar only with the Pan-Indian or stereotypical representations of Native culture(s). My standing here at Standing Rock… This is being an outsider to Lakota country and culture, yet also being asked to bring your own prayers, your own ceremonies, your own moccasins. It is the look on people’s faces, particularly the Standing Rock tribal members who see yet another person who has arrived to the camp. Whether you have driven from Seattle or Bismarck, your presence touches these people in a way too deep to imagine. You’ve made that decision to show up on their behalf, in part because you have the foresight to know you have also shown up to defend the global lifeblood.
The community is so warm. If you’re part of the human five-fingered clan, you are at home. You will be fed, you will be looked after and protected. There are medics, lawyers, people volunteering to defend the entrances. The calmness around the panic is almost uncanny, but the warmth is something you can never forget. Example: Paul and I had just left the site of the protest on Saturday. There were the police, parked on the side of the highway, watching us walk back towards the Reservation. Rather than rant about vicious dogs and helicopters, Paul and I were unusually calm. Something felt right about the chaos. We began picking up trash along the highway, expressing frustration at those who litter. We were joined by Brian and his boyfriend Brenden, Northern Ute, who had risked taking their clunker from Salt Lake City to join the protest. Without hesitation, they offered us a ride back to camp. Later that evening, when Paul and I checked in on the scout camp where we had torn down the fences, we picked up a stranger who was walking back to camp in the dark. Nothing but jokes and comments about our gratitude for the event. We didn’t even exchange names.
The diversity of the people at this event is just mind-boggling. Imagine if the United Nations could produce this much success in organizing nations around a common goal. Imagine if COP22 could look like this degree of ceremony, of cooperation. There are the activists who view this as a thrilling Alcatraz Occupation Part 2; there are the community members, young to old; there are reporters from Democracy Now and individual writers who sacrificed themselves on the frontline to tell our stories; there are the horse trainers, nature enthusiasts, teachers, singers and the people without titles. From everywhere, they are coming and going, an endless ebb and flow of diversity. Even in a parking lot in Bismarck, they mill in and out. The hashtags Paul and I painted on our windows led us to meet mothers and Haudenosaunee activists Paula Hemlock and Rhea Cook, freshly arrived from Onondaga Nation, disenchanted by the shortcomings of their own tribal government and completely outraged by the negligence of the feds.
Here in southern North Dakota, the landscape is crinkled and empty, but full of stories and whispers. Our camp fills the silence with drumbeats and smoke. This camp is a living memory of how community used to be in these hills. There are the ghosts of the many before us, the direct bloodlines to those we stand beside today. There are the ghosts of the buffalo that haven’t flooded the grassy knolls since American soldiers massacred them. Even without the buffalo, a cubic foot of prairie has more biodiversity than a mono-cropped field of GMO corn could ever dare to replicate. To the untrained eyes and ears, this is empty space. Perhaps that ignorance explains how the energy company failed to report so many archaeological sites that knowledgeable tribal historians could identify from afar. It is that same deafness and same blindness that prevents one from seeing what is, ensuring they will never be able to look back and see what was after it has been destroyed.
Paul and I climbed the hills to view the camp. We watched busloads of people arrive, people cheering happily all around. Coach buses with tribal seals branded on the side. School buses packed with eager families. Like clockwork, volunteers take up posts. They chop wood, keep fires stoked, accept enormous deliveries of donations, prepare food, stand guard at security points, feed and water horses, stand on guard as scouts along Highway 1806. No one is getting paid to be here. No one is expecting glory or a raise. On the contrary, the sacrifices are heavy for many. But, the perspective keeps us in check: no sacrifice could be greater than allowing your sovereignty to be compromised, or by allowing your lifeblood to be destroyed by someone who’s getting rich quick in Texas.
I remember reading about the Lakotas harvesting hognuts. They would take nuts from mouse holes in the prairie during the colder months, but they would not rob the mice. Instead, when they took nuts from a mouse’s hiding place, they would replace what they took with bits of corn or berries. It is a sign of respect, of appreciation for biodiversity. Symbiosis. And as I float on my back in the Cannonball River, cooling off from a hot day on the frontlines, I think about the mice and the hognuts. I see the dozens of children and adults playing in the water, wading in canoes, enjoying these waters peacefully. I see more frogs and toads than I can count dodging into the deep footprints left in the muddy banks. A heron wades under the bridge. Butterflies cross the banks and fields of sage. I have seen what a place like this looks like after a spill. I have been a first responder. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m trying to save because, by then, everything has already died. Should a spill happen here, the damage to this biodiversity would be devastated. Should the construction of the pipeline continue, the sovereignty of hundreds of nations would be mocked.
The government keeps taking hognuts from our storehouses, but there is no symbiosis here. There never was any. Yet, like the shorebird covered in oil after a spill, we won’t leave and we certainly won’t die. You can try to take the Lakota’s land, desecrate their sites, and kill their buffalo, but they will not be defeated. And every time you rob their communities, you can rely on today’s tribal nations banding together to fill that empty space with corn, berries, and prayers.
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Photo credit: Getty Images