I’m currently holed up in a hotel in Bismarck.
A blizzard warning yesterday that was in effect until 6pm tonight, and has now, as I’m listening to the television play in the background, been extended overnight. Yesterday’s events most likely took a year off my life. A sweet, old activist named Mike, from Illinois, who we befriended at the camp, has plans of staying through the winter. He needed kerosene for a heater to help combat the cold in a lean-to type structure he was helping to build for a woman in the camp. She is, quite bluntly, an abrasive type who has made more enemies than friends, but Mike is a sweetheart, and he made a promise to take care of her. His “cross to bear,” as he’s fond of saying.
I was headed back to Bismarck to drop off a friend who had to catch a plane, so I took Mike’s empty kerosene container with me and promised to return the following day. That’s the thing about this camp. It’s a lot like a family. There are, I imagine, plenty of people here who wouldn’t otherwise associate with one another, but no matter how much your family might annoy you, you most likely wouldn’t leave them — and in this case I mean this quite literally — out in the cold.
Mike made a promise, and he intended to keep it. I respect that. I did the same for him, and there was no way I was going to let him down, white-out blizzards and icy roads be damned. What should have been an hour drive to camp, and an hour drive back to drop another friend at the airport, turned into a nearly eight hour trip. In almost eight hours of driving, I didn’t once break 30 miles per hour. Mostly, it was an experience of gripping the steering wheel too tightly, leaning too far forward in an effort to actually see the road, and doing my best to not lose my cool in the face of blinding, white walls of blowing snow. I’ve never seen such awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and overwhelming weather.
Hunting for the kerosene was an adventure unto itself.
My co-pilot, Erica, found a gas station that supposedly sold kerosene, but in fact, did not. Like so many other things on this journey, however, what we needed was almost miraculously provided. There just happened to be a gentleman in the gas station from the Missouri Valley Petroleum company standing there, sipping coffee, making that “ooh, this is too hot” face as I walked in. He overheard my conversation with the gas station attendants, and he asked me what exactly I needed. I told him I had an empty kerosene jug that would hold approximately five gallons, and I wanted to try to fill it. This gentleman pulled out his cell phone, called his office, and asked what they might have on hand. He put his hand over the mouthpiece and informed me he had a five gallon drum and a 55 gallon drum. Five gallons was enough, so he told the office to put it aside for me, then gave me directions to go pick it up. I thanked him and was on my way.
Everyone there was so friendly.
They joked with me, and they even offered me coffee and the use of their restroom. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they would have been so keen to assist me if they knew what the kerosene was for. I paid them, thanked them for their hospitality, and headed out the door with the five gallon drum.
Erica and I began our trek back to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and three and a half hours later, we finally arrived to deliver on a promise. Upon our arrival, we learned that Mike had gone back to Bismarck himself for other supplies. It was difficult to not feel annoyed or even angry, but then again, this place is something like family. In fact, any time we returned from supply runs we were greeted at the gate of the camp with a hearty “welcome home.”
It would have been easy to be angry with Mike, but what would have been the point at being angry with my brother in a time like this? There was an amazing sunset at camp that evening, completely belying the blizzard that was about to sweep across the Great Plains and envelop the camp. Campers were lined up in their cars, awaiting their opportunity to escape. Some were going home because they believed the battle was over after the announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the easement. Others were leaving because they had only come to witness the arrival of the veterans. Still others were simply leaving to stay ahead of the impending storm. It was a vehicular backup that lasted for several hours.
Just outside the camp, a tour bus had gone off the road in the icy conditions causing the mass exodus to look like that certain musical festival had just finished it’s last day. The winds began picking up, with reports coming in that they would reach 50 miles per hour. We started building an igloo wall as a windbreaker with a large bin we had used to organize food supplies. We’d shovel snow into it, pack it down, slide it over to where we needed it, then pick it up and flip it to create a semi-solid block.
Alexis, an ex-Navy veteran and her friend Devon, a tall, skinny 19 year old, generously helped with the construction. Both of them are thoughtful, compassionate human beings, both being examples of non-Native people who were in the camp for the right reasons. Devon just wanted to serve. While we worked, he told us stories of volunteering in the kitchen and helping to build shelters. Now, here he was, once again, helping people he had just met. When we were confident that we had sufficiently protected the tent from the wind, we moved on to help fortify our neighbors’ tent and to have some hot chocolate to warm ourselves.
With Erica’s flight scheduled for the next morning, we deliberated the pros and cons of braving the trek back to Bismarck, fully aware that it would take us at least as long to return, if not longer, given that there would be no daylight left to show us the way. Despite our fears, and in the face of strong opposition to the plan by Matthew, an ex-Marine with a heart of gold from the neighboring tent, we decided to make a go of it.
Highways 24 and 6, the only way back to Bismarck, were veritable graveyards of abandoned and crashed cars that ended up in the ditches that outlined the roads on either side. The entire ride back, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were crazy for making the attempt. In retrospect, I have to say yes, we probably were – or are. Sitting here in the hotel, I hope that this isn’t the end of my story here in Bismarck and Standing Rock.
My friends are safely on their respective ways back to their homes, and for the first time, I’m all alone.
I still have a mound of supplies for the camp, but at this point, given the weather and the roads, I honestly don’t know if I will be able to make the drive back there again. I can’t lie; I’m happy to be safe and warm, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for those still in the camp. I catch my mind drifting, wondering how long all of them will last.
I also wonder what it will take for DAPL and Energy Transfer Partners to respect the judgment of the Army Corps of Engineers, given that they immediately put out a statement after the denial of the easement to let the world know that they would defy the judgment and continue to drill. Ultimately, I wonder what it will take for all of us, collectively, to finally respect the Native American people and even the Earth itself.
Did you miss the other parts of this series?
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