A couple weekends ago I was able, despite illness, heartbreak, and some serious lack of preparations, to make it to the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, joining in the massive and now global movement to protect water against the depredations of Energy Transfer Partners and its Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a lot going on there. Yes, it’s a radical, heroic protection of water against a pipeline. But it is many other things. It’s an experimental community where total strangers are feeding and healing one another, singing and dancing and telling their stories, planning to go for a few days and staying for weeks and months, quitting their jobs and finding totally new visions for their lives. A place where people find that empathy and trust are assumed, not proven or questioned or earned. It’s a place where the often confused and reckless energies of protest meet ancient Lakota traditions of prayerful and ceremonial willingness to die for what is sacred: the earth, the air, the water, life itself on this planet.
It’s a place where, just steps away from the terror of militarized police and weaponized corporate greed, people are reskilling for the future, rehearsing a future of human life we know we want and know we need. This is not the seemingly inevitable future of isolated, fragile, and violently terrified selves desperately competing for scarce resources. It’s a future that assumes abundance, interconnection, and empathy are the only viable bases for human life.
If you go you will see people grieving, in public, with other people, in a way that brings private into shared grief, personal despair into political demand.
You’ll see a sign near the sacred fire that lists symptoms of trauma and what to do about them. The first is deep breathing. The last is lots of hugging. There are a lot of other steps in between.
You’ll see cringe-worthy things too, like the well-intentioned but clueless dude with the Alps-level ski gear on who barges into the dishwashing area to “help” and starts giving orders about where to put water to the guy who has been manning the operation for weeks.
You might drive through downtown Mobridge—the last little town before the reservation, on the banks of the Missouri’s Lake Oahe, looking for something to eat other than the surely-deceptive Grand Oasis Buffet off the main road (sign clearly indicating BUFFET OFF in case you were –that- hungry), and finding nothing open along the one nice, quaint lonely old Americana street except for, yep, a couple bars, one with a giant Redskin on the white plastic sign. And then you might turn around, car sliding on the black ice and give in to the inevitable brown gravy of the Oasis, but not before passing yet another finance-or-insurance-or-gun store-or tax office named after a First Nation. This time it was Dakotah Bank. How authentic of them, putting that “h” in there, really teaching us how it’s supposed to sound, children.
I just couldn’t get over it, the blatant and obvious and violent expropriation, always and everywhere, in every sign, whether it was Bismarck or Mobridge or Sioux Falls, or turning on the radio in Sioux Falls the night before I made camp, picking up the flamethrower of the Sioux Empire, WKRO, the Crow. I know, I know this has been going on forever, but still.
In camp the contradictions of the moment, the impossibility and discomfort and cramped spaces of our moment, are everywhere. How could they not be? This is the rebel alliance in all its brokenness and resilience, right up against the evil empire.
You’ll see the well-meaning (and very smart and grounded) white girl-black girl (lesbian) tag-team, white-people-here’s-how-to-check-your-priviledge-but-not-invisibilize-yourself-as-you-let-yourself-be-indigenous-led-and-be-uncomfortable-because-you-aren’t-used-to-not-having-a-plan-or-obeying-a-clear-one orientation meeting at 9am every day. Even though I have some experience with uncertainty, discomfort, and being indigenous-led, I admit I left the meeting feeling more paralyzed than I already did on arrival. But they were right, it was supposed to feel that way, because being there was partly about sitting in those contradictions, making camp in them. Hunkering down in the stew of a decolonial struggle where there were far more former settler colonialists around than anyone else. Dealing with that. Feeling awkward in that. But somehow seeing it really, truly led by the elders, and by the Indigenous Youth Council, and by the wise women and young warriors and gentle sages. Seeing it all be more or less OK, even when the blizzard struck and Chairman Dave really had a mess on his hands, and it really was time for those unprepared to really occupy on a permanent basis to move on, or await further instructions, or whatever.
You might see the nice, incredibly well-intentioned older white activist lady from Canada who just needed to vent because she had been there since October and had been arrested three times, and had to be in court for two misdemeanors and one felony. She was complaining about Chariman Dave’s instructions for everyone to leave (which no one, by the way, is really following)—she felt so hurt, so unseen. She had a calling! She felt the call to come and put her body on the line! And she had become very close with one of the key elders, and didn’t David know that! I really did feel for her, she had fallen, probably slipped a disk on the ice and was in crazy pain. I helped her out to her car and back during the blizzard, and she let me use her hot spot. And she somehow felt like it was OK to vent to me, she said, because I was a philosopher. I don’t know why, but if it meant she could keep it together for others for a while then so be it. She was really sweet, and brave too.
You might have to face the contradiction I did of ending up your last night in The Wrangler in Mobridge, being some darkly hunter-friendly hotel (not the Mo-rest Inn where the Casino folks told me to go), which proudly advertises itself “for nothing . . . except the view of lovely lake Oahe.” Right. Because nature is nothing to us. Nothing but a picture to look at while we piss and drill for more oil.
If you stop at The Grand Oasis you may see the weird lurid gilded paintings of bison called “The Old Guard” hanging right underneath the “proud supporter of US Marines” plaque in The Grand Oasis. It might remind you of the deep contradictions in the arrival of the Veterans that weekend. The veterans who fought, whether they wanted to or not, in US wars of imperialism from Vietnam to The Gulf War to Iraq to Afghanistan. The veterans some of whom were themselves Native Americans. The veterans who clearly, many of them, felt betrayed and abandoned and abused by what they had tried to fight for and how they had tried to fight, and were ready to put their broken bodies and souls on the line for something they could really be willing to die for.
And you might see not so broken veterans, too, like the beautiful couple—native/black & black Americans—career service persons, left the kids in North Carolina with the grandparents so they could come and join ranks. And the guy, from an artillery unit, wanted to talk Nietzsche and lefty politics.
And if you go you might see the younger native guys singing traditional songs but with new lyrics about being tired, girl, of waiting for you, waiting so long for you to come around, why don’t you find someone else to make you go [ . . . funny salacious noises . . . ].
And you might see the hot shots being checked by the elders, the constant listening and waiting, waiting and watching, the way the whole camp and all the camps are tuned in, praying, singing, listening, where there really are no individuals any more but somehow everyone is always perfectly distinct, unique, contributing and being contributed to in thousands of hardly detectable ways. Just attention. Just. Attention.
And you might see, like I did, some weird dude running into the dome the morning after the blizzard, like he’s all on coke or speed, saying we all blew it, we had the veterans, we could have shut the pipeline down, and three people died last night, and fuck this “spiritual kryptonite,” stop trying to be all mellow and follow the elders, until we surround him, literally, with sage and usher him back out to wherever he needs to work it out. But he did have a point, it was a weird and short-lived victory. But the process matters. The process is the future, how we will survive and thrive in the kind of violence and onslaught and relentless threat that will be posed not only by the breakdown of democracy but the breakdown of energy, food, and transport systems that have enabled us to live at such impossible distances and abstract relations with each other for so long.
Then there was the big news moment, that Sunday. Honestly I didn’t really believe it while it was happening, it felt so bizarrely staged, almost-too-perfect. We had spent the entire morning, since 10 am, in this inter-faith prayer service. Representatives from all the world’s religions were there. Some of the most important living chiefs and elders remaining among the first nations were there. Cornell West was there. We were standing around the sacred fire, listening to prayers, but also to the old, old stories—sotires of the endless and bitter betrayals, the prophecies that this day would come, Black Elk’s 4th road, after the white buffalo calves were born, when there would be sickness and hurricanes and earthquakes, and the people would eventually after much suffering return to the ways of the creator.
We had just spread out to make a huge circle, holding hands, around the entire camp. We had literally just finished, right around 3:30 or so, when people came running out with the news that the permits had been denied. There was such a strange shift in the energy at that point, so much confusion and chaos. There was a big celebration right away at the fire, lots of drumming and singing and dancing, but then later that night it was very somber, and there were hard words about the struggle ahead. And at the press conference the next day we heard it was far from over, and the camp would remain until we knew DAPL was gone. But then almost immediately Chairman Dave asked everyone to leave. Was it because of the storm? Was it to purge the camp of the folks not prepared for the winter? Was it all a plot, to defuse the scenario, to prepare for whatever Trump is planning for us?
That storm made a mess. The camp became a massive search-and-rescue and hypothermia triage operation. The casino had to use its exhibition hall for a kind of refugee center. The media were everywhere, it was a circus.
But it’s going to go on, and there are going to be more battles at the line between prayer and police, and there will be more moments like those I had, there. Like the late at night taking-Nelia-home-from-dishwashing-adventure, this wonderful blind lady from New Hampshire working in the kitchen with me. It was like a scavenger hunt, trying to figure out where she needed to go, helping her make her a map of the camp on her hand because no one had done that, meeting people on the way who helped us. Stuff that should be so ordinary in all our lives but now feels as rare as, well, as rare as clean water.
And you just adventure wherever you go, like picking up three beautiful younger native dudes who had flown out from San Diego, needing a ride to the casino, trying to fly out of anywhere tomorrow. They pushed me out of the snow twice.
So many things I can’t forget. The younger, seemingly less-rooted native guys happy to have a stage to perform on for once, the chance for their being native to matter that much and be that cool, maybe rediscovering or reinventing or finding their way back to their ancestors and retooling and remixing it.
Watching people honor one another and be honored in song.
The sacred fire, the constant smell of cedar smudging the camp.
The water drum medicine ceremony I stumbled on the first afternoon, led by the group from Manitoba, with so much wisdom and grace and faith. Weeping with them. The older lady leading it saying how she had cried too, the first time, and how the spirit in that drum found her and gave her so many teachings and so much strength.
The look of the buttes and hills as I drove down from Bismarck Sunday morning, where I had to retreat for my first night to deal with the illness. I don’t think I will ever see snow covered hills and buttes that beautiful again as long as I live. I kept trying to take pictures and it was impossible. I almost burned my pants up burning sage in the car the whole way down. It was like every molecule of the land was alive, every rise and dip and every shape of the land full of sense and promise, every place a power place, a place of life, a place of habitation and gestation and generation. So utterly, utterly different from the long drive back over the scorched, scarred wastes of central South Dakota, the land brutalized by over cropping, mono-cropping, abuse, neglect the empty flatness broken only by the silos and biofuel refineries and the sick sad anti-abortion signs telling you to choose life in that sea of obvious, infernal, and endless death.
Battling my own demons the whole time, every step of the way—my own heartache, my own sense of helplessness or hopelessness or maybe just all the unrooted self-hatred I had ever felt rolled into one. And feeling that get worked on as I lay down on the ground, slept on the ground where the group from Manitoba shared the water drum medicine. I felt talked to that night, felt seen, felt things said to me that some part of me that needed to know, needed to be known.
Conversations with endless other men and women with other broken hearts and broken visions, overly-sensitive types like me trying to figure it all out after feeling like aliens for so long. Trustafarians, black communist revolutionaries, anarcho punks, New Yorkers, impoverished native families (like the grandma who came asking for half the supplies in the communal kitchen) . . . you’ll see them all, you’ll be there too. You are there too.
I didn’t go to “the line” this time. It was a moment of suspense and confusion, a half-celebration in a long hard struggle. But I would have done so gladly. And I will go back if that’s what needs to be done.
So much is happening at Standing Rock that I’ve seen happening at other places—the protests at the DNC, the rise of festival culture and “transitiontown,” the Occupy movement . . . but it seems to be getting stronger, crystallizing more clearly.
And there are essentials, here. Details matter. This is a gathering of Native American tribes in and of itself that is epochal, monumental, even apocalyptic. Their planetary leadership is crucial. The centrality and priority of the indigenous and decolonial struggle is crucial. The other elders and spiritual leaders of the world, and the other pro- and amateur activists were there at their invitation, at their welcome. Those willing to put their bodies on the line were at the behest and command of the elders, of those to whom that place belongs. That matters. That’s a model, a paradigm.
I had wild thoughts about place-based reparations, on my last night . . . giving most of the interior of the country, were few people live anyway, back to the First Nations. Just. Give. It. Back. Giving back most of the cities to the black and brown and yellow communities that really run them and live and die and party and pray in them. Let the whites have their infernal suburbs and their airplanes.
And the taste of cedar still staining my water jar.
And remembering the whiteboard explaining what to do about PTSD.
And the feeling of the arrival of the veterans.
And Cornell West draped in a red and black blanket, because of course all he was wearing in the 20 degree temperature was his usual black suit—eating a sugar cookie.
And The rainbow hoop I saw on the horizon (see the picture) on way out of the reservation. The look of the hills and buttes on the way in from Bismarck Sunday morning.
And the kid at the hotel in Bismarck thinking about getting a ride in with me but worried about not getting back for his flight. Came all the way from San Diego. Just a road builder.
And the UCC folks from Wisconsin who just came to pray.
And everyone who couldn’t make it there with me but came in spirit.
And whatever resolve or clarity or courage I can bring to whatever is coming next, through Trump and high water. Through to a human future, no matter how small or displaced or confused.
Start rehearsing for it. Go to Standing Rock if you can. Or just start standing on your piece of the rock, and roll with the prayer chain.
Revolt. Rehearse the future. Reskill the human, in the animal and plant and elemental places where we can survive and thrive beyond this desperate and pointless endgame of trying not to live where we are.