Some of my friends and readers know I took a fairly impulsive trip to North Dakota last November, leaving the day after the election. While I am a progressive and proud of the values for which I stand, like many others after this election I’m finding myself, perhaps out of necessity, learning as I go how to be an activist. I wrote this account of my trip to Standing Rock as it happened and filled in a few blanks in the past couple of months, trying to relate my own struggle as honestly as possible. During this time I’ve wondered how (or if) I might share this struggle, but have decided finally to just post it here. I perhaps don’t look so great at times, but again, I’m learning as I go. As the Corps of Engineers closes the Oceti Sakowin camp today with possible raids by the morally bankrupt Morton County PD and leadership discusses how to build on the movement, I’m also sharing some of my photos for the first time.
On October 28, I posted this hectoring message to Facebook:
"Every person cheering the Bundy verdict in Oregon needs to now direct your energy to defending the protesters at Standing Rock. If you are truly for defending land rights against an oppressive federal government and big business, THIS IS YOUR FIGHT."
It was an impulsive post, wrought mostly by frustration at what I saw as an obvious incongruence on the American right. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was originally planned to run through Bismarck, but after the city confirmed the substantial risk of water contamination the pipeline presented, the company moved the path of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation to its south. This is a move straight out of power broker Robert Moses’ playbook, cutting through the land with a meat cleaver and finding the path of least economic resistance to hack away. Like Moses, Energy Transfer Partners obviously consider themselves above the law, simply ignoring court orders and paying the fines, illustrating what Robert Monks found in 1933, channeling Baron Thurlow in the late Eighteenth Century, to be the cardinal error of corporate personhood: “They have no soul to save, and they have no body to incarcerate.”
I didn’t expect much of a response. In fact I got only one, from my childhood friend and bodyguard Bill. We became close in the fifth grade after I started paying him half my lunch money to keep me from getting beat up by all the boys and some of the girls in our lower-lower income school district in Kansas. He’s been in and out of prison since high school, and now resembles Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty in both look and temperament. An ardent Trump supporter, he’s gone round and round with me for the past year, our lifelong bond mostly preventing us from stereotyping each other—he the misanthropic ex-con Trump supporter, and I the college professor liberal scum Bernie-then-Clinton supporter. I was surprised, then, to see his response: “I have been from day one! This is just crazy! This is complete disregard for anything but the dollar!” I then defensively challenged him: You go, and I’ll go.
A week later, we hatched plans to road-trip to Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Dakota and Lakota tribes to help defend their water against the Army Corps of Engineers’ and state and local police’s collusion with the corporate interests behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. We both agreed to risk arrest. I would document the trip as we went, and we would leave the morning after the election.
I mentioned the trip to my friend David, a mostly-retired colleague with an extensive knowledge in indigenous history, and he asked if he could come. Sure, I said, thinking he could moderate Bill and me. I figured Bill would be in a sour mood after what was assuredly a Clinton victory.
I’ll spare my readers the next plot point, except to say that I was operating on less than two hours’ sleep, having had the shakes all night as I sat in front of the TV, then on social media, then curled up in bed. I’d talked to my sister about whether I’d allow my mother and stepfather, who voted for Trump, to mention him to our children. I wrote H.L. Mencken quotes like “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard” on my Facebook wall and watched Bill gloat on social media. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that he viewed this election a lot like he views football games—if you win the fight, if your team wins, you talk trash. That might be what he empathizes with most in Trump.
As I was getting a coffee the morning after the election before setting out from my South Slope apartment, I ran into the mother of my four-year-old daughter’s friend. Neither of us had slept. Her eyes were red, and she gazed at me looking for a sign of welcome, then broke down silently sobbing.
“How can this happen?” she said. “How can a rich, white, arrogant man say anything he wants to anyone, and we make him President?”
I had no answer.
“Last night we made signs,” she said. “This morning, when I told him…It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bill would undoubtedly think this was all way too dramatic, the world didn’t end or anything. I guess he would be right.
As I headed out of New York with David, I found myself grasping for direction. David had worked the ballot box all of the previous day, and he wore a stoicism that had me wondering when it would actually hit him.
As we headed toward the Holland Tunnel, I got a text from Kansas:
"Hey John, this is Kim, Bill’s wife. I just got a call that Bill is headed to Southeast Kansas to his elderly aunt’s house to help her. Her house was broken into and vandalized early this morning so he won’t be able to go with you to Standing Rock."
A few days later Bill would tell me it was “due to Trump haters breaking into an elderly family members house and garage.” At that moment, the reaction I was ashamed to admit out loud was, Wow. Lost the election and my story.
I spent some of the ride contextualizing Trump’s victory with the Standing Rock movement. Trump is deeply and mutually invested in the construction of the pipeline the Sioux are protesting, so deeply in fact that Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, has guaranteed that the DAPL will go through once Trump is in office. Trump also has expressed interest in his campaign to abolish the EPA, and has now, since my return from Standing Rock, taken definite steps to defang the agency by appointing climate contrarian Myron Ebell to direct its transition [and now fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead it]. In short, Trump is no friend to the water protectors at Standing Rock.
About six hours into the 30-hour trip, I began communicating with protesters who were already at the camp on Facebook groups. A person who told me about a police blockade on the north side of the main camp friended me on Facebook for approximately ten minutes, responding to three of my post-election threads before messaging me, “you are too much for me im an empath and extremely sensitive I have to unfriend you…guidance.” An indigenous trans asked for a ride from Chicago, offering even to “just hold space and pray together before you continue your travels.” It was actually very sweet, but David refused to stop at 2:00am to pray with a transsexual hitchhiker off the highway in Chicago.
We both lost cell service close to Bismarck, left with an AM radio diet of plummeting crop prices, reports on the Carfentanil epidemic in Winnipeg, Rush Limbaugh demanding that Obama bow down to president-elect Trump, and George Jones (Thank you for the respite, Country 1130). Driving to camp from Bismarck on Highway 6, we saw the pipeline snaking through the dead grass in a giant brown ditch over the horizon. Its imposition on the landscape can only be described as brutal, violent. I then understood why so many water protectors had dubbed it the Black Snake. It was perhaps the most haunting image of the trip.
When we got to Cannon Ball, we followed directions to Sacred Stone Camp. After being waved in by a young man who asked us if we were unarmed, we drove to a circle of tents and wondered where the rest of the camp was. A man named Alexander politely told us that we were at the wrong camp. Oceti Sakowin, or Council of the Seven Fires, camp was down the road in the other direction from Cannon Ball.
At the entrance to Oceti Sakowin camp, we both immediately realized the magnitude of the movement. Looking down from the entrance at the top of the hill, the thoroughfare was lined with hundreds of flags representing myriad indigenous nations and tribes, many of whom hadn’t shared space since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Men and boys rode painted horses bareback, and let them wander freely to drink from the Missouri River. There were plenty of cars, all coated with a layer of Dakota dust thick enough to obscure them from view at the camp’s entrance. We told the men at the entrance we were new, and asked what we should do.
“Keep moving,” one of them said.
Once we found a spot and made camp, David and I found the main tent, where we could almost always hear a microphone with a revolving cast of speakers. One of the organizers immediately put us to work sorting through recent donations, which took up probably a hundred square feet of space. As I was sorting coats I heard the speaker talk about dinner options.
“Getting closer to eating time, hope everyone fills up but if you’re eating at the main hall just be aware of the limited portions and don’t take more than you need. I know Rose has some good stuff cooking at her place, some chicken soup and even some of her own fry bread. Just follow your nose.”
After an hour or two, I wandered to the top of the camp called Facebook Hill, where people see if they can get internet access and charge their devices very slowly with a solar power generator that actor Mark Ruffalo donated. I talked to a woman at the Red Owl Legal Services [since redubbed the Water Protectors’ Legal Collective] tent, who had me fill out a questionnaire of my contact information, emergency contact, etc., in case I got arrested.
“My wife and the friend I traveled with made me promise not to get arrested while I’m here,” I said.
“There haven’t been any arrests in the past couple of weeks,” she responded, “but we like to be safe. Even our camp here is the property of the Corps of Engineers, so technically we all could be arrested. Up until a few weeks ago police would patrol the outer edges of the camp and pick people up on misdemeanor charges and take them to stations as far away as Fargo, so when people would inevitably be released they’d have a hard time getting back to camp. Speaking of which, can you pull one of your sleeves up?”
She handed me a permanent marker. “I’m going to tell you the number here, and I want you to write it on your forearm. This is the number to call, no matter where you are, and we’ll come get you. Also, if you end up at a police station, tell them your name, where you’re from, and your emergency contact information, then exercise your right to remain silent, ask to speak with your lawyer, and call this number. And remember that every time you speak you’ve waived your Miranda rights, and you’ll have to restate them when officers ask you more questions.”
But I didn’t plan on being arrested.
“Many of the people who’ve been arrested so far didn’t plan on it. I do believe Morton County Police are changing their plan though; we seem to have clogged their system sufficiently that they had to. That’s why they’ve been using rubber bullets and pepper spray lately. I think now they’re recalibrating for the increased media coverage.”
“And maybe because one of their investors is now our president-elect,” I added.
“Yes, perhaps that too. You say it’s your first day? My advice is to look around, introduce yourself as often as possible, but remember that this isn’t your movement. The indigenous folks who’ve been here from day one—” She paused. “—They have a mixed opinion of all us white folks coming in. If they don’t want to talk to you, don’t push it. And remember: We are here to help, and then we get to go home. This is their home.”
By the time I met back up with David, both of us were feeling pretty hungry. We found the main dining hall, a series of three military canvas tents, each of which probably held twenty people. Dinner was bison chili, or would have been if it hadn’t been gone by the time we arrived. A number of dry rations were left on the table, so I grabbed myself some Fig Newtons and suggested we try Rose’s Kitchen. I’d seen her trailer, airbrushed with a rose and her name, so we followed our noses the rest of the way to it.
Rose’s Kitchen consisted of a fire, a big pot, a small pot or two, and a covered seating area that fit perhaps eight or ten people. That space was filled when we arrived for dinner, and many people were gathered around the fire itself. Rose, we soon found out, is from Oregon. She works in some sort of counseling or therapy position, but when the tribes gathered she told her boss at the hospital where she works that she had to go to help. I hope her position is graciously reserved for her on her return, but that may not be anytime soon. “I’m here for the duration,” she said.
A couple of what looked like kettles were the only things remaining on the grate above the fire. “Coffee?” I asked.
“No,” Rose replied. “We don’t do coffee here.” I looked into the pot, took what I thought would be a fair share of the scant rice and chicken at the bottom, and got a piece of the most delicious fry bread I’ve ever had. David offered to do some work for Rose the next day in exchange for the food.
“Come to think of it, I could use a couple people to move my firewood from the pile out front under the tarp,” she said. At least half the people eating knew Rose. She obviously enjoyed having a full table, and took time to talk to everyone she didn’t know.
Around the fire stood a couple of middle-aged native women and two young white women. “I’m just so scared,” one of the young women said. “I feel such a hopelessness after this election. I don’t know…”
“Now is the time we have to remember prayer,” Dar, a 50-something native woman, said. “You have to remember, we value prayer not as an individual act but as a communal one. Let me tell you about when my son got in an accident on his fourwheel. Broke nearly every bone in his body. He was in intensive for so much time, nobody thought he would come through. But I got ahold of our elders first thing, had them burning tobacco leaves and praying, and slowly, my boy got better. The doctors all said they never seen nothing like it, but I expected it all along. Now he’s got a good job, married, I don’t have to worry about him, because he’s got a community of prayer behind him. Let me show you all something—just take each other’s hand and look into the fire and each other.”
We did, awkwardly. Dar was on my left and took one of my hands. “You are all in prayer right now, the kind of prayer I’m talking about.” Then she turned to me and took both of my hands in hers. “You have the coldest hands I’ve ever felt.”
I pulled my hands away slowly. I feared whatever it was this woman was offering. I was scared, of a power none of us could see that was out to destroy everything this camp stood for. But Dar was asking something far more difficult from us: to welcome a power none of us could see, and to acknowledge that we were part of a bigger story, that we could even be its agents, but that none of us was the story. This was the first intimation I had of what moves this movement.
“Come to the water ceremony tomorrow morning,” she told me. “I think you need it.”
The North Dakota badlands at night are bone-achingly cold. It was only after my first night outside that I truly understood the courage of a protest that could last long into the Dakota winter. At 10 p.m. on the first night from the inside of my heated car, I felt like a fraud. I also understood why they are chopping firewood at the camp from day to night. The warmth of the fire at Rose’s place drew us all around it and made us interact, if only through the shared dependence on the heat. Before I left for Standing Rock, my childhood friend Adrian posted on Facebook his estimate of how many gallons of crude oil my trip would take, justifying the need for the pipeline I was ostensibly protesting. Now I was sitting in my heated car thinking about how much gas I was expending so that I could stay warm and comfortable enough to write about this struggle, a key component of which is our dependence on expendable energy resources.
I woke at 3 a.m. with a start. David was tapping on the window and shining his light in my face.
“Turn the car off!” he said. I’d fallen asleep with it running. “They’re gonna need the whole pipeline just to give you a good night’s sleep!”
I turned off the ignition, and David went back to the tent. I then watched a steady light creep over one side of the camp, and decided to watch the sunrise. Only then the light turned off over the mountain, and I realized that what I thought was the sun was the light generated by crews working through the night on the pipeline.
At 5 a.m. a series of large trucks came barreling down the camp entrance, and a megaphoned voice yelled, “It’s a great morning! Time for some peaceful protest! We’ve been up for three hours, how about you?” After the trucks parked, a number of voices began chanting and praying. David made us coffee with some canned heat and a French press, and we listened to the “marvelously consonant-free” (David’s words) voices coming from the main tent.
The people camped next to us turned on their truck and a bright spotlight shone out the back of it as they prepared their fire.
“Turn that off!” someone shouted from a camp on the other side of us. “People’s trying to pray! Show some respect!” It was not lost on me that he was probably yelling at me, since I was the one who’d been running my car all night.
As the light slowly penetrated the smoke and the fog of the camp, we realized everything—the car, the tents, the hay on the ground—was coated with a thick layer of frost. A filmmaker with an Australian accent walked up to us with his handheld camera, and David spoke with him about his own Jewish heritage, and how ecology is inherently related to genocide—take away a people’s ability to hunt, gather, and grow their own food, and you take away their independence, their livelihood, their personhood. Once they are not people, you may do anything to them without recourse.
At 8:30 or so, David and I went out to walk and find the main hall for the morning orientation and meeting (the main hall being, like all other “halls,” a fairly large canvas tent). The morning fog was so thick we could see it move, separating and shapeshifting around us, and we could see nothing else more than fifteen feet around us.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked David.
“Of course I do,” he said. “Vaguely.” We traversed the camp a few feet at a time until we came to an open courtyard-type space with a ceremony being performed and a large group of people around it. A woman was praying over a metal pitcher of water and inviting people to drink of it.
“Hey, didn’t you mention someone talking about a water thing last night?” David asked me.
David is a Jewish atheist, and scoffs at ceremony. He’d already been invited to a tribal dance earlier in the morning while I was writing, and came back telling me how bad he felt saying no when they asked him to dance with the tribe’s warriors. “I don’t know what to do about that aspect of this protest. So much of it seems centered around a religious impulse, and I just want to do the work.” He knows I used to be fundamentalist Christian, but has always been fairly uninterested in my life before I became agnostic. Both of us, a recovering Christian and a non-practicing Jew, had been struggling with the overtly spiritual elements of the movement. When he saw this water ceremony in progress, though, he said, “I think you should join it.”
David went to the morning orientation. Two women, one possibly a man, motivated campers around a simple theme: You are not special, and your privilege is getting in the way. They instructed campers, in gentle tones, that they were not here to observe but to help, and they didn’t deserve the attention of anyone who’d been here longer than them. Both orientation leaders were white, and David said that if they were not white he wasn’t sure if they would have held everyone’s attention the way they did. He left with a sense of duty, and got right to work.
Meanwhile the women with the water were leaving the courtyard with a large group of people in their wake when I joined them. The flags of the hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations lining the thoroughfare emerged through the fog individually as we followed the female elders through most of the camp singing songs, some in English but most in native languages, and offering water to anyone we passed. If someone wanted to, they could receive a bit in cupped hands, drink it, and dip their faces in it. I was an interloper here, and well aware of it. But I felt a part of this, in the way that ceremony unites people with a common, synchronous action. It seemed, to my post-fundamentalist model, akin to baptism, only you could receive cleansing anytime you wanted rather than once a lifetime. I began singing along as we continued, especially the songs for which I had no linguistic filter. It felt good to pronounce the syllables, especially the rallying cry: Mni Wiconi, Mni Wiconi! I saw, momentarily at least, as so many of the camp drank from the water that this was part of what made this whole thing more than protest. Sharing what they—we—are protecting reaffirms the stakes of the movement. This water is all of ours.
Eventually, we arrived at a very small dock on the banks of the Missouri River, just down from the proposed pipeline and area of the most conflict and media exposure. The women had the men line up on either side of the path down to the dock, and the men offered their hands to all of the women in the group following them—which now included over 200 people—as they made their way down to the dock to take a bit of dried tobacco in one hand and have the women with the pitcher pour a bit of water over each of their hands with the tobacco into the river. “After all of the ladies go through we’ll have the men who identify as women, then the men, then the women who identify as men. Women, if you are on your moon, we ask that you close your hand when offered the tobacco.”
Slowly, over the course of about an hour, each woman came down to the water, clasping hands with the men for support down what became more and more of a slippery slope as more people broke up the frozen clay. After the men, myself included, came down and accepted the tobacco and water, the woman leading the ceremony said she’d like to give a short water parable. She told of “Grampa Dan,” an elder who told her stories when she was a child and held at home from boarding school. Grampa Dan, a fisherman, told her that no water was meant to be divided as property—it just didn’t suit its nature. The first thing the white man did when he arrived, Grampa Dan told her, was he had us start drinking dirty water. Coffee, tea: dirty water. Once the non-natives made it clear that they were going to both dirty and divide the water, the natives made one simple and unenforceable rule: Whoever laid claim to any water must find a stone the size of his heart, throw it as far into the water as he could, and that was the only water he could lay claim to. But getting the indigenous people to drink “dirty water” also seemed to implicitly foreshadow the true nature of their water colonization: contamination. It was a simple, satisfying parable, and I—descendent of colonial forebears—felt its simple, unexplainable wisdom.
The women then ascended back up the riverbank, the men helping them in the same way, until everyone was up the bank. I didn’t wear gloves, and hundreds of hands—male, female, non-gender-specific—held mine. And for the first time since I arrived, my hands were warm.
Less than a month after I returned from Standing Rock, most of the non-Sioux left after the Corps of Engineers declined an easement and asked that Energy Transfer Partners conduct more environmental studies and propose alternative routes. This of course was not an unequivocal victory, but it was significant enough that only the core water protectors are staying over the long cold winter until the story’s next act plays out. After Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January and signed executive orders in favor of both DAPL and the Keystone pipeline, the Corps of Engineers not only granted the easement but expedited the process and waived the required studies. All of this could easily lead me to a circular view of American progress shared by many indigenous Americans: one government official’s promises, even in writing, are only as good as the word of the official who takes his place. And that’s rarely any good.
But. We sustain nonetheless. We fight, even with the foresight that we’ll probably lose. This, to me, is the closest we come to purity of heart and intention, something David and I spent much of the 30-hour drive home from North Dakota in November talking out. Discussing what we learned and what the next steps of our involvement might be, I told him my only regret was that I didn’t make it to the front lines to participate in direct action.
“What would you have done if you got arrested?” he asked. “What would I have done? Drive your car back and tell your wife you’re stuck in jail?”
“There were no arrests this week,” I retorted weakly. This was the week before the massive police attack involving water cannons, concussion grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray that injured roughly 200 water protectors.
“You know you can’t know that going in.” David paused, then smiled a smile that I imagine the two orientation leaders gave when telling everyone their privilege was getting in the way.
“I’m going to tell you something, and it will probably hurt,” he said. “When you told me on the way that you wanted to be arrested, I knew you didn’t mean it. You told me even then—and you might have just been making excuses—but you told me you didn’t think you’d be arrested anyway, you were just wanting to show support. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few days, it’s that to effectively face down oppressive authorities in the ways these people are teaching, you have to have a pure heart. And you did not have a pure heart. You planned this trip around a story you wanted to write about you and your friend, and your disenchantment with a Trump presidency. You pitched it, and thought it would write itself. Every one of the people who are there for the long haul, their story’s not important except as part of the larger struggle. You went in planning on leaving. The people who are going to effect change here, if that’s possible—indigenous or white or whatever—are the people who aren’t planning on leaving. Even when they have to leave.”