The Glass Canoe

This is a dream I had around the time of the spring equinox. What makes this dream different from others is that it concludes with a proper ending. It was like watching a short film.

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There is a traveling composer who works with dark magic during his live performances. It isn’t that he’s sinister per se, but his display of magic is dramatic - awesome, in the biblical sense of the word, almost dangerous. In one scene, he plays in a desert amphitheater and during the performance, a raven flies on top of a rock and the rock vanishes.  He has many disciples, people who seek to learn the secrets behind his magic. One disciple in particular, a famous comedian*, desperately wants to know and is told that soon he will.

In the next scene, the comedian is in a post office and receives a pretty beat-up package that’s taped on the sides. He opens this immediately to find a green storage bin. He understands that if he opens up the bin, there is no going back. This is Pandora’s box. He opens the lid only to find ice and water and mumbles aloud, “but I don’t like ice water.”

The next thing he knows, he’s on a mound of dirt in a burial site. The green plastic tub now appears as a glass canoe, still filled with ice water. Calmly and without a word, he climbs in and watches the sun go down. The scene cuts to black. 

Fin.

Alex Simon
A Medicine All Its Own

Today's as good a day as any to say that I haven't had a drag of weed or a sip of alcohol in about a year.  Although today (420) is a day of celebrating that plant medicine that truly does have some magical powers, I have come to realize something so profoundly simple: sobriety is a medicine all its own.

When I began smoking weed, it was as if the magic of life itself was unveiled to me. It was right around the time I moved up to Berkeley, CA for school (go figure) and I felt a stream of consciousness, blocked by something, finally open. Water rushed through the channel. Everything - architecture, music, even ideas themselves -  came alive in my mind and the creative Renaissance I'd been waiting for finally began to flourish. But over time, a smokescreen, like the grey coastal fog overhead, began to bring with it paranoia and a feeling of dreariness that I could not shake.  It took some time time to recognize that ultimately, this was something I needed to do without in order to restore clarity in the landscape of my mind. 

 A view of the Great Salt Lake from Antelope Island, Utah

A view of the Great Salt Lake from Antelope Island, Utah

This past year, I've noticed I've been a little sharper, more articulate, more patient in stillness, more capable when I'm called to action. Less shy, less inhibited, less hesitant, even though we're told drinking helps you overcome those things. As far as I'm aware, my music has grown only more psychedelic - more visual, immersive, and journey-like. Perhaps it's clarity that makes me a better musical navigator than I was when I was stoned at the helm of the ship, looking for my compass.  

Yes, it is one of the many medicines available. But sobriety is a medicine all its own and a powerful one at that. 

Alex Simon
Returning To Spirit

Last night I went back into the sweat lodge.  It was the first time I'd gone in since Standing Rock almost exactly one year ago.  Upon re-entering, I discovered why it has been so difficult to ground here in Santa Fe and live by the lessons I learned while in ceremony up north. Though I've had good relationships and meaningful work here, usually the antidotes to entropy, I realized that I've been so far away from that powerful spirit that helped to heal me on the plains.  I've been away from the practice of releasing negative energy and filling the void with compassion and good spirits. I've been away from feelings of deep peace and gratitude - away from my star.

The sweat lodge, known in Lakota as the Inipi ceremony - is meant to represent the womb from which we are born. To enter, we say Mitakuye Oyasin (all my relations) and crawl in one by one, forming a circle.  In the center, hot stones are brought in and once the door is closed, water is poured over the rocks.  As heat permeates the lodge, the spirits are called in through Lakota prayers. Voices and drums rise above the intense heat, a testament of our ability to endure the harsh elements with vigor.  Depending on the protocol of the lodge, there may be a time to share our prayers aloud with the group. There are four rounds and once they are done, we crawl back out and say Mitkuye Oyasin.  We emerge into the outside world. We feel reborn.

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During Standing Rock, amidst the uncountable traumas we all endured, the sweat lodge was a saving grace.  And now I find it obvious that since then, all of my efforts in meditation and mindfulness don't hold a candle to the deep peace that I feel during and after sweat. I know now that I am fortunate to be in a place where this is practiced and I look forward to the journey ahead, knowing that I will have something to help keep me centered. In a world so fluid and unpredictable, full of tragedy and confusion, it's good to have an island to swim to, a way of returning to spirit.

Mitakuye Oyasin

Alex Simon
Perception: The (re)Enchantment Of Everyday Life

IN jail, I had many dreams of the outside.  In one, I dreamt that I was in a pine forest and could feel the cold night air going through my lungs. I was elated in the purest way - happy to be alive and be free, past the point of words. The crisp air, spacious forest, and endless stars were medicine to me. It would be ten days before I would actually step foot outside, but I was right in knowing that reemergence into the world would be a celebration for the senses.

 Trail off into infinity

Trail off into infinity

They call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, and in jail I daydreamed of my home in Lamy, just outside of Santa Fe. Though vivid, even tantalizing, the daydreams couldn’t hold a candle to what I see in front of me right here, right now.  The cholla cactus, the tall grasses, the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars.  The mountains in the distance, those majestic blue giants that seem to trail off into infinity.  I feel a gratitude for space. For spacious. For endless. 

Music everywhere I look

~

Alex Simon
10 Things I Hate About Jail

BELOW is a list of the 10 most detestable things I experienced while incarcerated at Burleigh Morton County Detention Center - a special kind of hell. You can file this article somewhere between field reporting, advocacy, and self-righteous indignation.  Though other people may have gone through other things in other correctional facilities, here’s my take on the evils I experienced.

 Sorry I couldn't make it. I've kind of had my hands tied.

Sorry I couldn't make it. I've kind of had my hands tied.

1. NO LEAVING THE ROOM — Imagine you’re bored. Actually, imagine you’re as bored as you’ve ever been in your life for the tenth day in a row. OK, the natural thing to do is walk around, right? Clear the mind? Nope, not in jail. In jail, you are not allowed to leave the room voluntarily for anything. Of all liberties that you lose in there, hands down the most excruciating one is simply turning a door handle to be somewhere else. 

2. NO SUN — People seem to be shocked when I say that for the whole time I was there, I didn’t see the sun once. It’s definitely unhealthy for inmates, many of whom serve long sentences and grow paler by the day under fluorescent lights. Johnny Cash put it best: “I ain’t seen the sunshine since… I don’t know when.”

3. THE TELEVISION NEVER STOPS — Before you laugh it off and tell me I’m spoiled for complaining about television, let me first paint a picture for you: imagine an unstoppable deluge of insurance commercials, reality TV, game shows, televangelists, infomercials, and clumsy local news programs from five o’clock in the morning to midnight every single day. Any hopes I had of focusing on writing, meditating, and composing were derailed and worse yet, nobody else was bothered by it. Watching people watch TV was like watching people get hypnotized. But I get it; in there, it serves as the only periscope into the outside world. 

4. ZERO PRIVACY — Like some weird psychology experiment, we are constantly monitored on camera and through a one-way mirror.  It’s easy to feel like a lab rat.  What was even worse, we’re confined with 10 total strangers, a mixed bag to say the least, and we have no freedom from each other.  I was lucky to be with mostly good people. But try spending that much time with people you like and see how long it takes before you need solitude like water.

5. THE “FOOD” — We get three meals a day, all of which beg the question - is this food?  Imagine the trays you got way back when at the school cafeteria, and just take that down a few notches. The meat is mysterious. There are almost no fresh fruits or vegetables. Everything is packed to the brim with preservatives. To put it in perspective, Top Ramen is a delicacy. The dead food has no energy, so it makes sense that inmates go zombie-mode when watching TV and sleep the days away. 

6. HIBERNATION — It’s accurate to say that most people sleep around twelve hours a day. There is an atmosphere of lethargy that is depressing and contagious.  Jail is not there to help you be a more productive citizen, a better person, or to heal. Jail is more than anything a test of your ability to do nothing meaningful.

7. MOST PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE THERE.  I bunked next to a man who had a swastika tattoo on his arm and was arrested for child abuse and neglect. OK, he deserves to be there! But most people are in there for drug-related offenses, like the guy who got arrested for having a pound of weed because he had a couple grams in a glass jar and they weighed the jar. That’s North Dakota for you. Most people have addictions that have screwed up their lives. They need treatment. Jail does little more than keeping them away from the temptation and while I do see some value in that, it’s not as though brief abstinence means anything in the long-term to an addict. 

8. THE MONEY-MAKING MACHINE — Wonder why so many addicts get locked up instead of getting put through treatment? Jails and prisons get paid to have their beds full. It costs taxpayers, on average, over $30,000 to keep an inmate there over the course of a year.  It’s how the guards get paid. I’m still looking into this and might write a more complete article on it soon.

9. STRIPES. Call me shallow, but the dehumanizing effect of the standard issue black-and-white-striped gowns they make you wear cannot be overstated. Surrounded by a one way mirror, it’s a constant reminder that you are bad and you are with a bunch of bad people.  It really has the effect of making you feel pathetic.

10. GUARDS DON’T HAVE TO CARE ABOUT YOU — Requests can go unanswered. You can be left in a solitary room for an hour until they figure out what to do with you. By most guards, you are treated as an inferior life-form, patronized and left to squander your time and energy under their disdainful, pernicious thumb.

I have long heard that we need prison reform and now, having seen life inside a correctional facility, I couldn't agree more. If the state doesn't want people back in jail, then things need to change. If the state does want people back in jail, then we have bigger problems.

Alex Simon
Perspective: Reading the Diary of Anne Frank in Jail

BY the time I got to jail, the shock of the 18-day sentence was wearing off and reality started to set in.  The words my lawyer said to me as I was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs were ringing in my ears - “everything happens for a reason.” But still, I was locked up and thrown into maximum security for nothing more than a peaceful protest that happened over a year ago. Other water protectors arrested that day, October 22nd, had their charges dropped and I felt oddly singled out.  Despite the moral high ground that I held, it was a penetrating loss of control over my life - can’t eat what I want, can’t wear what what I want, can’t go where I want, can’t do what I want. But on the third day of the sentence, I was lucky to find something that burst the balloons I had inflated for my pity party; I found The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

For those of you who don’t know, in 1942, Anne Frank’s family went into hiding in Holland to escape the scourge of the Nazis.  The Franks found an attic to live in, and after two years living confined, they were finally caught, loaded on to trains, and sent to concentration camps to die a slow, painful, starving death. Most of the book is about their life up in the attic, their day-to-day survival and the perpetual threat of being found if they so much as raised a voice. Tensions between the family members ran high, making it emotionally as well as physically taxing, but they all still knew that as long as they weren’t in a concentration camp - being gassed, shot, or worked to exhaustion - that they were okay. 

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I too am Jewish and when I saw it, sitting dignified amongst the unreadable romance and dime-store detective novels, I realized for the first time, that I had indeed been put there for reason. Though I had always meant to read it, I never had, so there it was to meet me in my time of struggle. It showed me that my ancestors have endured pains far beyond any threshold I could conceive of and that whatever I have to deal with, whether I feel like I deserve it or not, I can get through it. While it is easy to complain about the dog food-grade meals, the perpetual surveillance, and an endless ocean of boredom, the Diary gave me a different perspective than I came in with - This is easy. This is nothing. I am alive and it’s not as bad as it would be if I was in a different country in a different era with a gold star pinned to my chest.  Certainly the Franks, all beautiful human beings at their core, did not deserve the fate that came to them.  And even through their suffering, they dealt with it with more dignity than one could imagine.

I do not say any of this to diminish the suffering that I felt in there. But before I go into depth about what my experience was like, I feel it’s right to acknowledge where it belongs on the spectrum of suffering. I, like many Native people I've talked to, am emboldened by the resilience of my ancestors, especially in moments when it seems like the world is falling apart.

Strange what truths dwell in the depths that seem the darkest.

Alex Simon
The Road To Standing Rock

The journey up to Standing Rock was unlike any I had gone on.  For once, here in the country I grew up in, I was an open book.  I had traveled in a similar way in South America just months prior, but never here.  I was always bound by some combination of job/rent/band/relationship/etc/etc.  But now, nothing. 

I had just spent the summer farming and doing irrigation work in Navajo Nation, and come September, my seasonal work was up.  Then, it was a month in my home studio scoring a film.  During that time, I started to learn more about Standing Rock - that there was a gathering of tribes unlike any in the nation’s history, people were singing songs day and night, and the cause of the gathering was to protect the water. I also knew that I needed to come up to the plains and see the bison - an animal that had, up to that point, loomed largely in my imagination.  I was searching for the spirit in a country that now seems like its trying to abolish, demonize it, build tracks over it, and pave roads over it to give way to new sounds, new sights, new smells, new money, new everything.

I came up slowly from the south, first making my trip back to the Mecca of red rock parks in southern Utah.  I landed in Salt Lake City, where I was called to lay transcendental pedal steel on a song that Francis Ford Coppola was making for his grandson (I couldn’t make that up).   Then, I made my way to Antelope Island and saw the first herd of bison I’d ever seen in my life. 

To me, they have a power unlike any other animal.  They are giant and majestic, they are docile and quiet, but cross them and they will come at you with a speed and force you wouldn’t believe. Looking at them, you can catch a glimpse into the past of American history and understand that it’s a miracle that they are alive today.

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When I got to Wyoming, amongst the rolling hills and tall prairie grasses, it started to dawn on me where I was going.  I could not have possibly guessed what would be on the other side and what I would do there - how I would fit in, how I could help, how I would legitimize being there and being white, how long I would be there, if I would get arrested, if I would freeze, if I would get to hear Native songs, and so on and so on.  

Along the way, I heard a song on the radio that I will never forget. A peaceful, perfect, western swing that seemed to fit the landscape of the plains and the turbulence of transformation like a glove. It came and went mysteriously, signifying what lay ahead of me. 

It was in this way, like a snake shedding his skin, that I pulled up to the gates of Sacred Stone Spirit Camp in the late hours of October 9th, Indigenous People’s Day.  Quietly and with hardly a word to anyone, I set up my tent on the fertile Earth, my new home. 

Alex Simon
The Sky Is Always the Same
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I spent the last night out in the country, two miles off a dirt road in Glorieta, New Mexico.  The majesty of the sky made itself known in an unmistakable way - the glowing ball of red sun declining, the rolling crescendo of thunder, heaven-high streaks of lightning, and the ensuing deluge of water. When I woke, golden light poured in through the windows over an ocean of sage, rabbit brush, and cholla cactus.

While living in California cities, exposure to this natural magic was sparse. There was of course beauty in the way the clouds displayed, sunrises and sunsets, and the moon that came in all shapes and sizes.  But it was the things in the foreground - the shops, buildings, and homes ubiquitous on street corner after street corner - that gave an illusion that I was living in a finite place.  Out here, it’s as if the infinite sky and the infinite Earth finally meet.  It’s as if there is a boundlessness not only to the natural world around me, but to the imagination within me.  Nothing is pressing against it, structural or otherwise.

This, I think, is the most vivid reason I moved to New Mexico in the first place: space.  Space so that the imagination can pour forth, part of the stream that’s been running since the dawn of time,

Over distant lands,

Under distant skies.

Alex Simon
Tour Notes: Last Leg of Colorado

Two nights ago, I played at Prospect farms, an urban farm in Colorado Springs and last night, I played in a distillery in Longmont, a town just outside of Boulder. Age-wise, the crowds I played for were polar opposites - in one it was all college students and in the other, I was the youngest person by a long shot.  But in both cases, I had a great time playing and the response from the crowd was not just close listening, but some deep and meaningful words, even personal anecdotes.  More than once on this tour, people have commented on a feeling of nostalgia - that, like a smell, it reminds them of a place they've been that they can't quite put their finger on. Others talk about a journey, that it takes them to a forest and far away from the stresses that they face coming into the performance. As a composer and a performer, there's not a whole lot more that I could ask for. It absolutely motivates me to refine the music and take it on tour again and again. I want, more than anything, to connect with people through the power of music. 

 Prospect Farms listens in

Prospect Farms listens in

In the picture above, I am playing in a garage on an urban farm and some people are listening close in, some people are frolicking around outside.  I do not underestimate the gift of being allowed to hold the space and fill it with what I wish, taking cues from the crowd listening. It's an immense pleasure and though this leg of the journey ends soon, it is just the beginning of so many more to come as I let my body of music explore the wilderness of sights, sounds, people, places, towns, cities, farms, and all that stuff.

Thank you, Colorado. Thank you, Wyoming. Till next time...

Alex Simon
Yellowstone: Wild Bison, Prismatic Pools, and Historical Erasure

Midway through the my tour north, just as I had planned, I took the opportunity to spend a few days amongst the profoundly scenic park we call Yellowstone.  As many know, Yellowstone is famous for many things - the vast spectrum of colors in mineral pools, geysers that shoot superheated water high into the air, wild bison, wild wolves, and for being the first national park to exist.  All of these things would be extraordinary on their own, but the fact that they are all together makes it a real force of nature and a powerful place to be.  However, for all that it is endowed with, the lack of Indigenous perspective in the park was something that I could not go without noticing.

In the museums within the park, there were no shortage of high-spirited pioneer quotes about the beauty of this land and its strange supernatural features.  But nowhere could I find much on the tribes that surround it today or came across it in the past, like the Arapahoe, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Crow, Flathead, Kiowa, Bannock, Nez Perce, and Lakota, to name a few. For instance, I wonder how people regarded places like the Grand Prismatic Spring: 

 Grand Prismatic Spring, photo by Jade Begay

Grand Prismatic Spring, photo by Jade Begay

I wonder what things were called before settlers gave names like Mud Volcano, Black Dragon's Cauldron, and Old Faithful.  I wonder what physical and spiritual significance they carried.  Aside from the geological history, which museums and signs inevitably pointed to, human history seemed to start around 1872, when the park was founded.  Indian Country Media Network has a piece highlighting some of the Native History and pointing to the historical erasure, and to be fair, there is a very brief article on the NPS Yellowstone website on tribal history.  

After a few hours walking around and exploring the truly majestic beauty of what was there and imagining how it must have been for people for millennia, I sat in the epic lodge that overlooks Old Faithful.  There was something very Disneyland about the whole thing, as older folks sipped on afternoon drinks waiting for the geyser to blow.  There was something about the tameness in such a wild place, the white-washing of something so vividly colored, and a near-complete lack of historical context that made me feel out of place. Sometimes it dawns on me that too much modern comfort in the wild just makes me more uncomfortable.  Sometimes I see that what we have now, through the brutal thrust of colonialism, is a weak and unworthy replacement for what once was.

For all the things I don't find admirable about the strong emphasis on colonial history, the work that is done to keep the nearly-extinct North American bison alive and thriving is admirable to say the least.  Groups like Buffalo Field Campaign work year round to ensure that wild bison, once on the brink of extinction, roam again.  That to me, is a beautiful sign of strength that even though Indigenous acknowledgement is not perfect, things are being done to restore a elements of a pre-colonized America, bit by bit.

 Where the Buffalo Roam..., photo by Jade Begay

Where the Buffalo Roam..., photo by Jade Begay

Alex Simon
Tour Notes, Day 2: The Sun in Cheyenne
 Photo by Jade Begay

Photo by Jade Begay

When I came up to Standing Rock last year on that fateful voyage north, it was when I stepped foot in Cheyenne, WY (nicknamed The Frontier City and Magic City of the Plains) that I felt an undeniable calling to tour up in this region the following year. Gladly, I stuck to it.  It was one of my favorite performances to this day, not just because of how I played, but who I played for.

At the Paramount Cafe downtown, I played for a vibrant mixture of folks from some pretty wild walks of life.  One of them was an old rancher of Apache descent, who has 48,000 acres of land and claims that he once saved Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus from an RV stuck in the mud and that Miley wrote the song "Wrecking Ball" after him. (Who knows for sure, right?) Another man I met was an ex-Marine who went into the Marines "wanting to kill people and left wanting to save people." He was actually walking down the street in typical hippie-spiritual dress when I came up and told him I was playing and that he'd dig it.  He was floored and between every song, he told me how grateful he was that I had stopped him. It was a very serendipitous connection indeed.  My favorite thing was that everybody there, even the ones who strolled in for a few minutes, even the ones who look like they might have voted for Trump, seemed to connect to it magnetically. As a performer, you can tell when the listening energy is there and it just makes you play better.

I could not have asked for a better show there and now it's off to Grand Teton and Yellowstone for a different, more exploratory, phase of the tour.  

Until next time...

Alex Simon
Tour Notes, Day 1

Playing music off-grid in rural New Mexico has long been a dream of mine and lucky for me, that’s how the tour got started yesterday.  The talented and incredibly genuine folks of Mesa Recordings have been throwing a festival for the past decade, called Mesa For Vida, which is set up in the lush high desert landscape of Glorieta. The event is dusk-to-dusk, meaning it starts at sundown and ends at sundown the next day.  Luckily, I was invited to come play and share my music in the morning before heading up to my show in Silver Plume, Colorado in the evening.

 Flag of freedom

Flag of freedom

Mesa has a mix of DJ's and live performers and all through the night, I heard and danced to some of the strangest, coolest songs I'd ever heard.  As the starry night gave way to dawn, dawn to sunrise, sunrise to morning, the music took on a more mystical quality. I picked up the baton and played a mostly ambient set at around 8:30am - a sonic bath of pedal steel, field recordings, and electronics.  I was delighted that although many in the crowd were bordering on delirium from not having slept, some had a real heart connection to the music. I was reminded that it is not the performer who gives the energy to the audience alone; it is a symbiotic relationship and members in the audience can really affect the way the music comes out.  Through my own tired eyes, it was an awakening and something to strive for; give people something they can move to and listen to that movement.  That is why performance can be such a profound teacher. 

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Sadly, I had to leave the mesa right after my set was over, as I realized I had just enough time to make it up to my show in the old mining town of Silver Plume. 

 Cow skulls, black bears, and pedal steel

Cow skulls, black bears, and pedal steel

While loading into the Bread Bar, set up in the mountains at 9,000 feet, I saw a black bear rummaging through a neighbor's recycling bin down the street. That should tell you how remote and badass this place is.  Silver Plume was formerly a mining town and is now home to some good people who just like a bit of peace and quiet (because it's so high in elevation, you don't even hear crickets).  I had a wonderful time playing pedal steel there for a some locals and tried to emphasize a little more of the twang elements of my set.  It was a good counterpoint to the emphasis I put on the ambient side of things when I played in the morning.

Today, I play in Cheyenne and then tomorrow, it's off to Yellowstone for some explorations where the buffalo roam...

Alex Simon
Lessons I've Learned From Spending One Year in Native America

Though I come from a family of European Jews and was born and raised among the cities of California, I have spent the last year living and working in Native America.  I first moved to the Navajo Nation to do farm and irrigation work in a small town called Ganado. After four months, I headed up to Standing Rock for just as long, protecting the water through the fall and winter months. Now, I reside in New Mexico and my work is primarily based in Native communities in the Southwest.

I've been ruminating on some of the lessons I've learned over the past year.  They may not be groundbreaking, they may seem trivial and obvious, but because I didn't know what to expect coming in, they have all been powerful and profound. I hope that what I share contributes to a growing understanding that we humans are all interconnected and do best when we support one another. 

 

  1. Listen.
  2. Really listen.
  3. When you talk, tell the truth.  
  4. Trust is earned over time.
  5. Wounds from the guns of colonization have not all healed, but they are healing.  There is a lot of trauma that exists from historical and current events and policies that are, on their face, anti-Native. But there is an ever-growing tolerance towards non-Natives and events like Standing Rock have allowed for healing, compassionate, and collaborative energy to flourish. 
  6. Sometimes, when you are the only non-Native in a room full of Native people, you get the uncanny sense of what it’s like to be uncomfortable in the color of your own skin.
  7. If this discomfort doesn't intimidate you, you will more than likely be treated like family. Which means you'll get made fun of a lot.
  8. You will learn how to take a joke. Native humor is second to none. It’s best to thicken your skin and sharpen your wit. 
  9. The best antidote for cultural appropriation is common sense and self-awareness.  Appreciation is not appropriation.  Participation is not appropriation.
  10. Even if you have terrific common sense and good intentions, you will almost inevitably brush up against or blunder into some cultural taboo. Be sensitive, be sincere, and don't take it too hard. Whatever you do, don't argue and try to prove you’re right (this goes back to number 1 and 2). 
  11. It is good to ask questions, but not too many questions.  There are some stories and teachings that are never to be revealed to non-Natives. If you listen carefully, you’ll know how to honor this and respectfully keep your mouth shut.
  12. Native people have been leaders in the environmental movement since it began and probably before it.
  13. There is a reverence for the land that the rest of America can learn from.  Colonization has promoted detachment while decolonization promotes reattachment and realignment. 
  14. Native people, to this day, steward some of the most beautiful lands on Earth.  It makes sense because they know them better than anyone.
  15. Reforms such as these would be welcome on most reservations: better access to healthy food, access to clean water, stronger and more well-funded education (both traditional and the usual subjects), programs that promote creativity for kids, better health care, clean energy solutions, education on how to resist predatory federal legislation, and good internal governance. 
  16. There are many Native people who devote their lives to the things I've listed above.  There are many ALLIES who can bring their background and experience to help shoulder the burden of creating massive waves of change in a place that’s neither seen nor heard by most in the main stream. 
  17. There is visible, virulent racism in many towns that border reservations.
  18. Native people are some of the most resilient people on the planet because they stick together and stand their ground.
  19. Stand with them and listen.  I’ve heard many Indigenous leaders say, “Standing Rock is everywhere.” It is true. There will be ample opportunities to support the growing movement with some of the strongest people in some of the most beautiful lands.
  20. No book will tell you what life is like for all Native people. No documentary on Netflix, no VICE special, no nothing.  Go out and talk to as many people as you can and you’ll see the beauty and complexity that lies in the big beating heart of this country.
Alex Simon
The Movement

On October 10th, on what some Americans call Columbus Day and others call Indigenous People’s Day, I arrived at the Standing Rock Reservation.  Like Columbus, I came to a place thriving with indigenous people engaged in prayer and ceremony, living in harmony with the elements and with one another.  But unlike Columbus, the man responsible for colonizing and sparking the genocide of tens of millions of indigenous people, I came to help decolonize and fight a sinister foe we here call The Black Snake.

For those still learning about the issue, here's a brief summary of what’s happening – a company called Dakota Access, a subsidiary of oil and gas giant Energy Transfer Partners, planned to build a pipeline that carries sweet crude (especially volatile) oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota all the way down to Illinois, crossing the Missouri River.  Though the pipeline was originally going to run through Bismark, ND, (mostly white) residents shut it down right away because they did not want to put their water at risk. So, the pipeline was moved without permission onto tribal land, running through sacred burial sites and jeopardizing the drinking water of the 10,000-strong Standing Rock Sioux tribe and everyone down-river.  Needless to say, Native Americans took a stand and allies, domestic and international, flooded in to camp, to pray, and to stop the pipeline. 

 Photo by Adam Alexander Johanssen

Photo by Adam Alexander Johanssen

The movement itself is profound and multi-layered.  Although the fight is intense at times, as we’ve seen in the last week, something massive is happening on the ground.  I want to give you sense of what it’s like to be here day-to-day.  I’ve split up the movement into seven sections that will give you a rounded view of what brings us here, why we stay, and what we’re fighting for.

1) Above all, we are here to save the water.  The camp resounds with the phrase Mni Wiconi – “water is life,” and although we do a wide spectrum of activities every day, everything we do revolves around protecting the water.

2) We are decolonizing. Colonization is more than just the genocide that took place in the past; it is ongoing. Just two generations ago, the boarding school system – a Christianizing, deeply abusive measure to “kill the Indian to save the child” – left an indelible mark in the way Native Americans live today.  It is because of policies like this that reservations all over the US are plagued by drug addiction, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. I first heard about this after moving to Navajo Nation earlier this year and I swell with pride when I see the healing process going on here.  There is NA, AA, support groups for those with PTSD, and around the sacred fire at the main camp, elders speak bluntly about the problems in Native America and what we must do to heal.

3) Native Americans are immersed in their own culture and traditions. Morning, day, and night you hear the drums and voices of Lakota songs reverberate through the camp.  This means that younger generations are learning the songs and language that mainstream culture campaigned to erase.  This means that all generations are coming together in ceremony and able to practice their sacred traditions such as Inipi (sweat lodge) and the Sun Dance.  Most traditions and prayers are done in the Lakota way, because it is Lakota land, but hundreds of tribes have come to support and share their traditions as well.

4) Allies are learning about what America was before it was called ‘America’.  Nobody can deny that to some degree, we in the US live in a culture of confusion.  Our mainstream news is dominated by two candidates that very few people actually like.  Money buys politicians. Militarized police pin down the public peacefully protesting when they’re meant to protect. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when colonists came over here, they tried to extinguish the Native population from day one.  It’s a blessing that people like me are allowed to learn about the beautiful culture that’s miraculously been kept alive.  We are invited to listen to stories, participate in prayers and learn how to care for the Earth. I am grateful every day I am here.

5) We are a community. I have cooked, helped build houses, sorted clothes, offered rides, played music with many, had long in-depth conversations with many more, washed dishes, taught music to children; let’s just say there’s never a dull moment.  The level of genuine community, without a whole lot of technological interruption and a whole lot of eye contact, is astonishing.  Although many quit their jobs to be here and have sacrificed much financially, it costs nothing to live here, to eat, and to have warm clothes for the winter.  The lack of money in transactions here has a noticeable effect.  Everybody gets help when they need it.  We work together. We focus on what’s right here in front of us.

6) We need an alternative form of energy.  So far, from those I've talked to around here, solar seems to be the path forward in powering our homes, buildings, and devices.  As for the car fleet, I’m not so sure what the best alternative is, but I have faith in the eco-minded engineers around me.  The risks of ignoring human, plant, and animal suffering in the name of forcing every last fracking drop of oil out of the ground are infinite.  If we tap into the abundance of energy all around us – sun, wind, tidal, etc – we’ll become more self-sufficient and we wont all be so reliant on companies that value money over life.

7) The spirit lives here. There is an energy here unlike any other I, and many people I’ve talked to, have ever experienced.  People come from all backgrounds and on various points of the spiritual spectrum.  But everybody feels that intangible thing, that deep and sustained sense of presence, that comes from being in the right place at the right time with the right people doing the right thing.

We’ve all been waiting for something like this.

Alex Simon
Sheep Is Life

Next week is the Navajo Nation Fair and I hear it's going to be massive.  Like many of the larger fairs on the reservation, it will have a rodeo, a pow wow, live country music, local art showcases, rug auctions, frybread up to your eyeballs, everything. But the thing I'm most excited about is the Miss Navajo contest, because at 8:00am, to a sizable crowd, all the contestants (beautiful young women) will engage in a tradition that's been passed down for generations; alone, they will butcher a sheep in under an hour.

If you’ve never done it, butchering an animal might sound like a horrific experience.  It’s violent, of course.  There's the blood.  And once it's dead, you have to skin it, deal with all the organs, clean the intestines, and cut the remaining carcass into bits.  That actually might sound so revolting that just imagining it may make you want to click your way to happier thoughts.  But be strong.  I’m here to tell you that I, a man who has identified as a vegetarian for most of the last five years, did it and I found it to be one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

It starts like this: the sheep is taken from its pen, its head is laid down on a block of wood, its throat is slit and the knife works through the rest of the head.  Now at this point, I’m completely mortified.  In fact, I’m ready to sign an exclusive contract with quinoa, beans, and lentils for my protein because at no point in their production do they look like that. In this moment, it’s impossible for me not to feel a deep sense of empathy – that if I were in this sheep’s wool, I’d be getting my head cut off and there would be nothing I could do about it.  Then there’s the time it takes for it to stop breathing.  Oh god. I think for newbies like me, there is such a thing as ‘butcher time,’ akin to ‘drug time’ where seconds seem like minutes and even after it’s head is off, I could swear it’s still breathing and kicking.  Soon though, reality sets in; the animal has passed.

It’s at this point that a wave of relief comes over me.  Suddenly, everything is so vivid.  I hold the animal’s legs as it is skinned.  I help remove the stomach and all that slimy stuff.  I clean out the intestines all the while making jokes with the family (chon jokes, shit jokes, jokes about the dog running away with the sheep’s head).  Spirits are high.  I’m reduced to the unspeakable sensation of just being alive.  I’m connected to the ancient tradition of the Navajo people, of my people, of your people, of everyone's people.

The experience made me realize that in our age of convenience, we deprive ourselves of the deeply meaningful experience of killing what we eat, as uncouth and brutal as it may seem.  We distance ourself from reality by buying hamburgers from cartoonish fast food joints and politely-packaged lunchmeat off the supermarket shelves.  Maybe that's why meat consumption is so high these days; the blood's off our hands and it's practically faceless. It's just a food group.

 A deeply meaningful experience.  Thank you, Showa family.

A deeply meaningful experience.  Thank you, Showa family.

So did I sign that contract with the plant proteins I almost swore to? On the contrary. That day, I developed the most intense longing for meat that I can ever remember. Maybe the experience awakened something in me.  Sheep is mostly all the meat I eat out here, but I do so knowing now, in a very intimate way, what I am eating.  I suggest that if the opportunity ever arises for you to do the same, take it - especially if you’re a meat-eater.  You’ll be grateful you did, mostly grateful for the animal that gives its life to keep yours going.

So next week, when Miss Navajo sharpens her knife at 7:59am preparing to engage in practice as old as time itself, you know where to find me...

Alex Simon
ImagiNation

I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the American frontier.

What did you see? Maybe you saw an expanse of canyons, mountains, and mesas sprawled over open lands.  Maybe you saw virgin forests, wild rivers, fertile valleys just waiting to be crossed. Maybe you saw mountain men and scouts like Merriweather Lewis, William Clark, and Davy Crockett scaling the Rockies.  Maybe you saw covered wagons, log cabins, and cowboys sitting around a fire. Horses, buffalo, and elk. Or maybe, thinking futuristically, you saw the starry precipice of JFK's new frontier - of space and technology, hope and prosperity.  Whichever way you may imagine it, the common thread is this: the American frontier is an open expanse with the promise of an adventure. 

But there's one dilemma we didn't account for - what if that expanse is already inhabited? We all know that there were indigenous people in North America long before settlers landed on their shores. So, by default, it couldn't have been that open. If you can't imagine it already, I bet you're curious as to how civilization looked back then - you know, America before all the suburbs, highways, and Walmarts.  Ok.  Close your eyes again, but this time fill the landscape with tens of millions of men, women, and children.  They're organized in complex societies, they have homes built, crops growing, and an endless supply of animals for food, shelter, and ceremony.  They believe that all living things are sacred and, with deep reverence, they take from the Earth what they need to survive.

Open your eyes. It's beautiful, isn't it? Perhaps you think it's a bit idyllic, and to that I'll concede that there were some disputes among neighboring tribes that turned lethal. But you can be sure that there was no precedent for the wave of violence and disease that would soon smash upon the shores of the Atlantic.  The colonists came in droves.  Soon, they needed room to grow and access to precious resources latent in the Earth like coal, timber and gold - the jewels of that fertile valley.  They needed railroad lines and room enough to build an infrastructure for industry. There were fortunes to be made. As for dealing with the Native population, manifest destiny, the settler's dogma that God told them to expand through the continent by any means necessary, served as the ideological excuse to justify genocide.  

WESTWARD THE COURSE OF EMPIRE TAKES ITS WAY (Currier & Ives)

So, let's be accurate. I want you to close your eyes one more time and now, imagine American scouts marching west.  They've been sent by the federal government to burn all the crops, kill the livestock, rape the women, spread smallpox, and murder the rest who stand in their way.  And they do. Pointing guns at their heads, U.S. representatives make tribal leaders sign away more and more land until they're forced onto reservations, impoverished plots of land intentionally designed to make survival nearly impossible. Uprisings are crushed. People are massacred. Entire villages are burned. 

Now open your eyes.  Look out the window. If there isn't one, just look around. Think of where you are, how you got here, and how you might define here. Today in the U.S., the ideology that dominates descends from the colonist, so we need to take a full step back and shift perspectives to see where we are. Imagine you are a guest in someone else's home.  You might be very courteous, even painfully polite, and you might express your gratitude for being allowed to "make yourself at home" with some kind of reciprocal gesture.  It probably wouldn't occur to you to deliberately make your host feel inferior, to claim their property to be your own, destroy it, sweep the ashes under the rug, then conjure up a story of how it was your God-given right to be there in the first place.  And yet, that's a large part of the foundation we stand on today.  I don't say this to lay the burden of guilt on all of us without Native American ancestry.  I say it so that we can make things better now by respecting our host (Native people), the house we live in (the land they cultivated for centuries), get our history straight, and end the cycle of violence that has plagued the U.S. since its inception.

When I was in South America this past spring, I encountered another meaning of the word frontier: la frontera - the border.  There are many who believe that a good border is an airtight one, hence the adage "Good fences make good neighbors."  It's undeniable that our lives change due to the melding of cultures, and although there are ongoing perils still embedded in past encounters, it's hard to deny some of the benefits we see today.  In the U.S., we are blessed with Mexican food and a tenacious work-force.  On the reservation, there is no shortage of country music hailing from Nashville to Bakersfield and there's a particular kind of Native Americana that flourishes here. And luckily for us guests, Native Americans have granted us access to national parks filled with rock formations and supernatural skylines that would make your heart melt. 

At the time of this writing, I consider myself extremely lucky.  I am living in Window Rock, the capital of Navajo Nation in the American Southwest. I get to talk with Native people every day. I get to hear stories about their culture and their own account of history. I get to hear their music in religious and secular settings. I get to work in their fields and grow crops like corn, melons, and squash that they've been cultivating for centuries. And what's most striking to me is that I've never met people so generous, so humorous, so welcoming, and so unhesitant to take me, an obvious outsider, in as a guest.

Imagine that.

 

Alex Simon