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.
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.