My Thanksgiving at Standing Rock (pt. 2)
(photo cred Mike Mattheson)
"The Hardy Heart" monthly blog - December 2017
My Thanksgiving at Standing Rock
This last Thanksgiving marks a year since I caravanned with my partner Sharon Tapias and our friends Lucy Dillon and Mike Mattheson to South Dakota to the Lakota Sioux resistance at Standing Rock to deliver supplies and money from a fundraiser concert and drive we held at 21st Yoga. I have never been able to fully put all of my thoughts together on this extraordinary experience that has etched such a deep and poignant mark in my life. I hope that in writing this blog piece I can express to you the emotions I felt and some of what I learned. As I began writing, so much started coming out that I realized to even begin to do it justice I needed to split it up into two parts. Here is part two of my story; part one was released last month. As always, thanks for reading/listening. This is an important chapter of human history that is still being written.
Lucy and Mike were taking off first thing Thanksgiving morning, but I had decided I was going to do an early meal with family and then drive up. Before the meal with my family, I made a couple of stops around town getting more donations from friends and then pulled up to 21st Yoga and loaded the rest of the donations from the studio into my truck. Mike had told me his truck was packed full, and by the time I put the last of the items into my truck, mine was entirely packed full. I drove home, had a great dinner with my family (my nieces loved that I was driving to a Native American reservation on Thanksgiving!), then went and picked up my co-pilot Sharon “Shazzy” Tapias and we hit the road.
Lucy had booked us all rooms at a motel in Spearfish, South Dakota, just across the Wyoming border ten hours out of Salt Lake City. Sharon and I pulled in at about 3:00am and crashed out. We got up and met Lucy and Mike for breakfast and then hit the road for the “Oceti Sakowin Camp” on the banks of the Cannonball River. The original directions Lucy and Mike had found online led us down a dirt road to an armed blockade by the National Guard. We were politely informed the road was closed and were given directions to an alternate entrance to the camp. Even though they were friendly and informative, the very presence of the armed National Guard jeeps and service men and women radiated an intensity that increased as we drove closer to the camp.
Oecti Sakowin was a vast encampment of teepees, tents, cars, RV‘s, makeshift structures, and a lot of people. One side of the camp bordered the Cannonball River and on two sides were hills and the road. On the fourth side were some smaller hills behind which was the main focus of the pipeline’s security forces. Armed local authorities and additional security forces were stationed strategically in the distance on all of the surrounding hillsides. We arrived in the late afternoon and were stopped at the camp’s own checkpoint. After explaining who we were and our purpose for coming, the men at the checkpoint explained some ground rules (No Firearms, No Alcohol, No Drugs) and gave us some loose directions to where we could drive the donated items. Wooden stakes and poles with flags and banners had been pounded into the ground forming a main roadway that we wound slowly down. It was a place you could immediately get lost in, and with Lucy pulling over a few times to get more information, we ended up at what we believed was the main collection area.
The emotion in the camp was palpable. There was an equal amount of the strongest courage and darkest despair that was only punctuated by a Caucasian woman in her mid thirties in the midst of several, huge mounds of donated clothing quickly getting exhausted with us as she re-explained that she only knew a little about how things were organized. Although the main components of infrastructure were in place, this was not a place catering to the outsider; this was a camp whose sole purpose was to keep the sacred fires burning, sing the sacred songs, and block this multi-billion dollar, government backed, pipeline’s intended path. Imagine showing up to your bedridden friend’s home in the middle of their battle with cancer and expecting them to be able to get up and show you where everything is and how you can best help them. They are in the middle of a struggle that is drawing on all the energy they have. This was a place where you show up and make yourself useful; where you keep asking around and walking around until you begin to figure out that there’s a giant stack of firewood one hundred yards away you can add to; that a couple hundred yards in another direction are mounds of clothes somewhat sorted that you can spend time further sorting; that across the road and down a few hundred yards is a first aid tent, and then close to that is the Veteran’s tent where you can lend a hand. The picture I have attached to this blog was taken by Mike of Lucy, Sharon and me sitting in the back of my truck after we all had finished unloading our trucks. There is strength and hope on our faces; but our faces also reveal the humbling reality that our support is truly just a drop in the bucket, and that bucket is the size of the Grand Ganyon, and it’s overwhelming to look at.
After we finished unloading, we gave Lucy and Mike huge hugs and then parted ways. The two of them were headed to donate the money we had raised to the law firm that was representing all the water protesters that had been arrested, booked, and charged. Sharon and I had borrowed some low temp sleeping bags and were prepared to stay the night in the back of my truck. Although there wasn’t yet a ton of snow on the ground, a snowstorm had been forecast to begin dumping on the camp within days. We drove deeper into the camp and found a place to park the truck and set up our bed as the last bit of sun tucked back behind the hills. The authorities and security forces had pointed huge floodlights at the camp, and began turning them on. The feeling that you were surrounded was inescapable.
Sounds of drumming, singing, generators running, and conversations from all the camps filled the night air. We made our way toward one of the loudest parts of the camp where a crowd had gathered around an MC on a mic, rapping over beats being blasted out from a PA system with several cars pointing their headlights creating a stage. He stood with several other MC’s who referred to themselves as the “Black Snake Killaz”- a reference to the pipeline filled with black oil. True to the roots of Hip Hop, the group spat rhymes of defiance against a system of injustice. The Hip Hop gathering was set right at the bottom of a series of small hills that formed a natural barrier between the camp and the pipeline’s intended route. Sharon and I made our way further up the hill to the point where on one side we could look down into the valley where the camp was, and on the other side we could look down into a valley that had a road with what looked like a giant road block made of fencing, concrete barricades, and barbed wire. Looking through binoculars we could see uniformed, armed forces patrolling the blockade with armored vehicles. We assumed this was the line in the sand that the pipeline company and local authorities had drawn to hold back protestors from the pipeline construction site.
We decided to visit the heart of the camp where the Elders were tending the sacred fires. The sound of traditional drumming and singing and a plume of smoke guided our way through the camp. We arrived at a large, crowded open-area surrounded by a few makeshift structures containing supplies, kitchens, and sleeping quarters. A large fire pit was the focal point of the crowd, and the camp’s Elders were wrapped in blankets and seated in camp chairs around the sacred fire. A small stage with drummers and singers, a couple of microphones, and a PA system was to one side of them, and to the other was a kitchen supplying coffee, snacks and hot water for tea. The warmth of the fire drew us closer, but as we approached the fire-keeper stopped us and explained the ritual with the fire, that we were to approach it in a certain way and could only throw in tobacco, cedar, sage and other appropriate offerings. We made the correct approach to the fire and found an opening that let us get right next to it. The heat felt so good in the cold and night and I knelt down, removed a piece of white sage I’d brought with me from Salt Lake and offered the sage and a prayer to the fire. Sharon and I warmed ourselves for a few minutes and then moved into the crowd making room for others to make their own offerings.
When the drumming ended a gentleman rose from one of the camping chairs, made his way over to the microphone, and began an oration. I have had the opportunity to study a little of Native American culture and the art of orating and listening is valued so highly. This tribal Elder delivered a prayer and speech that had tears falling down my face and sobs shaking my body. This man did more than talk about “his” people and “his” land; he spoke of “our” people and of “our” land. There was a nobility about this man that inside all of his hardship his intention was so strongly focused on the truth and power of love: love for our Mother Earth, love for each other, love for the animals, love for water, love for the sky, love for life and creation. He spoke to the hearts of the protesters, telling them that if they were to be so lucky as to receive a rubber bullet in the leg or mace in their eyes, that in the way of things, maybe the pain that they were absorbing in their non-violence was healing the pain of somebody else in this world. He spoke of the Goliath that we were up against, but again it was more than this pipeline company versus this tribe. He was speaking of humanity itself and the importance of us to stand for truth. To stand for what is right. To stand for love. Sharon and I made our way back to the truck with a little more warmth in our bodies and hearts. The next day as we were driving out of the camp we rolled the windows down and turned up Bob Marley as loud as my truck speakers could handle. Bob’s songs have always been beacons of light for me through the darkness. We were leaving a camp of Warriors that in their darkest hour were standing brave and tall for love.
Today oil is flowing through the completed pipeline. There are litigation cases to pay attention to that may end up producing a different result, but for now the battle is over. Perhaps it is a battle that the water protectors never could have won. There was hope one week after our return home when the Army Corps of Engineers told the pipeline company, Energy Access Partners, that it needed to pause construction while an alternate route was being considered. That hope was dashed the next month when days into office, President Donald J. Trump signed a memorandum to green-light the completion of the pipeline without an altered course. Hope truly is a peculiar thing. It is something that I am now coming to understand as more of a choice. A choice that absolutely affects your present moment, but may or may not effect the larger cycles of things. I choose to hope. I know that my hope and the actions of my life are simply a drop in the bucket. Ultimately, it is not important whether or not our drop makes the biggest difference. What is important is that we add our drop and make a difference in ourselves.