“I want to go to Standing Rock.”
I turned to consider my 12-year old daughter. Her sharp blue eyes, surrounded by a sea of freckles, met my gaze. She was serious as only a young girl on the cusp of adulthood could be.
“Alright,” I said. “Then that’s what we’re doing.”
Two days later, we left our home in northern Minnesota, the Honda Pilot loaded with camping gear, food, and water. The temperature hovered in the 20’s. Some snow was on the ground, but the roads were good. Six and a half hours later, we arrived at the back of a mile-long line of cars, waiting to get into Oceti Sakowin, the main protest camp. It was the day before the so-called deadline, issued by the Governor of North Dakota. On the 5th of December, camp was to be cleared out. No one knew what would happen. No one knew if Morton County deputies would show up with water hoses, mace, and rubber bullets. If they would return with armored vehicles or attack dogs. No one knew if Deputies from Hennepin County, Minnesota, would bring shields, helmets, and be swinging batons. Threats had been issued to fine vehicles $1,000 for attempting to bring supplies. One thing was certain as we waited to enter camp: People were flooding in from everywhere. License plates from every state in the Union, and across Canada were there. If things were similar as they had been in September when I last visited, South Americans, Europeans, and Asians would be there, too. The size of camp last week took my breath away. It was easily five-times as large as it had been in the warmer months. Never in the history of the Earth has there been such a gathering. Never in history.
After an hour, we arrived at the entrance where a young Native man was directing vehicles. “No weapons? No alcohol? No drugs?”
“The Army Corps just denied the permit!” He grinned, then fist bumped me.
The news was so fresh that it had not yet spread throughout camp. We drove in, and set up our tent among shelters from Rhode Island, Colorado, and Mexico. A large family of locals camped in a nearby tipi. That evening was one of controlled celebration in Standing Rock. Children sledded down Media Hill. There was dancing. Singing. Drumming. Hugging and crying. Even fireworks. No one, however, believed the Corps decision was permanent. How could it be? How many promises had the U.S. Government made, then broken over the past two centuries? The decision to deny the permit had been a Federal one. All of us knew who was taking over the government in January. If ever there was a human being who would choose powerful, for-profit interests over the needs of the people, it would be this one.
Our arrival coincided with that of a large group of U.S. Military Veterans. Young Vets. Vietnam Vets. Korean Vets. Women and Men. Some with their own kids. Dressed in uniform, in camo, or civilian clothing. Straight-laced Vets. Vets with dreadlocks and piercings. And tattoos. Oh, the tattoos! Their main gathering area happened to be near our tent, so Charlotte and I sort of fell in with them. We helped tend their fire. We fed people from their giant pot of stew, prepared for them by the locals. One Sargent had filled a leadership void, and was barking out orders to move water here, to stack wood there. We happily saluted, and pitched in. I nearly expected to be ordered to dig a hole, then fill it in later.
Over the next 24 hours, standing around their fire, we listened to Veterans’ stories. Why they had come. How far they had traveled. A few were gracious enough to speak into Charlotte’s iPod for a school report. All of them – to a person – felt a keen sense of betrayal by their Government. Whether they were Vietnam or Iraq Vets, they had been sent into harm’s way for a lie. For profit. The pain of this realization, I already knew, had been incredibly difficult. Many had not survived it. Too many. Those who did, had come to Standing Rock. They were going to do good with the time they had left on Earth. By God, they were going to make things right.
The Veterans had begun a day earlier during a Tear-Wiping Ceremony organized by the Standing Rock Sioux. This was a healing ceremony of sorts, partially-designed to help Veterans deal with the demons of war. During the Ceremony, United States’ Veterans surprised everyone by dropping to one knee, and asking forgiveness for historical atrocities. Many of their Military companies had participated in the murder and rape of the Plains’ Tribes. Songs were sung. Prayers performed. The floor of the Casino arena was wet with tears. U.S. Veterans were embraced as only Native Americans can embrace. When Indians wrap their arms around you, they don’t mess around. You are kin. Forever.
The protest camp at Standing Rock is loosely-organized. Very loosely. One “leader” might announce a need, only to be contradicted by another. If you stand sill long enough, someone will either ask you permission to do something or they will tell you to do something. You learn to pitch in where there’s a need. Sorting stuff. Hauling stuff. Cutting wood. Building shelters. Whatever. I’m an EMT, so I came with my medical bag, ready to help with medical emergencies. I got to respond to one that night. A sledding accident. Bystanders, I learned, love to scream “Medic!!!”
Day two saw a pair of marches to the bridge near the drilling site. The second of these marches was very large. Charlotte had been with me on the first, but headed back to our tent to snuggle in her bag and read while I joined in on the second. Flags were carried. Horses ridden. Chants hurled into the snow and the wind. “This is,” said a Vietnam-era man in camouflage, “the first time I’ve ever been proud to be a Vet!” The message of this march was clear: The Water Protectors were going “nowhere.” To hell with the Corps’ decision. We are here. The struggle is young. Supporters had not come from across the planet to walk away now. They had not sold their homes or left their families or quit their jobs to walk away now.
But the snow fell harder. By my estimate, nine out of ten people had inadequate clothing. Their coats, hats, and mittens were becoming wet. I walked through the crowd, brushing snow from shoulders and backs. “Stay dry,” I said. “Temps are going to drop tonight.” I was one of the very few people in the crowd who hailed from a colder location. As an outdoorsman and EMT, I make a point of being aware of dangerous situations. During our time near the bridge, chanting, yelling, drumming, and singing, the snow fall had accelerated. The wind was picking up significantly. A dangerous situation was evolving.
The cold front hit Oceti Sakowin like a steam roller that night. Hundreds slept in their cars, many with the engines running. Cheap or tall tents were ravaged. Loose items flew through the air towards Minnesota or Wisconsin. Outdoor fires lay flat, providing no heat. The portable toilets froze solid. Not all shelters failed, however. Wall tents, hogans, and, of course, tipis, held up well. The brilliant simplicity of their design became clear immediately.
Charlotte and I had heavy duty winter bags, so we were snug. We slept little, however. Our three-season tent shook from dusk until dawn like buffalo had taken hold of it. The poles bent inward. I had fitful dreams of fatalities in camp or on the road. Please, no fatalities. I prayed for a solid tent nearly as much as I prayed for a solid bladder. There was no way in hell I was heading out in this to pee. When morning finally arrived, I struggled to unzip my bag, then sat up and gasped. Snow was piled a foot high in our vestibules, completely covering our boots. The gale force winds had shoved it through the mosquito netting, leaving a thin layer of white on our sleeping bags and clothing. We had more boots and clothing in the car, but this was a real wake up call.
The main camp was battered and bruised, but alive. Still alive. People moved quickly, shoulders hunched, from shelter to shelter. Some were in their cars, lining up for a run at the snow drift near the exit. I climbed into the Pilot, and turned on the radio. Businesses and services were shutting down all across Bismarck and Mandan, thirty miles to the north. 1806, the road connecting us to those cities, was still blocked off by Morton County, so getting there would require a dangerous detour. There was also no guarantee of a hotel room. I moved around camp, searching for news on road conditions or closures. The Casino, seven miles to our south, was open, and many people were heading there. The roads were still icy, and the wind treacherous, but that sounded like our best bet. I told Charlotte to get ready.
If the Vets were itching for a mission, they had one now. They charged throughout camp, knocking on vehicles, checking on tents. They pushed stuck cars from snowbanks. They led cold campers into heated shelters. A convoy was organized. Materials were gathered. Vets, I decided, are a lot like labradors, waiting for a bird to fall from the sky. They are tensed, focused, and driven. Once that bird falls, you had better get out of their way. Their duck this morning was extracting people to safety, and they were all over it. In hindsight, there was no better time for the Vets to be there. When the weather hit the fan, they pivoted, put their heads down, and charged into the cattails. There is no doubt in my mind that U.S. Veterans saved lives during the blizzard at Standing Rock.
Charlotte counted nine vehicles in the ditch on the way to the Casino. The parking lot was packed with vehicles, snow piling up around them. The wind was murderously cold. Inside, we were directed to the arena, where we joined a thousand other people, settling in for the day or night. One advantage of serving host to a crowd of campers: we all had sleeping pads and bags. I set up a little area for Charlotte in one corner of the arena, then made many trips to our vehicle for the rest of our gear. After some coffee, food, aspirin, and the first tooth-brushing in two days, I was ready to help again. I grabbed my gear, and joined the medical area being created across the arena floor. Multiple providers were on hand: physicians, nurses, military medics. A few hellos, some handshakes, and I signed up for a shift. I instructed Charlotte to keep an eye on the lookout for Elders in need. Serving water or coffee was an easy, if important, thing to do.
The day was filled with drumming, speeches, and ceremony. Heck, if you’re gonna get this many Natives together in one place, there might as well be drumming and dancing. Add some fry bread and teenagers, and you would have thought we were on the Pow Wow circuit. A steady stream of patients filed into the medical area, mostly requesting NSAIDs for sore backs or bruises. There were a few burns. At least one hypothermia. I played my tiny role as EMT, a little cog in the emergency medical machine. More than one nurse worked on almost no sleep.
Our town of Bemidji, Minnesota, is Ojibwe country. Three large Indian Reservations surround the city. We have plenty of Native friends, and we are comfortable at Ceremony. Ironically, the people we had come out to support – the Lakota and Dakota – had once called northern Minnesota home. But they had been forced out onto the plains by the Ojibwe, the French, and the U.S. army. Now, like the brave U.S. Veterans, the descendants of those Ojibwe and those White settlers were here to help. Standing Rock is about water, yes. It is also about history. It is about healing. It is about circles. It is about humanity.
The next morning, we packed up as quickly as we were able, and prepared for departure. The road conditions had improved – slightly – and we judged that slow, careful driving would get us home. There were hugs. Exchanges of contact information. The roads north were still closed, so I had an excuse to take a Facebook friend south a few hours to where her car had been parked. After ensuring that it started, we took off. Ten grueling hours later, Charlotte and I were home. Safe.
Guilt nagged at me as I thought of the people who had stayed in camp, cold and determined. Was this how it felt to get pulled from the field of battle while your buddies remained in harm’s way, fighting on?
Once you have been to Standing Rock, you are Standing Rock. The struggle for clean water is here. Climate change is here. Look around. Do you see an abundance of clean water across the Earth? It is shrinking fast. There is a reason that investors are placing bets on water. It is a commodity that for-profit corporations, like Nestle, will try to exploit. While they buy water rights from weak-kneed community leaders across the U.S. and Canada, fossil fuel corporations, like Enbridge, will happily endanger the resources that are left, sacrificing the health of a community for a return on investment. They will divide communities along any line they can in order to attain their goal. Take note Red States: this is your war. Your children deserve deserve clean water. Do not be distracted by shiny objects like immigrants or Muslims or taxes. This is your war.
More than two centuries ago, a group of ragtag protesters stormed the Bastille near Paris, freeing a few dozen political prisoners. Not much was made of it at the time. Louis XVI famously wrote rien (nothing) in his diary entry for that day. Years later, it became clear that this event was the beginning of what became the French Revolution. July 14th is now the French national holiday.
There have been skirmishes, but Standing Rock is the first battle in the war for the protection of the Environment. Given the elite, corrupt, fossil-fuel, tiny-hands abomination that is charging into Washington, Standing Rock is also the first battle in the war for our freedoms and our Democracy. He has already pledged to shove the pipeline through by whatever means necessary. He may succeed. He may write “nothing” in his journal, and finish his frog legs at the table with Putin and Exxon Mobil. The arc of history is, however, in our favor.
We are disorganized and ragtag. But we are from every State, every Province and every Continent. We will return to our communities more determined, more focused, and battle hardened. Years from now – maybe generations from now – we will hold our heads high. We will say with pride that we were at Standing Rock. Like my twelve year-old daughter.