Part 1: Action
We met at the south gate at 8am to organize for the action. Most of us didn’t know where we were heading, but we were told to bring masks, goggles, and earplugs. Legal came around to the respective groups with clipboards ensuring we had filled out paperwork should we be arrested. Under our sleeves was the phone number for Standing Rock Legal. We needed $20 for a calling card and our photo ID only.
I hopped into a pickup truck with a group of unassuming Water Protectors: a young quiet girl, an old woman, two young men, and myself. As the truck pulled out of the dirt lot another woman jumped backwards into the truck and we began the caravan towards our destination.
The string of cars was over a mile long. The early sun lit up the large scale farms (so called ‘monocultures’) expanding in every direction within and without North Dakota. Sunflower seeds, corn, and harvested dead brown stalks centered by large watering machines with tire feet – the ones you see from airplanes that look like circles and semicircles from 30,000 feet.
The cold crawled into us as we drove. Above us, a helicopter whooshed overhead as we turned west. The wind was terribly cold. I leaned myself against the bent knees of the quiet girl. She began to softly sing, he song softly lost in the wind. The caravan turned north again toward Bismarck.
After a half hour we passed a crossroad with 20 cop cars waiting for us. They were vastly outnumbered, and waited for us to proceed before pulling up the rear. Just as we approached Bismarck, a white pickup cut us off two cars behind the caravan. It was driven by a man in a neon orange baseball cap. He rode with his breaks on, attempting to break up the group to scatter us. The helicopter blades chopped up and down the string of cars, symbolizing our lack of transcendence. We passed him one at a time, all of us managing to get to the destination just west of town.
We arrived at a gravel road and turned south and parked in a large gravel lot. Cars rapidly parked and emptied. The road headed up the hill toward a DAPL supply yard, and on it, the native men and women had begun organizing themselves. There would be a ceremony on behalf of the natives while the whites guarded them in a circle, arms locked, like the diagram of a cell in a microscope.
I lined up in one of the three lines that had formed between the natives and the main highway. Photojournalists and videographers moved around the periphery. All of a sudden a white truck drove at us from the highway honking its horn. He pulled around the group of non-natives and headed for the ceremony. We all gasped as the driver drove directly into them, first around 10-15 mph, then he gunned it. I saw a group of native women fly off of the bumper and hit the gravel as he sped off.
Horrified, we returned to organizing the lines. Locked arm in arm, we followed the ceremony up the road. Someone in the white rows said, “It’s an honor to be here with all of you.” As we took the hill, another truck sped by. Gunshots rang out and people from the front yelled in terror – he’s got a gun! The driver had fired into the air and sped off into the DAPL yard. It was truly terrifying. Again we collected ourselves. Someone shouted, “They want us to feel afraid – don’t be!”
The sun was bright in the blue sky up at the crossroads. To the west were neat piles of stone of all different gauges, from sand to chunky boulders and many gradations between. East was a heavy machinery yard. We circled the natives as planned, standing with our arms locked together.
The helicopter took another pass partially drowning out the singer and his drum. He was a gracile man wearing a long black cape with some Alaskan art on it. Representatives from tribal communities and Black Lives Matter were in the middle. I felt odd about the crossover of movements but they seemed to be natural cohorts.
It wasn’t my party, but I was there to protect them. It was difficult to feel like the embodiment of what these movements reject: a hyper-mobile white dude from Northern California. A land formerly Mexico, and Pomo/Kashaya before that; each nation losing title with their loss of their economic and military technological edges.
We turned to face outward and were told to put on our goggles and facemasks. If we didn’t want to get arrested, now was the time to leave.
I was on the outer most circle. Our line was redirected to walk north toward the highway and block a road into the heavy machinery yard. The ceremony went on, and we went to meet the cops. Down in the yard was a military vehicle painted all black with the laughably understated named “POLICE” written on its armor-reinforced hood below bulletproof glass. Atop it was a large sound cannon. I recalled then an old woman who told me a story about this machine. “I’ve seen 6’4” men fall to their hands and knees and vomit before losing control of their bodily functions, and some of them could never hear again.”
Behind the POLICE tank were some 50 police officers in riot gear, brandishing neon orange-butted shotguns and automatic weapons. I applied my earplugs under my mask and goggles, and tightened my grip on the arms next to me by clasping my hands over my sternum.
We stood facing one another. The journalists crawled around looking for angles on the embankments. I had a mixed feeling of revulsion of their parasitic participation and gratitude that should this shit go wrong there would be headlines. Ahead of me in the first line I noticed a man from legal who had been distributing arrest forms. He wore no mask or goggles (although had glasses). His participation on these duel levels was vastly appreciable. I admired his unsqueamish resolve.
Part II: What I Know So Far…
After the prayer was completed we slowly backed down the hill free from arrest. I hopped into a car with a young man and his girlfriend. We headed back along the route with the caravan as before. We talked a bit about native relations with whites. He was from a tribe in California. I didn’t know he was native by his look.
It seems nothing here is what our eyes tell us. Even when I had joked in a 5-year old’s voice to a girl as we waited to load up, “This is a ‘Boy’s Only’ club,” she had retorted with “well then don’t go assuming my gender.” I felt ashamed and then sort of annoyed. There was nothing nuanced in this person’s appearance, but I’d also met folk who claimed to be aliens who had fooled me with their seemingly human persona. Telling anyone who they appear to be seems to be a no-no.
The drive back to camp turned a little sour for me when the driver asked me why I’d come. The first part was easy enough: Oil dependence is bad and we need to continue to send that message to the general public, and secondarily, I believe our nation has a psychic scar from its mistreatment of natives. We needed reconciliation. I offered him the idea that western culture and native cultures could gain by sharing. This was a loosely formed idea that if native communities were economically emboldened it would help them, and if westerners could be less materialistic and glean some of the land-based ecologically-spiritual ways of being, both parties would be the better. It was, like so many white thoughts, a Trojan horse. With gentleness, he told me that if I came to his reservation even to peripherally observe his culture no one would want to be my friend. Frankly, he didn’t know why the Sioux had invited us out there – his tribe would have done it themselves.
This triggered me, but one of my useless optional features is shutting down when triggered, so I stopped speaking. It was his reservation and they had every right to be angry at a white man asking for cultural transferences. After all, other than hate speech, dehumanization is also accomplished by glamorizing and deifying. I resented him then, and the Sioux. For all the work I had done here, in that moment, I felt an overarching lack of reconciliation or acknowledgement for my sacrifices. And yet just this morning I had seen an assumed DAPL employee share his (and arguably “our”) culture with the bumper of his vehicle to a group of praying native women.
I couldn’t stop feeling ashamed of us, regardless of my helpful involvement at Standing Rock. Like Satan said of God in Paradise Lost, that His love was so great that no amount of gratitude could requite it. This was part of why Satan rebelled against Heaven – to escape his emotional prison – which was created by the deeper desire to be God rather than to serve one.
This resentment was my mind trying to emancipate from what felt like emotional blackmail and my responsibility to this situation, which was somewhat inverse to Satan’s reasoning but perhaps as passionately untrustworthy. I did not resent the natives. I was looking for something in native culture that it couldn’t offer me, but I believed it could. Maybe it was a sense of belonging. Maybe forgiveness. I resented the pipeline and the policy makers for prioritizing a deadly commodity over water and reconciliation. Moreover, I couldn’t believe how inhumane the corporation and the cops had been to us. It was like a native brother had told me a week prior, “We expected this. This is normal to us.”
Part III: Reconciling
The creeping truth is that business and national security (oil dependent for sure) has a triage scale that is shorter than the scale considered by the Water Protectors. Business investors are easy to hate because they have the things many of us glamorize as the keys to a pleasant happy life, and they’re also huge dicks about it. National security, albeit beyond my analytical scope, does have energy considerations that I am less confident about wagging my finger at. These two entities, however, have been the natural enemy of natives since 1492, and I do not begrudge their anger.
One of my worst fears is that our work at Standing Rock is becoming glamorized. If it does, Standing Rock will turn into the way that people assuage their conscience, remind themselves they’re good folk, before returning to their normal lives. Don’t let it satisfy you – let it inspire you. There is still time. With the Trump presidency coming to a nation capitol near you, Standing Rock has become the new frontlines of an old war between two kinds of ideas: One that says we need a healthy environment more than oil, and the reverse. Of these two ideas, one is using the triage of immediate and middle-distanced national interests and the other is using the triage of long-term survival of the human race distinct from national interests. The longer we wait to halt the infrastructure projects that endanger our aquifers for environmentally-damaging commodities like oil, the less our chance of surviving as a species. To borrow from one of the Black Lives Matters’ speakers, “It is our job to win.”
If our culpability ends after we repost a political article on facebook, we are going to lose this fight.
It is times like this that I remember the sage advice of a dear friend. I threw my hand on my head, turned to the heavens and mumbled, “Why build a house you know will burn down?”
Plainly he told me, “You don’t build a house because it’s going to last. You do it cuz it’s fun.”
Standing Rock is a house.
The Prairie Nights Casino