Part I: Ready, Aim, Pray.
Yesterday’s action in Bismarck, North Dakota, reaffirmed to the world that the movement is rooted in our better selves.
The caravan rode bumper to bumper along the one hour route into Bismarck. We pulled into a staging area to organize the cars into four groups that would go in different directions. As we left, the police singled out one vehicle that had a significant native organizer in it. She was arrested on the spot and taken.
The cars all left for their respective destinations, parked, and everyone walked to the four corners of the capitol grounds. Once assembled, they marched to the front of the capitol building from the four directions. Pickets and flags rose into the air and the drumming and singing began in the front. The demonstration took form with a line of the four groups, symbolizing the four directions of the medicine wheel, marching into the street, south toward the federal building and toward the noonday sun.
Police vehicles sped around the protesters, attempting to confuse and redirect them, but at each major intersection the protesters blocked all four points, allowing the protectors to continue down to the federal building.
Some of the more important figures in the movement have gone missing in the prison system, undocumented, and above all else, this demonstration was to demand their whereabouts and condition.
Police cars and officers lined the route leading to the federal building. The chanting rose as the group of some 300-400 people congested the roads of Bismarck. For some, it was purely a civic action, for most, it was a prayer ceremony. For everyone, it was to distinguish ourselves from those who use violence and intimidation to crush the spirit of the movement. We greeted the police and they greeted us, albeit with tension.
The streets were lined with pleasant homes for people living the pleasant life. In the streets were crunchy leaves that reminded me of being a child, stomping in the crispy sound. The estates graduated from smaller homes to grand houses. They all had clean green lawns edging brown. It is no surprise that they were opposed to DAPL’s route above their primary water source – this place would not thrive if they forced oil and water to mix in their irrigation systems. On the reservation, they only drank the stuff.
Ahead of us, a barricade of police and civilian vehicles blocked a major traffic artery. A line of riot police stood guarding the breaches, wrapping around to the west in front of the federal building. The tension spiked as we approach imminent violence. A police officer stepped forward and asked for the spokesman of the group.
The security organizer of the action spoke to him out of my earshot. The chanting and drumming seemed proportional to the silent shifting stances of the black armored cops. In their hands were fire extinguisher-sized (family size?) bottles of pepper spray and long batons, beanbag shotguns, ziptie handcuffs affixed to their chests, and holstered firearms. We could go no further without incident.
A neutral zone formed between the line of non-natives and riot police. Our job was to protect the natives and elders who had been routinely targeted for arrest because of their strength to the movement. When you come to conquer a people – kill the medicine man – the people are vulnerable without their leaders.
A single tree stood between the western federal building and the tightly-defended water protectors. The night before I had dreamed of a dead tree below a cursed sky. On it hung partial skeletons twisting in a hot wind. I thought of the prophecy envisioned by the granddaughter of Sitting Bull, imparted to me by a friend. The woman had seen a vision while in a coma. In it, the black snake had come to go under the river. It was said that if this happened, it would be the fabled tipping point embodied in a literal moment, and all hope for rescuing the earth would be lost.
For an hour we held there. The protectors stood with great dignity and defiance to the intimidation of the police and DAPL. We were told this was an unpermitted demonstration. We did not care.
Prayers were offered. Songs were sang. Speeches lifted the movement’s legitimacy and hardened the resolve of the protectors. I walked the neutral zone with the journalists and less-arrestable types. If a hair fell and violence erupted, we would need to help those blinded by the mace to escape to safety.
A demand went out to the police from an organizer – we want to speak with our family who you have imprisoned – we need to know they are ok. Someone in the opposition told them they were not there. A native man leaned towards me to remind me it was a lie. I tried to understand how to help, so I captured video and audio and rolled cigarettes for people standing with locked arms.
People getting “lost” in the system was a problem for the movement. In my estimate, the only way these people have been imprisoned without trial is if they have been categorized as domestic or eco-terrorists. But there is the outside chance that the police had lost their files over the course of the 400+ arrests of the water protectors.
I stood under the tree between the cops and the demonstrators and said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” No one laughed, which was not a surprise. Tough crowd.
After a long, adrenaline-filled standoff, the prayerful protectors marched back up toward the capitol. Along the way, I found a “City of Bismarck Water Dept.” landscape flag. Whether or not it was understood, these water protectors were fighting for the principles of municipal interests as much as their own sovereign survival.
At the same time of our demonstration, another team of water protectors infiltrated a work site and shut it down for the day before falling back to a safe position. Prayer does inspire different tactics in folks. For that matter, so can an existential threat like having your only aquifer threatened. See Winters v. U.S. 1908 and the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
And it’s no surprise that this is effort is continuing into winter. On 11/14, the Army Corp of Engineers issued a robust statement calling for a halt to construction, in order to further investigate the impact of drilling beneath the Missouri River. Some hailed it a victory for the movement…
We are so desperate to have hope in our hearts, but unfortunately this CoE statement is likely another ploy to placate the movement into retreat. In fact, the exact opposite is the real outcome. It appears to be reconciliation, but fits the same pattern from the federal government – yeah, we’ll think about it, in the meantime, keep building, boys (wink)… I don’t buy it.
This statement is the false dawn of a mushroom cloud. The real sun has yet to dawn.
As a planet, we continue to abide incremental improvement without knowing where the point of no return is. We’ve seen our civil rights denied and our natural resources squandered by profit motive without regard for the mess it leaves behind. For many at Standing Rock, the prophecy of the black snake is a very real nightmare.
I’ve met so many people who have come to fight this because of a feeling, and I applaud them! But to me, it’s a terrible day when you ask yourself why you’re doing something, and the answer is, “Well, it feels good/right for me,” without inquiring more deeply into where that feeling is coming from. What do we do when our feelings get mixed up with ancestral trauma and our own trauma?
Part II: What I Know So Far…
At the demonstration in Bismarck, I met a girl who came here to heal from a sexual assault. She’d been living in her car for six months because she had PTSD and couldn’t hold a job. I asked if she felt that sexual assault was analogous to a destructive exploitation of the environment for personal gain. She adamantly answered ‘yes’ to my loaded inquiry, but I had my own reason for asking this. We walked quietly through the crunchy leaves before I confided with her that I too had been sexually assaulted.
I must have been around five when it happened. All I clearly remember was waking up in an older man’s arms, having been taken out of bed while sleeping at a friend’s house. There was the sensation of hands where they ought not to have been, then I left in that way imaginative people do – inward, where we cannot be harmed. I was good at this disassociation as a kid. I could sleep through roller coasters.
After I’d finished undergrad at a woefully late year in my twenties, I spent a summer camping in the desert. I was in Death Valley when an old memory came to me in a dream. I awoke in tears, terrified and alone, but safe. Outside, the brilliant night sky sang starlight in a universal language of reassurance. Although awake, I could feel the hand pressure on my body. The next day, the sunlight rose to warm everyone without discrimination.
For a year I denied it. Then I told people, slowly, but eventually it became meaningless to feature it as a part of my experience. But it applies here.
I wanted to kill the bastard, whoever he was… Where I ended up was feeling a sense that if I was going to become whole in myself, I’d need to rid the anger. It was then that forgiveness became an essential subject for me to understand.
This is part of why I am at Standing Rock. To learn how to forgive those who, from their own ignorance and pain, hurt us for their own gains. Despite knowing this, I still harbor a poisonous deep anger. One that threatens to go under the river of my better self.
I’m still hold general and directed anger. I have a lot of trouble going to protests against the pipeline. We are meant to come in prayer with peace in our hearts for all involved. I have not been a warrior since I arrived because, like my attacker, the pipeline seems beyond my forgiveness. I still do not know how to have the strength to forgive these forces. I’m told it is possible, and I’d like to believe it is true.
I’ve met real warriors here who have peace in their hearts. Without arrogance, they like or love who they are. I would like to be like that someday. Unfortunately, I still want to clock a motherfucker. Yet to protect myself first in this situation is to let down the cause. I came here to protect us all, even when our enemy reveals himself as my own anger.
How my anger manifests is as a feeling of being ugly, unworthy of love, and I disproportionately project it onto situations. It tells me I haven’t earned love yet. I say, maybe… Meanwhile, the sun warms me and moon and stars dazzle me like everyone else, when they can escape the clouds, mind you.
When the security apparatus protecting the pipeline attacks us, a little part of our hearts becomes doubtful that we deserve clean river systems and undisturbed graves for our ancestors.
For all of us, I will say because to say is to pray – you are deserving of love – you are deserving of clean water – your cemeteries deserve to be respected.
Consecrate yourselves, as a river, and like the land where your relatives will visit what you leave behind. Don’t let anyone put doubt into you. Unless you demonstrate respect for yourself, no one will give it to you. Without it, you risk being no better than those forces who seek to endanger this river system.
Unless we demand clean water and respect for our ancestors (and stand in solidarity with those who are being denied these things) the old system won’t stop fucking us out of our inalienable rights.
Part III: Why Standing Rock Is the New Frontline for Environmentalism
President elect Donald Trump is a known misogynist and accused rapist. He is, furthermore, an all-star oil advocate, with direct investment ties to the DAPL’s developer, Energy Transfer Partners. His presidency shoots across the bow of our values and our needs. We must heed this warning and understand one thing – how we respond to DAPL is sending a message to the Trump Administration about what kind of energy infrastructure we want and at what cost. The will of the people is going to be tested, because there are literally billions of dollars that want to grab us and our environment by the ‘you know what’.
The challenge lands at my feet as much as it lands at yours.