I’m sitting in an army tent draped in string lights. The propane heater ran out as the barrel furnace became operational. A crew of happy hardworking stove fixers extended the chimney another few feet to stop the smoke from billowing back into the room. One of them cut his hand getting tools from the truck and his blood froze in the open air. The cold is deeper towards the tent walls, where bottles of water sit frozen useless. By the stove, it can be unbearable. The Goldilocks zone is somewhere between 18″-36″ from the barrel, where liquid melts but doesn’t evaporate. This is congruent with our planet’s distance from the sun. Right now, my hands are on the keyboard over Neptune.
As I write, I’m using my hand warmers to soften pieces of chocolate and keep my cell phone battery from succumbing to the freezing temperatures. A Baefeng FM transceiver periodically crackles on the dedicated medical and media channels, telling me stories that are too numerous to capture. Indoors my nose is dripping – outside handsome icicles form. Stopping Dakota Access, staying unified, and surviving the elements have all become ongoing tasks at Standing Rock.
The picture used to describe “triage” in grade school was a soldier hiding behind a log shooting at Indians. One Indian was leaping over the log with a tomahawk in hand, while the soldier shot at the Indian on a far hill. The question was posed, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Our triage today is to keep our bodies and our faith warm ahead of stopping Dakota Access, or, what is also called the “Black Snake.” It is not just a threat to water in the minds of Water Protectors. It is also a spiritual threat. As we descend into winter, our fires must stay lit.
The sacred fire was allowed to die yesterday. In a sense, it was the spiritual core of the camp. It was allowed to go out by the native men who had initially envisioned it. Their higher power instructed them to let it die. When I asked the son of one of the men, he told me the fire would be within us. We scrambled in the media room to find a way to report this. My editor asked me to come back from camp up to Cannonball to help in the effort, but before I left, a native woman spoke to me.
So what? she said rhetorically. A fire goes out. What does it mean? Another will be lit. I hope you miss your deadline. And what is your faith, exactly?
I’m just reporting the voice of the camp – I have no spiritual agenda here. Are you threatened by me writing about it?
I’m not threatened. I didn’t say that. Now you’re putting words in my mouth.
Well why do you want me to miss my deadline?
The interaction faded amicably, but I couldn’t understand her reasoning. Non-native reporters are, perhaps, not the best candidates to speak about spiritual matters. But we needed a simple explanation for the website… Every day in Oceti Sakowin Camp Media we wage an under-slept struggle to maintain the voice of the camp to the outside world via multimedia and copy. We clarify the will of leadership to the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, too. Because the media center is located in a gymnasium mess hall cum emergency shelter, we also double as stewards of the refugees from camp who have failed to protect themselves from the elements. Cots line the basketball court. Water is filled there by Jay, the water man. Donations are sorted by Kai and Sunny. The kitchen feeds everyone in the building. We even feed the native seniors when their dedicated food donations do not show up. At night, the painful lives of the reservation come drifting in for coffee, sometimes intoxicated, and stand over us as we hunch over our laptops, examining the novel occupation in their town. We also answer emails – thousands of them.
Regardless, I was concerned about the fire going out. Although it was politically incorrect, I too prayed with tobacco and cedar there. We all prayed there to collect ourselves and refocus our minds. Not being native, I try to refrain from appropriating traditions that aren’t mine, lest I suffer some kind of indigenous Jerusalem Syndrome. But it mattered to everyone. It was a fiery incantor, a Wailing Wall, friend and ally.
Before midnight, the youth had lit a new fire – the Unity Fire. During the first prayer around it, a dissenter spoke up. This person was one of the original sacred fire inceptors. They told the people not to put prayers into this fire – it had been put out for a reason – and we would be responsible for the Black Snake going under the river if we continued. Then, a new member of Standing Rock spoke up. His name was Chase Iron Eyes. He diplomatically calmed the youth and appeased the elders. The fire should die out, and another lit in ceremony. The process by which a thing becomes sacred in native communities is beyond this author’s expertise. Suffice it to say, it is not a democratic process. As an ally to the movement, I abide by their ways.
When an eagle flies overhead at Standing Rock, the people look up. They see a sign from the Great Spirit. They believe that Great Spirit called us to Standing Rock to oppose the Black Snake’s attempt to bite the water of life. Fires are lit and consecrated as sacred. A Sacred Fire is a multidimensional object, existing in this world and as something we carry within us. In this way, we align ourselves to the same piece of land for the same purposes.
Stocks and State Policy.
When the veterans arrived over a week back, the gym took on a goodly load of eager soldiers ready to serve the cause. I walked out to the bridge where the police barricades are set up, only to be told by one vet to turn around. On his chest was a “Homeland Security” patch (his day job, so he said). When I asked why, he told me, “For your protection.”
That’s what the police had been telling us from the start…
Camp was ill-prepared to accept the 2000 vets, and as a result, their deployment was not easily integrated or successful. The next day, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the necessary easement for Dakota Access to drill beneath Lake Oahe. This was hailed as our victory, for a few hours; then it faded. Some vets remained, but the rest marched out of town to Flint, Michigan, to demand their water be fixed. Before they left, many dropped to their knees to formally beg forgiveness from the native community. Within a few days, Congress passed a bill to fix the water pipes in Flint.
That brief victory against Dakota Access was compounded when a federal court in D.C. upheld the easement denial. Their next appeal is in February after Trump takes office. They claim to have lost 450 million, and 20 million each week hereafter. It will be close to a billion dollars in losses, which is close to the annual revenue expected from transporting crude to Illinois from the Bakkens via Dakota Access. This, too, is another victory. Although their stock has not yet dropped, some advisers are telling investors to avoid investing in Energy Transfer Partners.
Curiously, the helicopter is still flying and infiltrators still reside in camp. Recently, the internet cable in Oceti Sakowin was cut by a saboteur. People’s phones still turn on voice recorders and scroll internet sites, possessed by malware and digital interference. The drill is still putting out smoke in a vertical dive into the earth, and satellite imagery over the site is strangely out-of-date compared with surrounding maps.
I had the privilege of talking with an inside man, so to speak, who had worked in the oil industry all of his life. He was privy to the mindset of the men behind infrastructure projects like Dakota Access. These were not simply savage, greedy men, who operated without conscience. In fact, their reasoning reached higher than the concerns of average citizenry. These men believed – to their core – that they needed oil in ample supply in order to maintain the economy, geopolitical stability and domestic security. The crazy part wasn’t that I agreed with that assessment. Worse, I believed they had moral ground to stand on.
But what does that look like, exactly?
I am the descendant of a systematically slaughtered people. On my father’s side, our family came from Russia and Lithuania. Ninety percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany. One group decided another group had to go, either because they believed it or because it helped them control the greater masses by demonizing minorities. My mother’s side are mutts, but her father was the son of two Jewish orphans from New York City. Our people have been scattered and hunted by the greater culture because our story is different. When I see Standing Rock, in all of her imperfect attempts to unify, it breaks my heart in ways most people might not understand. Because it is undeniably a slower version of a genocidal policy.
People accept Jewish stereotypes because, like most stereotypes, they have a seed of truth. Why are Jews good with money? And why are they so funny? How come when you become friends with a Jew they instantly want to feed you? What’s with the guilt?
The Jews who couldn’t save money died. The Jews who couldn’t laugh at everything died. The Jewish families who didn’t cluster with other Jews in solidarity, to support them in the rough times – died. I have no theories on the guilt thing. Maybe it’s just perversely amusing. Maybe it keeps us together. Maybe it causes us to constantly consult our higher selves for guidance.
We survived. Despite continuing attempts to marginalize and destroy us, we managed to innovate ways to not let ourselves succumb to spiritual defeat, and therefore political defeat. Keeping our spirits alive is one of the hardest, and most central tasks at Standing Rock. Destroying the public expression of that spirit is the first step in destroying a people – and a movement.
I took a night at the casino down the road to reboot myself. I took a bath and slept in a large bed for the first time in six weeks. After breakfast I was approached by two friends, non-native allies from the west coast – burner types – who were reaching for higher vibrations than I could afford. We sat over a table of empty food trays and cups whose manufacture alone could have required thousands of gallons of fresh water to produce, and discussed how the movement was inspiring real change the world over. We were learning to listen to one another more. We were part of a global uprising. We had spirituality at our core – we had been called to stand at Standing Rock.
I bitterly laid into them. I was tired of sacred fires within a system of governance that couldn’t govern this many people. I was tired of seeing people attempt to personally gain from the movement. I was tired of feeling resented as a minority class in a cold landscape. I was tired of listening to people. Most of all, I did not want to be reminded that any of this mattered – especially by burners. Fucking Christ. We already had enough snowflakes in North Dakota.
I felt like an asshole. Without a continuing crisis, all of the pain and fear I’d live through was beginning to come up. These friends meant very well indeed, but I couldn’t hear it. As the momentum of the movement waned, I’d become antsy and restless. At camp, the moon waxed, catching a peaceful glow over the night. Even the DAPL lights seemed prettier, holiday-like, as they shot spires of light in the falling snow like iridescent prison bars.
When the Eagle Flies Over.
Our infighting has correlated with our anger against DAPL and the greater hegemony trying to destroy the Indian and save the man. Any voices of comradery are essential here. Any prayer that leads to authentically kind words is cherished.
Weeks ago, I was on an action west of Mandan at a DAPL supply yard where a white man in a truck drove into a crowd of prayerful Native American women just fast enough to shove them violently to the side. Afterwards, an eagle flew overhead as we stood facing a wall of riot police. Then, the eagle was our strength.
When these terrible doubts level my shrines, I can only look to the feeling that brought me here. We know this kind of energy infrastructure constitutes a suicidal policy. We serve every drop of red blood flowing in humanity with the donations and support heaped on us many times over.
There are hard times ahead for everyone. We must remember to pray to our higher power for guidance, consult our souls, and discourse with one another. We have no room for cynicism in this area of our lives – but plenty of gallows humor.
When the eagle flies overhead, I am exactly where I need to be.
After two days at the casino I was ready to come back. As I returned to the community center in Cannonball, my cell phone again reset. Some of the bigwigs of camp were in the media center. We were asked if our legal paperwork had been filled out. Apparently people were now being arrested outside of North Dakota. An unmarked SUV had also been spied down the street with a dash camera and no one inside. What was going on?
Earlier that day, I’d given an interview to a colleague who was creating a small documentary on the media room staff. I felt foolish for expounding on my political beliefs. I tried to rest, but my heart was racing. I felt afraid for speaking candidly about my deepest reasons for being at Standing Rock. I was afraid they would be used against me, or used to categorize me in some dossier, or against my colleagues, or my family. I wasn’t as important as all that, yet the possibility loomed.
That was really the point of all these little digital violations. A very different kind of eagle was flying over us – no one knew what it was capable of.
The Happy Ending.
Winter has been called the great equalizer. It prompted many to leave, and those that remain are hardier stock. The sun shines on blinding white snow, cast over smoking chimneys from tents and tepees. People live now within one page of a longer story wherein we fight to preserve the Lakota way of life, indigenous rights, and water rights. Corporate personhood strives to reduce these lands to assets measured in stock prices and preserve a way of life that contradicts native existence itself. To the Lakota, the land – and every resource we utilize today – has its own personhood. This legal precedent has gained traction in New Zealand where lands and rivers can possess legal personhood, allowing people to advocate for their rights. If non-sentient corporations are entitled to personhood, why not living lands and rivers, too?
When I look up, I see a bird. When the eagle flies overhead, it means exactly what I need it to mean at that exact moment.