“What, after all, is an animal worth, or a mountain, or a redwood tree, or an hour of human life? The market gives us a numerical answer based on scarcity and demand. To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.”
Excerpt from Richard Heinberg’s The Primitivist Critique of Civilization.
After the veterans arrived, the movement reached a powerful victory. The Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement required to pass the Missouri River. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) then challenged the decision in federal court, but were denied. Unfortunately, our literal tears of joy were short lived. On January 20th, President-elect Donald Trump would assume office. He promised to resume the project. Over the next two weeks, ETP’s stocks didn’t seem to drop. Either their merger with Sunoco was bolstering them, or the investors felt reassured this was going to still pay out.
I struggled to find focus then. The media room, situated in the community kitchen and office space, had become more of a logistics engine, servicing the emergency shelter in the main gymnasium. People came and went, clouding up the workflow for the media team. I’d secured a small army tent down in camp for a few media people, yet no one left the comfort of the warm community center. My nights in camp felt forced.
The sacred fire had been put out. In light of the easement denial, its purpose had been served. We were downsizing camp and sending folks home. The barren icefield that had been Oceti Sakowin was encumbered with people who were ill-equipped to handle the elements. The cold was deep and terrifying. With the wind, the chill was -50F on some days. Those who knew how to continue the movement stayed.
We winterized. Medics went around checking tents and assisting those unable to support themselves. Saboteurs continued to spread rumors about chemical spraying, forced evictions, and a deliberate opening of the Garrison Damn to kill us all. Even leaders I respected spread these rumors, not realizing they were panic-inducing and likely fallacious. There were real worries. New laws were being proposed to harshen the penalties for movements like Standing Rock – labeling us as “economic terrorists.” The slippery slope into fascism was becoming hydrophobic. The price for empowering ourselves will only increase if we do nothing to stop these kinds of laws from becoming normalized.
We worked on media between Oceti Sakowin and the Cannonball Community Center (CBCC). The basketball court had become an emergency shelter for those needing safe haven. It made sense – we couldn’t risk anyone dying – that’s exactly the kind of headline that would justify a forced eviction. So we set up cots, cooked food, arranged security and medical support. The Red Cross refused our request for cots and allegedly Morton County’s as well, in order to avoid appearing to “take sides.” Meanwhile, Amnesty International had warned us not to travel alone at night; this was the time in movements when people began to disappear.
People came in to escape the tiresome conditions in camp. We were supposed to be a 48 hour layover for the evacuees who were leaving. We offered bus tickets to any destination in the country – for free – as long as camp was reduced to folk who could live – and work – in these bitter conditions. Dogs from the reservation came into the shelter to stay warm, too.
I stayed up late one night reading a piece of writing by a native brother from camp. He was a true warrior in his spirit. I saw greatness in him. His words were passionate, but it was written to a native audience and whites wouldn’t understand his anger. I begged him – show us what has happened to you. His voice was the voice we needed to hear most. The structure was weak (if that’s not too ironic for me to point out) but his heart was within every word. Slowly, piece by piece, I worked over the writing to understand the entire image, and it broke me. I wept at my desk in the middle of the night, furious for not seeing it sooner.
Poverty, and the unregulated welfare state seemed structurally designed to destroy these people.
A few weeks prior, someone had confided in me that once we started receiving cash donations, people started acting weird. This wasn’t just Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, Red Warrior and Sacred Stone. It was anywhere money had been donated to support the cause. The money itself was like acid, corroding the trust between people who had largely come from little means. It was like opium poppies lulling us to sleep only miles from the emerald city. It was the snake in the grass. It was the oil under the river. If money and power were synonymous, anyone with enough could simply say “fuck you” regardless of rank. And yet we needed it to survive this intense struggle and persevere against DAPL.
I was working security one morning at the Cannonball Community Center when a native man in his 30s blew into the building with a wide gait and tried to push past the desk. His long hair was bound in a red handkerchief. There were a few folks around the desk with us when I stopped him.
“Woah buddy. Can I help you with something?”
“Yeah. I’m here to get a coffee,” he locked eyes and swung back, “Maybe take a shit. Whatever I feel like. Fuckin’ white man.”
He disappeared into the bathroom and slammed the door as best the swing arm would allow. When he came out, I tried to engage him again.
“Well, who are you?”
“I’m security here,” he stood over me now. “For the whole camp!”
“Ok… I’m security for this building. It’s my responsibility to know who comes in. We’ve had a lot of theft.”
“Do you know who I am? I keep tabs on everything – I check elders who are out of line – You didn’t even start off with a simple, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ like a decent person. Maybe I’ve had a long week, huh?”
“Yeah, and maybe I’ve had a long week, too. We all work our asses off, man,” I said, trying to keep face, like him.
“Maybe you’re rude and should have some respect,” his brown eyes burned at me between the group of natives and non-natives.
“You know…” I replied, “Why is it that we come out here – at the request of the Lakota and at our personal risk – and after months of work still end up being treated like shit?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s your manners,” he said, shifting his stance.
“Forget it. Sorry I was rude,” I extended my hand to end it. He shook it with hate in his heart. I couldn’t say I blamed him.
I let someone else take the desk for the rest of the day. I was embarrassed, and angry. It was a job, and it needed to be done; to kick out drunks and watch for thieves. If it wasn’t me, it was a medical doctor who had way better things to do. The fight at Standing Rock was turning into ego tiffs. I hadn’t been alone for more than a night in six weeks. I smoked a pack a day. I lived in a brine of coffee. People were becoming fucking annoying, for everything, and it had nothing to do with what side they were on. Nothing felt sacred anymore. Not for me.
I left for the holidays. It took two days in the wind and snow to reach Denver.
A friend took me on a hike above my alma mater in Boulder. The peach and red sunset caught the clouds on fire and bathed the pines and red rocks in a glow that felt like the purring of a cat under the chin. I thought about my friends back at Standing Rock. Everyone was sick with cigarette smoke and fevers and sleeplessness. The deep grey clouds in the east caught the lip of earth’s shadow as the sun set behind the Rockies. We walked back to car and turned on the heater.
I stayed with a friend from college in Denver. That first night, we went to an apocalypse/conspiracy theory-themed art show called “Flee for your life Market.” Two black and gold Egyptian mannequins faced off over the patrons in the green lasers and fog of the main room. It wasn’t a very large space, so every ten seconds there was a slipping between folk. Small placations in a small world with house music. The art itself was mostly small plastic cubes with paintings in them, often crusted in crystallized sugars.
On the tables were the works of other local artists, bracelets, gold-cast hands, photo lenses, developer timer, homegrown crystals, and orange-themed food like satsumas and cheese balls. I reached in for one. They evaporated into salt without needing to use my teeth. The last time I’d seen these snacks they were being spooned by a homeless man in their plastic drum and scattered about his bedding on the streets of San Francisco. It was awful gaudy. I didn’t feel like I was having the emotional experience of being in the apocalypse – or living a dystopic conspiracy theory. I moved to the back of the room next to the beverage tender.
Then a tear gas canister ignited at the back of the room. My heartbeats jumped and my breath became shallow. No – wait – that’s a fog machine. I poured a glass of water and sipped it. I remembered the night of November 20th, Backwater Sunday, and felt the emotional terror of the water protectors as state forces intimidated us with their weapons of war. I remembered evil. A wave of sadness overwhelmed me as the fog machine fired again.
I remembered the girl next to me taking a shot to the head and falling with a scream. I remembered fighting my own cowardice that night, wishing I was the man I needed to be to walk in that volley of projectiles and anger from the hearts of Sheriff Kirchmeier and CEO Warren and whoever else didn’t mind shooting at women to expand their interests.
The report from top medical staff at Oceti Sakowin who dealt with the injuries that night reported waves of specific injuries – crotch shot, crotch shot, crotch shot, headshot, headshot, headshot, wounded knee, wounded knee, wounded knee.
The third time the fog machine hissed a cloud into the room, I had to leave. As I walked out, the sugar encrusted art looked like the ice coating the guard rails of Backwater Bridge beneath the cold blue lights of Dakota Access.
Two days later, I caught the California Zephyr 5.
The train headed west from Pufferbelly Station beyond the western slope of the Rockies. Desert and tumbleweed replaced the mountains and pine. Snow became rain in the dusk. A stillness began to replace what had become a constant feeling of tension. I’d fled into cigarettes to the point of near-chain smoking. With the dilemmas of Standing Rock deeper in the northeast, I became calmer. Steel rolled on steel up to Provo and Salt Lake City. I took two sleeping pills and chugged a chocolate milk brand called ‘Promised Land’.
Seven years ago, I was riding a train back to Bangkok with the peaceful relief that I was returning home. I’d had something of a spiritual experience in Thailand. The yoga practice I’d explored for two months had cracked me open, and showed me a level of reality that loved without judgement. From the window seat of the California Zephyr, I felt a revelation coming from the same place, asking me to rest now. It was the most peaceful 34 hours I’d felt in the almost two months at Standing Rock. Like Thailand, it will take years to fully understand how Standing Rock has changed me.
The next morning, we were riding into sunrise through the open basins of Nevada. The Egyptians believed the earth, Isis, was the sister of the sky-god Osiris. At night, she swallowed the sun and her brother fell upon her. Every dawn was her rebirthing of the sun over the renewed world, ghost towns and all. I thought about the contradicting feelings from Standing Rock, and settled on a simple memory that made me smile…
She’d seemed isolated. The police had been abusive to her. The people of Mandan had ridiculed her. She was alone at Standing Rock. We sat in her car one evening in Rosebud, facing the Cannonball River towards the lights of DAPL, over the fires of Oceti Sakowin.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“I want to be an Indian.”
“You are [East] Indian.”
“No I mean Native American.”
“Is that fucked up?”
“That’s a little fucked up.”
She insisted on playing Play with All the Colors of the Wind. I sat – terrified – and drew on my cigarette. We were two non-natives in a car at Standing Rock listening to the soundtrack to Disney’s Pocahontas. Indeed, we were children in this land. Any outsider, regardless of age, is a child in the places they travel.
“All of the lyrics are native values!” she insisted. “Seriously – why is this song wrong?”
She knew why it was wrong. She wanted to hear me say it, “All of the melodies and rhythms are from our culture. There were no native drums, or voice actors, or languages. She is drawn to match our aesthetic. And it’s probably historically bullshit.”
“Yeah… I still want to be an Indian.”
“But you are Indian.”
“God I hate you.”
All conversations here are memories – and are therefore facsimiles with elements of invention.