What Story Can I Tell?

“The Plains and Pacific Coast Indians ranged over larger expanses of land in their search for plants, animals, and shelter to meet their needs, and adopt seasonal homes to take advantage of natural bounty of different areas during different times of the year. Their movements were directed by natural events such as annual salmon spawning runs, periodic bison migrations, or seasonal abundance of nuts or grains. In some areas, Indian communities established more permanent settlements. Some dug irrigation channels and flood damns to capture water for their crops; some established villages where water and other resources were plentiful. These early water users viewed the resource with reverence; water was the life blood of their communities.”

–Searching Out the Headwaters: Change and Rediscovery in Western Water Policy

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A wind turbine drifting between two currents. Oceti Oyate, North Dakota.

Back to stand in the mud and the snow with the heavens above and the devil below. To the north is the army, the south BIA, to the east are floodwaters, and to the west are journalists begging to see for themselves what is really going on. The few steadfast men and women stand strong in their centers.

There was a time when Standing Rock was an active resistance with daily efforts to create havoc for DAPL and the greater communities. Those communities, Mandan and Bismarck, would be the primary beneficiaries of DAPL and would shoulder less risk to their communities. Standing Rock, like every indigenous community in the United States, would also benefit from the expanded wealth of our nation – however, Standing Rock would have to live with the consequences of this health hazard at the headwaters of their homes. Camp sent out caravans of a hundred cars in four directions to disrupt construction and make the voice of the people be heard. I remember laying in a pickup truck with five other people riding somewhere unknown. It was terribly cold in the open air, and we huddled together on the hour long pilgrimage into Bismarck. One girl began to lightly sing sweet lyrics swept up by the wind.

Our courage was reinforced through confidence in one another. We unified in song, prayer, ceremony, and actions. Camp was a light rolling comedy of people arriving with starry-eyed surprise, bursting with good ideas, as elders and natives rolled their eyes – oh, brother – have we got some decolonizing to do. Friends and relatives met in the dining areas after days chopping wood or building out camp for the new Water Protectors. From aerial photos, camp appeared to swell on the weekends and contract during the week, like a heartbeat pulsing four times per month. My body was exhausted at the end of every day. I would curl inside two sleeping bags and listen to the DAPL airplane circling as if strung on an infant crib mobile. Cognitive dissonance was at an all-time low: DAPL was in the north, your allies were in the south, and infiltrators were hard to spot. It was not the same at Standing Rock after ceremony died and dark days descended.

A Rambling Intro…

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Highway 24, North Dakota.

I drove to Bismarck to get my truck repaired. The snow blew across the road with that dreamlike silence. White light glowed on the canvas horizons. Snow is half light and half emptiness. It receives any light and shows you its shadows and curves like a wave simultaneously rising in the front and falling in the back. Snow builds up in drifts on the roadside. Tire tracks in the snow are how it tells stories in a medium that is constantly perishing and returning. Flattened to semi-permanence as ice, it becomes pure fate when your tires cease to hold onto the road. The only way to survive fate is to immediately accept your lack of control and don’t over-correct.

In this way, Standing Rock has gone from snow, to ice.

In Bismarck, the mechanic totals me out for the work. He and his wife work at separate stations decorated in feel-good knickknacks and photos of loved ones. The conversation turns toward Standing Rock. After touching on political and social touchstones. In truth, we didn’t have a great deal of disagreement. In the confidence of the office, he tells another difficult story.

It was a waste of time.

I asked how.

Most of the people out there have no purpose in their lives, and this is giving them the sensation of purpose – but only God can give you purpose.

Perhaps God has given them Standing Rock.

Why did you come out here? He asked.

I told him it had to do with Amy Goodman’s report on the dog biting incident.

You believe that happened?

Yes – would you like to see the video?

Well… Do you think it’s possible they did anything to deserve the dogs?

No. Do you?

He stepped around the question. I tried to keep it polite. I had a second appointment and his perspective was important to understand. What stories had he been hearing?

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Oceti Oyate, North Dakota.

After I returned to camp in mid-January, our media team was forced out of the Cannonball Community Center (CCC). It had provided sovereign legal protection, full internet, a kitchen and a place to sleep. Without option, we moved the team into several rooms at the casino. The Prairie Knights Casino Hotel is located 10 minutes south of the snowy encampments of Standing Rock. Suites became a sprawl of equipment and work stations. Our team had purchased field equipment using donations earmarked for Oceti Sakowin Camp Media, thereby expanding our optics of the movement.

But what were we looking at now?

Oceti Sakowin had been rebranded as Oceti Oyate since the Oceti Sakowin (7 council fire) had been extinguished. Some of the headsman from those 7 councils were still in camp, while others had left. Their tipis had created a crescent shape around the fire called it the Horn. The sacred fire had also been put out, and with it the ceremony had left. Camp was a decentralized amalgam of private camps attempting to cooperate in the fight to stop DAPL. I was convinced there was hope, but I’d become skeptical of the movement for several reasons.

Chase IronEyes had become a self-appointed voice for the movement, following in a long list of leaders and organizers who had come and gone. He denied the notion that he was a leader, however, in Lakota culture, a leader is someone the people naturally elect to follow. His influence was felt in camp even though he was only there part of the time.

The previous month, a friend had shown me photographs of a warehouse filled to the brim with goods donated to Chase’s organization Last Real Indians (LRI). While I had been in the CCC, I had personally unloaded so many of their donations that it had filled one-quarter of the gymnasium bleachers. With camp in crisis, I wanted to know these supplies were being used. I’d heard rumors of numerous warehouses filled with donations to LRI from folk who’d worked in them. How was it being allocated?

The rumors at Standing Rock are nearly constant, were often ploys to discredit people, and were largely unfounded. I had no personal gripes with Chase himself, but I needed to investigate further.

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Army tent. Oceti Oyate, North Dakota.

Understandably, in the rush to fight DAPL, financial officers had not been elected who understood transparency. So, I broadened the story, and began looking into online funding platforms keyed to Standing Rock. There were thousands of private funding efforts online. I tried to understand how Sacred Stone, Rosebud, Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, Medical Council, Water Protector Legal, the veterans groups, non-profits and the Standing Rock Tribal Council were allocating their donations. All tallied, I modestly estimated 20 million dollars might have been raised independent of physical donations. Every shred of cloth and dollar donated was the good will of tens of thousands of benefactors. There were so many jackets they were used in construction as insulation to keep out the North Dakota freeze. I wanted to know that cash donations and supplies were being used ethically and expressly for the cause.

During my inquiry, an old friend came to warn against pursuing the investigation. At first, he dismissed my concerns, then he claimed I would be killed or hurt. When I refused to let it go, he accused me of trying to gain at the cost of the movement – then he said that he would distance himself from me if I went after leadership. After looking into corruption I myself was now being accused. After a long fight, we parted ways. The next day he and his traveling companion attempted to discredit me publicly online. I felt like Caliban to their Stephano and Trinculo. Without recourse to debate, I blocked them on all platforms and moved on, disappointed but unhindered.

Due to intense stonewalling from every major fundraising entity associated with Standing Rock, I was unable to complete my inquiries for an article… I could not say if my concerns were real. However, it made me ask another question that helped me notice a new story – Why was it so difficult to tell some stories about Standing Rock?

Social, Sexual, Ecological Ruin

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In a composting toilet stall by medical in Oceti Oyate, North Dakota.

The residue of past trauma burst into catharsis on the landscape of resistance and rejuvenation at Standing Rock. There is chaos and disorganization, like the wreckage of some spiritual frat party. Garbage is pushed into behemoth piles of snow, then loaded into trucks which Morton County weighs (snow accounting for well over half of the matter) and uses the stats to libel the camp’s image. The flags have been taken down and moved to Sacred Stone. Bureau of Indian Affairs amass at the casino, ready to enforce the move out deadline set by the tribe. All the land is muddied in the warming spring air. Like some biblical tale, Standing Rock will end in a great flood, cleansing the land with the force of gods more ancient and intolerant than our prayers can placate.

In the bathrooms by medical there were anti-rape slogans tagged on the stalls. Sexual assault at camp had become an all-too-real concern for women (and men to a lesser degree). In my investigation, I was given medical documents that showed a statistical abstract dated between the new years and middle January – There was about one sexual assault per day at Oceti Oyate. According to my contact, victims were afraid to report the attacks because they didn’t want to be looked down upon, or to discredit the movement. Drug and alcohol use, which was less common in camp before the New Year, were factors in many instances. I wondered if the breakdown of the spiritual ceremony had brought darkness into camp. There was another shadow now – I had to ask why this person was telling me this story.

I asked the contact why they wanted me to tell this story. Their answer was fairly unabashed – I want this all to end – There’s no good coming out of camp; not against DAPL, nor for indigenous rights. As I listened, it occurred that if I were the FBI, I would definitely want these kinds of stories to circulate. We’d seen this kind of rumor in camp, but never proof of it. Infiltrators loved spreading scary stories through camp. As an example, on one occasion, a man had come into the media room around midnight to show us video of actual shooting at the frontlines – he’d seen it – a truck with two men was shot at – the passenger and driver were missing… The video showed no bullet holes, and the sound of shooting was inconclusive. He went on to talk about his poor dear friend, a young boy from back east, whose mama was worried sick about him! But he’d looked out for him since his arrest at the Canadian border by sending him money for jail food down in Pierre, South Dakota. Then he shined us on for being great people, scanning us for our reactions. I hadn’t seen acting this good since junior college. I wouldn’t have been certain of it except everyone else in the room all agreed the guy’s story was ultimately designed to panic the camp, his evidence was shit, and he was shady.

Sitting across from my contact in medical, I had no way of knowing if they were FBI, Tiger Swan, or just a concerned citizen who was sick of dealing with rape. I opted to tell the story with first-person victim testimonies, and to thereby empower victims to give this crisis context. After, I’d ask the Medical Council, Standing Rock Legal, Standing Rock Tribal Council, and the Horn all weigh in. Let it be condemned, and damn the movement if self-reflection was so threatening.

After I told my contact the plan, she left for two days to help source testimonials, and came back with bruises on her neck and arms. She had been attacked in the bathrooms, she told me. The bruises on her neck seemed blotchy and inconsistent with a cable she’d claimed had been wrapped around her neck before using her knife to stab him in the belly. Was this proof enough? Not for journalistic standards, no.

How could I truly know?

Another social worker I spoke to gave me another perspective. She argued that Neocolonialism itself was what caused the high levels of rape specific to native country. Statistically, there was a higher rate of sexual assault in native communities than the rest of country, however this coincides with higher rates of poverty. The social worker confided that she had been involved in activism her whole life, and had been sexually assaulted on several instances.

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The Moon: another feature of Standing Rock.

There is a general trend within the psychically-walled story of camp that accuses the major problems in life on colonialism. One man suggested that native communities were egalitarian before western contact. I asked him if he knew that Sacagawea had been a slave of the Mandan people before joining the Lewis and Clark mission. Or that many tribes were raiders who constantly warred on technologically-equal footing with their indigenous neighbors prior to western contact. Were Europeans really responsible for all the darkness here? Could I tell that story without incurring the wrath of the Standing Rock mindset?

I went to a native elder whom I respected to ask for more information. He warned me about telling this story as well… Don’t give them a headline they’ll use against the movement. You’re a non-native trying to talk about a native issue. This argument I flatly disagreed with, but he kept going. There are generations of trauma that are being brought into this camp. Many of these victims were bringing their outside relationship dynamics and drug use into the movement and being attacked by people they know. Readers won’t understand that. They’ll just see it as characteristic of the movement. If you do publish this, you should wait until later when it won’t hurt us – It doesn’t matter how you say it – They’ll use it against us.

I wondered if he’s say the same to someone who had come to help stop DAPL only to sacrifice more than anticipated. It was getting harder to find out how to tell any story, much less a happy one.

My purpose was not to disparage the movement with inconvenient truths or demand it self-reflect more than anyone else. Sexual assault and human trafficking, for instance, are a huge component in the economy of man-camps that build oil pipelines such as Dakota Access. Governments, businesses and little old ladies all blow other people’s money. But my native friend was right – The mainstream media was eager to smear the movement, and state officials were only too excited to highlight any blemishes in order to justify violence toward Standing Rock. The political environment in D.C. itself was rife with political secrets that could damage much larger investments in national leadership. The risks of talking about financial abuse and sexual assault was not overstated.

I was playing in political waters, asking what I believed were important questions, while men with guns waited over the hill for public opinion to turn against Standing Rock. The movement was trying to save the planet starting with the Missouri River. But was the movement worth one rape per day? Was it ethical or reasonable to moderate this by comparing sexual assault to environmental catastrophes caused by oil spills?

Warriors and Freedom Fighters

Personal politics are of the deepest essence at Standing Rock. Factioning within the movement did not exclude the sense of unity, but it did complicate it. For me, seeing the presence of kafias (the traditional Palestinian head scarf), while simultaneously seeing a rise in anti-Semitic narratives cropping up in American politics, pushed me back into a place of concern for the safety of my community. For some, Standing Rock is primarily about environmental policy reform and civil rights, while for others, it seems to be a leverage point to break the system and start over. Although I do not believe we are at that point as a nation, there is a place for such perspectives and I do understand the sentiment. Israeli politics, which I don’t profess to fully understand, are viewed with the same “damn the man” political anger by many at Standing Rock. As a Jewish person, I found the equating of US state policy and Israeli state policy as misguided. In terms of timescales, I saw more similarities between Jews and Native Americans than Native Americans to Palestinians.

UFC fighter Ronda Rousey made a quick visit to Standing Rock early this year. I’m reminded of her last two UFC fights. Defiant and cocksure, Rousey entered the ring with Holly Holms in November of 2014 with the hubris of a 10-0 winning streak and refused to touch gloves. The underdog, Holms, methodically worked her over for a KO win. It was satisfying to see a rude, albeit brilliant Goliath, get put in their place. A year later, Rousey was back in the ring with Amanda Nunez. The fight lasted 48 seconds and was Rousey’s second loss. This time, it was a painful spectacle.

The spirit of the fighter is an immortal ideal. Many people at Standing Rock are underdogs to some to degree, wishing to be inhabited by the strength of a warrior in order to protect what they love, and what is considered sacred. As with Palestine and Rousey, the perception of oppression doesn’t always coincide with the track record. As a UFC champion, Rousey’s support of Standing Rock was important, but her status as non-indigenous citizen of North Dakota for me was greater. She came with a spirit of perseverance and support between communities, which meant more to the movement than a publicity stunt.

The story of Standing Rock is in the quiet, unnoticed struggle of many hundreds who will never ask for acknowledgement. Some of those stories can be told. Most will exist between the Water Protectors and their higher power.

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The thawing in Oceti Oyate, North Dakota.

With the pending eviction of all Water Protectors on February 22nd, time has run out for this chapter. Whether or not DAPL was stopped, it is important to remember that, like the Occupy Movement, a basic meme has been injected into the greater society that is a great success. For Occupy it was the concept of “the 1%”, for Standing Rock – Water is Life. As with any struggle, this fight will continue beyond Standing Rock.

The native elder I spoke with asked me, why I have focused so greatly upon these darker aspects of Standing Rock. Why am I not telling the stories of those silent masses working in camp? Since this is anything but secular journalism, I will clarify – should little brother movements develop out of Standing Rock, they need to learn from our mistakes. One lesson may be not letting writers tell whatever story they want, or demanding 100% accountability and transparency in any fundraising efforts, and another might be to truly protect their members and actively eliminate threats within these movements themselves. Because of my experience at Standing Rock, I feel deeply responsible for the safety of those who come to fight in alignment with their principles, and that no harm come to them from their fellow warriors.

 “When we deny the evil within ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves, and we deprive ourselves not only of our own destiny but of any possibility of dealing with the evil of others.” –J. Robert Oppenheimer