Saying Goodbye to Oceti Sakowin

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver

 

The Day We Left

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Prayerful exodus from former Oceti Sakowin. Standing Rock, North Dakota.

People congregated in the 7th Generation kitchen for coffee, snacks, and to thaw out by the barrel stove. Veterans, water protectors, renegades, rascals, rapscallions, patriots and political prisoners; all hung onto the last few hours in a place that had cultivated us with truth and beauty for many months. The prior day, a great thundercloud came out of the west drawing flashes and purpled fingers and roaring over the camp and police reminiscent of tephra.

We had less than 24 hours before the insurgence of law enforcement officers reclaimed Oceti Sakowin under Army Corps jurisdiction.

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Structure fire, Oceti Sakowin.

I woke up on February 22nd and headed to camp. Camp leadership and media waited on 1806 in a light sleet for the general from the Army Corps of Engineers and his entourage. They approached followed by an excavator. The players negotiated how those in the camp in passive resistance would be treated. It was agreed there would be people in prayer. The general listened, nodding with acknowledgement. The governor’s spokesman asked if heavy equipment could come in today during the day with police escorts to begin cleanup. Leadership declined, asking for our camp to be given time for closure. Media would be provided with a designated media zone up on 1806, but would have to leave after 2pm to make room for the army to move in.

After 2pm, anyone left in camp would be guilty (minimally) of federal trespassing charges. One legal source suggested that this was good – as federal court would have less intrinsic bias against water protectors than North Dakota.

That night I’d stayed up worrying. A rumor had circulated that there was a weapons cache in camp. According to a former military specialist in camp, this was a classic FBI/AFT move – to plant weapons by way of an infiltrator, thereby demonstrating that the true nature of non-violent movements is in fact militancy. It might sound like a cooked up conspiracy theory, but there is a strong precedent already in existence. We had no way of knowing if the rumor was true per se.

Rumors and wishful thinking are the two most abundant resources. As an idea, it was deadly. The entire movement could have been dragged to its knees with the loss of any life, especially if our side appeared to fire first.

The team deployed to Standing Rock. Our media group searched for salient optics in camp. I slogged across the muddy fields of former Oceti Sakowin. The thaw had softened the ground and bled the snow into a thick, tire-torn sludge. Chunky snowflakes were falling. I remember when this land was prairie grasses padded down from the heavy foot traffic of protectors in service to the Sioux and water. Those hard grounds turned to mud as the cold nights of November had become January’s deathly fingers even on sunny days. I walked out to see the Hogan burning in a soft circle of orange flames. I didn’t talk to anyone there. Time was slowly ending in camp. Structures were lit up by folks of spiritual inclinations and rascal convictions; the wood burned just the same. Ash and snow became indistinguishable as they fell from the sky.

 

Waiting for Exile

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Water Protectors at Backwater Bridge. November 2014.

By noon I began to grow tense. We had a significant resource atop media hill – a large school bus – and I wanted to save it. Part of us felt a strong ‘fuck it’ attitude. Let’s ride this out and let the bus sail into history with Oceti Sakowin. It was up to everyone to decide what their part needed to be. As the hours passed, no one had a clear answer if they wished to stay and face arrest or leave.

At 1pm, a call was put out around camp for a ceremony. A sacred fire was burning by old flag road. Water protectors gathered around the speaker. A man spoke… We will not give them the satisfaction of taking us by force. We will, instead, offer a prayer and a round dance before walking to the evacuation busses by Echo 2 (the southern gate of Oceti Sakowin). Anyone who wished could, of course, stay and make a stand for treaty rights. An elder spoke, thanking us all for having come in service in fighting the black snake (DAPL). I stood with a boot in both worlds then, one as a white journalist, the other as someone whose heart had fallen for the movement. Men and women cried around the fire in a collective release.

The protectors marched up flag road to Echo 1 (north gate). I rushed alongside in the mud and snow, trying to take a photo that wasn’t filled with journalists trying to take the same shot. Behind them, a structure was going up in an immolate blaze casting a stream of black smoke to the sky. They marched through the gates and onto 1806. A Gadsden flag hung on the gate, harkening to the American Revolution with the classic defensive rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me” whipping on a northern wind. A makeshift spike strip (2×4 and nails) was laid out after them, razor wire drawn across the entrance, and the main gate into former Oceti Sakowin.

A friend found me at Echo 1. He’d been at court that morning for his arrest on Last Child Hill.

You made it back!

Yeah, I made it. I had to help out. There’s too many people here I need to help – to keep safe.

His eyes were moist and his voice waivered slightly. He was the kind of man who wants to keep everyone safe while at the same time abandoning their own well-being. His demeanor was like that of many die-hard water protectors.

I embraced him and pleaded, don’t forget to include yourself in the list of people that need saving. This place is a runaway train. Please, take care of yourself, too. These people have made their choice – that doesn’t make it your responsibility.

Yeah, but I do feel that way… I can’t not be here.

We parted ways. The security volunteers by Echo 1 prepared the checkpoint for ritual annihilation by filling it with hay bales and timber before generously dousing it with gasoline. Behind the building was 1806 covered with media and cops. Those on the ground took a few steps back as the security volunteer struggled to light the torch. With a soft underarm, the torch went through the door. FOOM! The instant force of the explosion ripping the walls from the 4×4’s at each corner.

 

Exodus

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Debris in Oceti Sakowin.

Black smoke rose toward the reservation in the south. We could see a Toyota pickup burning from atop media hill. Random booms came from a nearby structure fire as compressed gas bottles (LP or propellant canisters) ruptured deep in the flames. My friend Erick stationed himself with a few friends in a yurt next to the medical tent on the hill. He’d stay and attend the sacred fire. I did not have the same resolve to stay in my heart, or if I did, I was too scared to embrace it. To the south, people marched across the frozen Cannonball River dragging their possessions in sleds like refugees escaping a war zone.

At 2pm, media members scrambled to get one of our vehicles off the hill. The white van was sliding down the slick eastern face of the hill. We threw straw and cedar compost shavings behind the tires and tried to pull backwards. The van peeled out from its slick position, rolled back up the knoll and turned around down the northern slope toward Echo 1. I’d forgotten to tell him it was shut. A minute later the van blasted across the mudded fields like a great white torpedo and made exodus through Echo 2.

We stayed until 3pm. Overhead, flocks of wild geese ribboned over the sky as they had for the past week. The risk of arrest increased each hour. Without confidence in this showdown being 100% peaceful, I left. It took us until 4pm to jump the bus. In the last hour, I pinched out a palm full of tobacco and prayed and said goodbye. As the bus warmed up we angled our descent from the hill.

The bus had no breaks whatsoever. Once we began, it would have to be perfect or the top heavy 19,000lb bus would slide down into camp like a sinister, albeit hilarious, textbook demonstration in friction coefficients, mass and gravity. Two other protectors keen on escape joined us, and we began the descent. As we began the police lined up outside Echo 1.

The bus pulled to the right and rolled into the first depression, then up another slight hill before dropping down the snowy southern slope. The bus rocked side to side as we slid down ice and mud toward piles of logs and random debris at the bottom. With no shortage of relief we arrived at a rare grassy patch in the south of camp completely surrounded by mud of unknown depth. After was Echo 2 cleared of traffic, the bus pulled forward like a great steel mud puppy. A lamp hanging on a hook swung around and smacked into the driver side bulkhead knocking the D-batters down into the stairwell. The driver cranked the wheel to the right then accelerated up the graveled exit toward 1806 with a guttural roar.

 

What We Eat

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Water protectors writing the legal support number on their arm, Oceti Sakowin.

After several BIA checkpoints we made it to the casino. The high emotions and levity faded throughout the evening. We waited around for the team to come back. I hadn’t eaten a meal all day.

Our chief of media, John, took the team out to the haute Hunters Club at the casino. It was a kind gesture, meant with a spirit of gratitude and celebration, but it felt wrong somehow. I’d gone from slogging across camp in sleet ash to sipping California Syrah and listening to oldies music beneath turtle shell glass chandeliers. Our friends were still down there. The police hadn’t moved on them yet. Camp was still standing, and here we were with two sizes of forks and waiters who attentively refilled my water glass every five minutes. I couldn’t handle it.

Two members hadn’t made it back, so two of our team left the dinner table before the food arrived to go find them. I tried to comment on the confusion of contrast between muddy camp and posh dining, but it wasn’t a happy table topic. I felt grief and shame welling up in me. My colleagues tried to gently coax me back to appreciating the moment. They didn’t understand. I excused myself from the table and went to the gaming floor.I smoked a cigarette by a slot machine that paid out at exactly 96.40% and smoked a cigarette that was 100% killing me.

I prayed that the general from the Army Corps’  was a good man. The man held more power over my friend’s lives than anyone within 100 miles.

My friend from camp walked by. He read me quick and sat down. I started to sob as quietly as I could and told him I regretted leaving camp and being here. Camp was like a mother to us. I’d prayed with comrades and dropped my tobacco in ceremony. I was heartbroken for a place which I had never wanted to lose, and yet had allowed myself to leave. At the time, it felt pragmatic. I was happy it had ended – I had wanted it to end – I did not know it how much it would hurt to let her go.

Now that I was in this casino, I couldn’t use my journalism to protect people there or inform the general public. I’d let myself down, and them – and we were of the Oceti Sakowin. Fillet minion tastes like shit when you’ve lost the battle.

He listened quietly. After I’d shaken some of it out, he made me eat my own words…

What’d that you said back in camp? Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too? I’m here right now because of what you said to me, and because other folk also told me the same exact thing…

Later that evening, a group of BIA cops surrounded three men who’d been caught smoking weed on camera. BIA cops at the casino felt like an old Warner Bros. cartoon where the main characters clock-in and clock-out of their roles.

I took a seat in one of the leather chairs of the lobby and watched BIA detain the three men to look for priors. The youngest of the three was physically nervous, the second seemed like he just wanted to get out of the situation. The third and largest man was a firekeeper from camp, and he refused to leave his fellow protector’s side. An officer pulled his taser and threatened him if he refused to comply. To my knowledge, tasers are primarily used for violent and aggressive suspects and not uncooperative non-violent ones. So, they manufactured it.

A captain came over and pulled his arm behind his back. The man pushed his arm back up, making him appear resistant. Now he was guilty of resisting arrest for disorderly conduct. With a snap, the taser prongs landed in his chest. His ribs had been broken from a fall in camp a few days prior. He screamed and fell over a chair, then rolled onto the carpet. People let their cameras start rolling just before the snap of the taser, making the incident seem highly biased in favor of the suspect. Granted, he was uncooperative and stoned, but I wondered why the police had no middle tactics from formal request to the implementation of state violence.

 

The Raid

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Erick praying at gunpoint. Photo credit: Christopher Francisco, Oceti Sakowin Camp Media.

erickOceti Sakowin was raided the next day by heavily armed law enforcement officers. They radiated south from Echo 1, systematically sweeping structures and arresting everyone. Erick sat with eyes closed by the sacred fire waiving turkey feathers over a bundle of sage and cedar. His prayers were not intended as a political statement, but they made an impact online when photographer Christopher Francisco videoed him being confronted by police brandishing M4 assault rifles. His image went viral. What had been a deeply personal act for Erick had become the epitome of Standing Rock down to her last protector. He reminded me why I had come to Standing Rock, how beautiful life can be when we shamelessly pursue what matters most, and to tend our fires ceaselessly.

After Francisco was arrested and his camera feed cut, the sacred items were ripped from Erick’s hands and his face was pushed into the mud. A knee was put to the back of his neck, and after 5 hours wearing zip-tie cuffs, he permanently lost sensation on the top of his thumb.

The line of armored police pushed across camp up to the northern banks of the Cannonball River. A Customs and Border Patrol helicopter low-buzzed the riverbanks sweeping wide around camp. On the frozen river were a hundred or so water protectors.

I walked along the southern shore from Sacred Stone to Rosebud by 1806. Abandoned camping supplies littered the upper banks. There were shelves with stacks of food and between unoccupied army tents and tipis. A campfire of large rounds steadily burned in the middle of an empty camp. To the north, an excavator was destroying buildings from what had become a runaway construction effort.

Atop a single building, a water protector wove a flag at police. It was quiet. Oceti Sakowin had been like our mother. We were exiled in dreams of the afterbirth, imagining where the next frontline would be. Could we afford not to oppose the Trump Administration’s insulting disregard of the Constitution and the earth? No, this was too soon, we still needed to grieve over a warm corpse.

Fifteen BIA officers entered at 1806 and began to march toward me. It was time to go.

 

Kinda Closure

We’ve all had to say goodbye to someone we loved. There is a kind of goodbye that hurts more than any other. It comes when we let go of someone who, upon later reflection, we wish we’d fought harder to keep. From my hotel suite down the road from Standing Rock, it’s hard to arrest my speculation – did I do everything in my power to save her? Was it ever possible to keep a place like that?

The answer to both is no.

For many reasons, it is good that it ended.

There are many more front lines in this world.

From death to deadlines, the rules of heaven are, according to Aristotle, unchanging and unwritten. He also reminds us that, an education of the mind without an education of the heart is no education at all. In this respect, it has been an education.

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