This is an account of my experience, and a tale of warning. I will not be another white person telling an Indian what they need. I confess, I came to their reservation to help. I did not realize my need to feel seen that way was a form of violence. I was also unaware of how racist I was, until I met an evil man who happened to be native, and I refused to write about it, because it was politically incorrect to do so — and because he was once my friend.
Every few years, Israel experiences a war. My father tells me about the weeks leading up to the Six Day War. Sandbags went down in doorways and cars painted their headlights black to not be seen by bombers. Something awoke in the people. The troops would fall into hushed conversations in the preparation for their common fate. That shared fate tightened the fabric of community, creating the one thing that a peaceful life seems to lack. Mutual aid and reliance is a strangely lost phenomena in the modern world. Historically, there were many instances of whites joining natives to fight colonial forces, and far less examples of the opposite… One wonders if those closer bonds are what we crave most, and what modern living (while affording us so much more) ultimately denies us. Economists define wealth as anything that contributes to overall well-being, such as money, social capital, and assets. In this way, Israel during wartime, and Standing Rock in defiance of the Dakota Access Pipeline, were ironically wealthy.
I remember wondering if Last Child Hill was worth it. I saw us all huddled around the fires as the police came to tear us apart. The police had the menacing voice of the LRAD sound cannon atop the paramilitary police vehicle pointed at us. It could destroy hearing while non-lethally dispersing a crowd. The pre-recorded warning addressed itself to us, referring to us as “subjects”. In an era sensitive to proper pronoun usage, I wondered if I should take offense. Were we not “consumers?” In a way, it was a step up, and yet the word ‘subjects’ pushed us beneath a power that was neither king nor leader, but rather raw physical violence. I remember feeling a common fate, as Israel feels, as Palestine feels – as all subjects, too, may learn to feel.
Ideological interdependence was something I found at Standing Rock. We acted for one another – for survival. The occasion was both mystical and literal. We fought because global warming was literally going to kill us all. The oil was going to go under the river, and it would trigger a weather event the likes of which would never be seen in any ice core by any scientist, because neither would exist anymore. This was felt in our hearts. It was the breaking point – our karma for not stewarding the planet.
At Standing Rock, we fought for the rights of people we did not know. We fought because we abhorred oppression; it had happened to us and we knew how it felt. We fought for one another, which is perhaps the most difficult human need to satisfy in our modern world. Here, an elder needs help. The cook needs more hands. The gate guards need firewood. There’s someone getting out of jail in Bismarck and they need a lift home. I need help setting up my tent. Here, I have some tobacco for you…
It was a dark five months from November 2016 to March 2017. The camps rose and fell, took on water, and eventually sank from external infiltration exploiting internal weaknesses. Here is how it ended for me.
B l a c k s n a k e
In late November, a man I will call Blackjack, invited me to contribute my writing to the Oceti Sakowin Camp Media webpage. It was operated from the community kitchen of a gymnasium in Cannonball, North Dakota, just outside of the main camps on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The team felt supported, even loved by him. Part of my agreement to work with this organization was that they seemed in service to the people. Blackjack said he was Hunkpapa Lakota, and seemed to be an honorable man.
All donations that came to Oceti Sakowin (the largest of the three camps) came through the P.O. Box in Cannonball and Oceti Sakowin Camp Media (OSCM). OSCM was a bit of a misnomer. In addition to making media, they were also responsible for logistics: getting supplies into camp, answering emails, administering media passes to outside journalists, handling PayPal donations, and coordinating between anyone who needed anything in camp. Thousands of emails were answered and hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps breaking seven figures) was donated to the Oceti Sakowin. We received boxes of supplies with notes of encouragement from strangers. We could feel the love in the camping supplies that showed up.
Blackjack was soft-spoken, charming yet enigmatic. He felt wise and knowledgeable. One friend later recounted how he had arrived in camp. He sat down in the IEN (Indigenous Environmental Network) tent and just smiled, saying nothing for hours, and listened to people talking. To us, he presented himself as some poor fool who had returned home to make a documentary, and instead volunteered to become the media editor and logistics coordinator of the Oceti Sakowin. We would chain smoke in the subzero temperatures and exchange gallows humor. We worked constantly to bring the story of Standing Rock to the world.
Blackjack seemed to carry a great weight on his hunched shoulders. He told us that his wife, a former model, had died of cancer. His suffering seemed endless, but gracefully held. He was a delight, and it breaks my heart to know we were the fools, and he the wiser.
We descended into winter. Prior to the New Year, Blackjack seemed to not hold any confidence in Standing Rock’s ability to succeed. He confided in me — this was destined for failure. I didn’t know what to make of his pessimism. He referred to the longer struggle for indigenous rights, and shunned the camps as folly. I hoped his dark perspective was just due to being overworked.
In December of 2016, I and others were called to a private meeting on the Cannonball bleachers.
“I’ve asked you all here because you are trustworthy,” Blackjack murmured to us. “Our PayPal account has a significant sum of money in it. If the Federal Government deems us terrorists, that account might be frozen… We need to distribute the money into other accounts to protect it. This is a significantly larger risk than you are already taking – there will be zero judgement from me if you decline.”
If I took the money and returned it, and Standing Rock had been officially classified as a terrorist entity, my return of the money would be aiding and abetting an enemy of the United States. I knew the kind of prisons that were reserved for terrorists – 23 hours a day alone – for decades. (See “Communication Management Units” for more information)
I stayed after the meeting had been disbanded.
“I’m sorry… I didn’t sign up for this level of exposure. I want to help…”
“It’s perfectly fine,” he reassured me. “Some of us need to stay out of jail – to tell the story. Me? I have nothing left…”
I often felt his words were chosen to conceal rather than reveal, and I found out why.
We all worked with the confidence that the funds would go to the camps, and to the cause of indigenous well-being. When I began seeking out the financial records of groups operating at Standing Rock, Blackjack encouraged me. I was told that OSCM finances would be an open book for the movement for the world to scrutinize as they saw fit. That never came to pass.
Most water protectors on the ground were poorer folk. They’d come from poverty, and they were returning to poverty. Various organizations and individuals raised millions of dollars in small and large accounts to support the movement. On caravans to actions, specific leaders were arrested on sight, to cut off the head of the movement. Those leaders stayed in jail. As more money came in, and less leadership was left to keep the movement alive, a poisonous condition set in. The movement began to rot out from the inside. The mind of scarcity that we all possess saw cash on the table, wind in our sails, and a shot out rudder.
Blackjack told us that some funds came in earmarked for media, and since he was running the PayPal account, we accepted his word. Somewhere along the way, he brought up the idea to create a permanent media team with those funds. We all loved the idea. The battle could continue – and paid! We were a multicultural fist of media fury, and we liked telling the truth as we saw it. We were native, African-American, Scottish, French, Irish, Jewish, Anglo, even LGBTQ and mixed breeds. We were an A-team based on values – not race or tribe. We deferred to Blackjack because he was Hunkpapa Lakota in Lakota territory, and because we trusted him. So, several hundreds of thousands of dollars from donations to Oceti Sakowin went towards the purchase of camera equipment and audio gear for the team and a brand new full-size truck for Blackjack. We inherited a new snowmobile (or snow machine, for you northerners), and a large trailer we called the Pumpkin. On a drive to town, Blackjack told me we could purchase the same inventory of gear twice over with the remaining funds. The only figure he told me was, after gear purchases, some $600,000.
I rode the snowmobile to camp one afternoon from Cannonball. I was to deliver it to one of the lead coordinators in camp. I rode along the icy roads, down into Sacred Stone Camp, down to my half buried tent. After grabbing some clothes, I got onto the machine but it wouldn’t start. Dusk was settling and the air was frigid. I tugged for 10 minutes on the ripcord. In frustration, I yanked the cord and tore a tendon in my shoulder. The pain was sharp but short. My shoulder hurts to this day.
The easement had been denied by the Obama Administration, but Trump was set to enter office January 14th. The veterans had come to stand with us in early December, and then left as winter bit into the backside of camp. The town of Cannonball eventually got annoyed with us squatting in their gym and asked us to leave. We loaded everything into the Pumpkin and moved to the Prairie Knights Casino (PKC) to continue a weakening campaign. We would spend the next two months hiding from the black winds of the prairie, only visiting camp to create media. Although comfortable, the team never stopped working to cover the story of camp. Sometime in the winter, a man would fall through the ice in the Cannonball River. His body lay preserved in the river as people above tried to keep warm. He was found in the spring thaw after camp was evacuated.
7 F i r e s
The winter became deadly cold. No one in camp knew the odds of winning either the spiritual struggle or the political one. At PKC, the payout odds were listed on the wall. One place was filled with soul, the other with money. I was honestly happier in camp. At PKC, we ate prime rib and drank bottomless free coffee surrounded by blinking slot machines in a hotel filled with police from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We were, after all, elite.
I remember Blackjack inviting me into his room one evening. He presented me with an ounce of silver, and showed me a note – give these to 5 of your bravest warriors. It was in the mold of a buffalo nickel, with an Indian head. I had gifted him my prized leather jacket months back in the spirit of friendship. I had a lot of love for him, and I greatly appreciated his approval. In retrospect, it feels more like a form of emotional blackmail than appreciation. Back then, I did not know that money was rotting us from the inside.
Members of OSCM sat down to envision a mobile media team. It would be called 7Fires. Blackjack insisted that we put the old Oceti Sakowin Facebook page to sleep. I and the remaining members wrote the mission statement for 7Fires. During that conversation, Blackjack insisted that it be an indigenous-focused media team, against the wishes of a strong majority (whom preferred it was social and environmental justice focused). Blackjack got it his way. We had been donated a large trailer with bunks to base ourselves from. I imagined us on the border with Tohono O’odham Nation documenting the fight with the Trump Administration to build a border wall through their reservation, or in Havasu stopping uranium mining from poisoning the Grand Canyon, or covering the resistance to Nestle in the Pacific Northwest. But there was one fight in Hawaii that arrested my conviction.
I was raised on a diet of Legos, reptiles and astronomy. The indigenous struggle against the proposed telescope on Mauna Kea split my loyalty. On the one hand, indigenous people were systematically oppressed; on the other, the quest for knowledge and the expansion of the human frontier – the frontier of life itself into space – was paramount to human survival in the long term. On Hawaii, the natives were fighting a pipeline filled with knowledge because it sat on historically sacred land. “Sacred” began to sound a little bit more like the alibi the Israelis used to justify forceful expulsion of Arabs from Palestine. The words ‘sacred’ and ‘science’ faced off as two monoliths who fought over the real estate of the human soul, and we used those ideas to justify why some land was forsaken to bear the burden of crude oil pipelines in a time unable to live without it, or a mountain top was too sacred to tolerate the largest ground-based optical telescope ever created. One had to compromise, and to me, humanity needed better telescopes more than it needed to satisfy the impression of sacredness to a minority of people. It behooves me to take a trip to Mauna Kea to understand the situation better, but that is for another time.
We used the new gear to effectively cover the movement and keep police accountable. It was unclear if we were the owners of our material, or if 7Fires owned it. We quickly learned that Blackjack did not like any of the gear out of place. He became furious and publically eviscerated people for misplacing small items, like batteries and lens caps. His increasingly mercurial attitude was attributed to chronic stress.
Everyone came to Blackjack for money, but he seemed to not want to “set precedents” and make people in camp entitled to that money. He was fond of one precedent – carrying a large wad of money with him wherever he went. He felt like a dragon laying on a pile of bullion. Some disagreed with him, but he was paying our way by this point, and our meetings began to feel less like the search for truth, and more like the search for Blackjack’s wishes. He paid for our hotel, gave us some food vouchers, bought us cigarettes, and nurtured our hopes of a bright future with 7Fires, fighting to save the environment and defend the indigent and indigenous against colonialists.
With assets of approximately $300k and flush with hard cash, 7Fires has done next to nothing to support indigenous rights, water rights, or sovereignty rights. Their last Facebook post was nine months ago in November of 2017. Even now as Line 3 is opposed, 7Fires is M.I.A.
Blackjack flew me home on donated funds in winter to visit my family. While I was there, I asked him for another $1000 to help finance a pickup truck to help evacuate people from Oceti Sakowin. Blackjack was generous, and I’m not convinced he harbored larcenous intent. That money was just sitting there, and many were looking for a noble-sounding reason to use it. People constantly approached Blackjack with their needs. Sophia Wilanski and Sioux Z were both badly injured on November 20th in a faceoff with paramilitary police and private security forces. While Sophia was able to raise a half million for her mutilated arm, Sioux Z had no such luck after taking a teargas canister to the eye, detaching her retina. Sioux Z asked Blackjack for medical expenses, he suggested she take it up with the tribal government.
In a meeting at PKC, Blackjack and one person who was a paid staffer explained how the organization was going to function. In the past, we’d been a democracy. The new organization would be Blackjack as pope and us below. We had always operated as equals. The meeting also focused on what to do with the surplus money. A friend of mine suggested we use the remaining money to encourage STEM subjects in Lakota high school, a suggestion I heartily endorsed, because it was a smart way to advocate for the ecological health of Indian country. Unfortunately, when the time came to make that suggestion, I was told it had been allocated to “various groups”. When I pressed the issue, Blackjack bellowed at me not to interrupt him. What had started as a democracy had become a circus. I never saw what happened to the money.
This next detail I must stress is harder for me to verify, so I will present it as simply my impression and not more. During an elevator ride, Blackjack confided in me and another OSCM member that he had indulged in his late-wife’s pain killer supply, spending a month in “pure bliss”. Myself and the other man both recounted how we had friends and family suffer with opioids, and did not share his enthusiasm. He dropped the subject and we exited the elevator. It was a very scary subject for me. Two of my dear friends growing up had lost themselves in opioids. One lost his mind and is homeless, the other fights his addiction to this day. A member of my family had a shoulder injury, and relied on percoets for years after their purpose was served. I sometimes worry about that when I try and do regular things, always having to protect my shoulder from certain movements.
Another evening, I came to Blackjack’s room very late to discuss something. His mood was elevated, which felt normal compared to what I’d seen – strong ups and downs. But there was something different. The man I was seeing here was not the Blackjack I recognized… In fact, he reminded me of my addicted family member, or stoned friends, when they had taken just a little too much and were hiding it badly. The vibe was, for me, unmistakable – but I fully admit, I could have been misreading the situation. For all I know, he was simply in a great mood close to midnight, glassy-eyed and grinning wide.
Perhaps the strain of the movement had tested his mettle too harshly, and he had cracked. I did not know. Still, I could feel that weird rat-paws-in-the-cream vibe on him that opioid addicts give off. I will stress that I have no proof, nor did I see any drugs taken at any time. I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had been targeted by infiltrators attempting to sew distrust in the ranks and plant negative stories at my feet. I knew I didn’t know everything. What I did not understand was unimportant, because it was all about to end for my time with 7Fires.
I arrived in Denver after Blackjack and two team members had rented a vacation rental. I went to get a drink with one of them, and then came back to the house. Gear was spread everywhere. I had hoped to see the nascence of 7Fires, with faces I recognized, but it was all in darkness. Blackjack lay in bed zonked out, barely awake. He had been admitted to the hospital days earlier by the two team members. He had become so ill that they were afraid for his life. When he got out, he implied that they should cover his $30k medical bills, as they had admitted him against his will. Furthermore, he had asked them to sign a one-year lease on a house without offering the money to pay for it. This was also after he had insisted the same individual whose name would be on the lease had purchased a truck on a payment plan, rather than paid outright like his truck. When confronted about these things, along with the lack of financial transparency, he chose to decline his guarantee of open finances – because that was a “colonial” idea.
The next morning I awoke in the house with Blackjack. He tried to convince me my colleagues were irrational, or unfortunately mistaken. When I called them, they told me they were 2 states away. Over the next half year, most of the original members left the team – and the one man in control of the assets that had been donated to the water protectors to fight DAPL. His decision was obviously larcenous, but it did not occur to me because he was our friend, he was indigenous, and tribal members could not possibly rob their own people! I had never indulged the idea, because I’d come to native country full of victim identity dogma, idealism, and spiritual bullshit.
7Fires would make no official account of their finances. It never became a nonprofit. Blackjack told me he donated much of the money (the organizations and persons having asked him to never reveal their identities). He had also lost several boxes of receipts in the move.
T h e B r e a k u p
Native Americans are more suited to write about themselves topically. They are a victimized group that I do not want to disrespect by opining their dilemmas. I met many brave, honest, and decent people of all colors at Standing Rock. I came to work alongside them. My naiveté enabled this man to siphon away perhaps a million dollars or more that could have helped any number of causes in native country. Out of a need to feel like a hero, my writing had supported a completely corrupt organization. All of that money was donated in the spirit of reconciliation and support for indigenous rights and environmental protection. It is all gone for all I know.
Blackjack and I spoke one last time before I left. I’d taken four deep cycle marine batteries from Sacred Stone Camp just hours before the BIA raided and trashed the camp. I offered to sell them to 7Fires for the Pumpkin. I told myself it was justified, since the batteries would have been seized by the BIA, 7Fires wasn’t short of money, and I was broke. We met in Denver and made the sale. I asked him if he felt I was missing anything in my comprehension of indigenous ways. He signed with a murmur and a hiss, “You, are not Lakota, so, you cannot understand, our ways.” He smiled again, and shuffled away like a hazed Richard III.
A few team members gave him the benefit of the doubt, because they wanted to keep on fighting the colonialists, or just found his behavior the lesser evil. I confronted him in an email and eventually we spoke on the phone. The cornerstone of his argument was simple – this, is a Lakota matter... People’s misperceptions of him were their problem. The OSCM team, which was grandly disappointed by Blackjack, had no vote. Our common opposition to the seemingly racist attitude of the pipeline developers did not matter to him. None of our sweat equity mattered to him. He was accountable only to the Lakota Nation. I found his ethnocentric attitude ironic. I pressed him about the “various groups” where the money had been donated. He told me they didn’t need to make an account of it, which I further clarified to mean that some of these organizations and individuals were not legal non-profits. I desperately wanted to be wrong. Blackjack hid behind tribalism, and had not help his tribe that I’d seen. His rationalizations and virtue theater were stunning.
At the end of the call, Blackjack offered me a job on launch day for 7Fires. My writing was “decent” he mused (a bit too wordy – can you imagine!). I told him, if he was offering me a bribe, he should have offered the $30k yurt in the storage locker in Bismarck. He laughed… Putting aside the humor, I told him I couldn’t work for an organization that did not share my values of transparency and accountability. We have not spoken since.
He Put Silver in My Hand and Said, “Now, Get Off My Land”
Blacksnake was part of the mysticism of Standing Rock. It was said that if Blacksnake went under the river, all would be lost. Many people saw the oil pipeline as the blacksnake going under the Missouri River. I differ in that opinion.
One charismatic man from Standing Rock was recently interviewed and described the blacksnake as, “greed and violence and oppression; we have to come together to fight more than just one pipeline to defeat the black snake.” For me, greed is the operative word in this definition.
As a person whose writing had been part of what gave Blackjack legitimacy at OSCM, and as someone who helped to draft the mission statement for 7Fires, I feel culpable to fight blacksnake. Here, it manifests as a deep, selfish greed – and many generations of untold pain.
There are principles and values at stake in this situation. Loyalty and trust are among the most prized assets, especially when the police are shooting at you and calling you a terrorist. Blackjack alienated the trust of most who worked with him. He acted as the thing he claimed to be fighting – an abuser of power. Whether that was his plan or not is difficult to say. It feels like blacksnake ate someone I considered a dear friend, or that “friend” conned me and my colleagues.
He wistfully mused at the end of our call that perhaps he would abandon the project in a year if it failed, or simply move on once it was viable.
He gets bored easily, he tells me.
I realized he can only gain from 7Fires’ failure, just as he gained from the failure of Standing Rock. Suffice it to say, I took his word, and decided it was time to let Lakota deal with Lakota.
Everyone I met at Standing Rock who was true to the cause was nonviolent – they cared so deeply for this cause that they came to North Dakota to allow themselves to get shot by police who cared for nothing except paying their mortgage and did not want to be there. I would guess that most of the violent ideas came from infiltrators trying to cast the movement as militant. The good-hearted are not always the greatest thinkers. I liked Blackjack because he was a thinker. He was the lonely kind of smart and the corrupt side of good. He confided in me that he receives small annual checks from the treasury department for having oil derricks on land he inherited. Mni Wiconi, indeed.
The success of movements like Occupy Wall Street are in their ability to popularize a simple idea, like the 99% who seem to hold far less power over their own fate than the 1%. The single greatest success of the NODAPL movement was the inception of the meme “Water is Life”. Now, we all peer skeptically at mineral extraction if it threatens access to clean water. After water, sovereignty became the greater focus. In some ways, the former became a Trojan horse for the latter.
I am critical of US state policy. I consider it a highly patriotic act to dissent when it is from moral outrage or in defense of the Constitution — which is actually a requirement for US citizenship. There are still many good people doing great work for indigenous rights. Indigenous people are a vulnerable group, and they’re rightly tired of it. We were surrounded by violent and moneyed interests, and we forgot to check the moral character of our own ranks, especially those in the upper tiers. Push for policy reform and education — not national annihilation. The former is possible, the latter is clearly a mouse trap.
Losing my objectivity was deeply embarrassing. There was so much more to the NODAPL movement than Blackjack. I see him as the black dot in the white half of a yin yang. While some of what remained of the Standing Rock movement escaped the subversions of the federal government and private security, I find myself less invested in the movement today. It has begun to look like a kind of jihad: or, a political movement with a spiritual mandate summarized in the slogan, ‘Defend the Sacred.’ Their political goals were decolonization of the United States, which is (to me) dumb. If you can’t advocate for your policy position without an American flag on your lapel, you’ve given the government all the excuse it needs to shut you down, and when you turn around, Blackjack won’t have your back.
You cannot decolonize — which is to remove the pyramidal structure of society — without destroying the country. Furthermore, it is an extremely bad idea to set the subjectively sacred above the objectively scientific. Finding a balance is necessary. If you conflate that debate with political factions like the NODAPL movement — many of which would claim their moral high ground just to seize power — you risk rolling back human progress. What is worse, though, is that if we do not respect the beliefs that help us know who we are in the cosmos, we move toward a humanity that has none.
This piece was edited on 7/3/2018 for clarity.
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