I didn’t know why I was going to Standing Rock or what I would find there. I just knew that since I was passing through North Dakota on the train, I had to get off for a couple of days. On the way there I thought of the story I had heard about the people who brought coolers full of beef and buffalo meat. They were met with great appreciation, saying, “The hippies are bringing only vegetables.” I thought, “that would be me.” So on the way I stopped at a Wal-Mart and bought two coolers and filled them with turkeys and beef rump roasts. I couldn’t arrive empty-handed.
When I finally arrived, I was greeted with the warmest welcome I have ever received. No one knew I brought the meat because I just left the two coolers at the food donation area. But everyone I saw spoke to me and sincerely thanked me for coming, even for only two days. I have never felt such sincere appreciation. There were prominent signs at the entrances and all around saying, “no drugs or alcohol, in you or on you;” “we are unarmed;” “No DAPL”.
The sacredness, the spiritual basis of everyone was palpable. There were no harsh words; no expressions of frustration, even though conditions were very difficult. It was very cold, in the single digits with a strong wind. Winter has arrived. Finding enough food, drinking water, showers, and other necessities is a real challenge for everyone.
Shelley Tanenbaum and Carol Barta arrived from the south before I did and were able to tell me how to get there avoiding the closed road from the north. They had also arranged for a press pass for me so I could take photos. The pass came with an orientation which explained the rules of the camp, the non-violent philosophy that was absolute, where photos were not allowed, the dress code (long skirts for women in the sacred fire area or cooking). One must ask permission to take photos of any people, and especially ask permission of parents to take photos of children, and people on horseback are still people! All that is, or should be, standard journalistic practice. But I really didn’t feel like taking photos, not because of the orientation, just because I didn’t want the camera to be between me and the experience of being there. I only took photos from the outside of the camp to document its vastness.
I had one important purpose and that was to present the Garifuna flag and the support statement from the National Garifuna Council of Belize. I went to the information center and asked how to do that after I delivered the meat. They sent me to the sacred fire to speak to the elders. But no elders were there at the time, so the microphone guy who does all the announcements asked us to sit and wait. There were benches in front of the sacred fire, so Shelley and I sat there for some time, in our own meeting for worship. An announcement was made that breakfast was over and volunteers were needed to help prepare lunch. It seemed that the elders were in an all-day meeting in the dome, so I went to the kitchen to volunteer.
As I was given the job to cut squash, I joined those at a long table cutting vegetables. I saw a cutting board, wiped it off, but didn’t have a knife. The onion guy said he would give me a knife, although he seemed a little sad about it. Later I found out why. He asked me to borrow it back for a bit and gave me the very dull knife he had been using to cut onions. The knife he gave me was a big really sharp knife, perfect for cutting squash. I got to see how the kitchen operated. There was one woman in charge appropriately named “Harmony.” She had at least two young men, maybe more, who knew the plan and told the rest of us what to do when. Harmony seemed very laid back, but was feeding many people three times a day. I don’t know how many. This was the main kitchen, but there were others. I heard there were about 3,000 people in the camp.
I don’t know how long I cut squash, maybe an hour or two. We were almost at the end of the boxes of squash when one of the organizing young men said, “does anyone have a vehicle?” I seemed to be the only one who responded, so I was sent, along with Paul, my helper, to bring drinking water to the kitchen from the other side of the camp. There were 10 carboys (5-gallon plastic bottles), but we could only get six in the back seat, so we decided to make two trips. Mac pointed out the building and said that Jay was the water guy who hadn’t had a day off in six weeks. We found the water truck with three spigots on the outside, but no Jay, and no water came out of the spigots. I parked behind the truck which was on the main road down the center of camp. Pretty soon someone else pulled up to park behind me. That brought the traffic guy, who stopped her from parking there. I asked if I should move my car and he said, “yes, I am trying to get this truck moved.” And he went off calling for “water truck guy.”
I went after him to tell him the water truck guy was named “Jay” when he found Jay. Jay explained to us that he was trying to get plugged in to run the water pumps. He said it had frozen overnight and he hoped he didn’t have damage. At first the spigots ran very slowly, but eventually they ran faster, so he was happy and glad to see us getting drinking water for the main kitchen. We completed our purpose to the great appreciation of the kitchen staff. By then it was 1:30 and time for lunch. I started into the Mess Hall, which was quite warm, but the wood smoke stung my eyes, so I left.
I decided to try again to deliver the Garifuna flag and support statement. This time the microphone guy didn’t tell me to wait for elders, but read the statement himself that was heard over the loud speakers. He told me to hold up the flag and walk out into the sun so everyone could see it. As soon as he started reading, I saw people looking up from what they were doing and even walking toward me. Among them were Shelley and Carol who had been out exploring. They said they had to run when they first heard the statement being read to get there in time to take my photo.
Having accomplished my purpose, I sat down with Carol and Shelley to catch up a bit and rest. Soon the microphone guy said it was time for lunch. He reminded folks to take plates to the elders, who seemed to still be in that all day meeting. After a little while some young people came with plates for us! We thought he meant the Lakota elders, but it seems we qualified as elders, too. As I said, I have never felt so appreciated!
We three took a walk to the smaller camp on the other side of the river, crossing the bridge on the highway just outside of the camp. We had heard there was a women’s place over there, so we went to see. We found the place, but were too early. The women’s meeting was at 4 pm each day. Still we had some nice conversations with the people there. Then it was time for us to leave. We all had long drives ahead of us, Carol back to Kansas all by herself, Shelley and I to Minot to catch the train the next day.
People ask me, “Should I go to Standing Rock. I say, “Sure, if you feel so led.” I am very glad I made that effort. I believe in some ways I am changed forever. A conversation I had with Joe from Philadelphia helped me to understand how and why. Joe is of Irish descent. He said one of the elders was explaining why even white people are led here to help the cause. “The red-haired people were the first slaves of the Europeans, then the black curly-haired people, and then the black straight-haired people. You have that pain in your genes,” he said.
You have to know that winter is upon them. There is considerable building to make structures to withstand the extreme North Dakota winters, but conditions are still very primitive. I heard no complaints, even though it was really cold when we were there. And it is going to get colder. The Lakota have lived in this climate for thousands of years, so they know how to survive. But it will not be easy. They need money and materials to winterize the camp. There are ways to contribute …
You don’t have to camp with them to visit and offer support. We stayed in a hotel in Mandan, the closest city. We did not even try to camp. That is quite possible and quite well accepted. No one seemed even disappointed that I was not camping. Some people sleep at their casino, but that stays full. I got off the Empire Builder (AMTRAK) in Minot, rented a car, and drove to Mandan, where I had reserved a hotel room. Driving from Minot to Mandan took about two hours; from Mandan to Standing Rock Reservation is about an hour. The camp is right on highway 1806, but that road is blocked from the north, so you have to take highways 6 then 24 and then go north on 1806.
Soon after we left there was an action that was met with another violent response. It must have been why the elders were meeting all day long. The purpose of the action was to unblock highway 1806. When the barricades and burned out cars were removed, the police shot the protesters with rubber bullets and showered them with a fire hose at 26 degrees F. Several of the protesters were hospitalized. Now I understand that the actions at not at the camp, but at other locations. One does not risk arrest by visiting the camp. When an action takes places, all are clear that those participating may be arrested. One meeting that was announced was with the legal team for those who had been or were willing to get arrested.