I have been at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota since Monday. The Native elders are the spiritual and strategic leaders here, and they have made it very clear that this isn't a protest camp, but a prayer camp. We are not here to be protesters, but protectors -- protectors of sacred land and sacred water.
The camp is unlike anything I've ever experienced. An estimated 4,000 people (with people coming and going constantly) are living in commune in the camps, which are all connected or easily walkable and sit both on Army Corps of Engineers land as well as on the Standing Rock Reservation. The camp offers medical and mental health services, daily orientations and trainings for newcomers, free in-depth legal support, media relations services, and seven different kitchens cooking and serving huge (astoundingly delicious) meals three times daily. And there's even coffee every morning, which makes all things possible.
I expected that there would be a constant protest or sit-in happening on the "front lines," that a continuous physical presence was necessary to prevent construction from continuing, but that isn't exactly the case. Last week, the Red Warrior Camp, which had been on the front lines, was raided by police, who used clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and sound cannons to drive the men, women, children and elders from their homes at the camp.
I followed a plume of black smoke to its source this week and found people burning the tents and supplies that remained from Red Warrior Camp. DaPL (pronounced "dapple," short for Dakota Access Pipeline) security guards had urinated and defecated on whatever they could find -- tents, teepees, blankets, even food.
DaPL continues to try to intimidate in a variety of ways. Privately hired helicopters circle the camp frequently -- especially at night, when helicopters are also joined by a small plane flying with no lights. They leave the flood lights on at the pipeline work site all night long. They set fire to a hilltop just across from the camp, scorching the dry ground (right).
We are restricted from photographing and documenting any ceremony, which includes much of what happens here. On top of that, the camp operates under "security culture," as police and DaPL contractors are monitoring cell phone communications in the camp and interrupting cell phone service. Everyone at the camp is operating under the safe assumption that DaPL and law enforcement also have "secret agents" in the camp. (Seriously. It's real. I watched camp security chase a DaPL agent away in his car just last night. And look at this screenshot from my phone, which has given me this warning many times already.)
The weather has been beautiful, but it is already getting very cold out here at night. The last two nights I have heated large rocks over a fire, wrapped them in towels, and put one at my feet in my sleeping bag while cuddling the other. It helps. It got down to 12 degrees a couple nights ago. I fall asleep listening to the sounds of coyotes howling from all directions (while wearing two pairs of socks, long johns, pants, and four shirts and sweatshirts plus a hood. So, you know, it's pretty much like home.
This has already been a very emotional, unexpectedly spiritual experience. Each camp has a sacred fire that burns continuously and is meant for prayer and meditation. Only cedar, tobacco and sage, which grows wild all around the area and is used to cleanse the air as well as the spirit, can be put into the sacred fire. I have participated in a traditional water ceremony, drinking a small handful of sacred water before walking to the river to give an offering of tobacco while singing traditional songs and connecting with the presence of our ancestors. I've watched a hawk come out of nowhere to circle overhead as a young man presented a staff he had painted and adorned with feathers and symbols to represent his brothers who couldn't join him.
Almost everything that happens feels so full of meaning and spiritual significance that it's palpable throughout the camp. I have met people from every part of the country and many parts of the world. I have been told many times that if this struggle has touched you in some way, if it has tugged at you, that you have been called to be here, and that really feels true. This struggle represents the intersection of so many issues: the power of corporations vs. the power of the people, the sovereignty of indigenous people and our own respect for treaties, oil barons vs. conservationists, and the fight or racial equity, just to name a few.
I have also found myself at the intersection of my past and my present. I grew up in Fargo (where I also usually slept in a sweatsuit and socks, incidentally), but as a kid who just wanted to play baseball and run around in the sun, I could never understand why we were there. A week or more would pass each winter when the high (the HIGH) temperature never got above zero. I vividly remember a radio host laughing and telling us one day that it was 70 degrees colder outside than in our fridge. Woof.
But suddenly, Standing Rock has made growing up in Fargo "make sense." If I'd grown up where I wanted to, I would not be here today. I don't fully understand what compelled me to up and drive out here, but having been here for several days, it does feel like I was called. I don’t know what to make of it.
I'm told often to ask everyone in my own community -- in other words, you -- to pray, whatever that means to you, for the safety of the people at the camp and the water we are protecting. Pray that the police officers, DAPL agents and all those supporting the pipeline are moved to love and compassion. Pray for our country and for the Earth Mother, as the Lakota call her. This is more than just an issue of one pipeline. Every one of us will be affected by what is happening here.