Standing (and Sitting) With Standing Rock

“No one has ever found serenity through hatred – that hostility will keep us tied to the abuses of the past..”

   I know it’s probably been a minute since people have talked about Standing Rock, North Dakota, or the Sioux, though the war still wages on. Others are still feeling its effects, still processing. Still healing.

   I came back from Standing Rock in the middle of November in 2016 with a ruptured eardrum, a concussion, hypothermia, a heavy heart, an angry soul, a lot of humility, and a deeper love than I had known. I had bore witness to some of the most inhumane treatment, and lack of mercy and grace I had ever come into contact with. I also had experienced unconditional love, self sacrifice, and deeper spirituality than ever before.

    People wanted to know my story. They wanted to know what happened the night of November 20, 2016 – what the painted picture looked like, what actually went on behind those road blocks and gas masks (lets face it, everyone knew Morton County Sheriffs office was about as reliable with their reporting as Fox News). They said I should write everything down and share it with all of you out there in blog land. That it would help me heal, and I thought that I would – that I would want to share it eventually.

   BUT… I didn’t. I didn’t want to talk about it. I still don’t. Not about that night, anyway. Not yet. There were so many reports directly following that night, it didn’t seem relevant. Aside from the camps legal aid, a few lawyers, close friends, and being asked to speak to a classroom full of middle school students, I haven’t touched on it much publicly.

   There is a story here, for me – many of them, in fact – so don’t misinterpret what it is I’m saying. The weight of that night absolutely holds an important space in my life- in history. However, the one I’d like to tell, is from the other side of camp – a bit further from those barriers- back down toward the flags lining the road, in a field filled with tents, sacred fires, people buzzing about, and the faint sound of drumming.

    While there, I wrote letters back home that never were sent. Here are excerpts from a few of them, as well as my memory of what the much untold story was.

This is my Standing Rock. 

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Kat snapped this photo of me, geared up for action, in the middle of camp.

   My friend, Kat Bagley, and I drove all night to get to the Sioux reservation. We wanted to get there as soon as we could, distribute the supplies, and begin helping wherever we were needed. I wasn’t sure what to expect – neither of us were. I’ll never forget that morning we pulled into camp.  The fog was thick and heavy, almost impossible to see very far in front of us. We parked and walked into Grandma’s kitchen (located in California camp), and were immediately handed huevos rancheros and coffee. No one asked questions, they just handed us food and let us sit and eat.

   Keep in mind that something that is usually as simple as making coffee was a tedious task. First you have to go find water. This usually was located in big bins outside (which are heavy and kind of a pain to haul in and pour out), but if it wasn’t, you would have to go gather it. If it was in the bins, chances are that it was partially frozen. You would have to break it apart, heat the water, make the coffee, and then you had approximately five minutes before it was cold – and you would gladly drink it anyway, trust me. That was our first impression: selfless acts of kindness and warmth in some seriously harsh conditions.

     November 20, 2016. 2 pm. Day Two.

“It’s late afternoon here, and I’ve come to the car for prayer and meditation, for a smudging, and to write you. It’s been beautiful today – chilly- but sunny, and everyone in camp are playing and laughing, working… fellowship is big today. The sound of shelters being built and laughter comes in loud to the kitchen. I woke up at 7am when the sun was coming in through the car windows. The camp wakes up early, but slowly, not a lot of interaction at first – but somehow it feels like home. Kat and I get in a lot of talks and laughs, good quality time, especially in the evenings and I’m grateful for it. She’s a blessing and a rock for me, and I’ve enjoyed this adventure with her. It has been really challenging and intense, harder than we thought, but we remain positive.

Yesterday was so hard. With the windchill, it felt like 7 degrees (even though it was 17 degrees), and the people in our camp seemed cranky and distant. I could feel everyones energy, how exhausted and frustrated they were (not to mention sad and hurting for the land), and all I wanted to do was breakdown. It wasn’t until dinner time in our camp, in Grandma’s kitchen, that I/we started to connect. Our Indigenous leader gave an incredible speech during prayer circle about how we fight with patience, how we defeat with peace. He spoke about the rippling effect that violence and action (or reaction) can have on generations of people. How important it is to pray and have faith… to be a warrior through prayer and meditation – through unity and love. After that, the whole camp seemed to drop their shoulders weightlessly and breathe a little softer. It was then I was able to connect with all of the beautiful people here.

We went to an action meeting, and ended up meeting some really cool Indigenous people from Duck Water Reservation in Nevada. They want Kat and I to come help them build, to come fellowship with them. The woman, Lisa, she came up to us, looked at Kat and said, “You’re a healer.” and then looked at me and said, “You’re a protector.” I said “How do you know that?” She responded with “It’s in your eyes, and I can feel your spirit.” I liked that.

The people here are incredible. I met a woman, Alexa, who just got back from Thailand where she helped women find work. This morning I went solo to the action meeting at 8am, and met a woman who helped organize this whole movement. She comes from a white family, but speaks Sioux, and sings in prayer in that language. She sat by the fire in the kitchen and sang quietly to herself for a bit while myself and two others made breakfast for California Camp. The woman I cooked with (forgot her name already) owns a bone broth company. We talked soups for a bit, and then we made soup for the Elders who were having meetings in the teepee all day.

Theres a little boy, Michael, who’s native, 7 years old, a small boy with a big smile, an even bigger heart, and a hunger to watch and learn. He’s a little guy who does big things. He helped me light burners to start cooking (he figured out how to use the child lock on the lighters, and was trying to burn random stuff, so I put it to good use). I bent down to grab a rag for clean up, and he climbed onto my shoulders, so I let him stay there a bit. We finished making eggs and had a few minutes to spare, so I asked him if he wanted to do some gratitude work. So, we walked around (he steered me by my braids) to different camps and thanked everyone for being here, for cutting firewood, for building shelters, for food, etc. Then I made him a bowl of cereal, and snuck off to call back home to check in. Service is spotty here, and by spotty I mean non existent except for one tiny spot at the top of the big hill. Even then, you get about ten minutes before the cold drops your battery to zero and it dies. Especially the piece of crap that mine is. I’m grateful for it, though, because it allows you to be present. I’ve been too busy working and meeting people to take many pictures. Being that present has been nice. Lots of prayer and meditation, so many good talks. The vibration here is so powerful, so intense, so so good. It vibrates in your chest and dances in your bones. This is where the people are – this is where I was needed – this is what I was called in for. I didn’t go out on action yesterday when we got here… my head wasn’t in the right place, and my heart needed rest.

My happy place has been working in this kitchen with these women, and chopping firewood. Little Michael comes with me and uses a hatchet to further chop what I’ve already cut. The ax they have here is even heavier than the one I got you. My upper body hurts, but I’m so grateful to be able to work with the wood, and the exercise makes me happy.

The dogs that run around wild and free here have become friends of mine and Kats, though they are less interested in us than we are in them, and are more interested in being mischievous. They drag out (and chew on) whatever they can find. There’s one bigger dog and two puppies that hang around our camp (but they are all over the reservation).

I moved over to the sacred fire to finish writing you. I’m smoking a moon (herbal) cigarette and watching the flags of all the different tribes flap in the wind. A guy I made friends with (who has a press pass, but I haven’t bothered to ask him about it) talks to a Navajo man about Native history, their legends and prophecies, and his father. I like how the Indigenous men talk about their tribe’s history. That is, if you can get them to talk at all. People are so focused on protecting the water, or helping around camp, there’s not much time to just sit around and talk. Even when there is, these men aren’t quick to open up. Not that I can blame them, I can feel how tired and weary they are. Even so, they carry a warmth about them that makes you want to be wherever they are. We are coming late to a fight that has been happening far too long, with little results. I can’t imagine. When they DO talk, however, everyone listens. They speak with intention, and are direct. I can appreciate that. There’s so much wisdom here, and it comes from the quietest ones.

An older man who they call “Uncle” usually sits in the back of the dining tent right before dinner begins. The first night he sat next to me, we just nod at each other. I asked him if he wanted tea, I went over and got him a hot cup, and he thanked me for it before he left. That was it. After that, he sat next to me during pre dinner prayer circle. The simplest interaction. I think most people expect to come into a war zone, but find prayer and peace. I think they prepare themselves for a broken people who are angry and ready to break, but instead find an open door policy with willing hearts, helping hands, and a level of genuine warmth thats so real its even hard to properly describe. You would have to just stand in the middle of it and let your heart take it in. Most of the people are in tents and teepees, bundled like eskimos in these harsh conditions. There are mini fires everywhere to keep warm, along with coffee and hot tea (but finding it and then keeping it hot are challenging).

Kat’s been running around doing Kat-like things such as making friends, teaching people about sustainable farming and hemp, rescuing puppies that she finds, taking many photos for documenting, and making her famous chili for the camp tonight. She’s definitely a caretaker and a healer, and has been checking on me all day to make sure I’m doing ok vibrationally. My tribe.

There’s a strange vibe in the air tonight… like a calm that precedes something bigger. I am going to go spend some time helping in the kitchen and chatting with these ladies. I’ll write soon.”

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A drawing from the letters back home.

   I can remember snapping beans in the kitchen, listening to Grandma Diane talk about a man who brought a coyote in as a gift for her to cook (she didn’t), and these three women come into the tent who had just arrived from Mexico. I guess it hadn’t crossed my mind that people were coming from other countries to be here. I met people from Spain, Israel, Mexico, Canada, South America, among others that I can’t seem to recall tonight. I blame the New Moon. It was bigger than I knew, and deeper than I had imagined. I was home.

   No one could have predicted what would happen that same night. I wrapped up the letter, went to the kitchen to help with dinner, and suddenly there were people coming into the kitchen getting milk poured onto their faces, or Crisco rubbed onto their eyes to stop the burning from tear gas. They said something bad was happening on the bridge, and that they needed people up on the front lines to help. I geared up, and took off…

   I might go into detail in another blog, later down the road, about what happened that night. It’s a story of significance, one that needs to be heard, one day. This next letter was written the following night. I had been wrapped up in the car sleeping for most of the day – the vertigo and hypothermia were not allowing me to eat without throwing it up, and my body aches so badly it refused to let me do anything but rest. That whole day is one big blur.

   I do remember waking up some time in the morning to Kat bringing me some eggs (those didn’t stay down long), and then waking again early afternoon to a woman singing soulfully, “Mni Wiconi, people gonna rise like the water. All colors and all creeds, we hear the voices of our great granddaughters singing Mni Wiconi.” She had a soft, but strong voice, and I found it comforting. I went back to bed. I remember waking to people checking on me (orders from Kat who had gone to take care of everyones laundry that had been tear gassed or maced). I remember how somber camp sounded through the open windows. I remember that the later it got in the day, the more the tears came.

   I’ll be skipping the parts in this letter that talk deeper about that night, but the letter itself holds so much importance to how people responded the next day. It also holds parts of that night that glow with so much grace and beauty from the people on our side of the barriers… it would be a dishonor not to include it.

November 21 (trickling into the 22nd). 11:36pm.

“It’s so late here, but I’ve been sleeping all day. Last night got bad. I’m still processing everything that happened. A lot of people are still awake – it seems the camp doesn’t really sleep. There’s always someone awake tending to things or keeping the sacred fire going. It hasn’t gone out since November 2, its always burning. I go there when I can’t sleep… there’s something soothing about it, a space where you feel at ease, even with the planes flying overhead that you can’t see but you can hear… the fire seems to drown all of that out, and let you rest your bones for a minute.”

     I remember that night in great detail. I remember all of the scary and bad things that happened, but I also can remember good that happened in the midst of scary, harsh chaos. I remember the Elders (among others) coming up when the water canons were targeting people in the field and not on the bridge telling us how thankful they were, how proud they are of us, and to remain patient and peaceful no matter what. I remember some of the women going to the fence lines and telling the men in gear that they were forgiven and always welcome to come to the other side – to do what is right. I remember every face that came up to give me their gloves when mine were soaked, to give water or warm soup, to shove hand warmers in my jacket and gloves. There was unity and kindness on that side of the bridge.

“Kat’s still gone. She left around 4:30 to get medical supplies, hand warmers, and to do laundry for everything in camp that was tear gassed. I woke back up at 10pm and went into Grandma’s kitchen. Grandma and her little dog were still in there talking to people and listening to stories of the night before. I sat by the little stove to stay warm – I couldn’t find half of my gear to put back on, I think it’s still drying. I let her dog sit in my lap so I could rub his little head. I drank some hot tea and ate a banana. Two women came in and gave me a blanket to wrap up in. A couple of men came in, hugged everyone, and asked if anyone needed anything – if everyone was ok. I went out and sat by the sacred fire and smoked an herbal cigarette. I could see all the stars when I looked up. It was cold and crisp out, but clear and the fresh air felt good. Things felt a little better. Someone else came by and gave me a smudging before I headed back to the car.”

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A drawing from a journal entry a few weeks after returning home.

   I remember being in the medical tent that night and switching over to the holistic one. I was given hot tea, an energy healing, smudged, warmed up, and offered a place to lay and rest until I felt well enough to find Kat who could further take care of me. I remember how many people were hurting and how kind they were even in the midst of that. I can still see how gentle everyone was with each other. The days that followed didn’t change the mission to fight with peace. To forgive. People bounced back from the hatred. Heads were still held high, laughter still trickled out from the kitchen, hands still showed up to help build. No one let bitterness take over. They didn’t let what they had experienced, seen, or heard change or harden their hearts. I woke up the second day after the bridge and there were over a thousand new people who had shown up to help. Just like that. Over night, humanity came to breathe new life into the tired.

   I’m not sure I will ever be able to fully capture the humane side of Standing Rock – that I can ever do them justice, or express fully what it felt like. This was my best attempt at honoring the men, women, and children who stood up for their land and their rights, as well as the people who came from all over to stand with them. With us. The amount of generosity, love, tolerance, selflessness, patience, kindness, humility, faith, and hope that I saw at Standing Rock stays with me. It changed something in me. Something that I am forever grateful for, and I carry this melting pot of beautiful humans in my spirit. They are my tribe.

Mni Wiconi. Water is Life.

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