An unlikely convergence in North Dakota

Disclaimer: this is my takeaway from a very brief visit to Standing Rock. I cannot claim to understand what is unfolding from any perspective other than my own.

Last week, I traveled with a group of 10 students to Standing Rock, the current epicenter of the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I went to the Oceti Sakowin Camp expecting to find protestors ravaged by mace, police barricades and water cannons. While the militarized response of DAPL security and police has justly captured the world’s attention, the warrior strength of those in camp has been mostly overlooked (with one recent exception). Indeed, I found a community committed to a radical experiment in human cooperation. Nearly 5,000 people from all over the world and hundreds of native tribes are living in a city of tipis, repurposed army tents, and Technicolor busses, all operating under a gift economy.

The patience this requires cannot be understated. This is not the first time the very existence of the Lakota has been decried as a hindrance to industry and economy. Manifest Destiny and U.S. steel interests drove railroads through native hunting grounds; further westward expansion cordoned off prairie with highway systems and industrial agriculture. The Lakota people have faced 500 years of relocation, forced education and genocide in the name of ‘progress.’ The portrayal of the protestors in Standing Rock as a disorganized hindrance to the local economy or US energy independence is resonant of a time in which the fashionable response to Native Americans upending rail ties fell somewhere between exasperation and murder. This is more than merely a haphazard gathering of protesters in the way of a pipeline; this is a continuation of self-defense.

But more remarkably, perhaps, is the Lakota’s steadfast commitment to welcoming those who have systematically erased and forgotten their existence. Not only are those in camp exercising extreme patience with the violence of police and DAPL security (tear gas, false arrests, rubber bullets, illegal destruction of sacred property), they are also exercising extreme patience with the arrival of hundreds of visitors who have only recently taken up the cause. The irony did not elude me: a Grinnell Pioneer (a Pioneer!) committed to social justice arrives on scene a week after Facebook suggests I check-in at Standing Rock.

Yet, the Lakota people are responding to both fronts with an outpouring of compassion and wisdom. In addition to extending a welcome to their land, ceremonies and prayers, the Lakota conduct daily orientations and direct action training to mobilize new arrivals. As visitors, we were expected to defer to native leadership, to give more than we took, and to listen without interrupting. And to the best of our ability, we did.

On Saturday, I listened to the Lakota prophecy of the 7th generation: the coming of a black snake, the reunification of the native (red) nations, and the support of the rainbow-skinned people (black, white, and yellow) for the first time. For many, the gathering in Standing Rock has become the epicenter of this prophecy. One man told me that although Crazy Horse gave the Lakota a reputation as ferocious warriors, they are now turning to lessons from Ghandhi and Martin Luther King to mold a tenacious new approach to civil disobedience. I listened well into the night, until the frightening rumbles of the low-flying surveillance helicopters sent me to bed.

The gathering in Sacred Stone truly is a unified refusal of division, and a deeply spiritual one. As onlookers, we cannot deny its significance. In more ways than one, Oceti Sakowin Camp has already successfully defied the history books: it is said to be the most diverse gathering of native people since the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Furthermore, the sheer power of cooperation (sheltering, healing, and nourishing everyone) is making a statement larger than DAPL. This city of sharing offers a truly embodied alternative to the lifestyle of pipelines and empty promises of the American Dream. Does American civilization breed the loneliest people? I wondered this after 36 hours at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Will we be able to patch the holes in our hearts with oil?

The world is now watching. If you can travel, go; they are asking for bodies on the ground (especially bodies that can afford arrest). At the very least, pay attention. Do not let the media’s focus on the police clashes detract from what is unfolding in Standing Rock.

To the hands in Grinnell who supported our journey with donations, the sewing of the banner, and moral support, I cannot thank you enough. In the aftermath of an election that broke my heart and shook my foundations, I found solace in this community’s commitment to pick each other up and continue the slow plod of bettering this world. Even if we are horrified with where we find ourselves, it is our job to continue to wade loudly through the cesspool with fire burning in our hearts.

On November 8th, the Oceti Sakowin Camp outreach had this to say:

No matter what happens with the election tonight, we will continue to live in the only truly free land in this country. We have 0 homeless, 0 starving, 0 firearms, 0 militarized police, and 0 isms. Free nutritious food, free healthcare, free education and we truly care about each other. We stand for a better tomorrow.