My trip to Oceti Sakowin Camp was organized by a group of Southern Illinois residents who are concerned about recent events at The Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which is part of The Great Sioux Nation. We have been meeting since September and have been running a community education campaign about events at Standing Rock, holding fundraisers, and collecting donations for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.
I had journeyed to the Camp of the Sacred Stones over Labor Day weekend. I arrived on the morning of September 3rd. The day the “authorities” decided to become violent against Water Protectors by spraying them with mace and sicking trained attack dogs on them. And knowingly unearthing sacred places, including burial grounds.
I had planned on picking friends up along my way to the camp, a road trip with buddies is always pleasant. Unfortunately, plans fell through and I was on my own. It had been some time since I had made a trip like this solo, and let’s admit, being a woman on the road alone is how a lot of horror movies begin. I was however going to meet up with family there.
So I was on my own, and I am not too proud to admit I was a little anxious about what I was doing. I was taking collected/donated supplies to help the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. I had heard about their fight a couple weeks through social networking sites. Who knew I would find something important on such a site? I didn’t. As I read a few news stories I began to do more and more research into what was going on. I, like many others around the world, decided that I could not sit by idly and allow the interest of Big Oil and the government that supports it to continue its trespasses against The Great Sioux Nation, Indigenous peoples everywhere, and Mother Earth.
When I arrived at camp, within minutes, all of my anxieties and fears melted away. I was greeted by a Water Protector on security duty at the front gate.
“Aho Miss!” he greeted, “Mitakuye Oyasin” which is translated as “We are all related.”
I greeted him and told him I had supplies to deliver. He told me where everything was, where to take supplies, where to volunteer, and where to “go if you wanna get arrested.” Being new to this kind of situation I found that interesting to note. In fact, no one had ever said that to me before. I am, after all, a white woman of mostly Irish ancestry. I have that privilege. Educated, in debt, and ready to help in any way I could.
I unloaded supplies and found a place to make camp, among the hundreds of tents and tipis across the beautiful prairie near the river. As I began to walk around and talk to people I was completely welcomed by everyone. The man at the gate was right, I was among family. People were returning from the front lines having been maced and threatened with dogs, some injured, and telling everyone at camp what had happen. They were trying to protect grave sites and a private security company had maced them and sicked their trained attack dogs on them.
Injuries were treated, and when the hot sun began to disappear and camp began to cool off, the camp became revived. There were prayer circles, songs, dances, speeches, and love. People spoke of their concerns for the Dakota Access Pipeline, what environmental consequences might mean for The Great Sioux Nation, and everyone downstream. This environmental concern is about what will happen if/when the pipeline leaks into the Missouri River. Though through technological advances, people try to make such pipelines safer and safer, they just cannot be safe enough, and the potential threat to the water is too much to ask. The population of Bismark (90% white) thought it was too much, so the pipeline was rerouted. The Great Sioux Nation agrees it is too much to ask, and many of us agree with them. However, the pipeline has not been rerouted. Instead, police, private security companies, the National Guard have been trying to force The Great Sioux Nation to take the risk that others have refused.
This first trip was very short, I had to leave the next day. So I met up with my family and the next morning I had to return home, eighteen hours away.
Shortly, after Southern Illinois Stands with Standing Rock was formed. Together we planned to make another trip. We decided over Thanksgiving would be a good time to take more supplies to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. It would give us a couple of months to educate the community about the events in North Dakota. At this time there was no mainstream media coverage and little media coverage at all. Our community mostly had no idea what was happening there. We would have time to collect donations and have fundraising events.
Myself, and two other people from Southern Illinois began our journey on Wednesday November 23rd. They drove a van full of hay, oats, and other supplies, while I drove in my car with other donations.
Along the way we stopped at a rest area in Moody County South Dakota. I remember Moody County because if you have ever been on a long car ride with me before you know after a day of driving I tend to get even sillier than usual, and when I am alone it is no holds bar. So when I saw the sign I started thinking about how a moody county might be. “Is everyone here ‘moody’ so they called it Moody County?” Or is the county itself ‘moody’? This continued for some time until we stopped at the rest area.
While in the bathroom we came across a lovely lady brushing her teeth. We asked where she was headed and she said “Standing Rock!”
We all got very excited that we were all on our way to the same place for the same reason. How incredible!
Our new friend introduced us to her partner and their friend. We all started chatting and getting to know each other a little. We decided to travel the rest of the way together. Our little two car caravan was growing!
We drove a little way, and the new head of the caravan lead us into a “place with great breakfast sandwiches.” They were by the way. It was around then that I found out that two of my new friends had been at the Camp of the Sacred Stones the same weekend in September that I had been, but we had not run into each other there. As we talked and waited for our breakfast we discovered another car of people headed to take things to the camps! Southern Illinois, New York, and now Ohio was represented in our now four car caravan. On the way we all became great friends.
When we arrived at Oceti Sakowin Camp on November 24th, we all decided to camp together. We set up on the road to the Front Line. We were one of the last camps you pass when going to the Front Line. We sat around the campfire, told stories, and got to know each other. We found out that the men from Ohio were planning to sleep in their car, and discovered that between all of us, there was a spare tent, so we set it up and everyone had a nice place to sleep for the night.
North Dakota winters are cold. Some may even say that going camping in the winter in North Dakota is not such a good idea. Especially if you are not used to it and/or not prepared. The Sioux people have lived there for generations, they are used to the harsh winds and temperatures and they know how to thrive. I am lucky that I come from a military family and have loved ones who know how to prepare for such a trip. Because of them I was well equipped, kept warm, and comfortable. Even when I woke up and there was ice inside the tent with me!
The land is absolutely beautiful. The mountains and plains. Truly breathtaking! We awoke in the morning just before sunrise. My words will ever fall short of being able to describe the beauty and profoundness of the sunrise. By looking at it, you would never guess that just over on Turtle Mountain, a sacred burial site where only holy people are allowed, there was razor wire, police, security forces, National Guard with guns, tear gas, mace, water cannons, sound cannons, rubber bullets etc. They have been using these weapons freely against peaceful and prayerful Water Protectors whenever it suits them.
The first day, after sunrise I went to camp orientation. Where people new to camp could come learn about the camp, camp goals, and how to behave while at camp. My orientation leaders would be proud that I remember the four central things about camp:
1) Indigenous Centered. We are there to follow the lead of the over 600 First Nations people gathered there to protect their rights, their land, sacred spaces, Mother Earth, and all of us from ourselves.
2) Build a New Legacy. The United States was built on violence, brutality, slavery, and stolen land that it has now been occupied for generations. I will not continue that legacy, nor will the other allies who had come to Standing Rock to do whatever we can to help.
3) Be Useful. Going to camp is not a vacation. It is not a “cool thing” you can do with your friends to just go hang out, burn up resources, and take selfies. We are there to help, so we should help. There is a volunteer tent which can direct people where help is needed, and you are encouraged to help, whenever you see something that needs done. For instance one of my fellow camp mates spent the day chopping fire wood, others of us helped unload firewood from trucks, and others cooked huge meals to feed anyone who was hungry and passing by, and we all spent some time at the Front Line.
4) Take it Home. Which is what I am doing at this moment. I am sharing what it is like at camp, what is going on there, and my experience. Not only by writing this, but if you have talked to me in the past couple of weeks, I am sure you have heard something about Camp and #NoDAPL.
We next talked about the Seven Traditional Lakota Values, which are to be respected and abided by at camp. These are the values that the Lakota live by, and to be honest, I think we should all live by them. The seven values are were given to the Lakota by White Calf Buffalo Woman, who also gave them the sacred calumet and their ceremonies like the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, the Sun Dance, and Crying for a Vision.
The values are: Woc’ekiya, (Prayer) we all have our own types of prayer which we must find. Our prayer can be song, dance, silence, doing dishes at the kitchen, helping build, or participating in nonviolent direct actions. We all must find our connection, our method of prayer.
Wa o’ hola, (Respect) respect for one’s self, for each other, for family, community and all life.
Wa on’sila, (Compassion) loving, caring, good will to others and yourself.
Wowijke, (Honesty and Truth) to yourself and others, sincerity.
Wawokiye, (Generosity) helping without expecting something in return. Giving from the heart.
Wah’wala, (Humility) we have a spirit, and we are no better or worse than others. We are all part of one big family, humans, the earth, nonhuman animals, the trees…
Woksape, (Wisdom) with practice and knowledge comes wisdom.
These values are to be respected and represented at camp. As a Ceremonial Resistance Camp, Oceti Sakowin Camp indeed represents these values and teaches them to all who come.
After orientation, a beautiful experience on its own, I met up with some of the others I was traveling with. We all had things we wanted to do, and ways we wanted to volunteer so we split off for a while. It was amazing to see the community at work. Everyone helping everyone else for the good of the whole. There are people who work security 24/7, people who cook, sanitation crews, teachers for the school that has been formed, people sorting donations, building winter shelters, and all manner of things to help the camp, the community, the family. I have never experienced so much cooperation or organization by so many people from all corners of the world from all kinds of backgrounds.
The gathering of over 600 Nations at Standing Rock, is historic. There has not been a gathering anywhere near this magnitude for over 100 years, if ever. All gathered for the same reasons. With the same goals. I will never really be able to describe what it is like at camp, words will always fail. It was Love in action, Hope and prayer in action.
That evening when we all gathered back at our camp site having finished our chosen volunteer duties for the day, we began to make dinner and build a fire. Two of our companions were hooked up with camping gear, including a small kitchen! On the menu: Frybread, Corn Soup, and venison. I took the direction of the chief, my new friend, and several of us pitched in to make enough food to feed a small army. And that is what we did.
Everyone was invited to dinner, to eat and sit by the fire. As Warriors returned from the Front Line we would offer food. Many stopped to eat, to get to know each other, sing songs, and tell stories by the fire. I made connections there that I believe will last a lifetime. My family as grown so much since I arrived at Oceti Sakowin Camp. I truly love and admire all the people I met and got to know. I must be the luckiest person to have met them and gotten to know each one of them.
Camp is a community, but more than that it is a family. It may be family you have never met before, but you soon find out that they were relatives all along. We laughed, and cried, we got angry, and hugged, and I think we are still with each other, we will not forget each other. Already, longtime friends are hearing more and more stories that begin with “When I was at Standing Rock…”
Camp was unexplainable in its beauty, both its outward beauty of the landscape and the beauty of each person there.
It would be a nice fairy tale if the story ended there. But it would be incomplete and unfair to leave out the experience of the Front Line which was both beautiful and scary.
On Saturday, after the sunrise prayer circle and morning water ceremony at the river, where we all gathered to pray for the water, Mother Earth, ourselves, and everyone some of my companions and myself decided that we would spend our time at the Front Line that day. As we walked the road to where Turtle Mountain is razor wired off from its people we saw an eagle fly overhead. It was beautiful, soaring through the blue sky. And it was on our side of the line.
When I arrived at the front line and looked around, what I saw was troubling, no … it was Frightening! I stood amongst a group of peaceful, prayerful people, some shouting to the “authorities” things like “What is your favorite football team?” And “Come down and talk to us!” or “We have frybread!”
At first I was focused at the armed men and women on top of Turtle Mountain, with their trucks and SUV’s. Gas masks, guns, large cans of mace, and other equipment. For some time I just stood there staring at them, worried my eyes were playing tricks on me. Wasn’t I in North Dakota, AMERICA? How could this be happening in 2016? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.
I began to look around more and try to absorb more of my surroundings. As I looked to the surrounding hills I saw “mercenaries” (paid private security groups) with guns, masks, spotters, and snipers set up on Humvees. Yes SNIPERS! Pointing at peaceful people, pointed at me and my family!
We had brought supplies in case the “authorities” decided to get out of hand and begin being violent towards our peaceful group. We had backpacks with bottled water, ponchos, face masks, etc. So hopefully if tear gas, rubber bullets, or freezing water came at us, we would be able to protect ourselves and each other a little.
More and more people were arriving at the Front Line. We were going to have a ceremony. Hundreds of people made a circle, we sat silently. A holy person came into the center of the circle and spoke with us. He spoke about the land, about Mother Earth, and about why we were all there. People shared songs of prayer, and stories. Then we sat in a 15 minute silent prayer, while the guns never stopped pointing at us – the “authorities” remaining. A hoovering presence above and around us. But our prayer would not be chased away. We would remain, even with the potential for bodily harm from those who have vowed to “serve and protect.”
The ceremony lasted about an hour in all, and we returned to camp. The mood changed almost immediately as we got back to our camp site. That night was very similar to the night before. We again fed anyone who was hungry, and shared our fire with the Warriors passing by. Making friends and sharing stories, sharing our lives with each other. It was amazing, I wish my words were more adequate to describe how it felt at camp. How it felt at the front line, what it was like. But we will have to settle for this account.
I will always remember my time at Oceti Sakowin Camp and The Camp of the Sacred Stones. I hope I can go again, and help the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Until the Black Snake is Dead and in every fight that may come to the Great Sioux Nation or any of my sisters and brothers, I will Stand with Standing Rock and all my family.