23 November 2016


We attended the Orientation that takes place in the Oceti-Sakowan camp at 9 each morning. Let me advise those of you who come that this is a essential starting point. It began in the White Dome tent, where a striking slender Native elder (probably my age) marveled at the endless stream of people attempting to fit themselves inside. He reminded us we were all visitors, including himself as he came from S Dakota. He asked who was here for their first day and more than half the hands went up. He then asked that the newcomers relocate to another tent. Though it was not our first day, we wanted to benefit from the Orientation. It took some time for us all to cram into a smaller and darker army surplus tent. The meeting was led by non-Native allies, though they began each portion with a request for input from any Natives present. A moving opening prayer was delivered extemporaneously by a young Native woman. A Native elder spoke of how she and others stood up at Wounded Knee, and how inspired she felt at all the young people who had come forward to do the same here. We were offered specific guidelines for respectful engagement in what should at all times be understood as a sacred and prayerful gathering. If you were not a leader when you entered this space, you were likely one by the time you left. I next offered myself at the construction site. There we assembled framework from 2x4s for up to 15 projects around the camp for that day. In the morning, I was the newbie. I took directions from a home-schooled teenage young man who had driven from NJ with his mother. We worked with a minimum of discussion, observing who had a more efficient technique and adopting it without deliberation. When I returned after getting some lunch, none of those I had worked with in the morning were present, and the foreman for all the projects anticipated that I would orient the new recruits. One was a retired high school teacher from Los Angeles. I could sense within the microcosm of this woodshop the strength of an undefeatable movement—not the least of which is the effortless manner in which I was quickly drawn into leadership in an area of minimal experience. One could observe this taking place all over the burgeoning encampment. The energy is magnetic. No wonder that people who said they only planned to be here a few days are time and again phoning home [wherever they can get phone service] to restructure their lives to stay longer. Physical discomfort is overtaken by a sense of being fully alive. We are admonished repeatedly not to appropriate Native culture, not to sap Native energy with middle-class curiosity ["You are not at a music festival!"]. Increasingly, therefore, I am seeing the gains to be made from caucusing among the privileged. I was telling the high school teacher that I am here in part to make amends for all the heinous acts that engendered me with privilege. At first he could not go along with the term "amends," as he was scanning his known ancestry for evidence of oppression towards others. But it's not about us as good-or-bad individuals; it's about systemic oppression that we were kept from fully comprehending or being affected by. It is up to us White allies to be teaching one another such lessons—bearing in mind that what wisdom I may have accrued as "an elder" is subject to improvement by the youngest among us.

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