27 November 2016


photo by Monica Steele
It was a long, though scenic, drive home to Tacoma. Two thoughts come to mind this morning following up my posts on each of our four days there. The first is that anything I reported that was heard rather than seen should be considered unverified and quite possibly incorrect. What someone told me may have felt authentic at the time, but when I get some distance I can imagine other scenarios; I may not have remembered what they said accurately, and they themselves may have likewise gotten something crossed. I can only accurately report and reflect on what it felt like to be there. That said, when I read the article in the NYT stating that federal officials plan on closing the camps on 12/5, it appears likely that they underestimate the strength, resourcefulness and organization of the Protectors dwelling there. When I was working in the carpentry shed, for example, a new arrival introduced himself saying, "I just drove in from MT with a truck full of tools and a compressor. What can I do?" I just hope that a majority of the great influx Thanksgiving week did not have to return to work on Monday like me.

The second thought regards my own sense of the White allies at Standing Rock. Those that I met all appeared to have had access to higher education, which is one way of defining Middle Class. As has been seen, when bad things happen to this demographic we are more likely to hear about it in the media—which makes their direct participation a good leveraging of their privilege. But as we drove through hundreds of square miles of open spaces used in production of livestock, corn, crude oil, I tried also to imagine the families who make their living, perhaps going back through generations, in these and related enterprises. I wonder if one of the essential components of the "cultural divide" is between those who can imagine options for themselves and those who cannot. If I am in survival mode, I cannot envision beyond my immediate needs. It isn't that I am short-sighted or don't care about future generations. It is just that I have to have my needs met on a physical, emotional and, likely, spiritual level before I can take on any issues past caring for family or my immediate community. It takes a certain level of privilege, therefore, to assume responsibility for any of the many issues at stake at Standing Rock—unless, of course, you were already residing on the reservation. We know that significant change can only be implemented at a grassroots level. The barrier is the manipulated divisions that keep many of us from recognizing our common adversary. It is up to those of us who have had the kind of privilege enabling us to begin taking responsibility for all humanity to make human connection with those who have been left behind. If we do not, we have only ourselves to blame for the results. A good starting point is today's op-ed by Derek Black. . . http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/opinion/sunday/why-i-left-white-nationalism.html?emc=edit_th_20161127&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=41616302&_r=0

24 November 2016


Fourth and Last Day at Standing Rock: Having heard there was a sunrise prayer ritual each morning we arrived at the main camp in the dark and were directed to the south exit gate. There were many gathering, but what unfolded instead was an Action involving a caravan of vehicles to an undisclosed location [with participants being encouraged to sign legal waivers]. We figured we could go along while avoiding arrest and advertised for one seat in our Prius, which was promptly taken by a well-spoken senior attending UC Santa Cruz. He explained that the Action this past Sunday, which resulted in the serious injury of Protectors, had not been sanctioned by the Elders. It had begun with a group of 30 attempting to clear the police blockade of route 1806, but then expanded when many others spontaneously rushed over to support them, prompting the police to escalate. My impression is that it was this very police blockade that required the woman who lost (or nearly lost, we don’t know the latest prognosis) her arm to be airlifted, rather than driven, to the hospital. The word here is that if the police should be arresting anyone it is the pipeline drillers, who are operating without a permit—their only consequence being levied a fine. Instead, it is those blocking corporate interests that are singled out for felonies. In this we find the patent disregard for Native treaties now manifest in corporate cronyism, with all its attendant entitlement, supremacy and eerie backing by a police who appear to have strayed far from their mandate to protect citizens and remain non-partisan. Oh that’s right, I forgot: a corporation is a citizen! We followed the line in front—and were duly followed by a line behind—of cars through snow flurries ending up in the town of Mandan, just west of Bismarck. From a Burger King parking lot, a Native woman on a bullhorn directed us to drop off passengers and seek legal parking. Our guest thanked us and set out with his 35mm telephoto camera. We assembled in the center of the main intersection, some 200 of us, blocking I-94, chanting slogans associated with this struggle and attending to the singing/drumming Natives among us. The high point was a large circle of us holding hands stepping in time to dried seed-pods [cabasa?] shook by a sole chanting Native man in the center. In the center of our circle a series of folding tables displayed squashes and beets—a Thanksgiving centerpiece to the uninitiated. Many police and state troopers materialized, re-routing traffic around the intersection. [An Amber Alert was sounded on Monica’s phone regarding the obstruction]. A few locals counter-protested. We retrieved our car and left before, as we later heard, police began having legally-parked cars towed; they were apparently waiting for enough of us to leave before moving in to break up the remaining demonstrators. We had driven more than halfway back when we panicked about running out of gas before reaching our evening accommodations [where we had spent Sunday night as well], not being able to recall seeing gas stations along the route. So we returned to Mandan. How mistaken we were to add that extra 50 miles did not become apparent till we drove back past the casino we had stayed the past three nights, where there was a prominent gas station that none of us had registered seeing. We acknowledged having grown far too dependent on having a cell-phone signal—the exception rather than the rule in ND— while traveling. The technological lifestyle had decreased our observation powers and gotten us out of the habit of acquired the pertinent maps. We arrived early enough to Standing Rock Community High School for the Water Protectors Appreciation Dinner (Thanksgiving not being spoken here) to join dozens of volunteers putting on this feast. Some 100 turkeys were being cooked on an outdoor rotisserie powered by bicycle pedals. These specialty caterers had journeyed all the way from Great Barrington, MA. The volunteers were assembled and addressed by the school administrators, Native women who had long opposed the pipeline. Jane Fonda spoke briefly and was thanked for having purchased much of the food. I got to have a brief exchange with her as I served her table, expressing thanks for her decades of activism. She pointed out that the Native nation associated with my T-shirt [purchased near Sedona] were facing issues similar to this pipeline. There were rumors at the meal that the police may raid the camps shortly, that only a holiday respite might be anticipated. And so we three left behind our courageous, spirited, and imperiled community to begin the return drive West.

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.

22 November 2016


Monica and I passed out flyers and organized donated groceries. No need to send any more canned beans for a while! A friend of one of the women we worked with had to have her arm amputated due to the "concussion grenade" used on her by police Sunday. How do they rationalize using that on someone who poses no physical threat? The sun came out for a few hours. More vehicles appear to be arriving than leaving, raising sand to be carried by the sometimes high winds. I met a man coming out of an old brightly-painted Pastors for Peace bus brings supporters here from NYC for a week at a time. Whether or not one makes close interpersonal connections, there is a palpable excitement that comes in knowing that everyone you pass, in this dusty and frigid utopia, is aware and willing to act against the complacence shared by the majority of our citizenry. There is a loudspeaker by one of the Sacred Fire circles where one may here updates. An elder chanted and spoke in his mellifluous Native tongue, extolling the power of prayer over the stock market. We returned to the hotel for a hot bath, clothing smoked by the fires, thinking of those at the camps tonight.

21 November 2016


We made Standing Rock camp mid-day yesterday. It felt awkward for me at first because no one was directing us. A couple of Native men screened us driving in, but after that there was no concierge to register with, get signed in, receive a name badge and conference packet—as might satisfy my middle-class expectations! We had a bunch of old coats to donate, passed on to us by our friend from the La Connor reservation, and so first found ourselves moving all the clothing stored in one tent to another. Someone will have heard from someone that such-and-such would be useful. For example, due to the police having used fire-hoses to douse those on the front-line the day before, it was suggested that blankets and sleeping bags be separated out from the other donated clothing to be accessed quickly when protectors are facing hypothermia. Nat involved himself in setting up a large tent and Monica and I ended up assisting in food prep in the make-shift [a superfluous term here] kitchen. My observation of the camp demographic at this point was half white and half native. At one point a jeep snaked between the tents and teepees with a Native man on the bullhorn announcing "an action" beginning at 4 PM for those willing to risk arrest. We have not seen the front-line as of yet. We had a reservation to stay at the casino, 10 miles down the road, and headed down there to check in. It is indeed strange to be in these relatively luxurious accommodations given conditions from those camped. Temperatures range from the upper 20s to the lower 40s.