I have not yet been able to explain my experience at Standing Rock. I’m busy, everyday, trying to live in the body that it has shaped and given back to me. I’m at times unclear how much I’ve been impacted, at others, I exist as only that impact, and nothing more.
What follows is a loose connection of impressions left on my mind, in my skin, deep within my bones from my singular experience of Standing Rock. Like so much in this world, it is nonlinear. There is no clear story. But something has lived in my bones – gifts from camp – that longs to now be expressed. It may not be a full account, but it is the story that can now be told.
It’s late November in so-called North Dakota. I’ve just spent time at the local casino to use the wifi and electricity to Skype into a now foreign world that is San Francisco. The casino reminds me of refugee camps I’ve seen in movies. Folks from camp are strewn throughout the building, draped over lounge chairs, huddled around power outlets, napping in stairwells. There is a familiar glimmer in the eyes of those who have not come here to gamble… or perhaps we are the only ones gambling. The only ones willing to risk it all for the hope and thrill of “winning”. After somehow hitching a ride back to camp with a young native man, I find myself walking head first into a blizzard. The ground is made of ice, making each attempt to push off and propel forward a gamble with gravity; a dance of muscles unused to assisting in locomotion. I’m tempted to get down on all fours and crawl – hoping that more contact with the Earth will help me move toward our small part of camp. But I’m unfamiliar with my quadruped self – it’s been so many years since I last crawled, I’m afraid I’m no longer adept at it. So instead, I bury my chin in my chest and keep slipping along. The cold is such that my back ribs are reaching all the way around with feverish hands, trying to warm my vulnerable heart. My eyes are more than half closed and aching, but I can’t see much more than five feet in front of me anyway…I can hardly see the ground I’m trying so hard to move across. I’m walking toward the lights. The big bright football stadium lights that shine over camp from the construction site. They create a fuzzy halo around all Oceti Sakowin, Main Camp, Standing Rock. I know, though I cannot see, that those lights shine brightest over our tent. They keep us up into the night. Create dawn out of dusk. I feel a twinge of remorse and a wave of confusion that it could be these same lights that seem to be guiding me home. As soon as I reach our communal space, I feel the quiet of ears no longer exposed to the wind, but buzzing nonetheless. It’s warm enough inside to take off one of my five layers. It’s warm enough to take my socks off to dry them by the fire. It’s warm enough for my bare hands to touch my bare toes. Warm enough for contact. This little tent somehow withstands the brutality of the world we find ourselves in. It can withstand the winds, the blinding lights, the endless circling of surveillance airplanes and drones, our broken hearts, our belly laughter. There is a large pot on the wood burning stove in the center of the tent. It has been filled with snow to melt, then boil, then drink. The local police and Dakota Access Pipeline / Energy Transfer Partners have made it so getting water into camp means risking arrest. We attempt to follow the abundance of life, to drink the water that blankets us, to be thankful.
Some other day in late November in so-called North Dakota. I’ve dedicated this time to organizing donations and items for “go bags” – milk of magnesia to help relieve pepper sprayed eyes – when the goggles we’re also packing will certainly fail. Protein bars, extra clothes, trash bags, the list goes on. I’m making piles of pants and jackets. I’m heating water for tea. I’m roasting potatoes in the fire. I’m singing and cleaning. We’ve had a bad couple of days. We’ve felt a little defeated. I’m hoping this bowl of fruit and the warm ginger tea will help to soothe what ails us. For just a moment….I don’t know what else to offer.
It’s the same day, but evening in the communal tent. The drones have been flying overhead all day. There are people on the bridge that has been closed. Some are water protectors with nothing but their empty hands and winter jackets. Others are police with a megaphone, projecting unseen from behind a barricade of cement blocks and barbed wire. Those barricaded in seem to be afraid – they are talking into a loud speaker asking that every one of those other unarmed people on the bridge to leave. They won’t stop talking. No one will leave. From inside our space, with tea and candles on, we all laugh and remark back to the police officer. We make jokes of his manner of speaking. We condemn him for speaking so ceaselessly. We condemn megaphones. Pretty soon, we’re condemning it all. Soon we’re all in jackets hoping to be just another group of people engaging in a conversation with cement. With barbed wire. With a megaphone.
It’s a warm winter day in so-called North Dakota. I find myself sitting around a small fire with the Pueblo People. They’ve invited us to their part of camp to talk, to share, to listen. I’ve been asked to talk about trauma. Sitting in this circle, I see one of the brothers of this group across from me. He looks like I felt crossing camp in the blizzard. His back reaching around to protect his front. Those half open eyes that ache as they try to take in as little as possible. I know he has been shot four times in the chest – point blank – with rubber bullets. I know that the man sitting next to me in the circle stood next to him as he took each round. I know the woman to my left held him. I know he knows more than I can ever say. I’m suddenly feeling inadequate. That all of my training around trauma, the body and psychology is just a bunch of great ideas…but here, in this moment, what could they really offer this circle? I feel a pain in that inadequacy – the pain of not knowing. The pain of not having been there on the bridge with him and his family as they stood in prayer against water cannons and rubber bullets. The pain of my separation. Of my privilege. Of so many unsayable things. So I ask them what they know, for they know more about tending to trauma, about showing up, than I can say I do. They say after a fight filled encounter, they eat. They build a fire. They dance. They sing. They listen. They weep. They hold one another close. I tell them I have nothing more to offer and place a hand on the back of the man next to me. He tells me I have just offered them so much. We sit quietly until the french toast comes out. Eat! they laugh. Eat! they sing. Eat! Then eat more! Laugh with us…we do both as though we haven’t nourished ourselves in this way for years. We’re light… even if it’s just for a moment.
It’s sometime in December in Truckee, CA. Obama has just denied the easement needed by DAPL to drill under the river. I cannot even crack a smile. I flip by it like all other non-news. I’m angered that this means nothing and yet, to so many, the illusion of a win seems to be the prevailing theme. I turn off. I’m turned off. This is no such win. I say “the pipeline will be well underway once Trump is in office. This means take a breath, but keep moving.” I feel guilty for speaking the truth. So I turn away.
It’s sometime in late January in Truckee, CA. The snow has not stopped here. There are feet upon feet of snow covering our world in a gentle hush. I’m thinking about the blizzard in so-called South Dakota. My legs slip across the driveway as they did across camp. I’m still wondering about moving on all fours. I’m still not doing it. Trump has just approved the easement and the pipeline is back in business. I suppose we all knew this was going to happen. I feel a charge to head back out to Standing Rock, but feel confused by the messages. What is wanted, what is needed, who should be where…none of this is clear to me anymore. I decide to let Standing Rock recede into my being, further back from the front of my eyes…unprocessed and raw…something I suppose I’ve always anticipated.
It’s sometime in February in Truckee, CA. We’ve just had another major storm. I’ve learned how to walk on snow and ice with my two feet. I’ve learned how to glide and ride. I’ve climbed a small mountain today and listened quietly to the wind, to the sound of snow falling, the music of a passing cloud. I think of Standing Rock. I wonder what could have been done out there in the cold. I remember our little tent that crunched with frost every morning as we stirred under a mountain of sleeping bags. I think of the elders chanting all day, everyday, into the night, praying to the water, for the water. I think of the early morning “alarm” from the sacred fire – a calling to rise, for this is why we came here. The sweet voice of an elder guiding us out of our dream and into another. I think of the security guards that also slipped and slid in the mud. I wonder if they thought about crawling. I wondered if they would ever let themselves try.
The camp has now been evicted. They have burnt their sacred structures and made their way away from camp, away from the drill site, away from DAPL, maybe away from the land, maybe away from themselves. I watch from afar in a numb sadness as structures burn, as tank after tank rides along that sacred land. I feel each footfall in my spine…it rounds as long lines of people roll on. As masked man after masked man points a weapon at a protector whose hands are in the air…who is praying. I think of the grandmother who is in handcuffs for trespassing on stolen land. I think of how much she has suffered in this exact same way. My heart breaks, my ribs reach around to protect my heart…my eyes ache. It’s all too much… and I don’t know the half of it.
It’s February 25th, 2017. The drilling under the Missouri River is complete some 43 days early. We probably knew that was happening. It will soon transport crude tar sands oil… it will soon break…it will soon destroy the waters…they will soon win…we will all soon lose.
What strikes me most in this moment is the failure of it all. Let me be clear – Standing Rock is not only a failure, just as it is not only a success, just as it was never just about a pipeline, nor was it ever just about prayer. To somehow convince ourselves it was a victory does not honor the reality of what it was in truth. I can say it is as hard for me to speak those words as it is for some folks to hear them, but if I follow the pain of it, I think it leads me to a knowing…a sense of truth. So I say again. Standing Rock, was and is, among many many things, a failure. By March 6th (just one day after my 30th birthday), the pipeline will be in functioning order. Nothing in the world of that machine has stopped…it’s not even slowed. There is something I am still trying to understand about how Standing Rock became lodged in a dialogue with itself. A debate over what violence looks like, what tactics are appropriate in stopping such things as pipelines and oil companies, who gets to say, who is in charge…who is an elder…what is your role. In all of this dialogue Standing Rock stood still, while on the other side of those bright lights, the machine ticked on in silence. I failed to stop that pipeline just as did the thousands of people that came out to show support, to build structures, to get hosed by water cannons, to get in the way, to get lost, to be found. What we tried did not work… #noDAPL is now just an ironic statement of a wish… a pipe dream gone array.
And in that, I still know what it was all for. To awaken us to our world. To remember that we are all connected. To give space to those closest to the Earth. To follow the knowledge of our grandmothers.
And, above all, we were there to get to know violence. Who is this we I’m speaking to? This we includes those that were on the frontlines, on either side. This we includes those who watched online and those who heard about the videos from friends. This we includes anyone who feels these words landing deep within them. This we includes you if you are reading this and have made it to this point. The we includes our future generations and the ancient ones. This we includes those divesting and those investing. This we includes every security guard or armed police person suffering from PTSD; who cannot forget the faces of the old women they sprayed with a fire hose in freezing temperatures, who is woken in the night by the smell of fire, who continues to rage on because they fear that all they are was lost somewhere at Standing Rock. This we includes every elder who has seen the endless brutality against their people, and continue to rise. This we includes all the children of the Earth.
And at Standing Rock, we all became the receptacles of violence. We received the brutality of violent men and women working for a violent company doing violence against the Earth. They became the hand of that violence, unable to feel themselves as they took their places…just doing their job of offering violence to the peaceful. We were blown around, knocked by the wind and the snow and the cold. We were sprayed with chemical agents by planes and the small hands of the pipeline protectors. We prayed, we shared love, we told jokes, and we were beaten. But something specific happened to those on the side of water. Some of us became so afraid of this violence, we turned against ourselves, allowing our only knowing of violence to be that which was forced upon us. That violence exists has made some of us afraid, and that fear has become all we know of violence. We forget the tornado and the tsunami. We forget the violent contractions and forceful pushes that led to our arrival on this Earth. We forget the slipping and the falling. We forget all other forms of violence because “their” violence has filled us to the brim. Filled us with fear..and that is all we know of violence.
When I think back on my time there, I wish I had known better than to be afraid of violence. I wish I had been willing to not rise above it- for my body is below their violence, subject to it – and instead, I wish I had faced it head on. Met it with the same force it tried to offer me. With my own wild nature. My own tornado. My own tsunami. There is a part of me that wished I would have run to the front of the line when the water cannons were being used to remind us to fear violence. I wish I had been naked and roaring, molotov cocktail in hand. I wish I had growled and roared loud enough for them to hear my rage that they have gifted me. I wish I had howled as I threw it back to them. I wish I had destroyed the machine that is killing everyone, making everyone afraid to sleep at night, afraid of their own flesh. I wish we had danced in the fire of our burning anger, knowing it is not just those on the side of water that have been liberated from our fear of violence.
I wish I had met their violence with my own. Maybe then they would have paused. Maybe then they would have seen that we are all a force of nature, unafraid of their violence, and masters of our own. Maybe then, head to head, they would know they are not above us, and I would remember there is no high road. Locked, horn to horn, we would make it through by meeting each other with the same passion, the same commitment, the same power, the same force first. For the only way out is through. The only way to contend with any energy is to meet it – right where it is, as it is, without wishing it was something else, some other way. If we do not acknowledge that, if we continue to turn away, if we continue to deny the violence piled upon us, we are in violence, and in fact, becoming more and more violent toward ourselves. We must acknowledge that trying to look away does not make the world less violent. What’s more, it forces us to receive it without our own power…helpless and hopeless that will ever be some other way.
I want make very clear that I do not want to be violent. I do not want war or pain. I do not want any of these things. I want to practice ahimsa to the best of my ability. I want to honor all lives. I want there to be peace for all. It is from the deepest reaches of my being that I hope and pray daily for all beings to be in harmony. I certainly don’t like talking this way, but burying myself in these desires disconnects me with the truth. And the truth is this – we are in violent times. We must speak to it. I sense that if I am to survive it, I better do all I can to face that ugly truth and learn the steps to the violent dance. This means I befriend Kali. It means I befriend my own violence, my own impulses to destroy, my own habits of domination. I must know them, take them into me as a part of my peaceful whole, and wield my own expression of violence and transformation with consciousness, precision, compassion, and love for all living beings. I will do all I can to use my violence as a power to liberate us all from our fear of it. It may seem paradoxical, and maybe it is, but that paradox makes it no less true.
I know I can be violent. I have been afraid of this fact for so long. But that fear makes me paralyzed in the face of it. The only way out is through…and to move through we must start where we are – which is in the midst of a violent war against the Earth and all expressions of life. We all know something true about violence. To deny that would be to deny our complex humanity. It would be like denying that Standing Rock was a failure and a beautiful success. It would be like denying that the sun still shines, even in our darkest days. To deny our own capacity for violence also sets us up to simply receive violence without anyway of moving it out or away. Filled with it, it comes out in different ways – attacks on ourselves, attacks on each other, undirected rage that becomes nothing more than more unconscious violence. I am quite done with this narrow view of the world or of myself.
What’s more, I’m done lying. These are truths and to honor them is to honor myself and the body that is shaped by them.
Of course, I did not find myself naked at the front lines howling in my wildness, channeling the Earth’s violence. But thinking it, fantasizing about it, means that there is something to learn here.
I must pause and breathe. I must acknowledge my sweaty palms and my fear of even allowing these thoughts real estate in my mind, let alone communicating them to the world this way. I must invite myself back to the present moment and acknowledge the totality of Standing Rock. It’s beauty and wisdom, it’s ugliness and violence. I’m comforted knowing I can give voice to some part of it… my part of it.
I close with wishes of gratitude. Though there is more to say, and surely it will be in its own time, I feel I must end this exploration here. I bow my head humbly to this experience. I have gratitude for the water protectors who opened my eyes. Gratitude for the snow and the wind that taught me how to move on the frozen Earth. Gratitude to the Cannonball River, to Sacred Stone, to Oceti Sakowin – this sacred place that held all of our experiences with grace and patience. Gratitude to the drones and the flood lights for guiding us some place closer to home. Gratitude to the security guards that reminded us to meet them; for challenging us to truly consider violence. To Standing Rock, to the Water, to Mother Earth.
Thank you Standing Rock for being the teacher of hard lessons. I know now, more than ever, that the only way out is through.