For a couple of months prior to my trip I had been working on my Facebook Page, Frackfree Tennessee, trying to assemble every news story out there about Standing Rock in one place in order to spread the word. I also got involved in organizing shipments to Standing Rock and raising money to fund them. I began to get to know the people working on the issue and to talk to those who had made the Journey. Some Middle Tennessee Standing Rock supporters had a meeting at my house. “When are you going?” people would ask me. Then it came together in a matter of four days.
Michael, Lynn, and I set out on December 1st for Standing Rock. We rented a four-wheel drive, high-clearance pickup truck because we were told that we would encounter mud and ice. We were glad we did. We managed to raise $5,000 in four days. On board we carried a wood stove, a new chain saw, a cooler full of donated meat, $500 worth of herbal remedies, and lots of food. We made the thousand-mile trek in 24 hours.
According to plan we went straight to the home of a Lakota family that Michael had gotten to know on a previous trip. Frank and Rochelle Bullhead were our gracious hosts for the next four days and even though we did not sleep at the camp, we found ourselves right in the middle things. Frank and Rochelle were central in the various “actions” over the past few months. Frank showed us where he had been shot with rubber bullets and bean bags and described how the police had jabbed him in the kidney, the only one he had left, and arrested him; they put a number on his arm and put him in a dog cage. The Morton County army sprayed them with water in 25-degree weather. Rochelle wore her traditional dress and faced down the national guard on numerous occasions. Both had been sprayed a number of times with mace, pepper spray and tear gas while praying.
We went to the camp shortly after our arrival. My first impression of the camp was one of awe and excitement; it was huge and full of life. Tents and tipis and yurts, Indian youth on horseback, drums and whoops, people of every description setting up camp, a line of cars and buses that poured in all day long. Three thousand veterans and a host of new water protectors swelled the population from four thousand to over twelve thousand. The energy in the camp was electric.
The line of flags along the road represented the 350 indigenous tribes who had made the journey from all over the world, from South America to Alaska, from Hawaii to Siberia. This was unprecedented, and many of these tribes had been enemies in the past. What they had in common was the threat of exploitation by energy extraction companies and polluters who have made their billions at the expense of indigenous people. As each tribe arrived they did their dances and were welcomed in prayer ceremonies. The site of so many different colorful flags was awe inspiring.
There were challenges ahead, of course. The infrastructure was not set up for these numbers, and the strain on the organizers was beginning to show. Many newcomers had arrived in small two-wheel drive cars and Michael and I found ourselves pushing cars and trucks that were getting stuck on Facebook Hill. We met one large group of young people from Chicago who were just getting off their bus and were pretty sure they had just landed on the moon. They intended to spend the night in their bus and did not seem very warmly dressed. Being from Chicago myself I thought I had seen winter, but later I saw what a North Dakota winter was like.
Facebook Hill, so-named because it was one of the few places you could get a signal, had a great view of the camp. One of four camps, Oceti Sakowin was growing by leaps and bounds. From there you could see that tents were set up amid several frozen ponds in the flood plain of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. Come Spring most of the camp would be under water. We met a man there who was charging his cell phone on a stationary bike. And we were told to beware of the helicopter that was omnipresent overhead. No one was really sure if it was the helicopter or the semi-trailer peaking over the hill that was intercepting data and draining cell phone batteries: 21st century cyber warfare.
Frank and Rochelle’s son-in-law, Isaacs, was head of the Oceti Sakowin camp. The tall, very spiritual 28-year old warrior explained to us the arrangement of tipis at the center of the camp. This was the sacred Lakota Council Fire Circle that had not been seen in a hundred and fifty years. The seven tipis were in the shape of buffalo horns and represented the different branches of the Lakota tribe. Each tipi was occupied by a representative of the different branches. Isaacs, who had been staying in the camp since its inception, represented the Lakotas of the Great Plains. In the center was the fire circle and a campfire that had been burning for eight months and had fire keepers that never left who were very serious about their jobs. The field around the Fire Circle was kept free of tents and we were told not to stand on the east side of the fire where the buffalo horns came together because that is the direction the spirits came from.
That first night we made supper over our camp stove and sat around the Council Fire talking to people and listening to organizers discussing strategy. We heard that earlier that week a gift had been delivered to the Morton County Sheriff’s office, a peace offering of food and supplies. The Sheriff had sent out a plea for local residents to help them because all their money had been spent “protecting” the pipeline. The water protectors wanted to share the bounty of the camp.
Many of the veterans who had arrived seemed ready to tangle with the Morton County Sheriff and the national guard. The elders and camp organizers met and voted to refrain from marching in the morning in order to keep peace. It was rumored that the Sheriff had moved one mile back from the barricaded bridge, evidently wanting to avoid a confrontation. Things were happening fast.
Michael, Lynn, and I decided to go to the Prairie Knights Casino for a cup of tea and to check out that scene. Eight miles south, the casino was filled with people from the camp, easily recognized by their heavy winter gear. Being on the reservation and controlled by the Lakota, the casino proved to be an invaluable resource: a place to get warm, grab a hot meal, and get cell phone reception. All the rooms were full, mostly with gamblers on weekends, but the camps had reserved a few. When the snow storm hit two days later over a thousand campers took refuge in the hallways.
After spending a cozy night on the Bullheads’ floor we returned to camp. The place was buzzing with activity. Cars and buses continued to pour in. The veterans were organizing for some sort of action and the horse-mounted young security force was herding people assembling on the road back to camp. There was to be a prayer meeting of all twelve thousand people at the main fire. As we were heading in that direction we came upon the Bullheads. Frank, with tears in his eyes, said two words: “We won.” The Army Corps had revoked the permit for the pipe line!
What ensued was joyous celebration on a grand scale. Hugs and whoops and big smiles everywhere. The drums were beating, everyone was dancing and singing and praying. Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II gave the announcement and then invited the elders to pray at the Council Fire. One Indian told me that the tribes had not won such a victory since Custer. And it just happened to be Custer’s birthday!
The Council Fire circle was a powerful gathering of chiefs and elders. It was both celebratory and solemn at the same time. Stories were told, reminders given of the importance of the victory over the pipeline company. And of course no one was under the illusion that the fight was over. This was only a chapter in the ongoing struggle to preserve the earth and all its inhabitants.
That evening we once again met with friends in the cafeteria of the casino. A snowstorm was on the horizon and getting around would soon be difficult. That night, sleeping on the Bullhead’s floor, we got our first hint of what was coming as the wind howled and whistled outside. I had never experienced unrelenting 30-50 mile an hour winds and total white-out conditions. I got pinned against the truck trying to fold our large tarp! As Michael said, “Feels like the wind could just cut you in half.”
We tried to make it back to camp or to the casino in our four-wheel drive but gave up after a couple of miles. The Lakota people said that this is what you do in a blizzard: hole up and wait. And so we spent the next 28 hours snowed in, eight Indians and three whites in a small house. It proved to be pretty enjoyable as we shared cooking and cleaning duties and got to know each other. We watched movies, including a family favorite, Avatar. Albert Red Bear, a Lakota religious leader who had dropped by the day before, was full of stories. Reba was delightful and a great cook. Lynn gave “readings” with her Earth Cards. Dawson, the seven-month-old, was so good. There were endless discussions about the day’s events and the future of the camp.
Unfortunately, we were under a deadline to high-tail it home. When the sun peaked out the next afternoon we decided to make a run for it. Albert was headed back to Pine Ridge and would lead us south. The snow was blowing sideways so thick it was like driving through a cloud, but all I had to do was follow our Lakota guide. By the time we got to South Dakota, the snowstorm was behind us.
That night we spent in another native-owned casino in Iowa. There we met a couple of Indians who had just come back from the camp. When we asked how it had been going, instead of a horror story about the snow, they said, “We had fun.” Another lesson…
And so, after another marathon drive, we made it back to Tennessee where it was a balmy 33 degrees. All three of us are still processing what we experienced on the Great Plains. Part of my process is to write this. And to organize meetings where we can share our story of Standing Rock, as we were asked to do by our Lakota friends. We are thinking of returning in the Spring with tools and money and solar panels to help fix up the Bullhead house. If the camps are still there we will be joining the Water Protectors along the banks of the mighty Missouri River.
Stand With Standing RockTwo Lakota families from the Standing Rock reservation are coming to Tennessee! They want to share with us their stories from the #NoDAPL struggle and to sing and dance and pray with us! Frank and Rochelle Bullhead were in the front lines at Standing Rock many times. Isaacs Weston was Head of Camp at Oceti Sakowin. He is accompanied by his wife Mimi and baby Dawson. They will be at five locations in ten days, including Chattanooga, Sewanee, Franklin, The Farm and Nashville.
Nashville: January 8th, Friends Meeting House, 530 26th Ave. N., 7:15pm.
Suggested donation: $10+
Please join us and help support the ongoing fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and meet these brave and powerful brothers and sisters who are leading the way in saving our planet!
For more information contact: Eric Lewis