I visited Standing Rock from November 12th to the 14th. My mission was to photograph the actions in order to help document this amazing, impactful, peaceful uprising.
It’s a well-known fact that the media haven’t been giving this the time it deserves, and I wanted to photograph everything I could in order to organize a traveling photo exhibit so that people around the country could see what is truly going on, unfiltered by whatever does appear in the news.
After arriving, I realized that my original intent in going, the actions/protests, was not the story to be told. Survival of the water protectors is the story to be told.
Note: this is the third and last of a multipart account of a visit to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Each week a new part will be published by the author.
Driving along North Dakota Highway 1806 can be a fascinating experience. Many people at the various water protectors’ camps don’t have cars, and one can find them walking to and from the Prairie Knights Lodge and Casino. Different people do it for different reasons. Some want a meal or something they can’t find at the camp. Others travel with friends either to the camp or the casino, but don’t have a ride back. Regardless the reason, many do the 11-mile trek by foot. As I drove that same distance, I gave rides to a couple of these intrepid walkers.
Note: All the names used in the accounts below have been changed to protect the water protectors. Places of residence and tribal affiliations are omitted for the same reason. All these conversations were with Native people.
“Bobby” was the first person I met. He was 19, and walking from the casino back to the main camp. Bobby had gone to the casino with some friends who were staying there, and had no ride back.
I was very fortunate to run into him. It was my first day at Standing Rock, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. He was my tour guide of sorts. He took me to the camp, showed me where to park, and directed me to Media Hill. He was a godsend.
Bobby said that he had come to the camp to show his support. He had just finished high school, and staying at the camp was sort of his summer vacation. We laughed at this analogy.
I asked him how long he would stay, and he didn’t know. A young man who just finished school and didn’t have a job yet had no hurry to return home. He hinted that he may stay at the camp for the duration of the conflict.
His plan was to go to college when he returned home. He didn’t know what he wanted to study yet, but it was obvious that an engaged member of society was growing inside this young man. It was inspiring to see it happen.
Bobby didn’t talk much. Much of the information I pried out of him was through questions. We rode in silence for a good portion of the trip, yet it felt comfortable to do so. It felt as if we had known each other for some time, and were comfortable in each other’s company even if there was nothing to say.
That same day I met “Albert” at the camp. He said he lived in the East Coast, and we spoke briefly about a mutual friend who visited the camp before I did. We couldn’t talk much because a talking circle was taking place.
A talking circle is a conversation technique used by many Native tribes. People sit on a circle and pass around a “talking stick.” The talking stick can be any object, and, as you may guess, it’s usually as stick. The talking stick grants the person holding it the power to speak. Everyone else must keep quiet. In Western parlance, one could say that it’s the equivalent of a microphone. Whomever has it can speak. Whomever does not must keep silent and listen.
Due to respect of the talking circle, those not participating kept quiet.
Albert and I moved away from the circle and chatted for a second or two. I wanted to talk to him more, but due to the talking circle I told him I would return. We hugged goodbye.
It was at this point that he taught me something I had never even heard of.
Initially, I reached out to him with my right arm as I always do. As a result, the right side of our chests touched. But he stopped me midway.
“It’s the other side,” he told me.
At first I was confused by this and I had no idea why he was switching sides. Even if he were left handed, hugging from the right is pretty much standard.
“This way our hearts aren’t aligned. We need to touch our chests on the left so that our hearts feel each other.”
The lesson impacted me. I had just met Albert, and he was teaching me what’s possibly the simplest route to developing a loving friendship.
I returned to Albert’s camp a few times, and they were always in a talking circle. Camp members needed space to talk amongst their peers, so I didn’t intrude. Sadly, I was unable to talk to Albert again.
“Jack” was another person who rode with me. He was walking in the opposite direction as Bobby. He was limping. One leg was visibly shorter than the other. Jack was an older man, likely in his 70s; given his age, I made the assumption that he had polio when he was a child, but didn’t ask. I wanted to know him as a human being, and not his medical history.
Jack was a very interesting character. His long grey hair was tied in a ponytail. His skin was wrinkled by time, exposure to the outdoors, and health problems. He told me about his battles with alcoholism, and how marijuana helped him.
He told me he once approached a friend of his who was an alcoholic as well. He told his friend that he didn’t need alcohol. That all he needed “was this,” and showed him a joint. His friend was horrified at first, “that’s pot!”
And then Jack said a very wise thing to his friend. “This was made by creator,” referring to the pot. “That booze you’re drinking is not.”
I never thought of alcohol that way. Technically speaking, only fermented alcoholic beverages like wine, beer, mead, ciders, etc. were made by Creator. Fermentation occurs naturally when something sweet is exposed to the elements. All it takes is to leave some honey out in the rain by accident or allow fruit juice to go bad, and voilà you have an alcoholic beverage.
Distilled spirits, on the other hand, require a significant amount of human intervention as well as machinery. Whereas more primitive forms of fermentation happen naturally, the distillation process does not.
One first has to ferment a base, say wine, then put it in a container, heat it at the correct temperature to evaporate the alcohol but not the water, and collect the alcohol vapor through a hose and into a cool container. Creator definitely did not create this less-than-natural process.
Contrary to Bobby, Jack never stopped talking. I was unable to ask him any question other than where he was from.
He is a happy-go-lucky fellow who makes friends easily, and who obviously likes the sound of his own voice. It took a few seconds after he climbed into the car to figure out this would be a monologue, not a dialogue. Fortunately, his stories were fun to listen and they centered around his successful recovery from alcohol.
Hi joie de vivre was inspiring.
Also at camp, I met “Rebecca.” We were on the slopes of Media Hill, looking down at the camp. I can’t remember who started the conversation, her or me. And conversation we had!
It started with a greeting. After the common niceties, Rebecca told me how she drove from a state in the Southwest with some of her children. They were going to stay for a few more days at the camp before ridding back home.
Rebecca began to talk in a manner I hadn’t heard before.
She spoke of “feeding” people.
She said that she fed her mother and sister and at times other people. I let her talk hoping that by doing so I would better understand her.
On the other hand, I questions circled maniacally in my head. Does she buy them food? Are they ill and can’t take care of themselves? What does “feeding people” really mean? I began to wonder if she wasn’t a hospice nurse or something of the sort.
Rebecca told me that the reason she could afford to be there was because she had a good job that she just lost. With the extra cash from severance and the extra time, she had no impediments whatsoever to be there.
I began to assume that she had enough money to buy food for her loved ones, thus the “feeding” thing.
This is where the conversation about elk started.
Her husband hunts elk.
The moment she said that, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Dee Two Walks. He is a Cherokee spiritual advisor. I met him when I went to his house to take classes from his wife, Nara White Owl. She is a Cherokee medicine woman who teaches Cherokee culture and spirituality.
I want to point out that they made it very clear that we were not a “tribe.” According to both of them, they were given permission by the Cherokee Uku to teach us as long as we were not deluded into thinking that we were somehow Cherokee. I appreciated it when they said that.
Two Walks said to me that a Cherokee tradition was that when a hunter came back with game, they would stop at the first house they walked by. They would call the people living there, and ask them if they needed food. If they did, the hunter would give them some of what they caught. The process would be repeated with all the homes in the village. The last home to receive any of the prey was theirs.
Sharing has always been the way for most Native cultures in what we now call the United States. They didn’t have excessive poverty or homelessness.
I found Rebecca’s story very interesting since we were just a few miles from Sitting Bull’s burial place.
Sitting Bull traveled to several white cities during his life. The one thing that impacted him the most was homelessness. That was a new concept for many Native Americans.
Poverty among white people broke Sitting Bull’s heart, and he would give out money to them as they begged on the street.
Missionaries among Native Americans worked hard to change that culture.
Many years ago, I was told a story where missionaries would come to Native Americans and say to them things like “if you have extra $5, you save it for the future. You don’t give it away to your cousin no matter how much he needs it. And if you do, it’s a loan and not a gift.”
It’s only logical that this “me” based mentality causes homelessness. The less we share, the less there is and some end up with none.
Therefore, when Rebecca told me about her husband’s hunting, it all made sense.
She told me that usually he returned home with two elks. This year though, he was able to get only one.
Rebecca said that she was a little distraught by this. Her main concern was feeding people, namely her own relatives.
She beamed when she said that she asked her husband what were they to do with only one elk. His response, “well, then we’ll have less this year.”
She told me that he said that with a wide smile, insinuating that it was OK to do share as usual.
As a result, Rebecca brought some of that same elk to North Dakota. It was her offering. And keeping with her family tradition, she generously fed others.
Finding out that this tradition is still alive in some corners warmed my heart.
Sharing resources is an essential tool of survival, and something our greed-oriented Western culture would do well to adopt.
I can’t remember how the conversation changed from this to the term “Native American,” and “American.”
I explained to her how many people outside of the US think as themselves as “Americans” because they were born in the American Continent. For instance, I have no idea how many conversations I had while growing up about “us Americans,” just like a person born in Europe would say “us Europeans.”
I also explained to her how many people in the continent resent citizens of the United States refer to themselves as Americans because we all are.
This was in the context of me explaining to her my conflict with the term Native American because in my view it applies to all Indigenous peoples of the continent. Even though I’m a citizen, the very first thing that comes to my head when I see or hear the word “American” isn’t the US. It takes me a second to switch gears back to the US.
Having said that, I personally have no problem with US citizens calling themselves Americans.
Brazil, better yet, the Federative Republic of Brazil used to be called United States of Brazil. Everyone knows the country as Brazil and its citizens as Brazilians.
Likewise, Mexico is the Mexican United States. Yet we call the country Mexico, and its citizens Mexicans.
The United States of America was the first country to obtain independence from their European overlords.
At the time, everyone in Europe spoke of the continent as a whole. As in, colonies in America, all of America. Fruits and vegetables from America. Gold from America. In short, America was used to refer to what they deemed to be a New World.
It only makes sense that United States of America would be the chosen name for this new country.
She was fascinated by what I had just told her. “I had no idea,” she said.
What I found unexpected was for Rebecca to tell me that she does not identify as Native American.
She said that she thinks of herself as First Peoples. Just like she had no idea about the conflict around the term American, I had no idea that people would identify as First Peoples while rejecting the term Native American. In my United States of Western Mentality background, it never crossed my mind that any person who could be described as Native American rejected the term. I found it simply fascinating.
Departing from her was hard. I wanted to continue talking with her. Like with Bobby, it felt as if we had known each other for eons. Our conversation was fluid and comfortable.
Alas, I was too hungry and had to go eat lunch. I explained to her that I didn’t want to eat the food of the camp because I didn’t want to use their resources. She gave me a nod of approval and we parted ways.
These four people represented to me a deeper level of understanding of the camp. It isn’t there only to protect the water. The people coming together form something larger than the struggle at hand.
A youth is becoming a man. The seed of fighting for social justice starting to sprout. Everything that happens there will affect all his decisions in life.
Will he become a hopeful activist? Will he be an aware professional? Or will he emerge from the experience bitter and resentful?
Regardless, life at the camp is changing Bobby’s life dramatically.
An elder managing a smaller camp within the camp is imparting love and wisdom. No one knows what the future may bring, but his loving wisdom is already positively impacting those around him. His calm demeanor brings hope into a very scary situation.
A man with a thirst for life soaking in every minute of it. His newfound joy in a life away from alcohol was infectious. His vibrant energy bringing those around him to life.
A woman whose strength of spirit can only be matched by her insightful look to life around her. Her extreme generosity in the light of scarcity is an example to all.
The camps at Standing Rock in North Dakota aren’t changing people as much as the people there are changing the camp.
Although there have been problems with non-Native Americans, that’s a drop in the bucket when compared to the greatness of the experiment the camps have become.
Standing Rock is not a place for awakenings, enlightenment or any other spiritual or metaphysical experience.
It’s a place of resistance. It’s a place where the only goal is to protect the next seven generations. Yet, one cannot escape the lessons one learns there. One cannot escape the undeniable internal growth one has there.
The harshness of the place can bring the best or the worst out of people. To some, especially those who are privileged in society and feel entitled to anything they want, it brought out the worst.
I was very fortunate to be surrounded by those who allowed the best in them to shine through.