“Wake up,” comes from the loudspeaker every morning at 6:30. “Wake up, Standing Rock.” Followed by a litany of humorous encouragement on the part of the camp MC: You are not on vacation; a prayer to our Uncle Juan Valdez; if you see the DAPL send him up here for coffee. No, he doesn’t quite say, “It’s a good day to fight the pipeline.” But in so many words, every day at Standing Rock is a good day to fight the pipeline.
I’ve already been up for half an hour. It’s tempting to lay in the warm, snugly sleeping bag as long as possible. The sun is still an hour away. But I learned yesterday that the heroic potty pumpers will come by before wake-up call and make a lot of noise. Then I’ll really be awake, need to pee, and will have to wait. So I get started early.
I boil water for coffee then make my instant oatmeal. Ann Marie stirs, I boil more water, and she makes her coffee. We sit and eat as the sky lightens. The monologue continues with stories, gentle humor, shared traditions. We soak it in. If you’ve ever seen Smoke Signals, you recognize the humor. It is survival and camaraderie.
And it is prayer. We are told that the camp is about prayer and living in prayer. So as the sun comes up we walk up to the sacred fire and join the prayer. Each morning a woman leads a couple hundred of us down to the Cannonball River for a water ceremony. She asks the men to form two lines down the steep hill to the river. The women line up, elders first, to be assisted down through the men. The support is marginally practical, and largely ceremonial. The line of women moves slowly, one step down the hill at a time, our hands and arms being held by the men. Each woman in turn steps onto the dock and is handed tobacco to offer the river. In my turn, I bend to the water and release the tobacco, brushing away the flecks stuck to my skin. Then she gives me the pitcher and asks me to pour a little into the river. Finally she pours water into my cupped left hand and I suck it up. I turn and am helped down to the bank by my brothers. I walk down the shore and find a small grassy hummock to sit on.
The sun is rising across the river, behind our celebrant. People offer water songs from various traditions. When the women have all completed the tasks, then two-spirit people have their turns, then the men. We face the sun and the river and offer our prayers. We have plenty of time: the whole thing lasts two hours.
The prayer that I have to offer is my adapted metta meditation. In my Buddhist tradition, a common meditation is to offer metta (loving kindness) to ourselves and others. The general wishes are to be happy, to be healthy, to be free from danger, to live at ease and in peace. One of my teachers suggests that we can adapt this to what we honestly wish most for ourselves, and to project that out to others. So as I sit, I wish that all of us may know love—to give love, to be loved, to feel loved; I wish that all of us may find meaning on our journey; I wish that all of us may be safe and free always.
The peace is mildly disrupted by a helicopter that flies over, and circles for some time. I gauge the general opinion is that this is not a news helicopter but rather from the DAPL people or the state. Many raise fists of solidarity.
The water ceremony is made up of many non-indigenous people, as if this is conducted as an educational thing. Like Buddha camp, where the monks and nuns put up with all these guests doing lots of things wrong—because that’s the only way they know how to save the world is to teach us all and make the values spread. And that only happens, to effect a shift in values, with unfathomable amounts of patience.
Camp itself is huge: we estimate a few thousand people. Hundreds of flags line the main road into and through camp. Large groups with teepees and growing plywood and MASH-worthy tent structures fly flags at their camps. Medical services are housed in a counseling teepee and impressive Mongolian-style yurts that were donated by a Canadian yurt company. Giant tents hold the main camp kitchen and food service facilities as well as a meeting hall.
The first day, I seek out the kitchen to volunteer. I wash some dishes and a stack of moldy coolers. I find a woman with some knowledge of the operation and happily accept her designated tasks. Ann Marie helps sort clothing donations. The camp is receiving many donations; bags are stacked by the donation tents. As items are sorted, anyone at camp can come select needed items. She sorts kids’ clothes. Later she finds the art tent and helps paint large canvas protest signs.
We meet a lot of enthusiastic young people. I meet a young man with a college group there for a week from Milwaukee. He has never camped before. Ann Marie meets a young man from Berkeley who has come with friends from Seminary. They all got arrested on Friday, all but him. We are happy to be performing chores, but realize that we really don’t need to do anything. As I am washing coolers, people come up looking for chores. Next to the kitchen tent, young men are having a great time chopping wood.
The MC announces that over on the north side of camp there are 4000 tacos. I don’t register which side is north, but later when I go to find Ann Marie at the art tent, I pass the tacos. This couple drove 9 hours the day before from Rochester, Minnesota, to make tacos for camp. Their method is simple. They have a giant pot of saucy beans on a burner on the table. They are grilling zucchini and peppers and sautéing onions. He’s heating up corn tortillas on a grill. As each item is cooked, it’s added to a serving container on the table. We serve ourselves with cheese and hot sauce at the end. They are so grateful to serve. We are grateful for their creativity and talent. They will go home tomorrow.
Camp is full of such inspired and individual expressions of love: across from our camp is a yurt with the words Drink Tea Standing Rock. It is not open while we are there, but evidently the man serves tea. Another group has set up a tent bursting with free feminine hygiene and baby supplies. A woman named Ping who was once a Lannan Fellow in Marfa invites us to make our own prayer flag which she strings together for the wind to carry our prayers away.
After tacos I go back to camp to pray some more. We have inadvertently set up our camp right next to a burial site. A nice man stopped by when we first drove in to give us some advice on being respectful. My friend Marti has sent me off on this adventure with some sage and prayer ties. So I get out my meditation cushion and do my best. I put the sage around the grave, I place the prayer ties on the sticks that mark the grave. I sit with our friend.
And I think about what it is we are doing here. Showing up seems to be the key. We have not chosen to participate in direct action. We have performed some tasks, but probably didn’t need to. We have shared conversation with our neighbors. We have prayed and participated in ceremony. We are trying to listen and learn.
I walk back down to the river to find a woman with whom I have a mutual friend. We watch the moon rise over the river, our grandmother the moon. Kathleen has been here for a month and will stay as long as she can before the weather gets unbearable. She sleeps in the back of her pick-up truck with a -25 degree bag and a very fuzzy dog. November has seen a good run of clear weather which has made our trip possible. She goes to the water ceremony every day then usually helps out in the media tent. Kathleen says the camp desperately needs fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors for all of the structures going up that will have wood stoves.
As night falls and Ann Marie and I have eaten our dinner of crackers and cheese and soup, we take our seats up to the sacred fire to listen to the drum circle. The singing goes on for a long time, tirelessly. We go back to our camp and prepare our beds as the drums continue. I boil water to put in our Nalgene bottles that go in our sleeping bags. It’s cold enough—25 overnight—that I make us each two, one for our feet and one for our chest. We go to bed wrapped in the smoke of a hundred campfires, listening to the ancient wisdom of the people of this land.
We try not to romanticize any part of the experience, although we are encamped with people of the Plains and that means teepees, unique vocalizations heard in movies, and the ubiquity of horses and young boys on horses. I have to believe that this is the best time some of these kids have ever had. There is a freedom to camp and a great purpose to the struggle. And the world has responded. We go to sleep feeling like it matters that we showed up to witness this—not as spectators at the show, we hope. But truly being open to participating and learning. If we can do that, then that is enough.
Our last afternoon, we drive in to Bismarck for an interfaith prayer service at the Unitarian Church with Elders from the Lakota Nation. Kathleen has told me about it, and at the last minute I scrape up enough information to get us there. We arrive just in time, although I think they wait for us and a few others to use the bathroom before starting. Chairs are set up on the sunny front lawn for the beautiful ceremony filled with diverse participants: a Sufi man, an Indian couple from India, the Athiests who read Rebecca Solnit, an indigenous man from Seattle whose last name is Kingfisher, a Catholic, a mainstream protestant, Quakers, a Tlingit man who sings a song.
Then they feed us. They have done this before, and they’ve gone to the camp to serve meals. I tell Ann Marie that we can stay half an hour because I want to get back to camp in time to do three things before it gets dark. Of course we stay an hour and eat a delicious meal. We talk to a woman from Massachusetts who is here with a small group of people. And the Indian man from India is so sweet and funny and keeps trying to get us to take more food. I am the most excited by the buttered bread.
We see the super moon coming up as we drive home. Before the darkness takes over, I do my three things: I take the two bottles of lotion I brought from home to the toiletries give-away tent; I take my water bottle to the small dock on the Cannonball River and fill it; I see Kathleen and give her my contact information. I tell her we will drop off our leftover provisions on our way out in the morning.
Ann Marie and I sit in the car in the dark. A few fireworks are set off over the river, the moon in the background. The MC asks people to please keep track of their stuff as he’s had more phones and keys turned in. We do our call and response again: Mni Wiconi (mini-witch-oh-nee). It means Water is Life, and it is a sacred thing to say, itself a prayer. We say it many times a day. It is customary to repeat it four times.
We talk about the resilience of the people, yet the fragility. It seems so possible that a crackdown could take place. The camp is on private land, but that has hardly mattered in the past. That’s why it feel so important to be there, like the presence of all of us from the outside is part of the security for camp. We heard that the UN has sent representatives? We don’t know. Is there a watchdog group that is involved? The bottom line is that everybody needs to come here. Numbers count on this one. All a person needs to do is come and pray with the people here. You could even bunk at the casino up the road.
We agree to stay long enough in the morning to hear the call to prayer, as I call it, and pack up in the first light of day. A woman stops and wishes us a safe trip home. Over the loudspeaker we hear yet more prayers and songs from people around the world. I stop at the gate on the way out and give the young man there my headlamp. We pass a water tower with the words Mni Wiconi. This is not a recent, pipeline-inspired prayer. This is their life. A thick fog along the Missouri River slows the first hour, and then we are on the long drive home.
What do we do with this experience? We feel reminded of a lot of things that we already know. Civic engagement is the key to everything. At camp we witness the lessons of patience—considering seven generations of impact—and non-violent communication—listening to our elders and to each other. We are welcomed by everyone at camp. Despite all the reasons indigenous people might have to resent our presence and our awkward, unknowing offenses, we are welcomed generously. The struggle of Standing Rock is an ongoing piece of the Native experience in America. While the immediate threat is a pipeline threatening a heavily used water resource, the issues go far deeper and broader.
We feel grateful. We feel blessed. We feel inspired and motivated. We mostly hold on to the image of the young people on horseback, riding singly through the camp, or in a line against the clear Dakota sky. And we pray in any and every way possible: may you be safe and free always.