I’m back from Standing Rock and wanted to share a bit of news and impressions from the the front line. I hesitate to put all this down as my perspective is strictly mine and I want to be clear that I’m speaking for myself and from my point of view. I’m not indigenous and this is their movement. I do, however, feel responsible to people that entrusted me to bring donations of money and clothes to share.
First off, I want to thank everyone that donated both clothing and money to support folks in the camp. Through the very brief fundraiser, I was able to collect over $3500 in donations and a huge amount of clothing which was most appreciatively received. They’re in a blizzard right now and providing warmth in clothing and spirits is a huge gift. In particular, I noticed that the folks that we left donations with took the time to read each card and share the contents with other people. When you are on the far end of winter, it means a lot to feel that folks from around the world have got your back and are sending you warmth. Thanks everyone for donations, thoughts and prayers. Everyone one of them made a difference.
One of the things that I must share is that Patagonia Corporation contributed nearly $8000 worth of warm gear directly to me to share with the camp at Standing Rock. It actually completely blew me away how stalwart they were in their commitment and the level of trust and autonomy that they give their employees. I approached two stores and there was no passing the buck or calls made to corporate headquarters. We talked. They suggested that I piggyback on 501C and then they put a box together for me to pick up the next day.
On Black Friday, Patagonia designated 100% of their revenue to be donated to grassroots organizations. This ended up being more than 10 MILLION DOLLARS!!! If you want the highest quality gear built with clear ethics, I suggest that you shop there.
PREPARING FOR THE TRIP
Part of our preparation included mandatory decolonization training. It was important that, if we made the trip, we made it in the right way and with the right attitude towards indigenous leadership. Sometimes things don’t necessarily make sense, or don’t seem organized but that’s because we in the western world live in binary system where the focus is efficiency and profit. It’s what has gotten us in conundrum we are in to day with profit often being favored over holistic wellness.
One thing that was really important to recognize is that, if we are not indigenous, we are living on stolen land. In some way, this acknowledgement opens to the larger conversation that the land is not ours to abuse through extraction or development.
Some of also attended civil disobedience trainings which were hosted through the Permaculture Action Network.
Shit started to get real when they talked about how to protect yourself in a hassle line when the police are wielding batons. An overhand blow means they will strike you in the head or the legs and it’s best to keep your hands up and, if they go to strike your leg, take the weight off it so that it can absorb the blow rather than resist it.
Pepper spray. Legal recourse. What to do if you get snatched and arrested. The vital role that direct action plays in drawing police attention and clogging up the system.
North Dakota is in the middle of the US and a full 24 hours of drive to get out there. After collecting our donations, attending decolonization and civil disobedience trainings, we packed up our vehicles and began the long drive across the US. There’s nothing like a long drive to get to know each other and learn how to work together.
During our drive, the confrontation on the bridge happened where the Morton County Sheriff’s department escalated the violence to include concussion grenades (one which blew open the arm of Sophia Wilansky), pepper spray, rubber bullets and a water canon that was employed in subzero weather. Shit was getting real.
Long before arriving at Standing Rock, you can begin to feel the intensity of police scrutiny pick up. At a gas stop outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, I got a coffee and felt my heart start racing as I stood behind a K-9 cop dressed in black fatigues who looked just like the officer that arrested me. He must have felt me seize up behind him and turned slowly to look me up and down from behind his black aviator sunglasses.
Driving into North Dakota, there’s even more cops. Cops at the gas stations, cops parked on the corner of each country road, cops that follow behind you for a while while you drive up a deserted country road in the middle of the night. The presence feels like a threat or a dare.
We are watching. Don’t misbehave.
It’s breathtaking to see how vast the camp is. We arrived just a few days before Thanksgiving and the camp had begun to swell to over 10 000. Structures, vehicles, tents, cars and trucks form an organically developed village.
As you enter camp, an indigenous security detail meets you to give you a quick orientation and to ensure that no one is carrying weapons, alcohol or drugs.
We were camped with a group from the Lower Brule. Kul Wicasa. The camp consisted of a bunch of army tents, teepees and structures that formed a labyrinth. There was a small open fire pit where folks gathered to shake out the cold in their hands and feet. For even more warmth, there was the mess tent.
Running a camp of volunteers can be a messy business. There are a lot of different voices and oftentimes no clear leadership. Enthusiasm without direction can be kind of chaotic. The mess was, well, a mess. Organized haphazardly, cluttered with donations yet to be organized, the cook had been going non-stop for months now and was aching for some relief.
Relief came in the form of our crew. A couple of them were able to, in the course of a few days, transform the kitchen to a workable more organized space. As someone that is used to working in kitchens, it was hard to not go in guns blazing and to take over but there were other hands in our group that were willing and capable and so I deferred. Instead, I looked out into the community to look for jobs. I had brought building tools and I loaded them into my backpack with a water bottle and wandered out into the greater camp looking for projects to get involved in.
During our time there, there was a big push to get the camp winterized. Daily, flat beds with lumber would show up and be unloaded and framed up into component parts for unrealized winter structures. A consistent message that pervaded the camp was to seek out the elders and the children and to make sure that they had what they needed to stay warm.
Are you hungry? Are you warm enough? Can I help you with anything?
It was cold and getting colder fast. A heavy blanket of snow lurked just around the corner. Camp winterization was in full effect.
I grew up in upstate New York and lived in New England for some time and have experienced cold and this rivaled any winter that I had experienced on the East Coast. Part of the struggle was that the only real opportunity to get your core temperature and extremities back up to full temp was in your sleeping bag. It was cold.
Great pains were taken to provide warm beverages throughout the camp for folks to warm up with.
The point of the camp was to pray and hold direct actions against the pipeline.
My intentions for visiting the camp was to help out where I could. If it was necessary for me to be an active body in a direct action, I was willing to face the risk of arrest. To participate in Direct Actions, we were required to attend a training in the camp where we practiced protecting ourselves in the event of pepper spray and also moving as a large, cohesive group with arms linked to minimize police snatching people for arrest.
During that training, we were encouraged to look for the leadership of the elders during the direct actions. But things get chaotic and confusing with police antagonization and the pressure of hassle lines. Instructions are being shouted and it’s not always clear who is shouting them. The big takeaway for me here was that, in crisis, we have to look inward and listen for what we believe we should be doing in each moment. There are the direct request from the elders for the actions to remain prayerful and peaceful but still, in each moment, I have to choose where in the group I want to be and what kind of exposure that I want to have to escalating violence from the police.
I’m not going to speak to direct actions taken, but wanted to just address the intensity of police scrutiny and escalation during these events. In every action, there has been a clear directive to keep the actions peaceful and prayerful but the police keep showing up at each action ready for battle. Uniforms laden with zip ties, weapons and faces obscured by ski masks. The arrests come in waves as they try to snatch people out of the crowd and then press them to the ground. The violence of the arrests work are intended to be a deterrent for the rest of the protesters – you don’t want to be snatched in the same way do you? But it’s not really clear what the person is being arrested for other than failure to comply with what the officers are barking at people to do. The rules are uncertain. The punishment is brutal and excessive and public. They try to control us through uncertainty and fear. The way to combat that is with self love and conviction. Look inward. What do I feel is the right thing to do? What is being asked of me from the leadership?
Activism can be chaotic and confusing. We all have different capacities to absorb discomfort or for finding conviction within ourselves. But that is exactly what we have to do. Especially in this day and age. We have to look within ourselves to see where our boundaries are and what level of discomfort we are going to be able to absorb in order to support the things that we believe in. Can we make a change? Definitely.
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re right.”
I thought that it would be particularly meaningful to spend Thanksgiving (Thankstaking) at Standing Rock but, as it happened, Thanksgiving came and went without me really noticing. I was too busy participating in actions to notice. Everyday we were there was filled with purpose and community. Winter wasn’t going to take a break for the holiday.
THE BIG WOOD DONATION
One of our group had collected donations and arranged for four flat beds of wood to come to the camp. When they arrived, they were in the form of full trees that were the length of the flat bed. Probably 20 to 30 plus cords of wood. It was a huge undertaking. Chain saws to cut the trees into moveable pieces. Axes and woodsplitters flying and cracking to make the tree into burnable wood. Many hands to move the piles from point A to point B. It was AMAZING to see the many hands of this community come together and make this undertaking manageable and, even, fun. To be honest, I think that everyone was glad to have a very cut and dry task to do. Huge fucking pile of trees in front of us. Let’s make it smaller and stack it all up! It was something that required few questions. We could all just put our heads down and make it happen. The objective was clear. The immediate tasks in front of us simple.
THE LAST SUPPER
I knew that I wouldn’t be participating in any direct actions my last full day there as I knew that I didn’t want to risk being delayed in jail in the event of an arrest. So I offered to relieve some of the crew that had taken over the kitchen and make dinner. Ahhh, the joy of falling back into what you know. I know kitchens, love to cook for large groups and LOVE to take a seemingly disparate group of items and whip them into some sort of a coherent meal.
The kitchen is also where you get a lot of the lowdown as people gather around the hearth in every home. It was where I could be a fly on the wall and also have the purpose and have my hands moving.
One of the dishes that I made was a kabocha squash, sage and parmesan pizza. There wasn’t a real oven, so I used smoking ovens to bake the pizzas and then finished them on a grill. I met an LA restaurant owner over that pizza that night and we are doing a salmon pop up at his restaurant next week.
SAYING GOOD BYE
Saying good bye was hard. For those that planned on staying through the winter, the future was fraught with uncertainty. No one knew what the next level of escalation would look like from DAPL or the police. A really touching moment came when the leader of Kul Wicasa and I said good bye. We held each other in a half embrace and I said, “Take good care, Lewis.” That statement, to me, felt loaded. They were facing so much danger and I feared for what would be coming next.
Lewis, held my arm and looked back at me and said, “YOU, take care.”
I won’t forget that.
A remarkable flurry of events took place right after we left. The eviction notice was issued. The veterans arrived. The US Army denied E.T.P. the easement to drill under Lake Oahe. Winter came in the form of a couple of blizzards.
Currently the main Oceti Sakowin Camp is not accepting new arrivals for safety reasons due to severe weather. Here’s a statement that covers what now.
One of the biggest actions encouraged is divestment. This is something that I’ve been hesitant to do because I thought it flew in the face of my investment strategy which was: long term over a diversified portfolio. Even though I was screening socially, I still wanted oil. I reconsidered when I learned that both the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Bros. Fund had divested. Back when I was a fancy chef, I spent two summers cooking for a former president of the RBF. Part of taking control of our system is to invest in things that we believe in. I’m divesting from big tobacco, pharmaceuticals and oil and also switching my bank accounts over to my local credit union.
Will you join me?