I’ve never traveled anywhere as remote as The Standing Rock Reservation before. I left the San Francisco Bay Area at 7am on Saturday morning, and after 1000 miles and 18 hours of diving, I pulled over at a hotel for 4 hours of sleep and a shower. Unlike driving US 101 from Santa Cruz to Humboldt, once you pass Reno it’s mostly open space and sky, cities being the exception to the rule. When I left my hotel, it was still another 14 hours of open prairie, gold and silver sunlit fields rolling amidst pockets of purple and blue shade and snow, before I finally arrived at Standing Rock.
It was well after dark as I approached- the glow of hundreds of fires lit the clouds orange, accented by the drifting smoke and occasional patches of bright northern stars. Traffic slowed to a crawl on the entrance, but it didn’t take long to cross the bridge and into the final approach of Camp Oceti Sakowin. Flags line the side of the road, brought by people from all over the world, flapping defiantly against the relentless wind. Camp streets fed off of the main entrance (Flag Row), twisting and feeding a fresh stream of food, firewood, and people into the camp.
At the suggestion of a friend, I landed at California Camp, a community within the larger camp oriented around a central kitchen, run by two very special ladies from Humboldt County. My first meal in camp was served to me there, a steaming plate of spiced rice and beans, along with a cold, shredded meat dish I can only relate to as something like a course pate- both were wonderful.
After dinner, the sounds of voices crying out in prayer, accompanied by drumming, drifted over the camp from a gathering place deep in the sprawl of flapping shelters and snow. One of the Sacred Fires burning in the camp was surrounded by people gathered to keep warm, listening to the prayers being offered and breathing in the cerimonial smoke of wood and green cedar. As I approached, an elder began to speak about the camp, it’s purpose, and the need to set a clear intention for being there. It was also a beautiful welcome, and reminder, that the land we were sharing is very old, rich with tradition, and constantly calling for awareness, respect and prayer.
I slept that first night in my SUV, and awoke to a snow covered landscape of tepees, yurts and large tents, each lined by rows of vehicles and scattered people walking determinedly through the snow. Everywhere I looked, there was work in progress. Structures were forming up, people were dragging sleds of supplies and donations, and smiling eyes and faces peeked out through winter clothing when you passed close enough to say hello.
This first day was all about settling in. I got my press pass, delivered donations to different locations all over camp, ran errands and helped out with small projects, and set up my supply tent next to my SUV. This took all day. While I’ve lived in the snow and cold for years of my life, I was reminded how much 20 degree weather and 20 mph winds will slow everything down. Taking a glove off for too long can put a serious slowdown in your day, as freezing fingers (or toes) make the easiest tasks a serious effort.
After I finished with my errands, I sat at the sacred fire again, and listened to an Apache and Lakota elder share their experiences and insight. I recognized the passion in their voices, the desire that people hear the message they had to share, and I met their eye with hope that was able to hear them through the filter of my life and culture.
Dinner was back at California Kitchen, with people queued up in a twisting line among many more already settled into every available chair and empty space to eat. The conversation was wonderful. Everyone I spoke to was warm, interesting and kind. Young and old, faces of every shape and shade shared their calling to this camp, where they call home, and their journey to make it here.
I can’t think of another time in recent memory that I met so many interesting people. Upon reflection, the decision and successful trip to get here filter out a tremendous number of people. Those who have arrived are engaged, passionate, and committed to building a better world. I only spoke with a small fraction of people, and wish there were more hours in the day to meet them all.
In every instance where people have spoke to a group, I’ve been surprised at the appreciation and gratitude that exists for each and every person. The sentiment is that if you have made it here, you have already started making a difference. I’ve never been in a place where that is the foundation of the community. No one is directing you through the day. No one is watching to see what you brought, how much you helped, or if you are strengthening the community. It is assumed that you are making a difference, and the effect is powerful.
Despite the cold, fatigue and reluctance to emerge from a mountain of blankets, I woke up feeling alive and invigorated following the success of the supply run the previous evening. I headed out into camp and began looking for people I had met the day before.
In a place as large, diverse and complex as Standing Rock, having a clear sense of purpose is a beautiful and precious thing. A frigid and horrible night for many veterans had rallied people to take action, and the abundance of donations and the donated time getting them where they needed to go meant that each sleeping bag, space heater and pair of socks helped another person avoid the dangers of Camp during the the winter cold.
As I headed around and checked in with people, asking what was needed, a friend running a donations tent asked me if I could volunteer. I spent the next hour sorting through bags of donations, separating things into their respective groups. There was a priority on insulated, waterproof/windproof jackets and pants (with very few items meeting that demand), and as I worked through the donations, sorting them into bags of like items, I felt a bit out of place. Every few minutes, the power was cutting out, dropping the tent into darkness and stopping the work. As I moved sorted bags into one corner and opened unsorted from another, the clarity of the previous day’s work left me feeling claustrophobic in the back of a dark tent. I felt strongly it wasn’t the right place for me to spend my day and I headed back out into the cold.
Continuing my rounds, I ran into a filmmaker named Todd who I had met a few days prior at dinner, and we shared updates about camp. Todd had been in camp for months, and was shooting and editing pieces for different media outlets, in addition to his own website, Media Bridge Dispatch. He invited me to follow him as he headed over to Camp Media in Cannonball, and offered to introduce me to the team.
Situated on the Standing Rock reservation a few miles South of Camp, the Cannonball Gym and Community center had been converted into an emergency shelter for those in need, and was also home to the group of volunteers who were running an official Media center for Camp Oceti Sakowin. When we arrived volunteers were packing up cots used the night before and stacking them along the back wall. People sat on the wooden bleachers, bundled in layers of clothes, talking in small groups, very aware of the uncertainty of their situation.
After meeting with the people in charge, I was invited to set-up my workstation to edit photos and video from. It was a relief to finally be meeting the people I’d wanted to connect with coming out, and would be able to help tell the stories I could feel happening all around me. My first project was to to edit footage shot a few weeks prior when 500 clergy of various faiths came out and marched together to support Camp Oceti Sakowin. I took notes on the interviews, and was moved by the many religious communities who had sent representatives so far and at such cost to this remote place. It gave me hope that a tide was turning and the universal principles at the heart of the Standing Rock movement we’re being recognized and identified with by people everywhere.
I returned to camp that evening, shot some stills and video at dusk, and went to bed feeling incredibly grateful to have found a way to contribute. I knew I would finish the Clergy edit the next day, and could move on to editing the video I had shot at the supply depot a few days prior. Despite being an outsider, I had been welcomed into the team, and would be able to help inform people around the world as to what was happening in this isolated place.
As I headed to Camp Media the next morning, I began thinking about extending my stay. I had planned on leaving Saturday (3 days away), returning the Pathfinder and rented equipment on Monday. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt the connections, access and opportunity I was finding would make the additional financial commitment worth it. I was doing the work I had come so far to do, and had been supported and encouraged by many people to this purpose. I had only just settled in, and I began to see that by extending my stay, I could cover the unfolding story happening at camp, and the transitions taking place as the Veterans returned home.
As I began finishing up the clergy edit, a meeting was called for everyone in the media room. We gathered around and listened as a message from the tribal elders was shared with us. I listened with sadness as their request became clear. Camp Oceti Sakowin was refocusing its energy, and all non self sustaining, non essential people were being asked to leave. Two thirds of the portable toilets were being removed. Kitchens were closing. Another blizzard was scheduled to hit on Saturday, and people were being encouraged to evacuate before the snow and freezing temperature further endangered lives. A medic had died the previous night of a heart attack, and there was serious concern the stress of the situation might take others as well.
In 10 minutes, I went from thinking about staying for another week to being asked to leave. It was an emotional u-turn that left me with a serious decision. I finished editing the clergy project and decided to head back to camp, listening for direction that would lead me to the right decision. On my way back, I stopped at hill to the South of camp, and climbed up to take in the view.
Struck in the frozen ground was a short marker, affixed with strips of colored fabric and blowing in the wind. I wondered if it was a sacred place, somewhere people had long been coming in prayer, gazing out as I did over the frozen Cannonball River. Snow covered the landscape, and the only sounds were those of the wind, dancing across the ground under the expansive sky. It was beautiful, and yet totally incongruent with the violence sustained in the opposite hills. Though I couldn’t hear it, I knew a drill bit was penetrating deep into the dark earth, driving under the Missouri River, protected behind barbed wire and patrolled by law enforcement whose oath of protection was directly at odds to the threat they protected. How could I leave while so many things were left undone?
Once back in Camp, I headed to California Kitchen to check in with some friends, and see what they were planning to do. While there, I was introduced to Patty Joseph, co-organizer of the kitchen. I had been hoping to meet her for a story I was working on for the Eureka Times Standard, and was grateful we were able to speak about the kitchen. She introduced her many children who were there helping out, and told me of the origins of the kitchen and the generous support that had come out of California. (Many of you have already read the article and interview so I won’t repeat it here, but you can read it here if you have not).
I also sat down with her son, Thomas Joseph II, and he began to tell me about the community of Hoopa where he was from. Located about an hour East of the Humboldt Cost, there remains an active an ongoing relationship with the land they live on. Like many Native communities, there is a high rate of unemployment, and the relationship and respect for the land comes from their history, sustained by the food they gathered and grew, and most importantly the fish in the rivers nearby. The choice to honor and respect the land wasn’t political, but fundamental to sustaining life. He told me that the previous year there hadn’t been a salmon run on the Trinity or Klamath River, and as canned salmon was the major source of protein throughout the year, many families would go hungry. Yet, these same families had generously donated much of what they had left and sent it to Standing Rock, supplies they had no way of replacing.
Listening to these stories, I felt the privilege of my life, and the one waiting for me back in Humboldt. While I felt called to see what was happening at Standing Rock out of curiosity and outrage of injustice, my life was still sufficiently insulated from the hardship and injustice this camp was formed to illuminate.
The conversation turned to the request that people leave camp, and I was grateful to hear what Thomas thought. He told me that he believed the elders weren’t telling people to leave, but to look inside themselves and ask where they should be. He told me that the elders had asked the Kitchen to remain and provide food for the tribal council and other essential services. He also told me that I was welcome any time, and that I could take my meals with the kitchen as long as I remained in camp. I watched him closely as he spoke to me, his eyes bright and lively. While he left me to make my own decision, I could feel the invitation and encouragement should i choose to stay.
Preparation for the evening meal had just been completed, and everyone in the kitchen stood for a prayer. As I had been cooking my own food to avoid burdening the camp, the sense of belonging and inclusion was emotionally powerful. Thomas’s sister sang a Paiute river song, and the waves and peaks of her voice filled filled my heart with a feeling of respect and reverence, underscoring the complexity of my decision.
After dinner, I walked to the Tribal Council Fire, set in a large open space and surrounded by seven tepees belonging to the elders of that council. It was the first time in over 150 years that this fire had been lit and this council convened. I was told charcoal is kept after the flame of each council is extinguished, and used to light the fire the next time it is lit. Between the song I had just heard, and sense of history and significance of the fire I was warming myself by, I knew I was only just getting to know the camp and its people. The moon shone brightly in the night sky, and I could feel the temperature dropping ahead of the coming storm. Despite scooting closer to the fire, I could feel my toes freezing in my boots.
When I awoke the next morning, the moisture from my breath had frozen the outer side of my down comforter into an icy shell. I struggled out of my sleeping bag to start the car and it didn’t want to turn over. The starter sounded like it was grinding in slow motion before finally catching, the engine sounding terrible. The thermometer read -18 (who knows what with windchill). I’d stayed up for a while the night before thinking about everything that was going on, and decided to sleep on it and make a decision in the morning. Now that morning had come, I felt how precarious my position was.
While I was mostly self sufficient, my safety net was also very thin. All my water had frozen. I was using the engine of my car as a generator for heat and to power my electronic devices, but I I didn’t know how much longer before my battery would freeze or a belt would snap. While I had a workstation at the community center to edit on, it was brutally hard to shoot in -20 degree weather, and I knew I hadn’t gotten much for stills and videos as it was. I also knew it would cost around $1000 to stay out for another week, and having just moved to a new place and not started my business yet, I made a tough decision.
I broke down my supply tent, donated the last of my propane and food, and began saying my goodbyes. I hugged the wonderful people I’d met, and drove down to Cannonball where I packed up my workstation. By 1pm I was sitting at the restaurant in the casino, and began writing my article for the Eureka Times Standard. I caravanned with friends from Santa Cruz out of town, and that night made it to a hotel near Sturgis, South Dakota. All day and hours through snow and storm got me to Salt Lake City the next night, another full day to Reno and another back to Santa Cruz.
I had plenty of time to think on the drive home, and have had a lot more in the last 40 since. Almost everyone I knew who left when I did came home very sick. California Camp closed down a week after I left and has setup in Southern Oregon near another pipeline build. Camp population dropped from around 7,000 while the Veterans were around to about 1000. I’ve stayed in contact with many people I met, and have continued to ask the question that drove me in the first place- “What’s going on at Standing Rock?”
I felt a responsibility going out to see firsthand. I felt like I owed it to myself, and the people who supported my trip, to shed some light on what was going on. Beyond that, I tried to go up with an open mind. I wanted to be of service and help those in the know get the right stories out. I don’t think I expected to change things, but the feeling of unfinished business has made me wonder. Maybe it’s because the issues at stake won’t be resolved with this pipeline, whatever the fate. Perhaps I have too much respect for the people who gave food and money they couldn’t afford to support the camp, to go back to a life oblivious to these realities.
I remember a few days after I returned, I got frustrated speaking to someone when they called me an activist. Standing up for clean water and protecting your land from Corporate violation isn’t activism, to me it’s human decency. The normalization of violation and the othering of integrity is unacceptable to me. It was a similar frustration when I found out the editor at the Eureka Times Standard changed the title of my article (without asking me) to “Locals make stand at pipeline protest”, after specifically having a conversation with her about the importance of not using the word protest in the article.
It may seem to some that it’s semantic, but to me it’s symbolic and fundamental. To frame Standing Rock as a protest is to position it against something, versus it being FOR something that is being threatened by those who would seek to exploit for personal profit. But this reversal is exactly the way this situation is being framed in the media.
While doing research for this dispatch, I spoke with friends on the Media team in Camp to see how things are going. I heard that they had managed to get a drone up in the air on December 29th, but that it had been shot down and the operator arrested. But, the footage had been livestreamed back to camp, and would be released in the next few days. Needless to say, construction continues.
This isn’t an isolated situation without connection to the greater country. In the last two years, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota, according records obtained by the Associated Press. None were reported to the public. The Missouri river brings water to millions of people, far beyond the Standing Rock Reservation, and the issues aren’t isolated to this remote place in North Dakota. Now that President Trump has approved the completion of the DAPL and Keystone XL pipelines, the power of profit and greed at the expense of public health and liberty threatens us all.
I wish I had a better way to end this dispatch. I’ve been sitting with it for weeks now looking at different ways I might write about it or put it in perspective. Meanwhile, it falls deeper back into my memory, and current events call much of my attention.
To those of you who supported my trip, thank you. I have been honored to carry your donations and well wishes with me. It has meant so much that you trusted me with this task, and for the time that it was mine to carry, I hope I have done right by all of you.
As you may know, there are still people out at Standing Rock. If you would like to contribute to their efforts, I recommend the following three areas:
If you would like to see a drone back up in the air, an Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran I met at Camp, Terrence Daniels, has started a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/
STRfund) to directly support getting a drone back in the air to show what’s going on. You can see him discussing the complications faced in camp during this interview with The Young Turks https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=Dyu8JqpfgDk
If you would like to support the Medical Fund in camp, you can donate here: https://www.
holisticlivingschool.org/ standing-rock-medic-healer- council/
If you would like to support the legal defense fund in camp, you can donate here: https://fundrazr.com/d19fAf
At the time I would not recommend donating to the general camp fund. If you are inclined to donate it’s best to get the funds directly to the people who need them. There have been repeated allegations that donation money was diverted from reaching it’s intended destination.