What I learned at Standing Rock
I spent the week of November 21 through November 27 at the Oceti Sakowin camp, at Cannonball, North Dakota supporting the Sioux Water Protectors. These are the first three of my reflections on that visit. We left North Dakota with a blizzard on our heels. I was sad to leave but grateful to be home. I miss the beauty, generosity and spirit that I found there.
I camped at Oceti Sakowin, or the main camp, the big camp, the one that Governor Dalyrymple is trying to clear because he can (it is the only camp off reservation land, so the only one he has any jurisdiction over) and because it is the camp full of non-native out-of-state, out-of-country, protestors who could cause him the most hassle and most embarrassment if he crosses legal lines using more undo force on protestors. The police force is harassing natives more than they harass whites, charging natives with felonies while whites receive misdemeanors, placing natives in dog kennels and whites in jail cells, reading rights to whites but not to natives, and releasing whites from jail faster than natives. The racism is clear. And The Governor knows he has to tread lightly to avoid escalating the problem into an international crisis.
I met people from Germany, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and from every corner of the US. The people I camped with (the immediate neighbors that chance brought me in contact with) were from North Dakota, Oregon, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, and Colorado. They were all planning to spend the winter. They helped us set up camp and orient to camp ways. We fed each other, we helped keep each other warm, we told stories, laughed and fell in love with one another. When we left camp earlier and faster than we planned because of the storm, we left behind everything we could: food, water, a carport, building supplies, a ladder, warm clothing, sleeping bags, goggles. Hoping beyond hope that my new friends would be a little warmer and a little more comfortable as the storm set in. We worry about them in the blizzard and say prayers for them every day.
Prayer makes sense at camp. Grief makes sense at camp. Waking up and crawling out of my warm tent into the cold at first light. I walk to the river, get down on my knees and bow, prostrate myself, forehead to earth, over and over, weeping for what we are losing. I pray for strength. I pray for courage. I say thank you to the earth, to the water, to the sun and sky. It feels as if there is nothing between me and the creator. I have been stripped clean. I bow, move, dance and feel the pulse of creation move around me, move through me. I weep prayers. Driving home now, I look at the land, this big beautiful expanse of the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and I find myself weeping again for all that will be lost if development and exploitation proceed unfettered. I weep knowing all we have already lost of beauty and the holy.
One night I knelt by the sacred fire, bowing, weeping, remembering love and life and the recent death of my mother-in-law Barbara. As I stood up and gave thanks and respect to the Holy Elder tending the fire he took my hand and told me that The Creator had come to him while he watched me pray. The Creator told him to tell me that The Creator loved me. And of course I wept some more.
What is The Creator? What is prayer? Prayer is the reverence that arises in me when I remember that Water is Life, Soil is Life, Sun and Sky are life. Prayer is the gratitude and appreciation that arise in the chilly sunrise over the river. The Creator is some force, you could call it Qi or Prana or Creation itself, that animates matter to life. It doesn't need to be a conscious force like the biblical God. But Holy none-the-less because our lives depend upon it. The Creator is to be revered, respected, thanked for our life. And when we threaten the water, soil, and sky we threaten life itself, we threaten Creation.
Everything at Oceti Sakowin is ceremony. the ceremony is this: to wake up in the morning, to remember and pray, to fall asleep at night, to remember and pray, at the quiet times of the day, to remember and to pray, in the hurry of the moment, to remember and to pray, waking up in the night, to remember and to pray. Saturate life with an honoring of life itself.
It is harder since I left camp to maintain this attitude of ceremony. This is the work in front of me. And somehow I know it will give me hope in the darkness of despair that I feel pending. As Winona LaDuke recently said: The Beginning is Near.
It’s my first morning at Standing Rock and I’m standing in front of ‘Medic and Healing’ for the first time. There is a table out front: hot water, herbal tea, tea bags, cold remedies, ‘hot hands’ and ‘hot toes’ packs, lotions, tampax, lip balm… all of life’s essential’s out for anyone to take and use as they need. A woman pulls up in a rental car and asks if I can help her take supplies inside, which, of course, I do. She doesn’t know where they are kept but loads my arms with a variety of stuff, of which I mainly remember a bunch of brooms, and I wander into camp asking people where I should put them. I’m directed to the supply tent, which is stuffed full. The ‘morning sorter’ is just arriving to make sense of things for the day.
I return to my personal camp and get help carrying the medical supplies I have brought with me. Many generous friends filled two large bins with everything from toothpaste to alcohol to herbs to bandages. I have a few things that need to be handed off directly the herbalist with instructions, so I do that. ‘Medic and Healing’ is a ring of gers (aka yurts), army tents, trailers and teepees around a central fire. A young man who tells me he is a vet with severe PTSD tends the fire all day. Every time I go to Medic, no matter the hour, he is there. Tending fire is a serious and reverent act at Standing Rock.
A steady stream of medical supplies arrives. Volunteers accept and sort all day long. Supplies get shuffled to their appropriate homes: herbal medicine, traditional medicine, hands-on healing, acupuncture, midwifery or emotional support. Warriors, allies, and just regular people arrive to be treated all day long. There are wounds from direct actions, bruises and injuries from rubber bullets or the water cannons, sore backs and shoulders from building shelters or from sleeping on hard surfaces, and all the usual colds, flus, and belly aches inherent to human existence. One baby has been born at camp and lots of pregnancy tests administered.
Doctors, midwifes, acupuncturists, massage therapists, herbalists, street medics and mental health practitioners are equal partners in healing here. Everyone gives their time. There is no hierarchy, only generosity. I volunteer in the hands-on healing area, offering massage and resistance stretching to the injured and sore. I go to the Medic and Healer volunteer orientation for a couple of hours on my first afternoon in camp. I learn that the one thing they are sorely missing is a dentist. There is no one here to treat broken teeth, abscesses or mouth injuries.
The generosity of the Medic and Healing camp is overwhelming. I simply step in and do. The Hands-on Healing Ger has 5 massage tables, one floor mat, shelves with acupuncture herbs, and chairs for waiting surrounding a wood stove in the center of the room. It is very warm in the ger. The edges of the room are heaped with coats, sweaters, shoes, and socks. We are told to prioritize local and native people, then elders and warriors. But, in reality, everyone who comes in gets treated pretty much in the order they arrive. The wait is rarely over 15 minutes. You work with whoever is next in line, acupuncturists, massage therapists and I simply treat what presents itself.
The treatment model is a bit like the community acupuncture model. There is none of that personal dysphoria that happens when you wait alone in a treatment room. No sense of needing to hide your vulnerabilities. You are always with other people. No one fully disrobes; they only take off the clothing necessary for the treatment. Receiving and offering treatment is a communal healing practice. In the hands-on healing tent we trust in the warmth of presence and touch. It is lovely to practice as part of a community.
This community feeling is the norm in camp. People simply pitch in where needed. You help in kitchens, you help move wood, you help build, you give directions, you carry, you pick up, you do what you can do. I learned that it was okay to ask for help and it was okay to offer help. There is easy generosity in being a part of a movement.
People offered whatever they could: food, medicine, strength, effort, support. There was a feeling of abundance that came from this deep generosity. There was no need to hoard. All needs were met. For those of you who sent financial offerings with me, they went directly to the Medic and Healing Council to purchase medicines and supplies that were missing from the donations, things like epipens or insulin. I was honored to take your collective $2000 to the council. Thank you.
Lily and I spent one morning simply picking up trash. we wandered through camp and picked any stray matter we came across. The majority of it was cigarette butts. This gave me the opportunity to confront my judgment around cigarette smoking, fairly ludicrous as a former smoker who left more than her own share of butts on the landscape. I got to turn over my judgmental thoughts and then do the humble act of tending the land and picking up trash. It felt good to do a simple act. And in return, I received abundant gratitude, verbal thanks from strangers, and a sweetness that permeated the rest of the day.
What does it mean to live from a place of shared generosity? What does it mean to assume that there is enough for everyone and that your needs will be met? I was enlightened by it. Already I feel the dysphoria of the return to this ‘un-real’ world of work and striving and no one ever believing that they have enough. There is a truth that has been hidden in plain sight: there is enough for all of us if we practice generosity.
I ask myself personally what it means to do the humble work of picking up trash, rubbing someone’s shoulders, cooking a meal in community as my primary daily tasks? What does it mean to abdicate leadership and striving and know that the community will meet my needs? What happens if I trust the generosity of others? At Oceti Sakowin it was the permeation of Creator in every action, big or small. It is the feeling of trust. I felt right-sized and a part of something greater than myself.
There is another way
So many of us have been searching for transformational paths. I have personally studied Hatha Yoga, Tantric Yoga, Sufism, Benedictine Christianity, Mayan Shamanism, Geology, Anarchy, Eastern Christian Mysticism, Voluntary Simplicity, The Twelve Steps, and many more that I can’t think of right now. I’ve searched for a way to live my life that feels real and engaged. I know that something is missing. The existential hole is a real. Despair lingers, teeters on the edge of awareness. Pushed away by spiritual practice, but never quite gone. I keep searching.
I’ve unplugged my TV, stopped reading magazines, minimized my participation in popular culture. I ride my bike for transportation, I garden, eat local, meditate, teach yoga, dance, hike, try to do the right thing. While I generally feel good, the nagging feeling that something is wrong continues. My sense of separation lingers. I keep searching, commit to more meditation, stop eating sugar, study with yet another new teacher who appears to have found a way through. I hope, I pray for enlightenment. I imagine enlightenment as that moment when the despair disappears and life finally makes sense.
I visit my family in Orange County, NYC, Boston, or Philadelphia. I try for short periods of time to engage in the world of big city USA, where accumulating wealth and the objects of wealth are the means of transformation and dealing with the existential despair. I become self-conscious of the dirt on my shoes, the stains on my purse, the hair on my legs, my wrinkles, my grey hair, my soft belly. I consider the possibility that fixing those things would resolve my dilemma. Most insistently and ridiculously part of me still believes that If only I lost 10 pounds, I’d be okay.
I return to the river (the Willamette or the Marys) and repeat the prayers I did at Standing Rock. I get down on my knees. I bow to the water, to the earth, to the sky, to the sun. I bow to the falling rain. I put my forehead to the earth and I cry. I dance a simple dance and I feel the air flow over my body, my arms, through my fingers. Creator is palpable on the banks of the river. I feel Creator in me and around me. Water is life. Mni Wiconi. May I be of service to you Creator. May I be of service to the water, the soil, the sun, the sky. May I be of service to Life.
Oil is literally condensed death. We’ve pulled death from the earth to power our cars and homes. We have become a cult of death, constantly tending the sacred fire of oil, of hoarding, and of unheeded consumption. We’ve bought into the belief that our existential despair will be healed by the things we purchase, the way we look, the brightness and whiteness of our teeth.
Most of us, regardless of our skin color, are a people without clear indigenous roots. We have lost our connections to land and place. We do not know where our ancestors are buried. We no longer say prayers to the earth, to the water, to the sky. Creator has been ensconced in gold tabernacles and opulent churches the most heinous of which resemble shopping malls. We’ve elected a leader who worships gold and oil. We’ve elected a developer who looks at land and sees $$$ to lead our nation. I see only despair in the future if we follow that path.
The native ways of ceremony being held at Standing Rock are beautiful. The drums play all day and all night. Prayer is sung all day and all night. When I woke in the night I would listen for the drums and fall back to sleep knowing that everything was okay. Unfortunately, behind the drums and prayer was a base line played by the constant drone of the surveillance planes, helicopters and security drones, just like the prayer it played all day and all night. High-powered spot lights shone on us during the night; security forces and snipers walked the hilltops around camp during the day. We were constantly aware that we were being watched. Prayer was surrounded by a container of aggressive policing. The government and industry are threatened by Standing Rock. Threatened by a peaceful prayer circle. Prayer is being met by intimidation, militarized police, by water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, LRADs, and concussion grenades. The forces of greed are afraid. Who needs riot gear to contain a drum circle?
On my second morning at Standing Rock, while we were setting camp, a car drove past with a loud speaker. A native woman was yelling at us: “We are about to be invaded. Drop everything. Women and children to the white dome. Warriors to the front lines. Now.” We had just returned from orientation. We had been reminded to be allies and followers, not leaders. So we didn’t question the woman in the car, we went directly to the white dome with hundreds of other women and children. We passed warriors, both male and female, headed to the front gate, some carrying bulletproof vests and wearing military-style helmets, ready for action. Information was relayed by human microphone. Women with young children should head out, by foot to Rosebud Camp (a short walk across the river) or in cars. Everyone was to get their ‘go bags’ and head out. We walked back to our camp, put the essentials back into our car, and drove toward the exit.
By the time we arrived at the exit, it was clear that the whole thing had been a sham. An infiltrator had come into camp and started the rumor, sent us all into paranoid action. Cluttered the roads with exiting cars and put everyone on edge. The prayers and drumming took hold again, projected loudly from the speakers at the Sacred Fire. Everyone calmed down and returned to the day-to-day actions of camp. Tending fires, cooking, building, cleaning, healing, praying. I went to the river and prayed.
Held in the arms of camp, surrounded by police, my prayers were spontaneous. I found my own way to talk with Creator. I found the connection to Creator that I have long sought in other people’s teachings. Existential despair was replace by deep grief and radical awe.
My prayer is not the Sioux Prayer, or the Mayan Prayer, or the Benedictine Prayer or the Yogic Chant. My prayer is movement, humility, and tears. I pray best outside. I need to put my forehead to the earth. I pray to water, earth, sun and sky. Creator is here, palpable between my fingers as I stand on the riverbank.
Paranoia creeps in. I worry what others will think. I worry I am being watched. I worry about what may be lost in the next 4 years. But I don't give in to paranoia and worry. I refuse to be intimidated.
I resolve in my prayer to be of service to the water, the earth, the sun, the sky, to life. I ask for strength, humility and courage. I pray for all of us human beings trying to find a way to live with meaning on this beautiful planet. May we each find a way to pray that reminds us to honor life. May that prayer be manifest in all that we do.