A little after Thanksgiving break, I got a message from my friend Deborah Duguid-May, who is a priest at Trinity Episcopal Church here in Rochester, NY. She wanted to know if I’d join her and eight other Episcopalians (a group including three priests and two teenagers) on a trip to Standing Rock, North Dakota.
We would leave on Sunday December 4, drive through the night and arrive at Standing Rock on Monday, stay for 2 days and then start the journey back home on Wednesday December 7.
The day of our arrival, December 5, was significant. It was the day Jack Dalrymple, Governor of North Dakota, had ordered a mandatory evacuation of Oceti Sakowin, the largest encampment north of the Cannonball River.
Dalrymple supports the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a $3.8 billion project expected to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil, every day, from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana all the way down to Illinois. Originally, the pipeline was slated to be laid north of Bismark, but it was redirected towards Sioux tribal nations in order to protect Bismarck’s water supply wells.
Sioux water protectors had been camping at the Standing Rock Reservation since April 2016, asking for a rerouting of the pipeline away from their water and sacred sites. They had been joined by protestors and tribal nations, from around the world, who saw the pipeline as a violation of indigenous rights.
A showdown was expected on December 5 between law enforcement and the 4,000 people living in teepees and yurts at Oceti Sakowin. They had managed to share a sacred fire under arctic conditions and create a strong and well-organized community, but continued to be under threat. Hundreds of protestors had been arrested since the summer, many under brutal circumstances due to the disproportionate and largely militarized response by local police.
In view of this violence, thousands of American veterans were planning to gather at the camp on December 4, in order to form a human shield around indigenous water protectors and their allies. We wanted to be a part of that collective resistance.
We drove non-stop for more than 24 hours, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, across Indiana to Chicago, followed by Wisconsin, and then through St. Paul (Minnesota) to North Dakota and beautiful sounding names like Absaraka and Spiritwood.
We hadn’t gone far when we started getting texts from friends telling us about how after six months of resistance at Standing Rock, the US Army Corps of Engineers had finally denied an easement for DAPL.
We were delighted but decided to continue. After hundreds of years of broken promises, constant infringements on indigenous sovereignty, land and resources and the violation of some 500 treaties, it made sense to take government concessions with a healthy dose of skepticism. The demarcation between what is assumed to be the US government and big business is not that clear-cut anyway.
I recalled an article by Jack Healy, published in the New York Times earlier in September, which starts with 76-year old Verna Bailey reminiscing about her lost home and community. “Fifty years ago, hers was one of hundreds of Native American families whose homes and land were inundated by rising waters after the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam along the Missouri River, part of a huge midcentury public-works project approved by Congress to provide electricity and tame the river’s floods.” The project was “a cultural catastrophe, residents and historians say. It displaced families, uprooted cemeteries and swamped lands where tribes grazed cattle, drove wagons and gathered wild grapes and medicinal tea.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline is to be dug underneath a dammed section of the same Missouri River. This is why David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, explains his people’s present trauma as “a residual effect of 1958, when the floods came.”
The landscape was visually bewitching throughout our drive. Especially memorable were the frost-covered, golden fields of Minnesota, where dark trees break up vast horizontal lines and stick out of the frigid soil like candelabras feeling the magnetic pull of the sky.
We hit a snowstorm as soon as we reached North Dakota. The snow was heavy, the roads barely plowed. We continued to drive, straining to see where we were going. Unfortunately, the blizzard didn’t yield and we were forced to get off the highway and check into a hotel near Bismarck. Strong winds, freezing temperatures, poor visibility and horizontal blowing and drifting snow continued the next day. Portions of major highways were closed and there were reports of numerous accidents, but we were able to drive to John Floberg’s house in Bismarck, for some coffee and pie, Italian food for dinner, and enlightening discussions about the situation at Standing Rock.
Rev. John Floberg is council member and supervising priest of the Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock. Originally from Norway, with indigenous Sami ancestry, his house is filled with paintings and mementos alluding to his roots.
My first thought was about the conflict and difficult history between Christianity and Native American cultures. In the astonishing documentary “We Still Live Here,” Jessie Little Doe Baird dreams of her Wampanoag ancestors (a tribe that hails from what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island) speaking to her in their native tongue, a language lost to her people for more than one hundred years. The film is about Baird’s incredible quest to revive her ancestral language. It is an irony that translations of the Bible into Wampanoag, an important part of the destructive process of supplanting Native cultures and belief systems with Christianity, become a crucial resource for Baird’s work.
But Father John seemed to be well-entrenched in the local indigenous community. He lived on the reservation for many years and raised his children there. He was well aware of Native American history and became emotional when sharing the words of Standing Rock elder, Phyllis Young, who had declared peace with the US military and forgiven the American government for the assassinations of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. It was clear that Sioux beliefs had sparked and shaped the No DAPL movement – traditions, beliefs, and ritual practices that had been banned for more than 50 years, until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
The next morning, we started on our much anticipated pilgrimage from Bismarck to Standing Rock. The reservation, swathed in snow and ice, was stark and beautiful, and the road to the camps narrow. There were countless cars stuck in ditches and summarily abandoned along the way.
In our conversations with Father John, we tried to learn as much as we could about life on the Standing Rock Reservation. The picture that emerged was disturbing.
Unemployment is as high as 79 percent, with an attendant poverty rate of 43.2 percent and severe social problems including gender-based violence, elevated suicide and high school dropout rates, food insecurity, low access to education and healthcare, and inconsistent access to electricity and running water. Alcoholism has 100 percent impact on the indigenous community in that everyone is affected by it either directly or indirectly. The connection between alcoholism and settler colonialism is particularly striking for Native populations based in the plains, as they had no knowledge of alcohol prior to the arrival of the Europeans, when it became an essential part of trades with fur trappers, merchants, miners and the military.
John Floberg mentioned how George Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 was still vivid in the minds of many white North Dakotans and this explained some of the racism and hate directed at Native Americans. On the other hand, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to bear down on the Lakota community. He called it multigenerational trauma.
As we drove across the reservation to the camps, I was constantly mesmerized by the beauty of the land – its allure and intensity. I returned to the film “We Still Live Here” and Jessie Little Doe Baird’s mission to honor her ancestors. In order to reconstruct the Wampanoag language, she consulted a large number of legal documents, submitted meticulously by her people, in their own language, to Boston courts, asking the government to honor its treaties and stop the theft of their land. The Wampanoag did not have horses or carriages and therefore their feet were in sustained contact with the earth. In the Wampanoag language, the expression for losing one’s land can only be translated in English as “falling away,” for when the earth is taken from under one’s feet, one can no longer be grounded in or anchored to the world. It’s a descent into nothingness.
As we reached the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I felt overwhelming emotion. This place had galvanized aboriginal peoples, from across the planet, to come together and make connections between the environment, indigenous rights, settler colonialism, the theft of land and water, capitalism, its suicidal excesses, and the power of prayerful and principled resistance. Standing Rock is not only a template for solidarity, intersectionality, and grassroots organizing and action but it also offers us hope. It articulates an alternative way of being, one that is non-violent, deeply connected to the Earth as well as other living things and creatures.
As we were to leave for Rochester that day, we stayed very briefly at the camp. On the way back, we talked about our reflections. My friend Melanie Duguid-May, who had taken copious notes throughout our interactions with Father John, reminded us that he had urged us to find out whose land we were living on and then forge relationships with those tribes. As an immigrant, I have always felt like a settler on Native American land. I have longed for the permission of indigenous communities to be on their territory. For me this trip was a lot about seeking that acceptance and so our work would continue once we got home.
After 38 hours of being on the move, driving straight from Bismarck to Rochester, contending with three different snowstorms, and maneuvering scantily plowed roads and closed highways, we got back home to New York. The trip itself became an important lesson for us. It taught us that sharing everything and living by consensus decision-making can be hard. It requires patience and frequent negotiation, but it can be done. Maybe it’s a model that’s less clean-cut, more time consuming, and seemingly less efficient, in corporate parlance, but in the end we were richer for it and more equally served by it. Isn’t that what democracy should be all about?
Mara Ahmed has lived and been educated on three different continents. She’s an artist and filmmaker whose third documentary “A Thin Wall,” a film about the partition of India in 1947, was released in 2015. She blogs at maraahmed.com and is based in Rochester, New York.