Thursday, September 8, 2016

From Lawrence, Kansas to Sacred Stone: Standing up for Standing Rock


(This is a recollection of my September 2-5 journey up to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, ND, site of the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is a glimpse into one story. For up to date information about the camp and continuing DAPL opposition, I encourage folks to visit the Camp of Sacred Stones website and facebook page.)

Two thumbs up
Early last week Lawrence and Topeka friends began collecting supplies requested by the Sacred Stone and allied camps in their ongoing effort to protect sacred land and water and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). By Tuesday, my studio was designated as the drop off spot for supplies. Friends Nicholas and Amber would deliver the supplies as they were already going to Standing Rock to document stories from the struggle that the mainstream media was ignoring or misrepresenting.

On Wednesday, as we loaded sleeping bags, rice, beans, flashlights, toiletries and art supplies into a mini- van parked at the studio, Nicholas looked over at my friend Connie and I, while we we’re working on a new mural design, and asked, “Are you two going?” After a pause to consider the trip, I glanced over to her for a sign. Without hesitation, she gave an emphatic double thumb’s up. Yes, we were going!

Nicholas left the next morning, Connie and I on Friday with our car full of camping gear and everything we could think of to make art in the elements. On our way out of town, we picked up Chloe, a KU student from the Cheyenne River Tribe who was returning to the camp for her second time. Then we drove and drove with me behind the wheel and Connie as DJ.

Arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp
After a twelve-hour, 750 mile wind blown journey north, the encampment (really a village) appeared as we coasted into the valley where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri. Like an embroidered quilt spread out in front of us framed by sage green hills and blue blue water, it’s shimmering patterns and colors from afar resolved into a mosaic of tents and tepees and flags and fires as we got closer. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The closest I could come for a reference was a giant family reunion combined with the encampment at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Movement’s beginnings combined with a county fair. But it was much more than even those. There were people representing more than one hundred-fifty Nations, a school for kids, corral for horses, community kitchens, medical tents a radio station and on and on.

Traffic slowed as we got to the entrance decorated with hand painted signs, where we were welcomed with open arms and ushered through a corridor of brightly colored flags from Tribal Nations across the continent. Once through, we found the donation tent and with the help of others unloaded. Everywhere there was a flurry of activity, festive and purposeful. People lifting, cooking, chopping, organizing, playing, conferencing, planning, befriending.

We made camp on the east side (of course) close to the shore of the Cannonball. Soon after we set up our tents, another caravan from Lawrence arrived, with folks from the KU First Nations Student Association and Black Lives Matter- LFK who had driven through the night. Solidarity in action!

Tents up, Nicholas and Amber went off to schedule interviews and start filming. (With little or no cell phone reception, we all had to rely on old school methods of communication – agreed rendezvous and notes). Connie and I started unpacking our outdoor studio. In no time, we were joined by sisters Kaya and Nakita from across the road. Painting and talking. Talking and painting and laughing.  

A community of art makers
In the camp art was all around us, as celebration, heritage, protest, identity and history. In fact, it was so interwoven into everything that it doesn’t feel right to separate art out from the overall spirit and culture of what I experienced. On trucks, teepees and t-shirts, concrete barriers and chip-board; in processions and prayer songs; with friends and strangers and new friends, we fought with our brushes and celebrated with songs; we built solidarity through dance, and memory with poetry. Together. 

People from a hundred nations and a hundred years. Teepees and tents and trailers. Two pelicans and a DAPL helicopter circling above. A leopard frog in the grass by our tent. Fires and flags being blown by the wind. People chopping wood and breaking bread. Horses all around. The amplified voices of new arrivals sharing their stories on the camp radio broadcast. A feeling of something big.

We carried our first completed sign-paintings up to the donation tent only to discover that while we had been working, front-line protectors were being attacked by DAPL private security at the site where bulldozers had destroyed documented sacred sites. Medics were dispatched. Democracy Now! was there. Here is their account. 


To see for ourselves
While still gathering information about what had happened in the confrontation, Connie and I drove north on Rte.1806 to see for ourselves. We wove our way through beautiful rolling hills with glimpses of the river between them, until, around one turn before we could stop or turn back, the road was blocked by Morton County police and the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Fortified with heavy-duty concrete barriers and about ten officers in full military gear, it was not clear what their purpose was. We slowed while a camera mounted on a pole took photos of us and our car. No questions, just a motion to keep going. Getting back was a different story. Nearly everyone was being rerouted thirty miles out of the way, but somehow we squeaked through (Most likely because I’m a white guy in my 40’s and told the officer we’d just been out getting ice cream cones…all true).

The ACLU and Amnesty International called the road-block a civil right’s violation and have demanded that it be removed saying, "The U.S. government is obligated under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of Indigenous people, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.” "Public assemblies should not be considered as the 'enemy.'”

Later that evening at the campsite, a group of us talked about what we’d experienced, what was needed and what our roles could be. It’s easy for me to get stirred up into the intensity of the moment, lose track of time and not follow through on what I feel like I can offer. Even though I want to be present for the latest news flash and call to action, I know I wouldn’t contribute much if I always left what I was doing to rush off to where something had just happened. 


Nick and Amber went up to reception hill (where there was a limited cell phone signal) to check messages leaving me to the stars above. Later, Connie, who had been over at the other Lawrence camp, reappeared exhausted after an extended and unplanned wander, lost in the camp's maze of improvised roads and blinding headlights. She collapsed on a quilt laid out in front of the tent, reorienting under the cosmic map and joining me in gazing up at tiny lights (spaceships?) weaving through the Milky Way.

The march
The night brought more big winds, brief showers and lightning, and by morning the tent had turned into a giant blueberry pancake (Connie’s description). The tent stakes had vanished, so I improvised and used extra paint brushes pushed into the ground. It worked. (Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is a hammer” or tent stake, I guess, depending on the situation…)

Painting in our outdoor studio continued. Kaya and Nakita were drawn in like magnets, and now other folks including Chloe, the KU First Nations Association president joined us. Some signs were taped to pickup trucks, while Connie and I brought ours to the top of reception hill and tied them to the barbed wire fence facing the road.  

Photo by Connie Fitzpatrick
Photo by Connie Fitzpatrick

At four in the afternoon the majority of folks and horses at the camp made their way north on Rte. 1806. We marched to the site where destruction had been halted and the dogs had been unleashed. Our procession was a half-mile long of raised fists and emboldened spirits. At the site, we crossed the fence and with a blessing entered sacred land. We formed a large circle on the prairie filled with sage and wild flowers. Elders sang. We all prayed.

photo by Dallas Goldtooth
I was nearly overwhelmed by feelings of loss, joy and a sense of purpose all at once. I thought while standing in that circle that this was not only a denunciation of something destructive, it was and is a clarion call to the world, reaffirming the values of interdependence, gratitude, and love, and an acknowledgement of the incredible gift (and responsibility that goes with it) of being able to share the earth with it’s creatures, waters and peoples for a brief moment.

As the waxing crescent moon rose in the south, the northern sky started to flash silently at first and then with a low bass-drum rumble. Our Lawrence friends shared smores by the fire before a sideways rain forced us into our tents.  We awoke to a calm, cool and overcast morning. We got coffee and said goodbyes, packed our tents, and although part of each of our hearts would stay, we loaded our bodies into the car and headed south towards home with the Missouri as our guide.  

My thoughts and prayers are with all of the protectors and defenders who continue on.  

Many thanks to co-campers Connie, Nick and Amber for support, laughs and energy bars...

4 comments:

Sorcs said...

Thank you!!!

bailey said...

thank you for going, sharing your art, telling this story

Michael Bradley said...

Thanks to all of our NE Kansas emissaries. And thank you First Nations representatives for leading an historic Peaceful War against Greed.

Tiffany Thoelke said...

Love.