Some of my family and I just traveled to work for our neighbors on the Siouxan Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. We were only able to labor for 36 hours, hauling wood from a giant brush pile and driftwood from a river beach, but this place is so familiar. The Missouri is just like the Mississippi. There are more beef cattle than dairy cows, but these are familiar silhouettes of animals that we know well. Rock piles are in every field that has been tilled. There are small patches of oak savanna. We pitch our tent near four-legged dung – cattle, horse, bison?
Here we glance nervously at police cars, as all those who have been given a healthy fear of what can happen when you try to explain yourself to an officer. I have repainted houses and outhouses just like these on other reservations. Everyone here knows how to drive old trucks or tiny, rear-wheel-rive cars on ice. The cooperative living is familiar to LGBT warriors where one chips in as much as one can before caring for oneself. Pagans and witches celebrate these same aspects of sage, cedar, and fire. We know these stories and settings.
Something incredible is happening here. Something important. Something wonderful and horrible, and wonderful and horrible, and wonderful and horrible. Everyone who is capable and willing, or at least willing is gathered at the juncture of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers to protect Native life and rights and water and the environment on behalf of all of us. Here – near a river bend and side channel that should be called Sacred Stone for the beautiful mineral spheres that the two rivers used to create and offer forth as resources before being dredged and depleted – is a large drill rig and police barricade on a public highway, heavily fortified and protected by officers with guns, batons, water cannons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets used against citizens with signs about peace, water, and the rights to this land, which is about to be taken advantage of. Again.
It is no small thing to camp and live here in this alternately scorching and freezing and always windy land. It is not a tiny endeavor to stand up and put one’s body on the line to say that it is inherently unfair that Bismarck, North Dakota was rightfully concerned about the environmental impact of the DAPL, but that the Native Peoples of Standing Rock, if not their governing bodies, should not be allowed those same concerns. This project was not forced on predominantly white town of Bismarck, but is being forced upon Native people and land. The same diligence is not being taken here to look out for rights and wishes, where rights and wishes and cultures have already been confined and relegated into poverty and out-of-the-way, neglected margins. The few sacred sites that were previously spared and the land scraps that were forced upon an entire culture are being tread upon again.
And there is not enough infrastructure to support the outcries of true injustice that are being throated. Police agencies have managed to dig deep and find the resources to harshly defend a private oil and energy company instead of the public, peaceful, unarmed, water, land, and treaty rights Protectors. Our public tax dollars are being used to serve and protect oil money in extremely obvious and basic ways, instead of spent finding more sustainable energy sources like wind or solar or tidal. We are paying to erect these tall, bright, numerous spotlights to surveil Native peoples on their own land, instead of making sure they have electricity enough for their homes, which we as a country originally demanded they accept instead of their traditionally held lands that were brutally, unconscionably taken.
Here is this place that is so familiar to so many of us rural folk who have tried to survive on cold, glacial-scraped land. We remember the tales of the French who traded cooking pots and rifles for fur. The Scandinavians who mingled with the Ojibwe and knew all about thriving despite ice and snow. The small loggers who knew about the dangerous work of felling without destroying. And then came the large logging companies that took advantage of all of their desperate workers and neighbors to make bigger money while tenderly framing atrocities against those that they paid too little. The copper and lead miners whose magnates knew better and drove more workers of every color into cold beds with shrunken stomachs and poisoned lungs. In the face of it, the Ho Chunk and Oneida who have learned to live off of casinos and commerce. The Menominee practice some of the best resource management on the planet. And so many more familiar tales.
We who recognize these struggles in our our communities should be taking note of what is happening here in Standing Rock, in the three camps trying to defend against further treading all over the rights, lands, and cultures of our brothers and sisters. These are intimate struggles that we know all about: workers here are cold, with chapped skin and coffee water that is frozen by morning. Winter is coming and there isn’t enough wood or propane. The blizzards are just around the corner and those giant security spot lights will certainly shed visibility on where the resources are foolishly being spent, who is being protected, and at the continued expense of whom else.
It is very clear. This is an old pattern that we should all be standing up to break. Again. Our neighbors are having land rights ripped from them in historic, horrible, predictable ways. The pipeline permits have been temporarily paused, but the construction continues, because the energy company can afford to pay the fines. It is not fair.
During a political moment in our country in which we need to be prepared to stand up and continue to defend all of our vulnerable selves against the whims of rich, unaware, or xenophobic villains, we need to be present here. We need to stand up and continue to notice and make change. We need to show up to this fight: not to be spectators, not to take selfies, not to tour the sweat and tears being spent by others. Do not eat up camp food as you look without lifting, literally or figuratively. Do not send more used clothing that is not meant to aid winter survival in the place of what is really and truly needed in this microcosm of what we all sometimes need.
We need to chip in by showing up and working as hard as we can for as long as we can, in whatever that form is. Bring fire wood, general labor, generators, gas, propane, sub-zero equipment and gear, or a vehicle with a plow. Pay to have a water well drilled and pump installed. Ship high quality coveralls. Write your representatives, The Army Corps of Engineers, and the management of Energy Transfer Partners. Speak with those in your region about this and similar local problems. Explore how we can be good global citizens looking across all of our borders, while also wondering how we could be using microloans, The Heifer Project, and other sustainable models to overcome our histories of not being good to each other. Do not expect accolades instead of performing hard works together. Get out of your comfort zone. Listen. Act. Be a good neighbor.