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During the dinner, an open mike attracted a variety of speakers, singers and performers, including some from our delegation, such as Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir from NYC, who also bussed tables as new groups arrived for dinner. After a native drum circle performance, the leader asked those who had prepared the feast to come forward. As we knelt at the edge of the stage, a seemingly endless line of Water Protectors filed past us shaking hands, giving hugs and thanking us for the feast, creating an emotional ending to an evening that had united people from across the country in support of a cause no single one of us could fully comprehend in its enormity, yet had come to serve in our own modest way.
Following Thanksgiving, our group spent several days at Oceti Sakowin, beginning with an orientation for new arrivals. Sitting on straw bales in a tent, we were schooled by seasoned non-natives about Lakota values and made to understand that this indigenous-led movement is a continuation of 500 years of resistance to colonization. As guests at this ceremonial prayer camp, we were expected to give more than we take, be of use in the maintenance of the camp, and unlearn our unconscious acts of white privilege, including our desire to control and push forward our own ideas. We were instructed to listen and learn, show compassion for all, including ourselves when we made mistakes, honor wisdom and truth, and act respectfully and with humility.
At Oceti Sakowin, where weapons, drugs and alcohol are banned, we observed native people and their allies living in a welcoming, inclusive community that exemplified these values. When someone needed something, it was given freely, as we found when we waited in line for a cup of coffee or tea or came into a tent set up as a store that offered hundreds of items from lanterns to toothpaste at no charge. Both native and non-native volunteers had traveled far, leaving jobs and families to join the cause—cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, organizing supplies, helping to build tiny houses and install solar panels. Many had been serving at Standing Rock for over six months. In kitchens set up in large military tents throughout the camps, volunteers cooked three meals a day for thousands of hungry Water Protectors, using donated supplies that continually streamed into the camps. There was a sense of abundance, an almost magical flow of energy that I can only imagine as the power of love, and an indomitable feeling of hope in the collective resolve of this native-led, multi-cultural, intergenerational movement.
Around the Sacred Fire, always kept burning in the center of camp, drums beat and elders share wisdom for those who come to learn. Native youth from many tribes play a central role in leadership in the Standing Rock movement, speaking for the community at press conferences, organizing actions and patrolling the borders of the camps on horseback. Each morning before dawn during our visit, Water Protectors gathered around the Sacred Fire and an elder led a procession down to the river for a water ceremony just as the sun rose above the distant hills. As we engaged in these ceremonies, Standing Rock called us to feel our own spiritual connection to Mother Earth and be guided by her intelligence.
Despite the history of abuse and betrayal against them, the native people of Standing Rock offer love to all, even the oppressors. They are defending not only the future of their own children, they explain, but the children of the policemen and pipe layers as well. The native elders offer kind words to the police officers whenever there is contact. After the most vicious attacks, an elder formed a forgiveness procession to the sheriff's office carrying a banner and a prayer bundle with blessings for the police officers and their families. When the sheriff posted a notice in the newspaper requesting donations for items the officers needed, a group of indigenous youth delivered all the supplies listed, including milk, energy bars, batteries and hand warmers.
For more than 500 years, Native Americans have repeated the same story—we must care for Mother Earth, so that she can care for us. Finally, the descendants of white settlers are beginning to listen. Millions of supporters have joined this native-led movement by donating money and supplies, making calls and sending letters to government officials, holding supportive rallies under the banners of No DAPL and Water is Life, offering prayers, pulling money from banks who have invested in the pipeline company—the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, and staging protests at bank offices.
The women's silent peace march on Nov. 27 at Standing Rock.Judy Wicks
On our last evening, three of us from our group participated in a silent procession of 1,000 women to the bridge that was the sight of the attack one week earlier. As requested, we had first attended a training session in non-violent direct action and had registered at the legal tent, where we were given a phone number to write in marker on our arm in case we were arrested. As instructed, I had prepared for tear gas with a pair of goggles that I had received at the free store and a wet bandana in a plastic bag stuffed in my jacket pocket. Behind me, the procession stretched as far as I could see, dotted with colorful banners reading Protect the Sacred. As our intergenerational, multi-cultural group of women bundled in winter coats and hats, walked arm in arm toward the barricades on the bridge, we heard orders for us to stop. As we continued moving forward, I felt a sense of dread. In the end, the military allowed the elders at the front of the march to proceed down to the river for a water ritual as the rest of us knelt on the bridge. It was the closest I came to confronting the monster.
During my week at Standing Rock, I witnessed a surreal, epic drama of two contrasting worldviews, one of horror and one of hope, that will determine the fate of life on Earth. The Black Snake, driven by greed, uses violence and fear to dominate people and nature, and measures success by short-term profits and the accumulation of material wealth. This extractive economy is fed by rampant consumerism and our own addiction to oil and gas. It is a world where corporations violate Mother Earth every day by drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal, poisoning of water, soil and air, and the destruction of forests, marshes and the habitats of wildlife.
In contrast, the encampment at Standing Rock offers us a world we can choose to build together, one that is nonviolent, cooperative and loving, that honors women, the old and the young, and respects all species in the web of life. It is a world building a restorative economy that will produce the basic needs of all people, while protecting and restoring natural systems. It is a world of awe, wonder and joy that honors our one Mother Earth.
Standing Rock calls us to join the struggle to defeat the Black Snake, inspiring us to act with courage to protect our own communities and the future of the children we love. Around the globe indigenous people are standing on the front lines in defense of their places. As the prophecy further warns, if the Earth's people do not unite to defeat the Black Snake, the world will end. As we near catastrophic climate change, this could be our last chance, individually and as a nation, to choose life over money, love over fear and join as one people. The story of the Black Snake is not over yet, but the conclusion is near. What role will each of us play in the outcome?
The first major snowstorm arrived the morning we left. As the bitter Dakota winter descended, the tribal council, concerned for their safety, asked the Water Keepers to move from the camps, leaving a contingent of 1,000 or so to hold the space. In the spring, Oceti Sakowin, which grew organically on a flood plain, will move to higher ground. With both the immediate need and the future in mind, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has planned an all-weather eco-village on 50 acres of the reservation. The Mni Wiconi Sustained Community will model a locally based restorative economy of sustainably produced food, energy and building materials. It will be a sacred gathering place for generations to come, and a place to remember and honor the history being made at Standing Rock, while celebrating an economy and way of living that is dramatically less dependent on fossil fuels. During our preparation for the trip, our Wopila Brigade helped raise over $70,000 for the first building in the eco-village called Makigi Oti, the Brown Earth Lodge, and a larger fundraising campaign is now underway.
As we left Standing Rock over 2,500 U.S. veterans of foreign wars began arriving to act as unarmed human shields in defense of the Water Protectors. Later we heard the story of a gathering when hundreds of veterans asked for forgiveness from native elders, as they acknowledged the history of genocide and theft of the land. An elder expressed forgiveness and added, We do not own the land, the land owns us. Could Standing Rock signal a new era in American history when we address the historic injustice on which our country was founded, defend the sovereign rights of the first people and protect the land and water they have held sacred for tens of thousands of years?
After our return home, I watched a jubilant scene at Standing Rock on live stream as the tribal chair announced the exciting news—the Army Corp of Engineers had denied the permit needed to bore under the river and called for a full environmental impact statement for rerouting the pipeline. A well-earned victory for the Sioux and their allies, but by no means the end of the struggle. A climate-denying president-elect with strong financial and political ties to the fossil fuel industry and personal investments in the pipeline, will soon take office. Following the announcement of the permit denial by the Obama administration, the pipeline company immediately issued a defiant statement vowing to complete the project under the river without rerouting.
The three photos were taken by the author at the women's silent peace march on Nov. 27, 2016. For additional photos and a more detailed story of the Wopila Brigade, click here.
To contribute to building the Mni Wiconi Sustained Community, go to: www.BuildWithStandingRock.today
To find out if your bank is among those financing the Dakota Pipeline, go to: www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/how-to-contact-the-17-banks-funding-the-dakota-access-pipeline-20160929
To find a local struggle to defeat the Black Snake or add your group, go to: www.stopthepipelines.org
To support the winter camp at Oceti Sakowin: www.ocetisakowincamp.org/donate
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