We were told by the young man at the gate to camp at the back of Oceti Sakowin Camp, where an offshoot of the Missouri River runs. You can see the tents of Sacred Stone Camp, the smaller first camp, started in April by tribal member LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, just on the other side. At night, you see their campfires.
At Oceti Sakowin, the young man at the gate just pointed toward the back of the camp and looked at us as if the joke was on us. And it was. Camp etiquette says you should come in to join a group of friends already there. If that’s not the case, you have to find a camp that will invite you in. Generally, there are five or six tents around each campfire, which is a better use of scarce resources than one tent/one fire. It is built on the tribe’s inherent sense of interdependence–we’d help each other.
We, my sister and I, had responded to their call for support on our own, so, operating blind, we drove around looking for a clear spot to set up our tent. We saw a guy near a pick-up working to fill in an un-used fire pit. We struck up a conversation, and he said he thought he could invite us to join the camp where we were standing. It was all Native American people who, but he asked them (he wasn’t camping there), and they grudgingly said we could. Later, this same guy was evicted from the camp as a possible infiltrator (you couldn’t make this stuff up).
I’m not a Native person, so any of this could be wrong, but these are my white first impressions.
Food: There are at least seven operating kitchens or mess tents, including the main one near the sacred fire (some say there are several sacred fires, but this seemed the main one) and several smaller kitchens that sprang up to suit people’s dietary needs and interests (vegan, Mexican, etc.). You can eat at them, but again, the etiquette is that they are meant for long-termers and tribal members. We relied mainly on the food we brought.
Skirts: Early on, we were told that the tribe’s grandmothers ask that all women wear skirts, over their jeans, as a sign of respect. We were directed to the skirt-maker’s tent and warmly greeted there by the small older Native woman sitting at one of three sewing machines, making elastic-waist gathered skirts. There was a rack of colorful, already completed skirts to choose from. We gladly tipped her, which she was happy to accept. Some women came prepared, some wrapped shawls and blankets in skirt fashion, some refused, calling the practice “sexist.”
Prayer site: The heart of the camp, near the entrance. Sacred fire in the center, burning wood that has been designated for it, 24 hours, tended by the Fire Men. A tent with microphone faces the fire, to be used only by Native people for specific purposes, we were told. They might read out your announcement. You can’t. The circle around the fire runs clockwise only and holds sacred intent–tobacco donations are made here, prayers for ill or in-need family and friends, personal requests–so one would have to be careful not to cross between the person praying and the fire, and never between the fire and the person on the microphone. Native people and long-termers would form a line to greet the chiefs when they gathered at the microphone, but you shouldn’t be in that line without an invitation. Other tents were gathered around the fire, so it could be confusing. The volunteer tent, the big message board, the donation tent, the skirt-making tent, the place to get hot coffee and hot water for tea, and covered areas with chairs (the chairs of tribal people, saving their places at the sacred fire), all adding to the general commotion.
There were signs about quiet time between 10 pm and 6 am, and the camp was quiet at night, except for the constant activity of low-flying drones and the occasional low-flying plane. People said this was intentionally done by the pipeline people, along with directing their bright work lights into the camp, to make everyone as uncomfortable as possible. Prayers began at 8:00 am. The daily update and orientation training began at 9:00 am.
Orientation training: Some said “mandatory” and “required,” some said “suggested” or “strongly suggested.” I think it’s essential. I think it’s also well done, and I’m a trainer from way back. We had two trainers–a young woman whose family had emigrated from the Philippines to New York and a young white woman whose family has roots in San Francisco. Clearly, they are experienced trainers on colonization, oppression, enslavement, patriarchy, genocide and marginalized and disenfranchised people, because that’s the focus of the almost-three hour training. It may be the only opportunity for many people to ever hear this, and it’s necessary to hear as a foundation for even trying to understand the people on whose property we’re staying that we think we’ve come to “help.” If we’re white, we’re the historical enemy, and we were given examples of how we continue to manifest that (i.e., dominating by talking loudly anytime we enter a group, talking more than we listen, controlling by asking many questions, expecting to be first, etc.). We need to stop while we’re here. Or we need to leave. They are about interdependence, and there’s nothing interdependent about dominating.
Photos: They don’t want any taken. In the beginning, they let people take their own pictures as long as they’d been to the training on FaceBook Hill and gotten their press pass. Now they say it’s gotten out of hand, so they told us they don’t want any photos taken except by professional journalists who’ve been through the training. No recordings of ceremonial singing or drumming, either. However, as the supermoon came up on the night of Nov 14, people everywhere in the camp, standing on the roofs of their cars and trucks, were taking pictures of that moon.
“Getting arrested” training: I can’t say much about this one because we arrived at it on mountain time and it had started on central time. Our i-phones were still showing mountain time, and where the time line is in South Dakota is not where you’d expect, so it was almost over when we got there. Trainees were engaged in a resistance strategy, lines of four with their arms tightly linked, the person on each end holding onto the shoulder of the person in front, the lines running through the training camp site like a maddened caterpillar. As they ran in front of us, someone came running out of a tent off to the right shouting, “Fire! Fire! I MEAN it!” Everyone stopped running and took their water bottles over to put out the small fire that had started. I used to teach protest strategies and have engaged in a bit of protest myself, so I think I have an idea of what they might have covered.
Getting arrested: Everyone is encouraged to go to the Legal Tent to sign up that they are willing to be arrested. The lawyers and legal aides there explain the process. Typically, white people aren’t held longer than six hours because they’re able to be released on bond. The hassle, they say, is having to come back in a few months for the arraignment. The idea is that the police don’t want to arrest white people because that will end up being more trouble than it’s worth. They want to arrest Native Americans, who have no real civil rights protection with them. There are many horror stories about how harshly Native Americans have been treated in jail, including being kept naked, rape, physical abuse, and just constant and unnecessary harassment. I talked to white people who have been at the camp for months who have never been near the frontline who don’t want to be arrested, and no one has to be. I think the tribe wants everyone trained in how to handle arrest because people have been arrested for doing nothing (e.g., standing, unarmed).
White Ring: Here’s where we white people act like shields. If there’s a gathering at the line of protest, at the river, where the barricades are and the police are, the idea is that the Native American protesters are surrounded by a ring of white people, to make it harder for the police to get to them. If you were to participate to this degree, I believe you’d be given more training.
Someone said, “an unsettling but thrilling energy is in the air.” As my sister said, “We saw no anger here.”
Some Native people call this the last great Indian War because there hasn’t been a gathering like this before. All seven bands of what we call the Sioux, who are members of the Nakota/Dakota and Lakota nations who were divided up in 1898, have come together, along with representatives of at least 200 other indigenous tribes worldwide.
Those of us who believe our whole white-only, manifest-destiny history has been wrong have a chance to fight on the side of the good guys this time.
Next: Standing Rock: Sending our best.